What The iPad Means For Digital Fiction

So you’ve probably heard about the iPad, and Apple’s latest plans for world domination. For the first time, however, we – we the small, rather obscure digital writer community(!) – are directly affected by the actions of what is probably the most influential tech company of the age. This is big. This is something worth thinking about. What does the iPad mean to the digital book world, and why should we care?

I think there are two things that we need to talk about. First, the Kindle is screwed. There has been some debate on Twitter as to why and how Apple compares with Ye Olde Amazon, and the biggest argument against the iPad is that it has a backlit screen, and backlit screens suck for reading.

Now this is true. Backlit screens do suck for reading, and I know this because I own a aluminium Macbook, and the screen is terrible when I’m doing work under sunlight. But I don’t think it matters. Isa asks: Why would anyone want to read on an iPad? and that is, I think, a rather valid question.

It is also the wrong kind of question to ask. The correct question people should be asking isn’t “why would anyone want to read on an iPad?” but rather “why wouldn’t they?” Isa’s question assumes that the majority of buyers would be logical book-nerds – comparing e-readers on metrics such as heft, size, and screen quality, but that’s the wrong way of looking at things.

The right way of framing the question is to begin asking: who’s likely to buy the Kindle? Who’s likely to buy the iPad? What kind of people are they, and how are they different?

The Kindle is for readers – book nerds, but of a particular, non-technophobic kind. People like you and I. The iPad, on the other hand, appeals to just about anyone: rich geeks, early-adopters, technophobic aunts, families who’d like a secondary computer, kids who want a gaming device, your uncle Harry who loves reading in the toilet … the list goes on and on.

The iPad is a computer. The Kindle is an ebook reader. In this aspect, at least, the Kindle is outclassed. There are more people interested in buying the iPad than there are people interested in buying a Kindle.

And so the question isn’t – who wants to read on an iPad? – because that’s the wrong question to ask. The question you should be asking is rather – what, exactly, is going to prevent all these people from buying books and reading them? What’s going to prevent Johnny, say, whose parents buy him an iPad for Christmas to play games and surf the web on – and one day the new Harry Potter equivalent comes out – what’s going to prevent him from thinking: hey, the book’s cheaper on the iBook store, and I don’t have to go all the way downtown to buy it from a shop. What’s going to prevent Johnny from buying the book – literally flicking his thumb over a sheet of glass – and reading it on his iPad?

The answer? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. And the truth of the matter is that Johnny’s probably going to buy other books for his iPad, and spend ridiculous amounts of time arranging them on his virtual bookshelf, simply because it’s a) cheaper, b) quicker, and c) it’s all just a thumb flick away.

And so now here’s a related question: given the audience of these two devices, who do you think the content producers – the publishers – are more interested in going to? The Kindle? Or the platform that is the iPad? The answer to that, of course, lies in the number of potential readers, which is related to the number of current users, and I’m willing to bet that there are far more potential readers on the iPad than the Kindle ever would have, given a year or so.

It isn’t clear, however, how Amazon would react to this news. John Gruber predicts that Amazon would jettison its Kindle arm to sell content through the iPad, because Amazon is a content company first and a product company second (and Apple the reverse). I’m not sure if this would happen, because I can imagine Amazon’s fears of being locked into a single store, but regardless of how you look at it, the Kindle’s days are numbered.

There is one last thing we should know, and this affects us more directly than any of the above predictions. It is this: the iPad uses the ePub format. The ebook format wars are effectively over. We’ve got a winner, folks, and that winner is ePub. Plan for that, because things might get pretty heated, pretty fast.

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