Friday, February 12, 2010

iPad iWash

Posted at 8:00AM Thursday 11 Feb 2010

"Just as the iPod transformed the way we listen to music, so the iPad could redefine the idea of settling down with a good book.... a sort of iTunes for books.....the iPad will open up the idea of ebooks to a new group of people who aren't traditionally big readers......"

Apple's recent iPad launch has further increased the media's frenzy to be the first to announce the death of the book. Even before the iPad was unveiled, publishing pundits were suggesting that ebook sales would outstrip book sales by 2020.

Having been selling books to bookshops for more than 30 years, I was worried that I would soon be out of a job. And so I conducted a survey of my customers and can confidently report that most of the shops I call on today are selling no more ebooks than they sold ten years ago. I have to admit that I work in the north of England, parts of which are still awaiting for electricity to arrive.

I remember when the cassette recorder was invented and the first time I could listen to recorded music of my own choice in the car without having to drive very slowly with someone carefully holding the wind-up gramophone in the passenger seat next to me.

Years later, the CD player replaced the cassette player and along came the Sony Walkman, which years later has been replaced by the even more iconic iPod.

Well before any of these were invented, 75 years ago this year, an iconic design was unveiled that is still the world's leading recognisable book brand. It is the Penguin paperback and it will still be around in another 75 years, long after the iPad has found its way into the world's design museums.

The reason why Penguin paperbacks are still around and will always outsell ebooks is that the basic design is perfect.

Penguin paperbacks have remained unchanged throughout all the developments within the music industry due to the simple fact that an author's work can be enjoyed without the need of a machine.

In its simplest form, a manuscript can be passed from the writer to his readers using the same technology that was used 5,000 years ago. Nothing is lost as it is passed from writer to reader. All our more recent developments in printing has made the writer's words available to more readers in more user friendly formats such as the Penguin paperback but the acts of writing and reading remain very much the same.

However, the one big difference between music and a book is that, apart from at a live performance, if a listener is to enjoy the musician's art, there has to be a machine involved in the process.

Over 100 years ago, sheet music shops that, for years, had sold the popular music of the day in printed form began to make shelf space for the new phonographs, cylinders and shellac discs that came with the advent of recorded music. In people's homes, the piano in the front room was thrown out and replaced by the gramophone.

As the popularity of recorded music increased, record shops provided the music and the race was then on, not only to produce the best quality recordings, but also to manufacture the equipment that would provide the best quality sound. Along the way, the idea of portable music players brought about the cassette player which lead to the CD player which is now being cast aside for the MP3 player and the iPod.

Each of these technological changes brought about the demise of the earlier developments in recorded music. The shellac disc gave way to vinyl which gave up some ground to the cassette tape before both were almost totally replaced by the compact disc. Today, compact disc sales are plummeting due to the development of MP3 downloads.

However, to believe that the paperback book is likely to suffer the same fate as the compact disc is to ignore the fact that, unlike recorded music, books do not need a machine to enable the user to enjoy the product.

Music consumers have got used to changing the machines they use to listen to their favourite music because a machine is necessary and that necessity is the mother of invention. Hence the continuing search for the ultimate listening machine.

Throughout the journey from sheet music to the iTune download, the paperback book has changed very little. The reason for this is that the design of the ultimate reading machine was perfected when the first paperback book came out of the bindery.

The iPad as an e-reader is just another gadget that might be fun to use but is not essential for reading for pleasure. This reason alone will guarantee that Apple's iBooks will not have anything like the impact on the booktrade as iTunes has had on the music business.

In the 1980's, talking books were going to take over the world but 25 years later, audiobooks still only represent a small percentage of any bookshop's turnover.

The fact that more of us are working in front of computer screens is given as another reason why ebooks will take over from books. (I find it strange that so many of the writers of articles about ebooks find it necessary to call books, physical books.) If a computer screen reminds more of us of the workplace, we might just want to get away from it when reading for pleasure.

The argument that ebooks have a much smaller carbon footprint than books has now been challenged but even if this was the case, developments such as the Espresso Book Machine can do much to reduce the impact of traditional methods of book production.

Ebooks are not the biggest danger to bookshops. The biggest threat to bookshops is the devaluation of the value of all books. Since publishers led the campaign to get rid of the Net Book Agreement so that they could do business with the supermarkets, the value of books has diminished as the cover price has increased. When W H Smith and Waterstones can only think of price as the way to sell such unique products as books, they do not deserve to survive.

In 75 years time, when Penguin Books are celebrating their 150th anniversary and publishing a centenary edition of David Lodge's "Small World", the iPad will be forgotten, independent bookshops will still be with us and one or two very old booksellers might just remember the time of madness in the booktrade when books were sold like tins of beans.


1 comment:

Bruce Princeton said...

My initial reaction when I saw the Apple iPad was confusion. What functionality does this device offer over and above the Apple iPhone? And what market is Apple aiming this device at?