Tablet is the new book

Prediction roundup: How Steve Jobs' rumored gadget could change the way we read

By Thomas Rogers
Published January 5, 2010 9:06PM (EST)

Unless you’ve been trapped under a very large P.C. for the last year, you’ve likely heard the about Apple’s rumored new tablet device (now being heralded as the “iSlate”). The device is thought to be an 8 (or 10, or 11) inch flat iPod-like gadget that will be a mix between a Mac laptop and a Kindle. Most rumors suggest that it will have a touch interface and video capabilities, and, thanks to today’s Wall Street Journal, it has a likely release date: March. (According to the article, Apple will show it to the public later this month.)

Although anticipation has already reached a fever pitch (just take a look at Twitter’s most popular topics on most days) book publishers have an especially vested interest in the gadget. While there have been numerous electronic book readers coming out in the last year (including the most recent, The Skiff), few have managed to capture the public’s imagination beyond the Amazon Kindle – which hasn’t exactly done much for publishers’ bottom line. Many people in the beleaguered industry are hoping that device will do for reading what the iPod and iTunes did for music. A survey among booksellers claimed that an Apple e-reader would one of the main factors that will help push digital publishing forward.

But will the tablet be the game-changer they’re hoping for? The internet is buzzing with opinions, rumors -- and wishful thinking.

  • A widely circulated report by analyst Yair Reiner from investment firm Oppenheimer suggests that the tablet will have a major effect on the way the publishing industry sells its goods. Says Reiner:

"Contacts in the US tell us Apple is approaching book publishers with a very attractive proposal for distributing their content …. Apple will split revenue 30/70 (Apple/publisher); give the same deal to all comers; and not request exclusivity. We believe the typical Kindle/publisher split is 50/50, rising to 30/70 if Kindle is given ebook exclusivity"

"As innovative as it is, we believe the Kindle has disgruntled the publishing industry (book, newspaper, and magazine) by demanding exclusivity, disallowing advertising, and demanding a wolfish cut of revenue. The tablet is set to change that. It should also make ebooks more relevant for education by simplifying functions such as scribbling marginalia.”

  • Reiner's report fits nicely into Simon & Schuster and Hachette’s recent decision to delay e-book releases for their titles – itself a bold shot at Amazon and the Kindle:

“There is reason to believe that the four-month delay will be a one-off gambit on the part of Schuster and Hachette. Under this theory, the publishers will take advantage of Apple's new tablet, which will coincidentally launch four months into 2010”

  • More good news: In a recent piece, the NYT’s David Carr raved that a tablet has the potential to "to renew the romance between printed material and consumer,"  and, if enough companies agree to stop giving away digital content for free change the marketplace:

"A simple, reliable interface for gaining access to paid content can do amazing things: Five years ago, almost no one paid for music online and now, nine billion or so songs sold later, we know that people are willing to pay if the price is right and the convenience is there."

  • But what about the books themselves? According to Michael Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, the "World’s Largest Christian Publisher," the tablet has the potential to make e-books far more interactive and flexible:

"Publishers will need to envision multimedia content from the beginning. Once consumers get used to this kind of rich media, they will not be content to read text alone. They certainly won’t pay a premium price for it. They will expect hyperlinks, audio, video, and other multimedia bells and whistles … We will eventually think of [print books] as ‘souvenirs’ (to quote Tim O’Reilly) or decorative artifacts for our home or office. Most people will consume content digitally."

  • As Oreilly Radar points out, the tablet has a particular promise for travel books (which could combine "maps, Wikipedia, live review sites, reservations/ticketing systems, video libraries, trip photos, messages and discussion threads, and fellow travelers' notes of interest"), children’s books (with updated versions of the "pop-up”), comics and graphic novels (which would allow "storytellers to create multiple outcome forks based on different narrative paths chosen by the reader") and textbooks (allowing embeddable videos and games).
  • Speaking of textbooks, Coursesmart, a venture of five textbook publishers recently created this video to describe how a (hypothetical) tablet might revolutionize their product (with lecture videos, easy electronic textbook purchases, and more interactivity):

  • The Chicago Sun-Times claims that the tablet will likely be the device to bring comic books into the digital realm – and believes that a company called LongBox is working on precisely that: 

"This is a form of storytelling that needs a tablet. A big, page-sized color screen with lots of resolution and a touch interface for turning pages and navigating from panel to panel."

  • With all this potential, it's hard to blame publishers for getting excited -- but as Gizmodo aptly notes, how will already-struggling publishing houses manage to pay for this kind of interactive new content?

"As soon as a book includes video, a publishing house becomes a production house and a writer becomes a director/editor. Stephen King's prose might send chills up your spine, but the local cable commercial quality video blurb sitting beside it won't have the budgetary love of a Hollywood flick, at least, not unless Stephen King or somebody else is going to take a paycut (or sell a LOT more books)."

  • Jack Shafer from Slate is even more negative in a recent piece called "The Tablet Hype," in which he concludes that, once tablet technology picks up, publishers won’t be any better off than they already are:

"Once the various tablet devices and smartphones collapse into super-ultralight PCs, the tablet-optimized publications will find themselves regarded by consumers as just another Web site, and the proprietors who thought they had a new, impregnable platform from which to sluice profits will be right back where they started—one site struggling against many."


Thomas Rogers

Thomas Rogers is Salon's former Arts Editor. He has written for the Globe & Mail, the Village Voice and other publications. He can be reached at @thomasmaxrogers.

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