Publishers Weekly‘s Craig Morgan Teicher has a long feature, “The App Boom Hits Publishing,” which reads like an article from Digital Media, my old newsletter, in the early 1990s. There’s a kind of Lotus Eaters quality to it, as it requires you believe application-based e-books solve the e-publishing problem.
The article revolves around repurposing existing content, such as crosswords and foreign language phrase books, by making them interactive, which is an excellent and relatively simple strategy if you have the right kind of titles on the shelf. It goes so far as to conflate that kind of title with any title that might be digitized.
The article makes the case that any book can be turned into an application and associates the ePub format, an e-book format designed to provide open cross-platform readability, with applications that are proprietary and closed. It’s a mistake to think that applications, which rely on functional code to enclose a text, are open or that they will survive the relatively brief period of time when e-books have not been published in a standardized format that can be read in a variety of applications. It’s a bandage on a heavy wound, one that, if future e-book readers cannot access the books people buy today, will alienate readers from e-books because they will seem increasingly unreliable.
Yes, Apple’s App Store is a big deal and a lot of applications, including e-books, are selling there. But the model isn’t predicated on the application, rather it is thriving on the fact that all iPhone apps run on all iPhones. Portability from one phone to the next, so that buyers don’t find they cannot access their data after upgrading their iPhone, is the key to the app model’s success.
Texts wrapped in code become incompatible with all but the operating system and hardware that it was written to run on. Texts need to be portable, so that books remain useful. Amazon’s willingness to deliver a Kindle book over and over to new reader devices is the right way to assure readers they will be able to access a proprietary format, but it is also the cost of that proprietary format for the distributor.
If a publisher is going to publish “in an app” today and abandon the reader and customer support when they move on to the next application platform, they are risking losing each customer they are spending to win today.
Re-purposing is a stop-gap strategy.
Adding value means more than digitizing a book.
Putting your book into a proprietary format dilutes the value of the book to the reader, because it diminishes the utility of the text over the long term.