Machines, Metaphors and Meals

Machines, Metaphors and Meals


Sander Knol is Managing Director of Amsterdam-based publisher Meulenhoff Boekerij. The iPad is expected to go on sale in the Netherlands in July. He bought his iPad in New York and has reviewed it here for Futurebook.

I looked at my iPad on the way to JFK. The driver saw it in my hand and said: ‘Hey, that’s a great book!’ A good start, I reckoned, but was he right: is an iPad indeed a good book?

The iPad is the first device I have ever bought without knowing exactly what to do with it. And now, a few weeks after the purchase, it remains hard to define. To start off: it really is an Apple. Beautifully designed, a little heavier than you would expect, but pleasantly solid, a pin sharp screen and subtly concealed buttons on the edges of the casing. You can tilt the iPad as it rests on a flat surface, which angles the screen just enough to be able to view it and type on it comfortably when you’re sat at a table. The navigation is very Apple too. Not only is it super fast, but it’s also clear, easy and attractive. As is the case with the iPhone, your personal choice of apps determines what exactly you do with it, although it does of course come with a number of standard applications: Calendar, Contacts, Notes, Maps, Videos, YouTube, iTunes, App Store, Settings, Safari, Mail, Photos and iPod. My taxi driver was wrong then. The apps that I, as a publisher, was most curious about, are missing from the standard package and Apple obviously doesn’t consider them basics for the device: iBooks, Pages and Goodreader seem indispensable to me if you want to use the iPad for anything that has to do with reading or writing.

I won’t describe the other dazzling functions in great detail, but YouTube, film and iTunes are more easily accessed on the iPad than on a phone, and perfectly suited to use on the sofa, where a laptop quickly becomes too heavy and too hot. But of course not everything works equally well. I am very disappointed by the iBooks Store. There’s very little choice in an un-dynamic format that fails to excite me. Apple doesn’t try hard to add to the choice or selection available through the Store, and there’s only limited help available. I decide to download the Amazon Kindle-app. Interesting, of course, that Amazon has developed this app especially for the iPad at the same time that the internet bookseller needs to fight off the iPad’s competitiveness with its own Kindle. Apple’s own paltry bookstore and the superiority of the ‘cuckoo in the nest’ Kindle app can of course be explained by the significant head start that Amazon has had. But it also shows that Apple is more interested in selling electronic devices than the books you might read on them.

I buy my first two books: Solar by Ian McEwan and Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes (which Meulenhoff will publish in Dutch in 2011) and start to read. When you’re taken by a book, you stop noticing the shape or form in which it has come to you. As publishers we’ve been judging manuscripts for ages that are set in Courier New font, size 11, line spacing one and a half. That’s how it was with Sony Readers, and that’s how it will be with the iPad, although this instantly outclasses the e-ink-devices. The text looks good, the font, size, colour of the page and clarity are easily adjustable. Apparently it’s more tiring to the eyes in the long run, but I must say that I haven’t had any problems as yet. You can tilt and lock the screen, so it’s not a problem to read from the iPad in bed. As I said, it’s a little heavy, but it’s still nothing compared to the latest Kingsolver in hardback. Just as with the iPhone, because you only see one app at a time, nothing distracts me from reading.

Is reading a side issue on the iPad or not? Plain text on such an exquisite device does make it feel like nipping to the corner shop in a luxury car. The iPad shows its true potential not so much in the novel as in non-fiction publishing and magazines. The iPad edition of Wired magazine introduces a brave new world for magazine publishers. Animated illustrations, advertisements with inbuilt links and sound effects to accompany articles. Sometimes it still feels a bit contrived, but that will improve. I was dazzled, but I was also drawn to linger on quieter, more text-heavy pages and read longer articles. The advertisements in the iPad version of Interview magazine are really much more beautiful than those of the print edition. Such digital magazines are imperfect prototypes but they show how the new possibilities add an extra dimension. They are features that would never have existed without the iPad.

Machines, Metaphors and Meals

No matter how diverse their content may be, the outward appearance of books has been consistent for hundreds of years. It looks as though this will change with the iPad. An American Art Director recently explained to me the difference between Machines, Metaphors and Meals, the groupings by which he categorises all books. The Machines are consumer books, which will be read from your phone or iPad and to which the publisher will add a number of functional and graphic elements. The Metaphors are the beautiful coffee table books, which will continue to be printed on paper; hard to replace and to a great extent attractive because of their tangible form. And by Meals he means fiction, stories that you devour, simple in their format and with little added functionality. The Art Director’s point was that this latest technical innovation manages to add very little to the extremely strong form of the novel, which - other than in the case of non-fiction or children’s publishing - requires very little in the way of an upgrade.

The iPad will offer very little added value to the novel, but in all other areas it does beat the current crop of e-readers (too expensive and too little functionality) and mobile phones (even the new, larger screen sizes remain too small for run-on text). A breakthrough to a broader user base is already taking place and so the iPad has come to represent the next major step in the emergence of the e-book.

The Meals are very significant when considering the discussion of e-books, because they – as is always the case with fiction – are at the top of the agenda. The simplicity of the e-book novel form makes it a tempting prospect and parties across the market are considering how best they can turn it to their advantage. On top of that, other parties are emerging who have little regard for the status quo but who, with their knowledge of consumer and product, manage to generate significant extra value. These developments in combination with a mass-market e-reading device might sound like a dangerous cocktail by which anything could now happen. Authors who want to do it themselves, publishers who wait in the hope that the ‘storm will pass’, booksellers who want to cut the new digital providers short. The iPad will be the first e-reader to break through to an audience of millions. Because if you own it, you want to use it. This will stimulate the take up and pervasiveness of e-reading like nothing before it.

The succès fou of the iPad demands that everyone in the world of books today gets up and gets involved. A new market is straining impatiently at the leash, and it really won’t wait for us to finish our ruminations. Within the Meulenhoff Boekerij publishing house we have taken deliberate steps guided by our own professional and marketing experience, and we are adding all the vision, skill and manpower that we can. We are agreeing terms with our partners, both with authors and with existing and new buyers.

No matter how hard it is, even when you own one, to interpret the importance of the iPad, the device will no doubt revolutionise the way we entertain and inform ourselves, as well as the ways in which content is offered and sold to us.

Authors, publishers and booksellers will not immediately see the iPad as a burning issue, but once consumers and readers begin to behave in a fundamentally different manner, it will soon become clear what an impact it stands poised to have.