The announcement this week that LG plans to release an Android powered tablet device comes as no surprise. It is just one of several companies to follow Apple into this new, exciting market which promises to grow massively over the next few years. Soon tablets will be as common as laptops and MP3 players and the hope in publishing is that books can take centre stage on these every tablet’s high-resolution screen.
But, books face stiff competition from other forms of content. Users of the iPad have access to thousands of book titles but they also have access to a huge number of apps and then there are blogs and newspapers on the internet too. There is a huge amount of content vying for a reader’s attention. And so far it seems that other forms of content are winning. When the iPad was released in the UK the Guardian newspaper surveyed some famous owners and only one of the seven used it to read books: most used it to access the web. The Bookseller did a similar sample of iPad buyers and found that some people were surprised that books were even part of the Apple offering. We will probably never know how well iBooks does for Apple but these (admittedly anecdotal) glances at how people use their device does not offer much encouragement to publishing.
And the trouble is that books - or long form narratives - were never intended to be read digitally: no writer ever dreamed of seeing his novel available on iBooks or of holding it on a USB stick. What we need now is a new form of narrative that is designed to be experienced digitally, a form that is defined by the way the content is consumed. Newspapers have had to adapt and have done so pretty well. Go to www.guardian.co.uk, say, and you can access all the articles that you would read in the paper but you get more too, like updated features, edit tracking, picture streaming and video. Their minute by minute live blog coverage of sport was a brilliant idea because it meant that office workers denied access to the TV or radio could follow a cricket match quietly. The format has been so successful that it has been adopted by different sections of the website and by other newspaper sites all over the world. It is an excellent example of how a publisher has changed to work with a new medium and harnessed its strengths. Book publishers should take note.
Unfortunately, few have and the majority of apps available are reproductions of the text. But as George Walkley said recently ‘Anyone can replicate the experience of reading a physical book in an app. Our feeling is that just isn't very exciting.’ Hachette seem to want to do something different which can only be a good thing and that certainly looks to the future. But what is vital is experimentation. The democratization of media tools means that in bedrooms and coffee shops across the country people are using video or audio cheaply and easily to enhance their readers’ experience of their content and it can’t be long before someone stumbles across a brilliant way of telling a story using a tablet device’s functions. Hopefully there will be agents and publishers willing to recognize the value of new forms of expression and content. But, if they are not, someone will release their product anyway and, just as Jamie Oliver did, create a storm of interest that will leaving the industry playing catch up in terms of content and revenue.