Thursday, 28 January 2010

The Unbearable Inevitability of Disruption

A multi-volume Latin dictionary (Egidio Forcel...Image via Wikipedia
I started today off taking part in the Dubai Eye Radio Apple iPadFest. The launch last night has meant that iPad has trended Google consistently for the past 24 hours, beating Obama’s State of the Nation address into as low as 6th place. The buzz on Twitter, blogs, radio stations and TV has been phenomenal – and it was nice to see Sky News cut live to the announcement and then lose the link, totally flubbing the story and cutting to Milliband and Clinton droning on sanctimoniously about Yemen instead.

Given, then, that it’s international iPad day today, I thought I’d expand a bit on something I said yesterday. Granted, it’s an element of the McNabb catechism, but I think it’s core to the million dollar question for people who write books – will people use this thing rather than a book? Could I see myself doing that?

The catechism bit is this: “Quality becomes irrelevant when technology enables access.” This has been the case consistently over the ages. The first example that I can think of is the invention of the printing press. The movement of knowledge around Europe in the Dark Ages was laboriously slow, illuminated manuscripts painstakingly copied by monks in scriptoria and jealously guarded from those ‘unfit’ to have access to such a trove. These books were beautiful, true labours of love that were illustrated in amazing detail, both as illustration of the text as well as illustration to give form to concepts and ideas contained in the content.

The Book of Kells

Then William Caxton pitches up without so much as a by your leave and invents the printing press. Suddenly anyone could make multiple copies of books, let alone posters and leaflets. The significance of the invention for governments, let alone the Catholic Church, was tremendous. The quality of the print was lousy by comparison, but that didn’t matter. Technology had improved access.

An early Caxton print
Each major leap forward in technology since has had a similar effect, the telegraph, the telephone, wireless and so on. Each time technology improved access, quality didn’t matter. Would I prefer a lovingly written letter on fine vellum telling me that my daughter has had a healthy 8lb baby three months after the fact? Or a terse telegram printed out on strips of paper in block capitals?

There’s another example from an earlier post here, but my favourite comes from last time Apple pulled a stunt like this. I, like many other people, bought a CD player and started buying CDs instead of vinyl. The quality was so much better, banks of 16-bit analogue to digital converters straining away to sample sound at a staggering 44 MHz to give a 22 MHz playback – higher than the human ear can hear (the 44/22 relationships is thanks to the Nyquist criterion. You don’t want to know about that, trust me). I bought the ‘you can hear the conductor put down his baton’ sales line and our house filled with racks of CDs, the cassettes and vinyl getting dusty in the attic.

Now I’ve ripped all my CDs and play them on our iPods. The process of ‘ripping’, compressing a CD track to an MP3, causes a reduction in quality. Worse, I listen to most of my music when I’m driving – using a little radio thingy that plugs into the cigarette lighter. So my reduced quality sample (reduced high end as well as dynamic range) is now played over a radio link (further reducing both) to give me an audio experience that is worse than chrome cassette.

Do I care? I do not. I have access to all my music in one handy player (well, three, if I’m honest).

The qualitative argument made by publishers is of the quality of writing. Quality is a funny word (it is impossible to define, according to the key character in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), we have quality of product, quality of mercy and a million other qualities. The key to the ‘will people adopt e-reading’ debate is not quality of writing – it’s the quality of experience. We see reading as essentially tactile , you know, ‘I like to curl up a warm sofa with a good book’ but that’s just force of habit. We used to see music in the same sort of way, we were attached to good old vinyl and didn’t like those cold little silvery platey things.

Believe me, reading a book on a computer screen is a real bitch (anyone who’s been through the authonomy mill knows that all too well). But we already read more on screens than we do on paper each day. And we write books on screens, too.

The convenience of an e-reader that is readable, that turns pages fast and that gives us access to books, newspapers and anything that the Internet can chuck at us is, I believe, just about enough to start the ball rolling. I’m not saying we’re all going to be using readers by the end of the year, but I believe that tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of people will.

This will have any number of effects. One will be that there will be more authors able to reach wider audiences. Another will be that people will have access to a wider choice of reading material from more ‘voices’ than ever before. Another will be that authors will make less money on average, although have the potential to make more money than before. And another will be, as I said yesterday, that publishing will be changed forever. Quality, as the publishing industry has it, will suffer to a certain degree as everyone who thinks they can write a book shares their awful scribbling (I blush when I read my first book, Space, now. It got the old authonomy gold star and it is very funny but it’s an awful mess of a thing). But that’ll even out as imprints emerge that build reputations around offering new, good quality writing.

We called the iPad disruptive on the radio this morning. And disruptive it most certainly is. Sure, the Kindle was first. But the iPad looks slicker, a great deal more usable and with an iTunes-like back end it's likely going to set the market afire.
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Tom Gara said...

I think you are almost exactly wrong about the quality / access thing. The quality of content matters a million times more as audiences get much larger and more empowered.

Think of the quality of the current generation of ridiculously awesome television shows, compared to a 60s sitcom or serial. Think how unbelievably entertaining and brilliant the best stuff on YouTube is. Think how much better the kind of writing available is today than 200 years ago, or 100 years ago, or 50 years ago.

What happens is much less unique and much more predictable. The market continuously finds ways to trim away the useless / unnecessary parts of a product and refocus on the bits that matter.

In that sense, you're right that a large function of publishing will become less and less relevant. But an industry that specialises in producing quality publications will not go away in the slightest, and the market for quality keeps getting bigger.

Anonymous said...

Surely the point is that different mediums are made for different things?

The criteria for a quality twitter post would not me the same as the criteria of a blog entry, or book, or whatever.

We simply have more ways to communicate, listen, interact, post photos, make video... than ever before.

You just sound grumpy. In 5000 words.

alexander... said...

No, Tom, you've got me wrong - because you're thinking like a publisher, I suspect.

I'm not talking about the quality of the words - think about it, as a writer of books I'd surely have some respect for quality of words!

I'm talking about the quality of the medium that delivers them. The Book of Kells and a Caxton print are two different ways to deliver words to people.

I'm not arguing that we don't need music or good music or diverse music. I'm arguing that we don't choose CD quality hifi where access to lower quality sound can be improved. The work of the band is the same, it's just that we'll compromise on the sound quality to get access.

Hence my argument. We'll use e- books even if they don't have the quality of being papery things.

e-books will open up the market to a wider base of writers, more books and more choice.

Neil said...

I'm not sure that you can compare this transition to the reduction in quality from analog to digital.

Firstly I don't think it's a case of 'comprimising' when people choose mp3 over vinyl. I believe that most people don't know the difference and don't care. Actual audiophiles (the people who do care) are still buying vinyl and it's a fact that annual vinyl sales have notably increased over the last couple of years - a fact that major record labels such as Warner have noticed, and they are now targeting that market. CD sales however, continue to drop.

Secondly, and more importantly when an analog signal is converted to digital the compression that occurs physically cuts out the highest and lowest frequencies - this is a physical omission which is noticeable to anybody, an omission that has a direct impact on how that recording is delivered to your ear. I can understand the romance in reading a well-fingered novel, and the faint musty smell left from the second-hand store etc. but do those factors (ie. smell, touch) heighten the imagery which the Author is attempting to put across? I could understand if the smell of roasted cacao beans wafted from the pages of a freshly opened copy of 'Willy Wonka...' but we all know this is not the case.

If by 'quality' you do in fact mean the medium of delivery (ie. visual) then I presume the iPad allows you to enlarge fonts should you suffer from bad eyesight, or adjust backlighting if your eyes are tired. It would probably not only have illustrations but also moving images, which would not only be more evocative but also entice more children to read.

Robb said...

Here I was, almost finally convinced to buy a Kindle, and along comes an iPad (which is a horrible name and makes me think of feminine hygiene products, and how will we Americans know if you Brits are saying iPad or iPod - it will sound the same). Now, I have to wait another year for Apple to work all the bugs out of the iPad - I never buy new gizmos the moment they come out. A year from now it will be better and probably cheaper. Maybe. And there will be a lot more uses for it.

As to your post, I do tend to agree. Technology that expands the market, even if the quality of the experience decreases, tends to replace higher quality but lower access. From folks I know who have a Kindle and say it has replaced the experience of curling up with a warm, dead-tree book, have convinced me that people will move to an e-reader.

It does initially lower the quality of the content as well. With mp3s and iPods and YouTube, everyone who owned a guitar and a had a stoned friend with a set of drums suddenly was recording and trying to sell music. But guess what? People still know what stinks. And it opened up the indie music to a huge audience who didn't know there was such great music being produced.

Same is happening with writers. With POD and e-readers and such, anyone with a laptop and a glimmer of an undeveloped idea can imagine himself to be a writer (see me, for example), write something, distribute it to lots and lots of people, whereas previously would have never gotten anything published and no one would have seen it besides the immediate family whom the would-be writer inflicted his pain on.

But the technology is also allowing some brilliant writing that would never have gotten access before to gain an audience - superb quality of writing that traditional publishers would have had to take a pass on because it didn't fit a business model and wouldn't be worth the risk and cost of publishing to sell 5000 or 10,000 copies.

So over time, wannabe rock stars who suck and wannabe writers who suck will gain momentary access to a few thousand and then be discarded, and in the process hundreds of brilliant musicians and writers will find an audience, perhaps a niche audience, and occasionally one will break out into mass fame and glory.

All due to Steve Jobs, of course.

Keefieboy said...

I'm still waiting for an e-reading device that I can scrunch up in my pocket like a handkerchief but will automatically turn itself into a 1mm thick e-page that I can read in the bath. I don't want much, do I? But I believe IBM have demonstrated an LCD screen that can be rolled up, so it could well happen, and OLED technology looks insanely promising.

Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist! said...

I'm with Robb.

It's cool technology is always evolving, but I find it frustrating that you have to constantly buy a new product to keep updated and then you're told about something new that comes along.

First I learned about the Kindle a few months ago and now this? Which one do I f--king buy? doesn't matter, I dont have the money for it and neither do many people.

Phillipa said...

I agree with Robb, he explains it well. And I agree with Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist - who has the money to buy these things? If we are talking about access you have to factor in not just the initai purchase, but running costs, access to internet costs, power costs etc. The biggest uptake will be in the US, currently the biggest users of the Net. This might be the biggest thing since Gutenberg, but wasn't that so low tech access meant only being able to read? My family are plugged into every conceivable eDevice, and building our own little pile of eWaste. The day they come up with a device that has a lifetime guarantee, can be easliy upgraded, costs little, doesn't need cables and adapters and so on - that day will be the revolutionary day, comrade

Anonymous said...

Your blog is nice and this is a useful debate.

But to be this also sounds like tons and tons of more vanity publishing. A lot of people are waiting to turn their, rather person and relevant only to their chosen circle, blogs into books.

So this maybe good for the wannabe author whom no publisher will touch.. and his friends who will make him read their work, in turn. But for a reader, like me, I'd rather my books come vetted from publishers and reviews


KJ said...

Apple's take on Kindle means that it has to do it in a cooler way and throw in a whole lot of extra features the Kindle won't have.

My main gripe is that I would really rather read a book (it's sharper, eye friendly and nostalgic, and the smell of paper is irresistible), but at the same time, it will be reducing the amount of felled trees with increased adoption.

As with any new advance in technology, there will be a lot of resistance, with purists arranging riots and the sort. Some people still read the news from the paper, but a significant portion now just go to the online website.

It might become like that with books - but in the end, when you are reading a book, you don't have all the other distractions, like work email, internet, and twitter.

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