Saturday, April 3, 2010

The iPad: Is it medium or is it the message?

Scott D. Parker

The iPad drops today. In case you haven’t heard, it’s the Savior of the Publishing Industry. Or so you’d be led to believe (and the publishers hope). The iPad’s e-reading capabilities are one of the top selling features of the machine as well as the new iBookstore. Marvel Comics has a comic-reading app I seriously want see. I could easily envision myself reading more comics using a device like this. The same for magazines. And, yes, I would pay for subscriptions.

For all the acolytes of the iPad, there are a number of doubters about the e-reading capabilities of the iPad. Stephen King, in his column for Entertainment Weekly, thinks that there’s a “not-thereness” to e-reading. Cory Doctorow doesn’t like the device too much, not for the e-reading aspect, but for the closed-shop nature of the iPad.

All of this chatter about e-reading and e-books and e-magazines and e-comics got me to thinking about something fundamental. Both Chris and Mike commented on it last week. Lots of people want the artifact, the proof of purchase, if you will, the proof that you’ve experienced the Whatever (i.e., the reading of a book; the watching of a movie; the hearing of music).

When you buy a book and read it, you have the proof, right there on the shelf. The more books you read, the more artifacts you have on your shelf. For many people, myself included, a home isn’t a home until I have bookshelves full of books.

In one way of looking at it, however, books are like the t-shirt you buy at a rock concert. When a rock show really thrilled me, I used to buy the t-shirt (the medium) and wear it the next day. Then, folks would see my t-shirt and ask about the show. I’d extol them with every guitar lick, brass line, and light trick (the message). The shirt (along with the ticket stub) was my artifact, my way of remembering the experience of the concert.

The internet in general, and blogging in particular, changes this equation and the medium. My “concert t-shirt” is my review of something I experienced. It’s a way for me to explain why I liked/disliked something. Likewise, when y’all read my stuff, we can get into a conversation and discover new ways to think about common things.

Blogs are not published (in a traditional sense). They are published in a new sense. They are posted with a time and date stamp. They’re out for everyone and anyone to read. They are digital, etherial, not there. I can’t autograph a particular post I wrote that you really liked. All you can do is tell me you liked it and why and then tell others. Coming up on Tuesday here at Do Some Damage, we have a flash fiction challenge. Those stories will be published but there will be no artifact for your bookshelf. And you’ll be reading them on your computer. There’s no way around it. I’ll guarantee you that you’ll read at least one story that’ll make your day.

Folks who frequent libraries don’t have artifacts either. I’m a library power user. Like some who commented on my main blog this week, I know the librarians’ names and they know mine. It’s wonderful. I can assuage my thirst for wide variety of tastes in music, movies, and books. I can try something before I decide to it. More than once, I’ve purchased something that I first read from the library.

But if the story you’ve experienced (by reading/watching/listening) is something special, having the artifact isn’t always required. Is it? I just finished reading China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. It blew my mind. It’s going to go down as one of those pivotal books in my reading life. I don’t have the artifact. I checked out the book from the library and listened to most of it as an audio file. Yet, I still have the experience. It’s internal and special, only to me. I can share why I liked it so much but I don’t need the artifact to do that.

This is a ironic post, to be honest. Here I am, a yet-to-be-traditionally-published author, one who hopes you’ll buy my books in the future, talking about why physical artifacts are not really necessary. I don’t think they are. The story is the key. Who cares about the delivery device? I think the savvy author in this decade and this century needs to be fluent in different delivery methods. Up until the internet, books had cornered the delivery device market. Now, in the 2000s, the delivery devices are expanding and also fragmenting. We writers have to write a damn good story. Period. That’s the fundamental rule. It’s only later we’ll have to figure out how to get it to the eyes and ears of all our readers. Some readers will want the artifact. For them, there are books, a medium that will never die. Some won’t care. For them, e-reading or audiobooks are the way.

Despite what Marshall McLuhan says, the medium (i.e., the artifact) isn’t always the message. Sometimes, the message (i.e., the story) is the message.

But not today. Today, with the iPad, the medium *is* the message.


David Cranmer said...

And I was thinking of posting a write up of the Kindle antique I just bought. But you have said everything there is to say about these new gizmos.

John McFetridge said...

McLuhan is right, though, that there is a symbiotic relationship between medium and message.

Sure, books can be read on e-readers, but it's really a whole new medium offering a new kind of storytelling we haven't seen before. I don't know what that is, but the whole system from creation through distribution and experiencing the story will be so different form a book.

Or, has the potential to be different.

It's possible that whatever develops for e-reading will be completely seperate than books, a whole new storytelling experience.

Steve Weddle said...

I"m getting kinda sick of hearing about how techno-forward ebooks are.

You can read them outside. You can drag your finger across the screen and the pages "flip" just like a real book.


How does this improve the reading experience?

What I like is always having books with me. My iPod Touch fits in my pocket and has magazines and newspapers and blogs and books. I can read from my "library" any time I want. I like that.

But this isn't anything new. It allows me to do the old -- read page. Outside in sun. Wow. Yeah, couldn't do that with a book.

The VOOK idea -- ebooks with embedded videos -- is an interesting failure. Sure it's goofy and unwieldy, but it's trying to use THIS ebook junk to do something you couldn't do with a paper book.

Right now we're making our ebooks look like paper books. We're not taking advantage of the technology.

Right now, all we're doing is making cassette recordings of 8-track tapes.

John McFetridge said...

Yeah, I think the mistake of the Vook was to imbed the video.

Besides simply being able to take all your books with you everywhere you go, e-readers that are hooked to the internet mean yo can take, well, everything with you when you go.

But storytellers may have to think about the relaionship between the teller and the receiver of the story a little differently - to overuse a cliche from what seems like a past era, the relationship is more interactive.

Rather than embedding a video right in the book, or choosing a playlist of songs that go along with the book, every 'story' can now come with its own web page that is more a portal (shit, I hate these marketing department catchphrases) to all that stuff, suggestions more than specifics. Not just music and video, but articles about the 'true story' that inspired the fiction, background info, short stories about secondary characters, hey maybe even fan fiction and discussions. Maybe all this will become part of the storytelling.

And also the delivery system is changing and that's a big part of it, too.

I keep coming back to the way cable TV created a whole new kind of storytelling - the season-long arc, adult themed TV show -- very different from a network TV show nd different from a movie.

Something new will emerge here, too, we just don't know what yet.

The reader (listener, viewer, whatever, it's all the same person) also brings something to this.

Mike Dennis said...

Thoughtful post, Scott. The connection between books and the concert t-shirt was a nice one, as far as it went. The book, however, as the artifact of the reading experience, can be revisited in a way that the t-shirt cannot.

If I want to reread a certain passage that enthralled me, I can do it with a book, over and over. If I want to hear Paul McCartney sing "Those Ukraine girls really knock me out" one more time, I'm going to have to go to another concert. The t-shirt is just a reminder of it, not a repository of the actual art.

Joelle Charbonneau said...

I totally agree with you, and yet, I'm an artifacts girl. I love having the book in my hands. Just holding a book and cracking it open is part of the enjoyment. Reading off a screen feels too much like work. I read for pleasure.

However, if I were taking a long trip, I'd totally dig Steve's reasoning for having an e-reader. I went to France a few years back and brought 8 books with me...not much room for shoes or clothes in my suitcase. An e-reader would solve the packing problem. Until I take another 8-9 hour flight, I'm going to be a dinosaur in the publishing industry and keep buying the paper.

(As one that has her first book coming out in less than 6 months, I hope there are more dinosaurs like me out there...otherwise I'll be sitting alone at signings. That's a scary thought.)

Scott D. Parker said...

(just getting to these comments here on Monday morning. The irony of having a Saturday column is that I'm usually away from the Mac on Saturdays.)

David - Write on, brother. There's more than one opinion out there. Besides, I don't own a fancy reading device like the Kindle so I'd love to get a first-hand take from someone I know.

John - To be honest, the new storytelling experience is exciting. I'm looking forward to experiencing it, but I'm also looking forward to creating for it.

Steve and John 2 - I think with a new medium (computers, for example), you had to start with non-computer structure. Thus, you have "windows" and a "desktop." What the iPad may do is create it's own idioms and terminology. Thus, for e-readers now, we have to "flip" the pages like a real book. Someday, however, they'll abandon that idiom in favor of a unique one. As for the VOOK, I'm not familiar with it. We've had something akin to it already. Level 26, the novel by CSI creator Anthony E. Zuiker and Duane Swierczynski, was an interactive hardback. You read up to a certain point and then you could go to the Level 26 website and watch videos. I'm assuming the VOOK just puts everything in the same device. Again, this kind of immersion is interesting and exciting. Still doesn't supersede old-school reading.

Mike - Touche! You got me. The only thing close to a true artifact that you can return to is when you watch a concert and then can buy the CD of the show immediately after the performance. Peter Gabriel did that in 2003 and I have my artifact. Also read your expanded take on it at your blog:

Joelle - I'm an artifact man, myself. Unlike the writer for NPR's Monkey Blog, I love the smell of new books and how paperbacks smell different than hard backs. The smell of a used bookstore is also appealing to me. But I realized recently that since my music paradigm has shifted, I kind of expect my reading one to shift as well. And I'm certainly advocating folks *pay* for their e-files. It's just that they will get a file for their reading device rather than a physical artifact. Speaking of your first book, will you be coming down to Murder by the Book here in Houston?

Jay Stringer said...

My thoughts on e-books and e-reading would fill a whole blog or podcast.


Or you could skip me out entirely and read Chuck Wendig's piece on the subject over at

Anyway. I've undergone a change. It started with music. I've always been an old school geek, i like my THINGS. I like the touch and smell. I like the flashes of memory i get from opening the sleeve to an album that i first opened at an important time in my life.

Same with comics. Huge old school geek. I love the feel of them. i love holding them and keeping them. I love rolling them up, carrying them in my back pocket and giving them to a mate.

I mean, best thing you can do if you like a work of art or entertainment? Pass it on.

And thing is, for the longest time, i couldn't see the point in e-books. Firstly it was my need to have the paperback edition on my shelf, to smell the age and the journey of the book. Then it was my years in book selling, an art form that needs defending against the onslaught of mass chains, supermarkets and central ordering.

But it was also form and function. Books are already perfectly designed. They are mobile. They don't need batteries and they are easy to store. The operating system on them never runs out of date.

BUT i've changed.

If the best way to apreciate art or entertainment is to pass it on, what better way than in an electronic format. If the message, the voice and the writing is the real point, what better way than to focus on that and forget all physical ideas.

Books need never go out of print and, if you love something, you can get it into the hands of a friend in seconds either for free or my giving them a link on their slate/thingy/iwhatever.

So, the ipad itself?

Well, first up, i'm a sort of accidental mac geek. Have been for a decade now. And i say "accidental" because i start out extremely sceptical of each pretty shiny thing that they bring out, but i end up won over by the ease of use, the function, and by the fact that they manage to match the way my brain works every.single.time.

Is the ipad a game changer? Who knows, and at this point is it worth the fuss on both sides? It's a new product.

Was the ipod a game changer when it came out? No. It was expensive, a little awkward, the earphones were crap and the battery didn't last long.But, like that famous ice hockey quote, it was skating to where the puck was going to be. It didn't change the game, it kicked off a whole new game.

Years down the line came itunes, new ipods, ipod nano, ipod touch, record companies following suit and finding a way forward.

Was the iphone a game changer? Debatable when it first came out.It had a big empty screen, room for apps that didn't exist, a lack of grps and again, bad battery. Two years down the line, the app store is huge, the phone can do anything and everything. Today it made me a cup of tea, i'm teaching it to fry eggs.

So it the ipad going to save the world, or at least publishing? None of us know. Maybe it's just laid down a challenge, as the ipod and the iphone did, to other companies to come out with THE device.

All i can really say is that, two years down the line, IPAD 2.0 or 3.0 might be putting food on our table.

It might not.

Will be fun finding out.