Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Publishers take note: the iPad is altering the very concept of a 'book'

If the success of Amazon's Kindle has made print publishers relax, they're in for a nasty surprise

John Naughton The Observer, Sunday 19 December 2010

One of the glories of our print culture is the Economist, a magazine that combines eccentric, neoliberal editorial views with excellent, well-informed reporting. I have been a subscriber to it for more years than I care to remember and every weekend have tried to carve out the 90 minutes of undivided attention that it demands. It turns out that I am a perfectly normal customer in this respect.

In November 2009, I went to a talk given by Andrew Rashbass, CEO of the Economist, about the company's digital strategy. He related how he had commissioned research in a large number of countries into how subscribers in those territories used the publication. The message that came back was consistent: people who buy the Economist make a weekly "appointment" with the magazine – time that they set aside to read it. The conclusion: publications such as the Economist provide "immersive reading experiences", something that the web could not provide.

Under questioning, Rashbass was coy about what his digital strategy involved, but it was clear to all in the room that he was pinning his hopes on what was at the time a purely mythical product, the device that eventually materialised as the Apple iPad.

Almost a year to the day year after Rashbass's talk, the Economist launched its iPad app. It's free, in the sense that anyone can download it. But to get it to download actual content (over and above a few free articles) you have to be an existing print subscriber or take out a digital subscription, which is almost as expensive. So this is a seriously walled garden. No surprises there: the Economist didn't get where it is today by giving away stuff for free.

The surprises start when you launch the app. Every Thursday, the "Read" button changes to "Download" and suddenly your iPad acquires the entire content of the current edition – in seconds. The second surprise is that it's easier and more pleasant to read than its printed counterpart and much nicer than the Kindle edition of the magazine. The iPad has delivered a genuinely "immersive" reading experience. In part, this is a reflection on the device's screen technology and interface. But it's mainly down to the quality of the app's design.

So your columnist now has an unexpected problem: every Friday, the postman delivers the print edition of the Economist. But the envelopes now sit unopened, gathering dust on the hall table. The upside is that I can share them with friends or donate them to a school, which is more than I can do with my walled-in digital edition, but that's another can of worms.

Coincidentally, another interesting app arrived on my iPad last week. Actually, it's a book in app's clothing. It's David Eagleman's Why the Net Matters (Canongate), an eight-chapter manifesto that seeks to explain the significance of the internet for our future. As with the iPad edition of Stephen Fry's latest book, Eagleman's essay can be read non-sequentially. Each chapter splits the screen. On one side is conventional text. On the other are illustrations, photographs, animations and 3D models that the reader can manipulate. To see how it works, he's made a YouTube video. It's clever, informative, intriguing and fresh.

These two developments – the Economist's app and Eagleman's "book" – ought to serve as a wake-up call for the print publishing industry. The success of Amazon's Kindle has, I think, lulled print publishers into a false sense of security. After all, they're thinking, the stuff that goes on the Kindle is just text. It may not be created by squeezing dyes on to processed wood-pulp, but it's still text. And that's something we're good at. So no need to panic. Amazon may be a pain to deal with, but the Kindle and its ilk will see us through.

If that's really what publishers are thinking, then they're in for some nasty surprises. The concept of a "book" will change under the pressure of iPad-type devices, just as concepts of what constitutes a magazine or a newspaper are already changing. This doesn't mean that paper publications will go away. But it does mean that print publishers who wish to thrive in the new environment will not just have to learn new tricks but will also have to tool up. In particular, they will have to add serious in-house technological competencies to their publishing skills.

If they don't do it, then someone else will. There will always be "books". The question now is: will there always be publishers?

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