28 Jan 2010
Well, it's here. After months of hysteria and hype (not unconnected) Apple has launched its overgrown iPhone, the iPad tablet computer. And it's going to be a game-changer. But that's not because it's a revolutionary piece of hardware: in fact, in many ways it's only a step-change, and while it's undoubtedly sexy, as you'd expect from Apple, some may find it a little limited in functionality compared to, say, a laptop computer. No, the real significance is the way it changes the way we consume, the way we interact with media including the web and, more importantly, books.
For self-publishers, it is likely to herald a very important shift in the publishing ecosphere. As expected, the iPad comes with an e-book reader application, iBooks. Also, as expected, Apple is backing this with an online store. Five publishers were signed up to this by the time of the launch - Penguin, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan and Hachett. (Random House held back, as it did with the Kindle.)
What matters to the self-publisher, of course, is the ability of individuals to get on the virtual bookshelves alongside the big players. Amazon already makes that possible for the Kindle through its Digital Text Platform (DTP). Making your book available for the Kindle is as easy as uploading a Word file. If Apple does the same with iBooks, this will be great news for self-publishers. Why?
Well, self-publishers have difficulty competing with mainstream publishers on three counts:
E-books remove the first obstacle. With no manufacturing costs, e-books allow self-publishers to sell at the same price as mainstream publishers - or even cheaper, given their lack of overheads.
Distribution through the Kindle store or the iBooks store is automatic. No difference there between the bigger and smaller players.
That leaves mainstream publishers with just the one advantage - marketing. And let's face it, few of them are doing much of that for anyone but their A-list authors.
A suitable platform
There will be debates over the iPad's suitability as an e-book platform. Having a regular LCD screen, it's not as readable in sunlight as an e-ink display. It's somewhat harder on the eyes, too. But then the colour display offers greater potential. When books start to carry rich content, such as video, that will be important. Colour e-ink displays are on their way, but it may be a while before they can offer the vibrancy of the iPad's screen. Besides which, e-ink's emulation of paper probably matters more to older generations. Young people don't have the same relationship with paper we oldies have. Their relationship is with screens. Simulating paper may not be a high priority for them.
And you can't get away from the fact that the iPad gives you a lot more than just an e-reader. For the price differential between it and the Kindle, you get a device that does so much more. Over the past few years, convergence has been the key tecnological trend. People don't want lots of individual devices, each doing a single, separate job. Consumers are accustomed to cellphones that also take photos, shoot video and allow you to email, tweet and browse the web. With the iPhone, Apple proved the popularity of additional applications - the iPhone App Store has around 140,000 now (all of which run on the iPad). People want their technology to do more. They might be willing to trade a little readability for that functionality.
Perhaps the iPad could have had more - a camera, for example. But it has enough extra functionality to put a clear distance between it and dedicated e-book readers.
So how is Apple with its iPad going to beat Amazon with its Kindle? The answer lies in the integration of the whole process of buying and reading. Amazon has done a pretty good job of making it easy to get books on to your Kindle. But Apple has made it even faster and easier.
They've done this sort of thing before. The revolution in music was not the MP3 format. That just changed the nature of piracy, from home-taping to filesharing. The real revolution was the iPod. And again, it wasn't the hardware that changed the music world forever, it was the iTunes Music Store and the fact that access to it is built right into the iTunes software. The software you use to manage and listen to your music is the same software you use to browse the shop and buy. It's seamlessly integrated, a single process of consumption.
And so it is with iBooks.The software presents you with a bookshelf. Tap on a book and start reading. Want something else? One more tap and the bookshelf flips over to reveal a bookshop, right there in your hand. Within a minute or two (depending on connection speed) you can be reading a new book - all using the same application on the same device.
If Apple manages to do for books what it did for music, there will be one other benefit for self-publishers (indeed, all publishers).
The music business moans constantly about piracy. And we all know it's rife. And yet, the iTunes/iPod experience proved that people are still willing to pay for music at a reasonable price. In spite of the filesharing and illegal copying, enough people are happy to pay a euro for a track, especially given the convenience that Apple provides.
Publishers are rightly worried that the move to e-books will result in the same kind of piracy the music business has suffered. But, using Apple's model, we may find that there is still a viable business model in the midst of this.
And here's where self-publishers might gain an advantage. Publishers, like music companies, have high overheads. That's why authors only get around 10% of the cover price in royalties. The rest not only goes on marketing and manufacturing, but staff, offices, lunches and the rest.
Self-publishing is a lean operation, capable of operating on much lower margins. That means self-publishers can drop prices and ride out the effects of piracy much more easily than the large publishers.
Interestingly, Apple has adopted the ePub format for the iBooks platform. That's fast becoming the de facto standard. Most e-book readers support it. Sony had its own proprietary format, but has since switched to ePub. Which well-known reader doesn't support ePub? That's right. The Kindle. (It also has poor PDF support.)
Suddenly, Amazon looks a tad isolated, with a proprietary e-book format and a reader that looks positively last-century alongside the iPad. Amazon's belated attempt to launch apps for the Kindle seems desperate, and still leaves the Kindle pretty much a one-trick pony.