The App-ification of eBooks

The App-ification of eBooks

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.

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About the Author

Zek has been a gadget fiend for a long time, going back to their first PDA (a Palm M100). They quickly went from researching what PDA to buy to following tech news closely and keeping up with the latest and greatest stuff. They love writing about ebooks because they combine their two favorite activities; reading anything and everything, and talking about fun new tech toys. What could be better?

10 Comments on "The App-ification of eBooks"

  1. Joel McLaughlin | April 13, 2010 at 11:13 am |

    Good article Carly. I think there are indeed places for paper books. However I was listening to TWIT (This Week in Tech) and one thing they brought up is newspapers. I think those will go completely electronic far before books will. The reason is that news is disposable. Once most people read news, the paper goes in the recycling or circular file. Books, on the other hand, can not only be a story, but can be a reference item. Something you refer back to time and time again. Sometimes you want to make a sketch or note right int he book. You can’t really do that nicely on some eBook devices. Once you can treat a ebook more or less like a real book, then you will truly have something that people will find useful.

  2. News is definitely different … but I also saw that and didn’t finish as I thought it was utter twaddle …

    I liken it to music – when music videos came out there were volumes written on how plain old music was dead and that in the future music would be a full multimedia experience where the artists would … blah, blah, blah …

    Words matter. I’ve been re-reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, and have the kids working on some Vonnegut and Faulkner. They also love tween-appropriate series like ‘Warriors’ and ‘Young Wizards’ where the specific words matter less than the ideas and characters and actions.

    I think there is a place for all form of expression … but I hope this is not yet another example of ‘the dumbing down of America’ in the guise that ‘old folks don’t understand’ …

  3. One Stop Book Stop The App-ification of eBooks | Gear Diary: … where the author lists her music p…

  4. One Stop Book Stop The App-ification of eBooks | Gear Diary: … where the author lists her music p…

  5. Christopher Gavula | April 13, 2010 at 3:40 pm |

    Yeah, I have to agree. We may or may not be seeing the end of the era of moveable type, but that doesn’t mean that books or reading itself is dead. The notion that a full-blown multimedia experience is the way that all this stuff is going is nonsense.

    I do think that disposable print items like newpapers, magazines, even junk mail are finding less and less of a place in our lives, but they are being replaced with e-equivalent (or i-equivalents). But NONE of that means we aren’t reading!

    I think we continue to suck up pure (or near pure) “printed” material at an amazing rate and the deployment of ereaders is really only going to make the process more convenient and possible accellerate the rate of that consumption somewhat. Yes – we will continuie to demand rich multimedia content as well, but the end of words-only commuinications – not likely! Radio didn’t die, but it changed. The music business didn’t die, but it changed. And guess what? So will the print industry!

  6. The App-ification of eBooks | Gear Diary: She quickly went from researching what PDA to buy to following tech news…

  7. The App-ification of eBooks | Gear Diary: One of the arguments that has risen out of the “iPad as an ebook reader”…

  8. I’m 26 and still think there’s a place for books in the world too. 🙂 E-readers is just a more convenient medium that allows us to carry all the books we want easily. 🙂 A true bookworm will always resort to the paper. 🙂 I agree with the comment above about magazines and newspaper being gone long before books.

    Great post, great title too! 🙂

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