One of the arguments that has risen out of the “iPad as an ebook reader” debate is the idea that books, as a platform for pure reading, are dead. That’s what Cody Brown argued in a guest column on Techcrunch, riffing off Paul Carr’s NSFW post. This concept that “everything is better as an app, with pictures and videos and SHINY HAPPYS” is, in my opinion, totally wrong. Are books going to change? Absolutely, and there are many ways in which they will continue to evolve and grow. However, the basic root of a book is going to remain the same.
Cody Brown kicks off his argument with:
“The mission of an author isn’t to get you to ‘read all the words’, it’s to communicate in the rawest sense of the word. Whether you’re Jeff Jarvis or Dan Brown, you have an idea or a story and a book is a way to express it to the world.”
Ok, that’s true. At the same time, authors write because that’s how they express their ideas. The written word is a unique way of communicating, different from speaking out loud or visualizing. It requires both the writer and the reader to work to understand each other; a good writer fills in contexts, and it is up to the reader to follow along. Look at a painting of a sunset, and then read a description of a sunset. They are wildly different ways to express the same idea, and in doing so they create something completely unique and different from one another. So yes, the purpose of writing is to communicate, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be dumbed down or enhanced with shiny objects.
“If you, as an author, see the iPad as a place to ‘publish’ your next book, you are completely missing the point. What do you think would have happened if George Orwell had the iPad? Do you think he would have written for print then copy and pasted his story into the iBookstore? If this didn’t work out well, do you think he would have complained that there aren’t any serious-readers anymore? No. He would have looked at the medium, then blown our minds.”
First of all, if George Orwell had the iPad he would have snapped it in half and moved into a Faraday Cage-lined house. Secondly, who said books aren’t successful on the iPad yet? Presumably, there’s a big core group of Kindle/Kobo/iBook/Barnes and Noble readers snapping these up. eBooks are the biggest section in the App Store! Amazon is selling Kindles like hotcakes, and the Barnes and Noble nook has been a huge success for the company. And Target and Best Buy are fighting to get ebook readers in stock because…wait for it…THEY MAKE MONEY SELLING THEM. There’s this internet meme that books are dead, but eBooks are growing at triple digit rates, even while overall book sales are dropping. Repeatedly declaring books dead isn’t going to kill them, and if a book doesn’t sell well, then authors are going to do what they did before the iPad. They’re going to promote their books through guest appearances, offering samples, etc. Now marketing a book, that’s a different story, and a place where iAds or small apps might make sense.
Orwell would still hate ebooks though.
“It’s not a problem that the experience of reading a book ‘cover to cover’ on an iPad isn’t that great as long as there are better ways to communicate on the device. On the iPad there are. What’s challenging for authors at this point is the iPad enables so many different types of expression that it’s literally overwhelming. Once you start thinking of your book as an app you run into all kinds of bizarre questions. Like, do I need to have all of my book accessible at any given time? Why not make it like a game so that in order to get to the next ‘chapter’ you need to pass a test? Does the content of the book even need to be created entirely by me? Can I leave some parts of it open to edit by those who buy it and read it? Do I need to charge $9.99, or can I charge $99.99?”
Ok, I will say this. This might be fun for certain formats of books. Choose Your Own Adventure Books are just screaming for this kind of treatment. However, there’s a reason books have a linear format, just like there’s a reason movies have a plot and artwork generally tries to express an object or a scene. Modern art and various kinds of avant-garde filmmaking break from these ideas, but it doesn’t mean that everyone should. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should, or that it’s a panacea for all ills. I’ll give you an example. Right now I’m reading Harry Markopolos’s “No One Would Listen” about his Bernie Madoff investigation. I don’t need a quiz to advance to a new chapter (and given the subject matter, it would probably be a complex equation). On the other hand, I can see the argument for a fantasy series I like (Rachel Caine’s ‘Weather Warden’ series), where the author lists her music playlist she used while writing. It would be cool to include the option to listen to her playlist as you read. However, it doesn’t diminish from the act of reading if it’s just a plain book.
There’s also the portability factor. Books bought on the iPad through Amazon/Kobo/B&N can be read on eInk devices, computers, etc. Your library is available on a variety of devices and form factors, and that’s something that comes from the simplicity of eBooks.
“I’m 21, I can say with a lot of confidence that the ‘books’ that come to define my generation will be impossible to print. This is great.”
I’m 29, and I think there’s still a place for regular books in the world. The act of reading is, at its heart, about getting lost in the words. And that’s not going to change whether those words are printed, eInk or backlit.