The iPad and I: Of Love and Meh

Elizabeth Bluemle -- June 24th, 2010

Let sleeping dogs lie—and prop up iPads

I think one of my bookselling colleagues thinks I have sold my soul to the Dark Side by purchasing an iPad. She practically ran away from it (and me) at a recent conference when I unveiled the thing.

It was a funny moment, because I absolutely understand her horror: the growing digital-book market is affecting all booksellers and we don’t know where and how the smaller indies will fit in—if at all—and what that will mean to our already challenged bottom lines.

On the other hand, I want to know what this format means, what it looks like in its most appealing state, how it works, what it does and doesn’t do in contrast to printed books, and try to guess where this whole digital reading thing is likely to head, and how I as a bookseller fit into the equation.

Robert Sabuda's COOKIE COUNT

I’m a die-hard lover of real books (r-books, if you must, publishing people, or b-books for bound books, but never, EVER “p-books”—physical books—a term that has been bandied about mainly by e-book proponents who I am sure have tongues firmly planted in gleeful cheeks; call them p-books and I guarantee they will not gain cool points on the playgrounds of our fair nation). I will always love the feel of books: the smooth square fit-in-your-hand secret treasures and the big glossy coffee-table books, the books with pebbly matte covers, toothy papers, and deckled edges, the books that are improbably light or heavy for their sizes. I love the smell of books, of course, of fresh ink and also the lightly toasted smell of library books. I love running my fingers along age-softened pages, and fanning the bound sheaves of paper, and flipping back and forth to find favorite passages. I love the solidity, the heft, of a book at my side, the comforting there-ness of the object itself and the world it contains. This will never change. I’m a total bookie, and proud of it.

The original Laserdisc. From www.searchenginepeople.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/05/laserdisc.jpg

But I also grew up with a father who was irresistibly drawn to new gadgets, and I inherited his curiosity. I grew up at the dawn of the new technological era, old enough to remember a time without computers but young enough to adopt them with an easy, quick familiarity. I loved the Jetsons. Heck, in middle school, I subscribed to Omni (a magazine devoted to science and science fiction, my favorite section being the one describing future tech). So I straddle both old and new worlds with an opinionated but fairly open mind. At least, I try.

So, the iPad. It seemed like a waste of money to buy a giant version of my iPhone with fewer features, but I’ve felt increasingly frustrated not to be able to participate in discussions about e-books without a viable e-reader to experiment with. What really clinched my decision was an early May afternoon at the Apple store, where I’d gone to replace a laptop cable and saw Winnie-the-Pooh on the demonstration iPad.

The pages were crisp, bright, appealing; the graphics looked charming and unchanged from the original (well, unchanged from their color versions, which I have come to accept over the years). All in all, it looked like an e-book even bibliophiles would admire. Its very appeal alarmed me. So Winnie on the iPad (and the approach of BEA at the end of May) made me bite the bullet and buy.

I’d seen articles and raves for two books specially altered and formatted for the iPad. The first was The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Atom in the Universe by Theodore Gray. There’s an impressive video in which the infectiously enthusiastic author shows how he used the graphic advantages of the iPad — motion, 3D capabilities — in order to bring the elements to life in a way that the printed book — as handsome as it is — cannot. I acquired The Elements by shelling out $13.99 at Apple’s app store, an act made especially painful by the fact that the hardcover version is still $29.95 in bookstores. I felt the first sting of competition. But then I marveled. The book in this form is truly amazing, a fantastic use of the technology. One can view all of the photos in motion, in three dimensions, from all sides, and zoom in close to objects that, in a bound book, are of course locked at a set size. This is the kind of book the iPad should be used to produce. (Side note: the book is sold in the app store but doesn’t seem to be available in the company’s new iBooks store. Odd.)

Exploring The Elements made me think of other books, other genres, that might benefit from iPad development. History, for instance. Imagine reading Elizabeth Partridge’s Marching to Freedom, that most excellent book, onscreen, and being able to touch a photo of Martin Luther King Jr. and watch him spring to life, delivering a speech that you can listen to then and there. Or imagine following the Selma march route as a virtual protestor, seeing the landscape unfold as you ‘walk,’ and getting a feel for the sheer length of the walk. Or getting to hear the songs Partridge refers to in the text. All of those could be a powerful experience for readers, especially for young readers whose knowledge of history and contextual understanding are still nascent. I can imagine books in just about every area of cultural or scientific study enriched in this way, and be happy about it.

But not every book benefits from screen conversion.

Alice in Wonderland for the iPad

The other iPad book I was eager to see was an adapted version of Alice in Wonderland that was similarly hailed as revolutionary, interactive, and gorgeous. It was all of these things. But it was also… curiously flat as a reading experience. First of all, it’s greatly abridged — which automatically turns the book into a different animal. Secondly, it’s so handsome, so glossy and slick, that there is no room for the reader in it. When kids read, they create the world along with the writer. Pictures serve as touchstones, but the real world-building in books goes on inside the reader’s head. This app is more like TV, in that the reader is more of a passive receptacle for the media experience of the book than a co-creator.

The interactive elements — falling and suspended objects you can manipulate and move by touching and tilting the screen — are entertaining the first time around but I suspect pretty soon will seem rudimentary given what the iPad medium is capable of.

I don’t mean to pick on this Alice, which was obviously thoughtfully and creatively designed, but its very beauty makes its limitations more evident, and makes what is missing stand out.

For instance, when you think of Alice in Wonderland, one of the most iconic images in a reader’s mind is that of Alice falling down the rabbit hole — that long, long, endlessly l-o-n-g drift downward. You can see it in your mind’s eye, that drop, can’t you? Yet in this Alice, the journey is truncated to the point of near irrelevancy.

Alice’s fall, writ small

The text, cut from a page and a half in the original to a few sentences, just doesn’t do justice to the girl or the rabbit hole. Visually, the designers chose to use as the falling object (one that actually drops quickly from the top of the page to the bottom when you turn to the page), not Alice, but the rather insignificant jar of marmalade she picks up and discards on the way down. Alice’s fall is all but lost. Here, the design replaced the literature rather than enriching it.

To me, this symbolizes the biggest problem with adapted e-books: the transformation of it into a one-way experience, beaming out at the viewer like a TV show. With recent studies showing that the human brain while watching TV is less active than the brain while it’s asleep (!), this is something to think about. There is a danger in losing the conversation that a book sparks between writer and reader.

So that, dear virtual readers, is my e-reader experience so far: a mix of awe and ehh. Like it or not, the technology is here to stay, and since it will only get better over time, we booksellers do need to figure out how to participate in that market. However, the experience of reading a book in hand and a book on screen are different enough that as long as there are trees, there will always be a need and a desire for both formats. So I don’t think we have to start succession planning just yet, or shelter ourselves from pieces of the falling sky.

Colleagues, have you read digital books? Avoided them? Made peace with them? Found a way to share the market? I’d love to hear what your experiences have been.

P.S. There’s a good article comparing e-readers here.

11 thoughts on “The iPad and I: Of Love and Meh

  1. Susan Straub-Martin

    Up until now I had no interest in the ebook revolution as I am an illustrator/author of children’s books. There simple wasn’t a reader that would display the images I work so hard to create.

    Leave it to Steve and his team to out do everyone. He has always had an appreciation for the printed word and for art. So when I first heard about the release of the iPad I to was curios. It became clear very fast as to how useful this device would be.

    In the first 30 days of it’s release 60% of the books sold on it’s bookstore were children’s picture books. It will truly be a wonderful market in addition to the printed books. Kids are as techno savvy as their folks and some even more so. I am excited to see where we are headed.

  2. Nina

    Re. ebooks in indie bookstores. It should be closer than one may think since vendors like Overdrive and NetLibrary are already in place for libraries. Perhaps indie bookseller demand would even help these vendors leverage more content variety from publishers.

    As for ebook pricing, good ol’ Amazon has been driving the price model for better and for worse (it’s the DeBeers of publishing). Unfortuntely I missed the BEA seminar on why theidea that no one will pay more than $10 for e is a myth (I’m a librarian, but was most curious), but it seems grossly skewed when compared to paperbacks. With first run paperbacks there’s maybe a dollar difference on Kindle. Some reprints are priced the same as their Kindle counterpart. But a $15 difference between e and hardback when it means operating at a loss has created false and perhaps damaging market expectations.

  3. elizabeth dulemba

    I think you are brave and smart for wanting to learn about eBooks and the iPad. Burying one’s head in the sand is no way to adapt to the future!

    You mentioned you didn’t know why The Elements Book wasn’t in the iBookstore. It’s because it’s an APP and not in ePub format. Everything in the iBookstore is ePub which is actually a sad thing as most of the electronic picture books are APPS. Winnie works because the images do not bleed and are embedded in flowing text. But ePub cannot support full-bleed images. Many top authors are creating APPs rather than going ePub too since it allows them more bells and whistles – like Philip Pullman. But it also means APPs can be very hard to find within the APP store – they get buried quickly.

    I posted about all this on my blog: Why APPs need ISBN numbers – comments won’t let me post a url so go to google and search “dulemba” and “isbn” and the link will come up . (It’s a whole other issue, but I think you’ll find it relevant, and I discuss the APP vs. ePub thing.) The whole ISBN thing speaks to the capability of affiliate sales, which are currently impossible.

    My e-Picture Book, LULA’S BREW, is featured in the iPad Kids Apps store and is now selling quite well, but if it weren’t listed there, it would be nearly impossible to find. Brick and mortars still have the advantage there – the ability to browse a wide selection.

    It’s quite an interesting future we’re being faced with. Exciting, but challenging as well. And while everybody is ga-ga over it, it’s got some serious hiccups that need to be worked out.

    My 2 cents,
    🙂
    e
    Elizabeth O. Dulemba

  4. SuzzyPC

    Elizabeth,
    What a thoughtful post. (As yours always are.) Publishers & booksellers alike can learn from your thoughts, examples & links.
    I myself am an r-book reader – an e-reader may come into my life at some point – but only when I am able to order the books from one of my many favourite indie stores. Live & learn & adapt…
    Thanks for the post.

  5. Tony

    I love the feel of a book. The paper, the heft, the whole thing.
    But if e-books are the future, why can’t they be sold in a bookshop? Someone should invent a modest-sized kiosk just for this purpose, so shops can get in on the action. You choose a book, choose a format (epub, PDF), link to your reader, and the built-in locator signal “credits” the bookshop with the sale. All based, just like printed-book sales, on location. Thus way, readers can still look for inspiration in local shops–and buy from them, in a way. Thoughts?

    Something else: Movies are released first in theaters, then to DVD and broadcast later–so as not to suck profits from first-runs in theaters. Why can’t publishers do the same: hardcover, then electronic 6 months later, then paperbacks 6 months after that. Or pick some other order. But then, again, everyone wins.

  6. Pingback: Let the techies and bibliofiles unite « Pass Kid Lit On

  7. Ariel

    Small point of interest… the iPad is not the “most appealing state” in ebooks. The Kindle/Nook, etc are.

    The iPad is nice for those “enhanced” books, but reading over long periods on a backlit screen is painful. The iPad is also too heavy for extended reading sessions.

    People who are more interested in the words than the pictures and embedded video are Kindle users. The eInk screens are the way readers like to read.

  8. Laural Bidwell

    I am a very small independent bookstore in South Dakota and I recommend e-readers to many of my customers who have failing vision. Large Print books are hard for arthritic hands to hold and none of the magnifying glass options work well. So I have no problem with e-readers per se. However, I do have one HUGE issue that I think the publishing industry needs to address. By releasing the brand new expensive hardcover and the relatively inexpensive e-book at the same time and yet continuing to put off the paperback release for a year, readers are being trained to go for the quick, timely and cheap download. It puts paperback issues at a huge disadvantage – and paperbacks are what I carry. I suspect I’ll be out of the business in a few short years. (I’ve been operating for 10 years now.)

  9. kathleen duey

    Thanks so much for this. I love paper books and all the artistry that goes into making them, too. I want them to survive and thrive and I think they will. I also want people to read. I don’t own an e-reader yet, but plane rides are a big part of my life and I can hear the siren song of a lightweight, single device that would let me both write and read anywhere…oh, yes, I can hear it.

  10. karen wester newton

    Some excellent points! I am an ebook convert because i think digital reading is more convenient and thus likely will help make reading more popular than it has been lately. I carry my Kindle in my purse for those unanticipated times when I find myself waiting– at the bank, at the dentist. It’s not down time anymore, it’s reading time!

    The irony is that ebook lovers are book lovers first and technology fans second. We find ourselves ranged against those folks who love printed books when really we all want the same thing– more reading!

    But your point about “enhanced” ebooks are dead on. Enhancing a cook book or a nonfiction book to take advantage of the technology is one thing, but adding moving pictures to a fiction book destroys the purpose of the book, and the one-to-one connection of the writer and the reader.

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