Some Deeper Questions About Apple and Publishers

 “Poverty wants much; but avarice, everything”

— Publilius Syrus (Roman author, 1st century, BCE)

Apple’s message to publishers has been clear. If you want to play in our sandbox, you’ll have to pay. That’s requiring painful change on the part of publishers, but as part of that change, broader technical issues are at stake.

The approach that Apple is taking with publishers has been discussed just about everywhere, at length. In a recent Hidden Dimensions column, I argued that the criticism of Apple, in many cases, is not well grounded. There is a component of the publishing industry that doesn’t want to change, blames Apple, and some news sites are all to happy to run with that story and gang up on Apple. Some publishing businesses lack the technical capability or resources to make a go of epublishing without Apple, and so every dollar they have to pay Apple in their bid to survive is paid grudgingly.

This will all sort itself out. Some publishers, whether it’s books, newspapers or magazines will get a clue and radically reorganize. Some will fall by the wayside. Some new age entrepreneurs will analyze the technology and the market and learn how to make money within the constraints that tablet makers wish to place on them.

Meanwhile, given all that, there are some nagging questions.

For starters, while software technology has democratized publishing to a large extent, the extremely sophisticated technology required for hardware and software to deliver certain kinds of traditional, valuable content is moving into the hands of only a handful of companies. We never really read books and magazines on PCs — the format wasn’t designed for it. But tablets are, and as tablets start to take significant market share away from PCs, then these few high tech companies could move into a position to influence our access to traditional published sources.

Where before, there were myriads of book publishers and thousands of magazines and thousands of newspapers made available on thousands of newsstands and bookstores, in the the foreseeable future, you’ll need a tablet to access that content. That has implications that should be explored.

Questions for Tablet Makers

The publishing industry is in an energetic transitional phase. When that happens, like a quantum mechanical transition, for a time, the industry is in both states. We can see that Apple has a vision and it’s a good bet that in 20 years, the print industry will be gone. But for now, there are millions of people who depend on print and who still love the feel of paper. There is tension all around as we work through the transition.

While we’re doing that, an important question to ask is whether the vision of the future, exemplified by Apple, copied by everyone else, creates secondary problems that the tablet companies can wash their hands of. As Apple gets richer and richer, do we prosper along with the company or is it all offset by new problems for society?

For example, few of us now have Macs that can run Classic. If we didn’t migrate our documents from the days of Classic and we can no longer run apps that can read those documents, then the data is gone forever. Modern digital archivists face this monumental problem. To put it simply, what kind of device will we be using to read books in 20 years, and will those ebooks we bought today on our iPad be readable in then? Will DRM get in the way? You may not care, and Apple may not care, but archivists, researchers and historians do.

Another question to ask is whether Apple, as a money making corporation, is stressing the publishing industry at a pace that they cannot tolerate — for Apple’s sole financial gain. It’s an open question that no one has really considered. For example, if the U.S. Government wanted to enact a US$1.00/gallon gasoline tax, it would likely go to economists, the GAO, U.S. National Laboratories and so on to run simulations and assess the result of all that money being taken out of the hands of consumers. In Apple’s case, they’ve slapped a flat 30 percent on books, magazines, and newspapers, and one might legitimately inquire whether that specific fee is designed to accelerate the pace of change in a stressful, alarming way or whether it gives publishers the ability to accommodate. No one knows the answer. Is 30 percent the right number?

For example, a publisher told me that advertisers don’t perceive digital ads to have the same value as print ads. They want to pay pay less. So as publications transition to digital, their ad revenue shrinks. In the case of magazines, they are willing to make just about no money on newsstand sales — so they can claim a large readership and keep ad rates high. That game hasn’t changed in 50 years. Finally, readers don’t believe they should pay as much for digital content, believing that they should benefit from the new absence of newsstand, printing and postage costs. It’s a financial Catch-22 for a publisher trying to go digital. Many will have to wave good-bye to their cushy 20th floor editorial offices in Manhattan.

As a result, and it’s fair to ask, if the levy Apple has imposed, the price of doing business in the digital publishing era, accelerates the pace of change too quickly, publishers could have a hard time creating content that is valuable and worth paying for. (That’s the grand experiment of The Daily on the iPad.) The basic model of excellence, for a price, developed by many publishers, could collapse too quickly. Apple will have nothing to sell. Epublishing on the iPad will have been a project gone wrong that destroyed the industry it was trying to cash in on.

What’s at Stake

We are in a transition time when critical decisions are made. Will the e-documents published today still be readable in the future? Who takes ownership of that issue? Can a newspaper industry, considered sacred by the founding fathers to be our best check and balance on government remain viable? Or will we become a nation of noisy bloggers yelling at each other? Should technology companies alone, in their panic to compete, become the gatekeepers of human knowledge? For all of human history, we left that task to skilled librarians.

If the subject here were merely games or puzzle books, no one would care very much. But in the long run, our liberties born of inquisitive newspaper journalists and the greatest ideas of humankind in books is something worth careful consideration. The sale of books and news is derived from their heritage as products of enduring value. The creators of tablets and similar future technologies should be careful that in the rush to make money from these industries and become our dominant access point they don’t destroy them before the new entrepreneurs can get a financial handle on the future.