iPad apps won’t replace the narrative art form known as a “book”

Posted on April 13, 2010 11:35 am by | Books | Death Watch | Technology | Video | Writing and Editing

Shel HoltzA tweet directed me to a TechCrunch guest post titled, “Dear Authors, Your Next Book Should be an App, not an iBook.”

While the post’s author, 21-year-old startup exec Cody Brown, doesn’t exactly make the case that books are dead, he does suggest that authors eyeing the iPad as a platform for their books are “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.

It’s Cody, in his entirely understandable enthusiasm for the iPad, who’s missing the point. Authors won’t see the iPad as the platform for their work, but rather a platform. The iPad is one more outlet for their work, accommodating the notion that readers want access to authors’ work on the device of their choice, whether it’s a printed book obtained at Barnes & Noble or their iPods delivering an audio book downloaded from Audible.com.

It’s the same concept so many people have applied to music: I want to buy a song once and be able to listen to it at home on my computer, on my portable digital media player while I’m working out at the gym, in my car on my iPod, at work on a streaming service, and so on. Besides, if distribution were limited to the iPad, only iPad owners would ever be able to consume it. How many artists—out of either artistic or financial motivations—would ever want that kind of constraint on access to their work?

But it’s Cody’s assertion that an app is inherently better than narrative that bothers me the most. It’s not the first time the notion has raised my hackles. On an early episode of the podcast, Media Hacks, panelist Julien Smith suggested that printed words might never have emerged if video had been available to early man.

Yep, video would have been the ideal medium for T.S. Eliot to express the thoughts and vision that resulted in “The Waste Land.” Watching a video would have been so much better than reading “April is the cruelest month.”

What Smith and Cody seem to suggest is that all writers will want to become either videographers or programmers, and that all readers would rather manipulate apps or watch videos.

The notion that reading will wither with the onslaught of new technologies isn’t exactly a new one. The same fears were voiced when television gained popularity. But those unaware of history are doomed to repeat it, so we’re hearing the same old predictions today that were articulated 50 years ago. It didn’t happen then and it won’t happen now. The media landscape is expanding. There are more choices, not replacements, for expression.

What the doomsayers fail to recognize is that writing is, in fact, a form of artistic expression. Photography didn’t kill painting. Movies didn’t kill live theater. Artists continue to find an outlet in these art forms and their work continues to find audiences that love it.

Authors and books are no different.

There is ample evidence that reading is alive and well:

  • “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” sold 9 million copies in the US and UK alone in its first 24 hours. Readers lined up at bookstores for the midnight release of the book. Cumulatively, the Harry Potter series has sold in excess of 400 million copies and been translated into 67 languages. And keep in mind, the target audience for the Potter series is primarily smack in the middle of Cody’s generation. The same is true for the Twilight series, which has sold over 100 million copies and been translated into 38 languages.

  • The last time I was at the beach—about 15 months ago—I saw hundreds of people with paperback books, magazines and Kindles. The Kindle makes more sense at the beach than an iPad, since you can actually read it in direct sunlight. Even the most gushing reviews of the iPad note that it’s rendered essentially useless outdoors.

  • Whenever I ride BART, I notice about half the passengers with books and e-readers open—and most of these are younger riders.

  • The print-on-demand company Blurb continues its mind-boggling growth, suggesting that not only is reading alive and well, print is, too. A friend who works for Blurb shakes his head whenever he hears the “print is dead” meme. The market isn’t vanishing, he says; it’s just changing.

There will always be a sizable of audience of people who just simply love the narrative art form. It may be true that, if the iPad had existed in 1949, George Orwell might have opted to express himself with an app instead of a book called “1984.” Some artists will undoubtedly find the app more conducive than a book to the stories they want to tell. On the other hand, I can’t see “The Sun Also Rises” as an app, and a “Bad Hemingway App” contest just doesn’t have the same allure as the annual International Bad Hemingway competition.

It would sadden me to think that we would devolve into a world where the staggering beauty of words nevermore emerge from the fertile minds of narrative artists like Garbiel Garcia Marquez, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dave Eggers, Louise Erdrich…

It would sadden me, but it doesn’t. There will always be a market for people who want to drink in stunningly crafted words that send their imaginations reeling—and for people who are able to create such works.

As is nearly always the case, apps fit into the “along with, not instead of” category.

In his post, Cody takes issue with an earlier Techcrunch post by author Paul Carr, who lamented those who read a paragraph or two of a newspaper article, then tweet it, noting that this is “reading in the way that rubbing against women on the subway is sex.” Cody retorts that Carr is confusing length with quality. While length for its own sake is never better than brevity, there is much to be said for substance over superficiality.

Cody’s post ran nearly 600 words, and it wasn’t an app. It was, evidently, the best means by which Cody was able to express himself.

There is much excitement over the recent announcement from J.K. Rowling that a new book is in the works. I haven’t read a single complaint that she hasn’t opted instead to produce an app.

Cody concludes his post saying, “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.”

Some books, yes. But my 21-year-old daughter—who seems to prefer texting to talking—always anticipates the next release of a Chuck Palahniuk book. I can say with great confidence, that some of the books that will define Cody’s—and my daughter’s—generation will be bound between covers. Apps are great. Some are genius. But words-as-narrative will continue to be the best way for some people—even those under 20—to express themselves. As long as what they write resonates, people including those under 20 will read it. That’s the beauty of choice: Everyone can opt for the platform that best suits them.

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  • 1.Shel,

    Thank you for writing this brilliant rebuttal. I was so angry when I read Cody's post. It's mind-numbing to me that someone of my generation can say that the next frontier for books is iPad apps. As a 26-year-old and avid book lover (in fact I blame my nearsightedness on reading so much as a child) I sincerely hope that my generation hasn't given up on the traditionally rich experience of reading a good book.

    Cody is probably the same type of kid I often encountered in college: let's abridge Shakespeare, pare down great works of literature to SparkNotes and play cutting-edge book "games" on the iPad instead of actually reading them. Shameful.

    Marie Williams | April 2010 | San Francisco

  • 2.Using his logic, all albums should be an app on the iPad or iPod Touch/iPhone because there's more opportunities there.

    There's so much wrong with his post that I wouldn't know where to start. Limiting yourself to one platform, akin to limiting yourself to English-only and not translating your books into other languages, is a good idea if you don't want to reach all markets.

    And video instead of the written word makes me wonder on Julien Smith's literacy. Has a movie EVER reached the descriptive levels of a book? Has a movie EVER reached the artistry of the book it's based on? No, it's impossible because the human imagination and psyche makes the book better because you use all your sensory tools, beyond vision and hearing.

    Jeremy Pepper | April 2010 | Los Angeles, CA

  • 3."There will always be a market for people who want to drink in stunningly crafted words that send their imaginations reeling?and for people who are able to create such works."

    I applaud and agree heartily with this whole post, but this one sentence, for me encapsulated the point beautifully and incisively. What else is there to say but: "Amen!"

    Kristen | April 2010 | Toronto, Canada

  • 4.Good post Shel.

    I agree that there is a value in books but I think y'all are missing the point of my statement, which is that text is UNNATURAL compared to the very easy method in which we communicate verbally.

    The actual statement I made was that "text was developed due to a lack of bandwidth available over long distances." I think I was channeling McLuhan so you'll forgive me if it makes no sense to you. But it still makes sense to me.

    Jeremy, you can question my literacy all you like, but I read over a book a week (all real paper). I also co-wrote and published a bestselling one last year, and am working on another.

    Cody's article is kind of off but the point about Orwell is interesting. We have access to more media now so who says Orwell wouldn't have been a video game developer? His genius was channeled through an AVAILABLE MEDIUM. There are many more available now so his choice could have been different.

    I still see the value in books, but what do I know? I grew up with them. Who knows what will happen when this generation grows up, feeling no nostalgia over either newspapers or print books, but iPods instead?

    We sure don't... so let's stop pretending we have all the answers, k?

    Julien | April 2010

  • 5.There is a thriving market for ebooks. Julien's right - currently there's also still a market for traditional books. That doesn't mean that paper books are inherently better, Marie. In another hundred years, they could be obsolete like the horse buggy.

    Martyn Chamberlin | April 2010 | this iMac

  • 6.Julien, you said: "...text is UNNATURAL compared to the very easy method in which we communicate verbally." That's a pretty sweeping statement, and I'd be most interested to know if that's based strictly on your own personal observation, or if there's more to support it?

    Speaking as someone who communicates for a living, and uses all types of communication [verbal, written and electronic] I have actually found that verbal is often fraught with opportunities for distraction and confusions. It's certainly easy to put communication out there verbally, but it isn't always guaranteed to be successful. But, that's just one person's experience.

    One other thing I wanted to note on this very interesting discussion. As a reader of paper & ink books, I was intrigued by the suggestions that "younger" [not exactly sure what that is defined as here] readers may not care to consume books in that format going forward. As a member of two different social media sites devoted to readers and reading, I decided to ask that group directly, just for interest's sake.

    I posted this question to "20-somethings and younger" in several groups I belong to, as well as in the site-wide posting areas of the sites yesterday: "Do you read most of your books in electronic or paper & ink form?"

    So far there have been about 15 responses and interestingly, not one of them said they read in electronic form. Universally they were actually quite vehemently supportive of "old fashioned" books, and several said they could not imagine reading in electronic format, favouring the "feel of a book in my hands", "the smell of a new book when I open it for the first time" and "the joy of having a bookcase full of old friends".

    Now, I'll be the first to admit this is hardly an exhaustive or scientific sampling, but, given that the place I asked the question is both an electronic format, and that the focus of both sites is readers, I think it offers a rebuttal worth contributing, to the theory that the younger generation, for all their fondness for all sorts of electronic things, still express a clear fondness for physical books when they read. It certainly warmed the cockles of MY heart to hear that opinion.

    As Shel so eloquently expressed in his post, there's just something special about holding a book in your hands, and this conversation should be about "and" not "instead of".

    Kristen Ridley | April 2010 | Toronto, Canada

  • 7.Marty, I don't think paper books are inherently better. In fact, I own a Kindle and I'm an avid fan of ebooks as well. My bigger issue with Cody's article was that he acted as though the traditional work of literature is on the way out in favor of interactive book apps, which is a ludicrous proposal. They can certainly coexist without invalidating each other.

    Kristen, I completely agree with you, and I would also say to counteract Julien's point that text is not an unnatural form of communication. Early pictograms on cave walls indicate writing/drawing is an instinctual form of expression. Clearly writing is not always meant to compensate for the "lack of bandwidth available over long distances." In the case of the cave drawings the goal was to preserve the history of that culture and to remember what had happened. Oversimplifying the importance of text is a great injustice to the writing profession. I find it especially silly that people seem to think Orwell would have been a game developer or hopped onto the latest technology had he lived in our era. Animal Farm as a video game? Really? At the heart of it Orwell was a writer and poet, and there's no evidence that would have changed just because gaming and technology happen to be hot industries right now.

    Marie Williams | April 2010 | San Francisco

  • 8.Late to the post here, but just wanted to echo what others are saying regarding the written word, and to add my common refrain when it comes to e-readers vs. books.

    First, I agree with Kristen/Marie that text is a very natural form of communication for the reasons they cite.

    Next, I don't see electronic readers like the iPad (which I adore) passing traditional books for a long, long time. Why? Because they are quite expensive, and to say that books should be limited to a single, pricey platform is incredibly elitist. Does the writer honestly believe that the only ones who should have access to an author's work be able to do so through a $500 device?

    Finally, until I can share a book with a friend or family member without surrendering my device, I'll lean towards the paper version. Part of the joy of reading for me is to share my finds with members of the book club I'm a part of, or send to my parents or sister.

    Oh, and I also won't be taking it to the beach or anyplace similar--damage is just too likely. Not so with my paperbacks.

    Jen Zingsheim | April 2010

  • 9.Thanks for the comment, Julien, and apologies for taking so long to reply. Not enough bandwidth.

    I don't agree that text is unnatural or that it was developed because of the lack of bandwidth over distances. First, I (and you and most people) can read faster than we can listen or watch. Second, it's a VERY natural form of expression in circumstances that call for it. Regardless of bandwidth, I can't see kids passing audio or video to one another in class. Notes do the trick much more efficiently.

    It's a question of the best tool for the job. I agree that audio and video would have been used more frequently had we had the capacity to develop it earlier, but text is still a preferable means of recording and sharing everything from data to knowledge under a variety of conditions.

    Also, text emerged originally not for transmission over distances because people didn't travel; they remained rooted to the location of their tribes. It was simply an efficient way to make records of things like transactions. Can you imagine an audio or video receipt listing what you bought and how much you paid for it?

    Shel Holtz | April 2010

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