There are few pleasures quite as onanistically self-validating as basking in the smug glow of hindsight, so please indulge me for a few moments while I reflect on the twelve tumultuous months that have now passed since Apple's messianic launch of what many at the time were optimistically terming the "Jesus pad".
In hindsight, "Judas pad" might have been more appropriate. But - how were we to know back then?
Do you remember where you were on January 27th last year when Steve made the fateful announcement? That was the day that would change our lives forever - so most of us thought at the time. It's certainly changed mine, although not quite in the way I'd hoped. For the most part, the trade's expectations were pyretic, even though Jobs's deeply telling view of our industry ("people don’t read any more") was blithely ignored by almost all of us.
True, the iPad wasn't exactly a dedicated e-reader. And yes, its glare-prone screen, weighty industrial design, elite price and lack of killer app were potential drawbacks. But, we could forgive all those snags because, well, it was the quintessential Apple product, wasn't it? The legacy machine, the device that would rank Steve J alongside Johannes G as icons of the modern era.
And besides all that, it was just so freakin' sexy.
How different it all seems now, twelve dreary months into the long cold cultural winter. Don't get me wrong; I'm not complaining. I'm one of the fortunate few - I still work a few days a month in my publishing job. Many of my former colleagues aren't so lucky.
Where did it all go wrong? That's the question we have all asked ourselves a million times. I'd say most of us were willingly fooling ourselves right from the start. And the few critical voices that were raised weren't paid much attention because - well - they just didn't get it, did they?
We ignored the obvious, because it didn't fit our sleek, glossy new paradigm. For example, the deadly paradox that killed our industry's no. 1 source of book sales - personal recommendation. Hitherto, we had always recognized that readers lending books to other readers was a Good Thing, because it promoted our authors (free of charge!) backed by the authority that only a trusted friend can furnish. Today of course, you can't lend an electronic file to a mate without committing a serious criminal act. And please - don't even get me started on the subject of rampant internet piracy.
Another by-product of Mr. Jobs' Reality Distortion Field was the illusion that the much-vaunted "Agency Model" would hand us back control over our own industry's price. Ah, salad days! None of us quite realized who - or what - we were dealing with. We didn't appreciate the sheer depth of cultural barbarianism that is the hallmark of Silicon Valley. Naively, we thought the Apple, Amazon and Google were our friends, here to nobly help us sell a few more books in a rather original way.
We didn't see - or perhaps we didn't want to see - the butchery this unholy trinity had already wrought upon the music business, the newspaper business, the advertising business and most other forms of media. We thought, as we always have done, that "publishing is different": that our cultural significance would somehow save us from the slaughterman's tender blade.
We were wrong.
Driven by ruthless competitive pressure amongst the Big Three, no publisher has been able to arrest the inevitable downward spiral in e-book prices. Today's average price of $2.99 may seem sumptuous compared to what is yet to come.
Now, of course, we can see the truth plainly. For all its hype about the "new digital economy", the fact is that the titans of the "new economy" make their money by ruthlessly exsanguinating what they contemptuously call "old media": that's you and me. They have taken our business, filleted it to one tenth the size it used to be, and in the process own it totally. And then move on. This is digital nature red in tooth or claw. And I'm not saying it's wrong - only, that none of us saw it coming.
Another post-rationalization that seems obvious now but few could foresee way back in '10 is the degree to which the onscreen reading experience has truncated the nature of the book. I can remember when many, perhaps most, books were 100,000 words or more in length! Such a figure seems grotesque to today's YouTube / ADHD generation. And I agree with them - reading more than 15,000 words or so onscreen is a chore. Odd that none of us could see how this would so quickly redefine our industry's product, though.
Let's face it: you and I were as guilty as anyone. We were accomplices in our own seduction. We believed the fresh-faced West-coast hype machine. And we were greedy. We looked at a digital file and thought, we can sell this for nearly the same price as a physical book! Only - the marginal cost is zero, meaning that our net profit is close to the gross. What's not to like about that?
Our biggest sin, though, was one of neglect. We took our eye off the ball, didn't we? We assumed that books would always be culturally important, because they always have been. Somewhere in our lemming-like rush to digitization, we forgot to remind society how uniquely important our product was to them.
So we got it wrong - badly wrong. But Steve Jobs didn't. He got it exactly right. He knew back in 2010 that given the choice, most kids would use their iPad to watch piano-playing cats pissing in toilets. He knew that the e-book would never stand up to that kind of direct media competition, no matter how cheaply priced.
And he knew that by virtualizing our product, we were giving him and his uncivilized twins at Google and Amazon control of our industry's heritage and future.
People don’t read any more?
You're the man, Steve.
Photo by by DrewVigal