Image via WikipediaI 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.
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.