All the signs say publishing will change significantly by Noon, California time on Wednesday January 27th when Apple announces the iThingy. Speculation about what this iThingy will be sounds like publishing genres: from Romance (it will be love at first sight), to Fantasy (it will be a full color e-book reader that provides total laptop computer capability with a touch screen interface that plays games) to Religion (it will be the Jesus Tablet).
I don’t know any more about the product than anyone, but I can offer a few observations about Steve Jobs and about Publishing.
Today’s rumors report that Jobs thinks “it’s the most important thing I’ve ever done.” This supposed quote feels genuine and if so, and from what we know about Jobs’ Apple, should tell us something about the product. When Apple introduces paradigm-shifting products, the speculators and pundits always predict they will somehow encompass a whole bunch of historically desirable features and support traditional activities. What really happens is that Apple removes features and simplifies use. The immediate response of the Apple haters is to say, “Well no one will ever buy a product without that feature” and dismiss the Apple gizmo just long enough for Apple to dominate the unseen market that never cared about that feature anyway. For example:
The first iMac (thebrightly colored gumdrop), lacked a 3.5″ floppy drive. Pundits fried the iMac for its lack of backward compatibility. However, consumers appeared not to notice it was missing, and the line sold well.
The iPod completely revolutionized music players and electronic devices in general by replacing individual buttons (and the documentation required to explain them) with the click wheel. The iPod was the first all-digital device with an analog control. The iPod also simplified use: with “1,000 songs in your pocket” the iPod user had plenty of music available at all times. Of course today’s iPods hold many times the music, games and videos.
The same story unfolded with the iPhone. Most positive speculation of the iPhone design expected an iPod click-wheel that somehow turned into a rotary dial or some slide out keyboard that other vendors had done poorly. The iPhone offered a completely new interface that changed up the game for smart phones. The speculation that predicted the failure of the iPhone is now as faded as the earlier speculation that the iPod would fall to the superior resources of Microsoft and their partners. Remember the Zune?
So will the iThingy wipe out the Kindle and all the other, newly announced e-book readers? Technically, it probably will. From the business point of view, it has already caused change.
Here’s how music players, like the iPod, are different from e-book readers, like the Kindle.
First and foremost is the user experience. Music players, including the iPod are out of sight and seldom touched while being listened to. The minimal click wheel is all that’s required to control the iPod. iPhones and the iPod touch are highly visual and the touch sensitive screen is key to the usability. Reading a paper book is entirely a visual experience with a subjective tactile quality: the feel of the book.
So e-book readers must survive being looked at a lot and they must be good to touch. Many existing e-book readers certainly provide convenience, but beyond the steadily improving quality of e-ink screens, many are ugly and distractingly covered with keys. So any Apple e-book reader will have to do lots better.
The second aspect of e-books is the source of content. Music players were originally introduced to acquire songs from existing sources and make them available in your pocket. People seem to have forgotten that iTunes was free on all Apple computers for almost a year before the iPod was released. iTunes was a digital jukebox presented with the slogan “Rip. Mix. Burn.” It allowed users to move songs they already owned to music players and burn new albums as CDs. Personal creativity was not creating music (that’s hard and requires talent) but choosing how to combine music and share the playlist with friends. Piracy of music was well underway long before iTunes and the iPod, but with the iTunes Music Store, for the first time, consumers could purchase legal music, and they did.
But e-books are a different story. Despite advances in scanners, there’s no book reader to move an existing library onto any form of e-reader. To scan a book today, you either have to devote a lot of time to holding the book down on a scanner, or destroy the book to feed the pages into a scanner. So the only way to get content legally on an e-reader, other than texts that are in the public domain, is to buy each book as an e-book at published prices. This is fine for brand new front list titles, but the book business, before the “hits” model that developed in the 1980s, was a backlist business. Older books sold every year and good books could stay in print for decades. The very essence of publishing, backlist bestsellers, hasn’t driven e-books and e-readers; but it should.
How to make an e-book market explode?
The missing bit of technology that could explode e-books is the $200-300 book scanner that would read a paperback or hardcover book in less than an hour of clock time and spit out the book no worse for wear. For mechanical reasons, this would be a hard product to build. Lacking this device, e-book retailers and publishers could announce that anyone who bought the paper book (non-returnable paper book and some proof of sale required) could download the e-book edition for free or a nominal cost like $0.99.
Eliminating the need to ship heavy paper books around the country, e-books should be highly profitable for both publishers and authors whenever the pricing gets right. In the past two decades the price of all formats of paper books has risen to levels that drives down consumer book purchasing. Now, when e-books as a format, have the ability to remove the high price levels, all we hear from publishers is their intent to keep prices high. But trends can reverse.
With the recent announcement by Amazon that they are conforming to the iTunes model and dropping their share of the consumer price as well as the target price, Apple has already influenced publishing while having no product in the space.
Let’s see what Wednesday brings…