I’m a heavy reader. Right now I have three print books on the go, and about half a dozen ebooks. I’m also an author of a dozen books, before which I knew the pain of being an unpublished author. I’ve also been a publisher, co-founding a publishing house that turned online talent into traditional books. Then I wrote a book about why I was a terrible publisher.
Put simply, I’ve seen publishing from every possible angle. And yet I still don’t understand why everybody is getting so het up over iBooks Author.
There’s no doubt it’s a very cool — and free! — piece of software. And, like Microsoft Publisher and the printing press before it, anything that lowers the barriers to entry for would-be authors is wonderful. The vast majority of self-published books look like total crap and so a bit of Apple-ification of the medium is always welcome. Also, there’s a bigger story in which Apple is attempting to replace physical textbooks in the classrooms with iPads. The launch of iBooks 2 is another step down that road.
But a threat to traditional publishers? Please.
Every time technology makes it easier for authors to self-publish, we hear the same crowing from Silicon Valley. “That’s it!” they cry “publisher are doomed! Now authors can publish their own books, there’s no need for greedy, bloated gatekeepers who just want to force-feed us Snooki like a Frenchman force-feeding grain to a goose.”
iBooks has been hailed as the “GarageBand of books” , and that’s precisely what it is. GarageBand made it far, far ease for unsigned musicians (and even tone-deaf chumps like me) to record, edit and otherwise arrange music before putting it out into the world. Some musicians used GarageBand to make demos that later got them professional recording contracts. Others happily self-published to small-but-vibrant fan-bases, many millions more realized they were terrible at creating music and decided instead to stick to the day job.
And so it will be with iBooks Author. No doubt, some innately talented authors will use the software to create instant self-published bestsellers. And, as sure as day turns to night, those same authors will promptly announce having signed with Harper Collins or Random House. The more talented the author, the more they find themselves wanting — and needing — the editing, marketing and distribution might of a giant publishing house. This is as true with textbooks as it is with anything.
And, yes, Joe Professor might be able to use iBooks Author to produce more attractive course material, but producing a full-scale textbook is another matter entirely, involving months (years, possibly) of research, a team of fact-checkers, professional illustrators and diagram-makers — all on top of the editors and designers and sales and marketing people required to turn-around the average professionally published book. Take those people out of the equation (except possible the sales and marketing folks) and what is often left is a second-rate product which no student in their right mind would trust, for the same reason as they shouldn’t trust Wikipedia.
Authors might be — hopefully are — hugely knowledgeable about their subject. They might even be able to write like a dream. But as Cory Doctorow will testify, even with the latest technological tools at one’s disposal, self-publishing done well is still back-breaking work. And even then, there’s only a slim chance anyone will buy your damn book.
Which is not to say that Joe Professor — or anyone else — can’t use iBooks Author to make something just as good as a professionally published book. It’s just that, without the logo of a recognized imprint on the “spine”, there’s no meaningful way to filter the wheat from the chaff. Reader reviews? XKCD perfectly summed up the problem with those here.
A year or so ago, I wrote an essay about why self-publishing will never kill professional publishing. Reading it back now , one paragraph jumps out…
“…in a world where anyone can publish a book, we’re more likely than ever to be drawn to titles put out by recognised publishing houses. We simply don’t have time to sift through the millions of options available to us, so a good first filter will be titles we know have been edited by professionals, which a major publishing house has deemed of sufficient quality to warrant making a financial investment. Those of us lucky enough to have a W&N or Harper Collins or Portfolio logo on our title page will automatically hop to the front of the attention queue, both in terms of end readers and the still-very-important book reviewers.”
iBooks isn’t going to change that. If anything it’s going to make the signal-to-noise ration worse — which in turn makes the role of a professional publisher even more valuable. Particularly in text books, where trust and accuracy are not just an important thing, they’re the only thing. That’s why Apple partnered with McGraw-Hill, Pearson and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for today’s launch announcement.
And so it is that — as a lifelong reader who has been a publisher and an unpublished author and then a published author — I heartily welcome iBooks Author. Anything that helps writers get their work to a wider audience can only be a good thing. But if any publisher is seriously concerned that this is going to take a chip out of their business then they’re probably already more screwed than they can imagine.