Saturday, September 24, 2011

T.S. Eliot's iPad

More Developments with Digital Books

I had lunch with one of my editors last week and he was joking yet a little bit serious when he said, "How long until you have your first iPad book, Hood?"

"Five years," was my answer, surprising even me, as it came out of my mouth.  That it is coming is certain; that for poetry it may not be immediate is also true.  The start-up costs are too high, at least initially.

Of course if I wanted to be serious about photography, that "five years" answer might be smaller: most professional photographers now use an iPad as their portfolio when meeting with clients and art directors, and many of the publishers of high-end "art" photography books (what are sometimes called monographs or coffee table books, as opposed to "how to shoot a wedding" kind of photo book) will either be dual platform (hard copy and e-version) or e-version alone.

This series before has talked about Kindle versus conventional books.  Now the Kindle seems like old news in the million-miles-a-minute way that computer technologies evolve; it is the Nook and the iPad and other digital platforms that seem to be the newest stars in the sky.  Amazon supposedly has its own iPad kind of super reader in the works too --- the only surprising thing is that it took them so long.

Exciting book formats can be found on an iPad, to be sure.  A Kindle is fun and useful and may be the future of textbooks.  Cal State Bakersfield, for example, allows students to take literature courses uses the Kindle as their platform of choice, if they do not want to use a "real" book.  But a Kindle is no iPad, and not be able to catch up.  As an example of this, Santi Tafarella, our Antelope Valley blog king (featured here recently and also in the campus paper), showed me over the summer a T.S. Eliot application on his iPad.

Eliot is the best-known, most academically-certified poet in English language arts and letters since the Romantics; his 1922 book-length poem, The Wasteland, represents Modernism in literature the way that Picasso does in art or the Beatles do for rock.  Brilliant, dense, complicated, allusive, elusive, and poly-lingual, with references in six languages and sudden jump cuts in mood and scene, this poem repays serious study.  But it's not the sort of thing that one might expect to be a best seller.

On the iPad though, the presentation of this text is so rich and engaging, with so many "valued added products" to borrow from marketing, that we even had a discussion about just that one app at our department's summer comp retreat.

Now it is Jack Kerouac's On the Road that has come up as profoundly better and different in its iPad version.  According to an article in the current issue of Poets & Writers, it even briefly outsold electronic versions of the Bible.  From that same article, here is this heads-up: "For the time being, plain text still rules the e-book roost, but it's clear that the industry is concerned that the ascendancy of the tablet may signal the obsolescence of dedicated e-readers."  The article further reminds readers that there are over 200 million iPad-driven tablets already in use, and since it's Apple's number one money maker right now, they don't plan to limit production any time soon.

Maybe when my editor asked me about poetry for the iPad, my answer should have been, "Well, how soon I get one out depends on you.  How soon do you plan to hirer a coder and get me released as an app?"  Development costs for Apple are just the price of doing business, and given that they bring in billions of dollars a month (NOT a typo), they have the capital to re-invest.  Most small presses that I know, the companies releasing poetry and indy rock and oddball theatrical pieces and hybrid art-novel-performances, which is to say, the companies doing now what T.S. Eliot was doing in 1922, can't afford big bucks for iPad development.  After editor A asked me my lunch question, I went to editor B, at another firm, a publisher with whom I also release books. I asked them the same question.  How long until you're doing iPad editions?

Press B just said flat out, "We can't get into that right now --- we don't have the staff, we don't have the marketing department, we don't even have the demo iPads laying around the office for people to fiddle with."  I appreciate this.  Reality is reality.  I would like to get into larger format photography, but a top-end large-negative digital camera, like the ones that they use to shoot the cover of Cosmo magazine, would cost $40,000.  Thanks but no thanks.  For now I will stick with my Nikons.

So the i-Book route may not be feasible . . . yet.  It may well be that do-it-yourself versions (conversion kits for amateurs) will come along eventually --- something that for $100 I can buy, plug my Word manuscript into, and bingo, a small press can use a few simple templates and have the iPad version. 

So what do you think.  Five years?

Maybe ten.  But then again, maybe not, maybe just two.  Maybe one.

Maybe tomorrow.

Until then, there's always the old fashioned delivery methods.  Not hand-made Bibles from monks, not printed books, not Kindles --- I am talking about license plates.  And on that note, good night.

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