- For me, Lashinsky exemplifies a certain type of reporter that I really like. In all the times I’ve seen him on video (and once in person, though I can’t remember when) he’s shown a sort of brusque, restless manner leavened with deep curiosity and candor. Sort of like one of those Army commanders with a Ph.D: super smart, but not leaning on the smartness, not dwelling in it. A Lashinsky-esque reporter believes that facts laid out in order have real power, and he or she will work hard to get those facts, often by using a telephone. In the cosmology of reporting, I think of it as “old-school,” but maybe not—maybe it’s always been rare.
- But, even after months (years?) of Lashinsky-esque reporting, we still don’t know that much about how Apple works inside. Not really. And that makes me think, in turn, of the organizations I’ve been part of; it makes me think of all the stories written about them, all so woefully incomplete. But that’s the best you can do when you’re on the outside. Even in our weird information-saturated world, there’s so much we don’t, and can’t, know, even about something as mundane as a company. The writer M. F. K. Fisher said: “Probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg before it is broken.” Every company, until it breaks (i.e. gets its email subpoenaed Enron-style, I guess) is that egg. Every family is that egg. Every person is that egg. And that’s a wonderful thing, because it means there are always mysteries, and more mysteries, and mysteries beyond.
CC-licensed photo from bre pettis.
Bless the toolmakers… but I’m worried that everybody wants to be one.
You look at the celebration of Steve Jobs and his Apple Inc., and you see a celebration of tools. “One of the things that separates us from high primates,” Jobs said long ago, “is that we’re tool builders.” In the next breath he made his great analogy: a computer is “a bicycle for our minds.” Classic, and true.
Today, you look at a sampling of startups and you see two things:
- A whole lot of incredibly smart young men who want to be the next Steve Jobs, and
- a whole lot of tools.
This is the reigning model for startups: make a tool and scale it up. The tool’s potential users can be rich (e.g. Salesforce) or they can be numerous (e.g. YouTube) or they can be rich and numerous (e.g. the iPhone) but any way you go, you are always a step removed from the object of attention. You are not the deal, you are not the Lil’ Wayne video, you are not the flirty text message. You are the facilitator, you are the mediator, you are the vessel.
CC-licensed photo from whiteforge.
What’s the relationship between a toolmaker and a tool user? I wonder about this a lot. I mean, when I read about Steve Jobs’ illness, I think of him with care and gratitude, and I echo Dan Sinker:
Steve Jobs had a hand in every tool that made me who I am. Forever indebted and in awe.
But… I don’t think about Steve Jobs when I’m using my MacBook. I don’t think about Thomas Knoll when I’m using Photoshop. I don’t think about the sublime inventor of the kitchen table (her name lost to history) when I sit here at mine. (I don’t think about the Ikea designer who made this particular model, either.)
Now switch from tools to media.
When I read The Anthologist, I am not really thinking about Nicholson Baker, either. Sure, I think about him when I read the book review and when I flip to the title page, but after that, I’m in the story. But!—I’m going to argue that Nicholson Baker is there with me, in my head, in a much fuller and more direct way than Thomas Knoll is with me when I’m using Photoshop.
Certainly with music, the case is even clearer: the artist’s presence (often literally her voice) is fully and directly felt. Music, especially pop music, imposes itself. It says: I am here with you now!
Now, personally, that relationship is what I’m after. I imagine two scenarios—one where I write a story that 10,000 people read and another where I build a tool that 100,000 people use—and the first is infinitely more appealing.
I want, frankly, to impose myself.
So when it comes to toolmaking… I just don’t understand it. Of course, I understand that these markets exist—markets for sales CRM, markets for video-viewing, markets for personal communication and status-signaling gadgetry. I just can’t understand wanting to be the person who serves them.
“There is a great satisfaction in building good tools for other people to use,” Freeman Dyson said. I’m supremely glad he feels that satisfaction, and I’m glad so many other toolmakers do, too.
But, is there a chance… just a small one… that today, in the world of startups and internet technology, too many people are making too many tools?
Even as I type it, my fingers recoil, because it sounds like such heresy. The internet is nothing but tools, built and shared. Glory to Github! We need more of this stuff, not less! … Right?
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by… toolmaking?
CC-licensed photo from Meanest Indian.
It actually makes me think of the way that consulting used to be such a scourge on the undergraduate landscape, sucking up all of the ambitious, flexible minds because it was prestigious and remunerative and in a way easy. Maybe it’s absurd to think we lost novelists and musicians to McKinsey… but I think we did.
Today, if you’re a person with the toolmaking talent, you actually have a lot of options, of which making a web platform or a framework are just a couple. If you possess the skills to make powerful tools, you’ve got one up on Archimedes. “Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the earth,” he said. You, the toolmaker, can make your own place.
What do I mean?
Think of the electronic musician BT, who for years has enjoyed the advantage of a signature stuttering sound effect that he coded himself. This year, he finally decided to share his software, to put it up for sale—but you can bet he’s already working on the next great effect for his own music. It’s a competitive artistic advantage. (I mean, the dude knows Csound. Nobody knows Csound!)
Or think of Pixar, the Great Toolmaker’s side project. They sell movies, not tools, but the movies wouldn’t be possible without the tools that Pixar and Pixar alone possesses. Pixar is a place where brilliant toolmakers work for a tiny user-base: the artists across the hall. That partnership, and the feedback loop between tool and user that it permits, produces jaw-dropping results.
I mean, here’s what I think: the true intersection of technology and the liberal arts…
…isn’t actually Apple. It’s Pixar.
So I wish more people were making tools for a specific creative purpose rather than for general consumer adoption. I wish more people were making tools that very intentionally do not scale—tools with users by the dozen. Tools you experience not through a web signup form, but through pathbreaking creative work.
I guess I want fewer aspirational Apples and more Pixar wannabes.
Bless the toolmakers. I’m definitely not complaining here, just thinking out loud, and wondering about this kind of person, the way you might wonder about a world-class tennis player or a wandering ascetic: How can you do that? What makes you want to get out of bed in the morning? It is honestly inscrutable to me.
But I also wonder if there are some toolmakers out there right now who feel some of the same doubt. Carried along by the current of conventional (startup) wisdom and, of course, the promise of a great scalable payout, they are busy making a web-based tool for collaborative something-or-other. But in the back of their brains, something feels wrong. Some ambition is left unfulfilled.
Here’s what I say: Come on over. Come join the side that makes books and music and movies. There are great rewards here, too, but not enough toolmakers. We need you.
Publishers trying to sell ad space inside their books is like the producers of a TV show selling the commercials that air during the show, or the director of a film picking the previews that appear before the movie starts.
I mean, maybe there are some interesting, creative things you could do with that on a case-by-case basis, that would really add something to the total experience. And product placement (in books, TV, or movies) is something else altogether, because it needs to be incorporated into the narrative flow. But there’s a reason why we have TV networks, movie studios, and theater programmers. They’re really good at these things. In fact, some of them, like Nick Jr, are really good at marketing and incorporating ads in books and DVDs, too. So are Apple and Amazon. People on the creative side aren’t. (And yes, I’m including book publishers in the “creative” camp.)
If anything, even as traditional broadcast television might be beginning a slow decline, we’re seeing the metastasis of the television network model. Netflix, particularly since Watch Instantly, is more like HBO than it’s like Blockbuster. People talk about it the same way; “ooh, did you see that they’re showing all three Die Hards on Netflix?” Someone pointed out recently that Netflix has started producing their own original content. Zach Galifinakis had a comedy special released on DVD exclusively to Netflix. You could say the same thing about Hulu, which is trying to figure out whether it should be Showtime or Fox.
Amazon and Apple are like TV networks too, and not just for video. They’re the channels you tune to to get what you want. The difference is that in the digital age, content frequently appears in more than one place. But 1) that’s usually NOT true for what Apple sells, and Amazon’s been pushing for more exclusive deals too.
Twitter, too, isn’t microblogging or an archive of content — it’s a broadcast channel that carries its own water-cooler. And in blogs, Gawker (which already actually is a media network, including Gawker TV) is redesigning itself for bigger screens. highlighting “must-see” content to catch casual drop-in readers, a synthesis of blogs, magazines, and television
So that’s the new world: no more dot-coms, no more blogs, no more revolutionary retailers.* Instead, it’s all channels. We TiVo a handful of favorites and let ourselves flick through the rest.
* Obviously, all of these things will continue to exist and thrive. It’s just these are no longer the only metaphors/terms of art we have to talk about these emerging powers.
Paul Carr at TechCrunch has the best take on the “ads in books” hysteria kicked up by the WSJ (original article conveniently paywalled) I’ve read yet. It’s even smartly titled “Eat Pay Love”:
The crux of the argument is this: books are the only word-based medium currently free of advertising (unless you count the pages full of ads for other books at the back of most mass market paperbacks). This isn’t – as you might think – because ads kill our enjoyment of literature (many magazines publish fiction surrounded by commercial messages) but rather because until now it’s been difficult to sell ad space in books. The lead times in publishing – and the shelf-life of paperbacks – are simply too long to deliver timely commercial offerings: who hasn’t experienced the amusement of picking up an old paperback and being invited to send off for the previous title in the series for just 25c?
But now, thanks to e-readers, all that is changing. With electronic books, ads can be served dynamically, just like they are online – not only does that remove the problem of out-of-date ads being stuck in old books, but it also allows messages to be tailored to the individual reader. Those reading the Twilight books at the age of 14 can be sold make-up and shoes and all of the other things teenage girls need to attract their very own Edward. Meanwhile, those still reading the books at 35 can be sold cat food. Lots and lots of cat food.
Why, that sounds fantastic! What’s the problem again?
It’s a compelling argument, but like so many compelling arguments made about the future of books, it’s also hampered by consisting almost entirely of bullshit. For one thing, publishers are really not geared up to sell ads: they’d have to recruit armies of ad sales people who would be forced to actually sit down and read the novels and historical memoirs and chick-lit-churn-outs that they’d be selling against. Not going to happen.
Now that’s very true. That scenario will not happen.
If only there were some large company with a dominant position in the e-book business that had lots of demographic data about what you read and other things that you buy online who could whip up a smart software algorithm that automatically generated product recommendations based on this information, who’d be willing, I don’t know, to electronically host and deliver these ads in the e-books on behalf of the publishers, in exchange for a fee, or better terms on each sale of a book.
Yep, if there were a company or three like that in the e-book market today, then we’d be talking about something.
I like Howard’s take on the iPad a lot—he describes it not as a device but almost as an undevice. And I like this bit:
In the middle 1980s, [computer pioneer Alan] Kay visited Alaska for a lecture and was interviewed in the Anchorage Daily News, articulating intoxicating ideas that helped awaken me to the brewing information revolution. He was careful even then to caution against focusing too much on devices. “The music’s not in the piano,” he said. “If it was, we’d have to let it vote.”
The music’s not in the piano! That’s mantra-worthy.
Let’s do this.
I want to talk about the iPad, but I’m going to start by talking about vlogs.
You know: videoblogs!
Rewind to 2005. Maybe your 2005 was different from mine, but I was working at an internet-centric cable TV network, and the world seemed to be saying one thing really loud: The revolution is here. We’ve got cheap cameras and cheap distribution. The era of the indie “web show” has arrived. Let a thousand videoblogs bloom!
Then they didn’t. Not really. Today the gear is even cheaper—HD Flipcams for like twelve bucks, right?—but we’ve got basically three web shows: Rocketboom, Epic Fu, and The Guild. (That’s cruel shorthand; if you are currently producing and/or starring in some other web show, I’m sorry. My argument demands ruthlessness.)
Well, the web happened. YouTube happened. It turns out we weren’t wrong about the tools; we were wrong about the forms. We didn’t get a crisp catalog of indie web shows; we got a sprawling database of disconnected video clips.
Today on the web, on YouTube, a show just sort of dissolves into that database. To avoid that fate, it needs to be buoyed by big media; it needs to surf on the scarcity of TV time. A show needs a marketing budget to insist on its coherence. (Also, Hulu.)
None of this is a bad thing! I love the web-as-database; I love the wacky YouTube ecosystem. It’s like we grew a rainforest overnight.
But the point is, the web kinda hates bounded, holistic work. The web likes bits and pieces, cross-references and recommendations, fragments and tabs. Oh, and the web loves the fact that you’re reading this post in Google Reader.
Hold that thought.
Back in the day, when I was first getting to know my iPhone, I was surprised at how truly un-web-like it was. On the iPhone, you do one thing at a time and that one thing takes up the whole screen. Like nothing on the web, the iPhone is full-bleed.
You know what my favorite iPhone apps are? No joke: it’s stuff like this. Nobody’s made the multimedia manga or living-text novel of my dreams, so I’ve settled for The Wheels on the Bus. But it turns out that some of the stuff they’re doing with these kids’ apps—the way they’re mashing media and interactions together—is really slick.
And now this new device takes the iPhone’s virtues and scales them up—plus, no text messages while you’re reading. So more than anything else, the iPad looks to me like a focus machine. And it looks, therefore, like such an opportunity for storytelling, and for innovation around storytelling. It looks like an opportunity to make the Myst of 2010. (I don’t mean that literally. I only mean: wow, remember Myst? Remember how it was an utterly new kind of thing?)
Apple is great at inventing new devices, but it bums me out that they seem so content to fill those devices with the same same old stuff: TV shows, movies, music, and books. Books… in ePub format?
Apple: you did not invent a magical and revolutionary device so we could read books in ePub format.
Think about what the iPad really is! It’s the greatest canvas for media ever invented. It’s colorful, tactile, powerful, and programmable. It can display literally anything you can imagine; it can add sound and music; and it can feel you touching it. It’s light and (we are led to believe) comfortable in the hands. The Platonic Form of the Perfect Canvas is out there somewhere—it’s probably flexible… and it probably has a camera—but the iPad is, like, a really amazingly good shadow of that form. And this is just the first one!
So, we’re gonna use the Perfect Canvas to… watch TV shows?
Now, connect the dots. For all its power and flexibility, the web is really bad at presenting bounded, holistic work in a focused, immersive way. This is why web shows never worked. The web is bad at containers. The web is bad at frames.
Jeez, if only we had a frame.
So, to finish up: I think the young Hayao Miyazakis and Mark Z. Danielewskis and Edward Goreys of this world ought to be learning Objective-C—or at least making some new friends. Because this new device gives us the power and flexibility to realize a whole new class of crazy vision—and it puts that vision in a frame.
In five years, the coolest stuff on the iPad shouldn’t be Spider-Man 5, Ke$ha’s third album, or the ePub version of Annabel Scheme. If that’s all we’ve got, it will mean that Apple succeeded at inventing a new class of device… but we failed at inventing a new class of content.
In five years, the coolest stuff on the iPad should be… jeez, you know, I think it should be art.
Yesterday, I wrote:
Apple might be the only technology company that inspires its own fan fiction.
This was in response to this article in Macworld, “Four reasons Apple will launch a tablet in 2010,” where tech analyst Brian Marshall got to speculate that Apple was REALLY launching a tablet so that it could LATER launch a new Apple TV that included a built-in high-def screen and cost $5000. A “real” Apple TV.
I mean, sure, why not?
A lot of the “journalism” about the new tablet has been total fantasy league stuff. I’ve been there. It’s fitting that the mythical Apple tablet device has been nicknamed “the unicorn”: in Naming and Necessity, the philosopher Saul Kripke points out that while we all think we know what we mean when we say “unicorn,” in different possible worlds a unicorn could have wildly varying physiologies. A unicorn could have gills. It could photosynthesize. It doesn’t make sense to say “unicorns are possible,” because nobody could know from that statement alone what that might mean. Ditto the Apple tablet.
But Nick Bilton appears to have some actual sources on this, so the thing might very well be real. You might very well be riding a unicorn by the end of this year. I believe in the rumors enough that I cancelled my Nook pre-order to wait this thing out and see what happens. (How many customers has B&N lost by not getting that thing shipped out by Christmas? Eh — maybe the initial software would have been even more sluggish.)
In anticipation of whatever the heck might happen at the end of January, here I’ve rounded up the best four posts I’ve seen about the maybe/maybe not tablet.
John Gruber at Daring Fireball, “The Tablet”:
Do I think The Tablet is an e-reader? A video player? A web browser? A document viewer? It’s not a matter of or but rather and. I say it is all of these things. It’s a computer.
And so in answer to my central question, regarding why buy The Tablet if you already have an iPhone and a MacBook, my best guess is that ultimately, The Tablet is something you’ll buy instead of a MacBook.
I say they’re swinging big — redefining the experience of personal computing.
It will not be pitched as such by Apple. It will be defined by three or four of its built-in primary apps. But long-term, big-picture? It will be to the MacBook what the Macintosh was to the Apple II.
This is a cool idea, especially insofar as most people don’t really need to do everything current laptops and desktops do. This gets elaborated by Marco Arment, who doesn’t really talk about the tablet as much as map our current ecology, in “‘The Tablet’ and gadget portability theory”:
Desktops can use fast, cheap, power-hungry, high-capacity hardware and present your applications on giant screens. They can have lots of ports, accept lots of peripherals, and perform any possible computing role. Their interface is a keyboard and mouse, a desk, and a chair. They’re always internet-connected, they’re always plugged in, they always have their printers and scanners and other peripherals connected, and their in-use ergonomics can be excellent. But you can only use desktops when you’re at those desks.
iPhones use slow, low-capacity, ultra-low-power hardware on a tiny screen with almost no ports and very few compatible peripherals. They can do only a small (albeit useful) subset of general computing roles. They are poorly suited to text input of significant length, such as writing documents or composing nontrivial emails, or tasks requiring a mix of frequent, precise navigation and typing, such as editing a spreadsheet or writing code. But they’re always in your pocket, ready to be whipped out at any time for quick use, even if you’re standing, walking, riding in a vehicle, eating, or waiting on a line at the bank. You can carry one with you in nearly any circumstances without noticing its size or weight.
Laptops are a strange, inefficient tradeoff between an iPhone’s portability and a desktop’s capabilities. They don’t satisfy either need extremely well, but they’re much closer to desktops than they are to iPhones. The usefulness and portability gap between a laptop and an iPhone is staggeringly vast (1:00). You don’t have them with you most of the time, they’re big and heavy (even the MacBook Air weighs 10 times as much and consumes about 10 times as much space as an iPhone 3GS), and they can only be practically used while sitting down (or standing at a tall ledge). Ergonomics are awful unless you effectively turn them into desktops with stands and external peripherals. But they can do nearly any computing task that desktops can do, and they’re able to replace desktops for many people.
This is something I’ve noticed about my own computer habits. I have a mid-2008 MacBook Pro. I love its portability, but largely just because I can detach from my desk and move it around the house. I really hate lugging my laptop across town to work, on planes for trips, or anywhere that I can’t immediately get myself settled — all the more so since I lost most of the strength in my arm.
My MBP isn’t really a portable computer, but a desktop on casters, if you get my meaning. I’ve thought about getting a MacBook Air, but it’s too expensive, or a cloudbook, but those are too cheap. So I’m actually already in this market.
Whatever the Unicorn is, it will be a genuinely portable computer, like the iPhone. And it won’t make precisely the same tradeoffs in power and functionality as either the iPhone or the MacBook Air in order to do it.
I think my favorite post is by Ars Technica’s John Siracusa, who brings Ockham’s Razor to bear on the rumors and speculation with surprisingly satisfying results:
There’s also the popular notion that Apple has to do something entirely new or totally amazing in order for the tablet to succeed. After all, tablets have been tried before, with dismal results. It seems absurd to some people that Apple can succeed simply by using existing technologies and software techniques in the right combination. And yet that’s exactly what Apple has done with all of its most recent hit products—and what I predict Apple will do with the tablet.
That means no haptic-feedback touchscreen, no folding/dual screens, no VR goggles or mind control. Instead of being all that people can imagine, it’ll just be what people expect: a mostly unadorned color touch screen that’s bigger than an iPhone but smaller than a MacBook. If I’m being generous, I’ll allow that maybe it’ll be something a bit more exotic than a plain LCD display. But there are hard and fast constraints: it must be a touch screen, it must be color, and it must support video. (We’ll see why in a bit.)
So how will an Apple tablet distinguish itself without any headline technological marvels? It’ll do so by leveraging all of Apple’s strategic strengths. Now you’re expecting me to say something about tight hardware/software integration, user experience, or “design,” but I’m talking about even more obvious factors.
* Customers — Apple has over 100 million credit-card-bearing customer accounts thanks to the success of iTunes.
* Developers — Over 125,000 developers have put over 100,000 iPhone OS applications up for sale on the App Store. Then there are the Mac OS X developers (though of course there’s some overlap). Apple’s got developers ready and able to come at the tablet from both directions.
* Relationships — Apple has lucrative and successful relationships with the most important content owners in the music and movie businesses.
These are Apple’s most important assets when it comes to the tablet, and you can bet your bottom dollar that Apple will lean heavily on them. This, combined with Apple’s traditional strength in design and user experience, is what will distinguish Apple’s tablet in the market. It will provide an easy way for people to find, purchase, and consume all kinds of media and applications right from the device. It’s that simple.
Kassia Kroszer at Booksquare is even more deflationary, again in a good way, pointing out we can’t just look to a Jesus Device to solve all of our problems:
Apple is an aggressive company. Apple is a tech company. And publishing people don’t necessarily get Apple. Last week’s breathless rumor about a 70/30 split (70% to publishers) was the tip-off. 70/30 is the standard Apple split! What is missed in the fine print (what is it about fine print that makes us always overlook it?) is that this split is on sales price, cash receipts, whatever you want to call it. Apple will not (unless I seriously misjudge their business acumen) be less aggressive on pricing than Amazon and likely won’t subsidize prices. I suspect Apple will not get into bed with book publishers unless book publishers play along.
If anything, the Unicorn will be part of an interesting and diverse digital reading mix. Of course, we already have one of those — you’re using it right now — and very few publishers are exploiting the potential of what already exists. The Unicorn won’t be running an exotic new platform with magical capabilities.
So let’s recap. It’ll be more portable and more fun than the best laptop you’ve ever had. You’ll be able to enjoy more content than you’ve ever been able to on your iPod, iPhone, or Apple TV. It’ll be faster, more versatile, and more beautiful than any dedicated reading machine. And while it won’t “save” publishing, it will probably be one of the major catalysts that prod it towards the future.
And this is only if what everyone admits to be true is true.
I think that’s worth waiting three weeks for.
Counterintuitive hypothesis: The most significant thing that Amazon and now Barnes & Noble have done for e-books hasn’t been the creation and updating of their dedicated reading machines. It’s the creation of a genuine marketplace for e-books, where consumers can pick up titles easily, publishers can offer them and make at least a little money, and [in Amazon’s case] even little guys can get their stuff out there. You might have needed the reading machines to push the marketplace, but the marketplace will continue to be relevant even if everyone decides tomorrow that they don’t actually want a Kindle anymore. You can already read e-books on computers, smartphones, and pretty soon video game consoles. Amazon sold the razors, sure, but they can sell you the blades even if you don’t buy a razor at all. That’s big.
But creating a marketplace isn’t just about syncing to a device and matching readers’ eyeballs to content. You also have to establish, respond to, and eventually stabilize readers’ and publishers’ expectations about sales, especially about price.
This is harder than it sounds. How much should an e-book cost? How much should publishers have to share with the retailer? Just what are you buying? For hardcovers and paperbacks, these expectations have built up over a long time. This tweaked a bit when online sellers and big-box retailers started offering moderate-to-steep discounts over cover. None of this makes establishing norms for digital sales any easier.
For music, Apple pulled this beautifully in the early days of iTunes. At the time, CDs sold between 10 and 18 dollars for a typical album. This was actually really frustrating, because percentage-wise, it’s a huge variation. It was also an uptick from cassettes, which had rarely cost over $10.
Apple just perched on the low end: every track is 99 cents, every album is $9.99. They were competing with the free (P2P or friend copies) and the physical (real discs with better sound quality that you could play in your car), and they found a way out. Round numbers (good retail numbers for any product), close to what we were used to paying (but still offering competitive advantage). And they held it there, even when big media companies huffed and puffed because they wanted to charge more for high-demand (or high-cost) products. Apple’s establishment of trust with the music-buying public won out. And held out. Singles still cost a single. Which makes the digital music marketplace oddly pure.
At Booksquare, Kassia Krozser argues that the same price-stabilization is beginning to happen with e-books:
At Digital Book World, I’m going to do a brief presentation called “The Case for the $75 eBook”, because there is a marketplace for high-priced ebooks. In fact, I think there’s a robust marketplace for higher priced digital books, and I believe I can make a strong case for these price points.
That being said (ha!), I don’t believe the publishing industry can make a valid, solid, logical case for pricing most narrative fiction (and some non-fiction) ebooks above $9.99. Not only is this price point being cemented in the minds of readers by retailers, but, let’s be blunt, publishers have done a lousy job of making the value argument. The near-cynical approach of publishers to producing and selling ebooks has backfired. The process, the pricing, the product has been weighed by consumers and they are not amused. They like the $9.99 and below price point. It makes sense to them.
So, yep, I’m predicting publishers will have no choice but to swallow this one and figure out how to make their business work with ebooks priced below $10. It’s better to initiate this change rather than scramble when the retailers start demanding better terms. You can do it, publishing industry, you can do it!
It’s true! Maybe it’s just because we’re already primed by iTunes albums, or because $10 is the low-end price of a good trade paperback, or that $9.99 is one of those psychologically great retail numbers (Just dollars and cents! Not tens of dollars!), but it’s got real power.
For instance, I priced Stanislas Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain at both Barnes and Noble and Amazon. The book lists in hardcover at $27.95. At Amazon, it sells for $18.45 in hardcover and $14.76 for the Kindle. At Barnes and Noble, it’s $20.12 (huh?), or — yes — $9.99 for the e-book.
Now this was easier because I like the B&N app for the Mac and I preordered the Nook. But if B&N sells its e-book for $18, I either buy the hardcover from Amazon or pass altogether. At $9.99, I bought it right away. I did the same thing for China Mieville’s The City and the City: Kindle $13.73, B&N $9.99. On the other hand, I sprung for The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway for almost $18 and still feel like I got hosed.
Now, digital books also offer the possibility that books, like CDs, can be split and sold separately. Maybe I just want to buy a copy of “The Undefeated” and “In Another Country” — a taste of Hemingway, not the whole short-form corpus. Big publishers haven’t really done this yet. But among independents and self-publishers, the other price point that seems to be emerging — the symmetry with iTunes is astonishing — is the 99 cent short story. And again — this feels just about right, especially appealing to folks reading these things on their iPhones, who don’t want to leaf through a whole novel or anthology, right around the same price as a cheap iPhone app or a single song.
hypothetical $75 e-book suggests that there are still plenty of other price points and formats to be hammered out. Maybe $25-$40 is the perfect price for an e-textbook. Maybe a short, indie nonfiction pamphlet — 2011’s version of New Liberal Arts — could sell well for $3.99. Maybe digital copies of new books will be free for readers who buy the hardcover (factored into the sale price). It’s still wide open. But with competition between sellers and tug-of-war between customers and publishers, we’re bound to figure it out.
Mark Sigal at O’Reilly looks at “four different use cases that capture the promise of an improved user experience around a reboot of the book” — in this case centered around the mythical Apple tablet (called here an “iPad”):
Travel Books: As noted in my post Touch Traveler: London, Paris and only an iPod Touch, travel is a very fertile space for a re-envisioned book, as it depends on good, timely information, just when you need it. For example, a travel book could always be up to date with real-time event calendars. Listings could be interconnected with maps, Wikipedia, live review sites, reservations/ticketing systems, video libraries, trip photos, messages and discussion threads, and fellow travelers’ notes of interest.
Children’s Books: Remember the Pop-Up book? It was the first interactive book, and it was pretty cool when I was a kid (before computers). What if you married the pluggable simplicity of Radio Shack’s 150-in-1 Electronic Project Kit to creating pop-up books? What kind of engaging stories could you create?
Comics & Graphic Novels: A format like the comic book or the graphic novel could push the envelope on good storytelling, especially if it was designed with the prosumer blogger in mind. I can readily imagine classics like Judge Dredd and Swamp Thing jumping off the screen on the iPad, not to mention the ability of storytellers to create multiple outcome forks based on different narrative paths chosen by the reader.
History & Science Books: Imagine learning what it’s like living through the current recessionary times with a book that is traversable based upon events, chronologies, or the road traveled by specific characters. A great sports book could allow you to relive a game-changing moment in a classic Series, or be game-ified to allow you to test your managerial instincts and see how different moves might have played out. What kind of pertri dish could an iPad enable, especially if it took advantage of the physical hardware accessory plugins the iPhone Platform can support?
This post also included some thoughtful links to people writing about the new iTunes LP format, which does indeed show some potential for next-gen text. Jay Robinson talks about how it looks, then digs into the guts of the files to find WebKit, CSS, etc., while Tristan Lewis wonders about the possibility that the format could create something like an AppStore for content developers:
What if independent movie-makers or musicians could sell directly through the iTunes store and provide content on all the apple platforms (TV, iPod, phone, computer) with a single click. I suspect that many would be willing to give up 30 percent of their revenue in order to get to that public.
The components all seem to be there and it seems to me that it won’t be long before Apple starts pushing the idea that we are all content producers (an old idea at Apple, which was at the source of their creating the iLife suite) and we can all make some money at producing that content.
For my part, I’ve got no idea whether that’s what Apple is up to*, or even if this tablet, however coveted, will ever materialize.** But yeah, I think that could be nice.
* This is where Apple-as-a-toll-collector almost begins to make sense. Really, why do we need to wait? I mean, couldn’t ANYONE create a new format like this to deliver content? It’s HTML and CSS, folks — it’ll work in a web browser! But Apple’s got the store, the way to get it on dedicated devices, and the marketing clout to get people interested in it. So we wait.
** I also wonder whether Apple’s just waiting until we all get accustomed to reading things and watching video on teeny tiny screens, so that there won’t be a need to up the size of the iPod touch at all, rendering the whole thing moot. “Hmm, can’t find a good touchscreen vendor at that size… Maybe we can just wait for everyone’s brains and eyes to adapt.“Generations will die and be replaced by those who can easily read whole novels off pages the size of a deck of cards! We’re all going to have magnifying glasses implanted in our eye sockets, while our fingers become filed down to stylus points. And it will be magical.