Bruce Batchelor of Agio studios gave a talk last night to the local chapter of PWAC (Professional Writers of Canada). Agio has just completed its first app book, It’s Cool To Be Clever. The cost, 35,000.00. The price from the Apple store, 6.99. The Apple store keeps 30% of that but leaves an astounding 70% for the publisher. Still, Agio will have to sell approximately 7,000 copies (4.90 x 7,000) and, with other likely costs, probably 7,500 copies to break even.
Seven thousand five hundred copies needing to be sold about the guy who invented the internet seems implausible. A best-selling novel in Canada is anything over 5,000. The strategy, however, is that the app can be sold worldwide. Customers will be found in Botswana and Uzgorod. The idea that the entire world is a market seems a bit far-fetched. How many people in Siberia read English, care about some guy who invented the internet, can afford or have access to an iPad or can afford 6.99? As exciting as the technology is, I have a certain amount of skepticism about likely sales.
Batchelor took us through a quick history of reading. He pointed out that people haven’t been reading for very long. Communication has mostly been oral.
In Iceland, there were men who travelled from one isolated farm to the other telling stories. To help them remember long stories (and the longer the story, the better for the teller as it meant free room and board for a longer time) they put the stories into rhyme (rimur). A good long saga might mean a travelling story-teller had a place to stay for the winter. You can imagine how boring winter was on an isolated farm. Pouring rain, driving snow, wicked winds, didn’t tempt anyone to go outside unless it was absolutely necessary. When the sagas were written down, finally, it was on vellum (calf skin). Only the most wealthy could afford that. How many hides did it take to make enough pages for a saga? How much did it cost to have a priest/scribe write the saga letter by letter? However, writing was invented, calf skin (vellum) was used. There are still copies of these books at the Arnamagnæan institute in Reykjavik.
Around 1439, Gutenberg created moveable type printing and with it the printing press. His invention allowed the mass production of printed books, books that printers could afford to publish and people could afford to buy. In 1530, just about a hundred years later, Jón Arason, brought a bringing press to Iceland. Books and reading quit being the private preserve of a few people.
Improvements were made but there was no radical change. Better, more efficient presses were built. They were automated. Demand meant that paper began to be produced in commercial quantities.
But there was a cost, not in dollars but in culture. When there were no books or they were produced by hand on vellum, culture and story telling remained local. Story tellers had to walk, if they were lucky, ride a horse, but their area of influence was small. Books changed that because they could be sent over great distances. Books with new ideas, foreign ideas.
Now, from what Bruce Batchelor said, the era of books may be coming to an end. Such a profound shift seems quite impossible but then that’s the way blacksmiths must have felt when cars first appeared. Who would have thought blacksmiths would disappear virtually without a trace. They were central to the community and then they were irrelevant. Become car mechanics or lock the door.
As Bruce told us about the rise of electronic books, of the current version through apps, I thought about the Arab Spring, about the Occupy movement, about how instant communication among many people around the world is already changing how people live their lives. About how books radically changed people´s lives and how electronic communication is changing lives today.
There’ll be a cost, of course, just as there was a local cost with the rise of the book. Local cultures will
give way, become homogenized. Local cultures will be relegated to museums and history apps. They’ll
become a curiosity, something for scholars to study. What will replace these communities based on proximity
will be virtual communities and cultures. Everyone who is interested in a particular topic, no matter where
they live will be able to join a community of people who are interested in the same subject. That is, if they
have the price of the iPad. In Mozambique, life expectancy is 38.3 years for males. In Zambia, the average
yearly income is $1461.
Some of the arguments seem self-serving salesmanship, the kind of irrational enthusiasm that comes with new products but the case for electronic publishing over paper does seem overwhelming.
Certainly, an app can provide a lot of formats and additional content compared to a book. The purchaser of an app has a choice of multiple formats, text, audio, video, music, PDFs, animation, games but the question in my head as I listened to Bruce was how would any of these increase my enjoyment of an Indriðason novel? Would I really care if the app also included statistics on crime in Iceland? Icelandic music as background while I read the book? Links to various things that I could click on as I read? I don’t think so. I´d turn it all off. I just want to enjoy the novel.
The biggest argument for apps was simply the ease of purchase. Already around one quarter of book sales are online. According to Bruce some types of books, such as those for teenage girls, may sell 95% of their copies as ebooks.
We can mourn the loss of our culture, you didn’t think we had culture?, but yes we had, in our lifetime, a culture that has been disappearing all around us. I used to look forward to going to Mary Scorer’s books. It was an experience. The store, the books, the staff, the customers. Going there was a social experience that cannot be replicated online. I ordered a book on line just yesterday. There was no pleasure in it. The experience didn´t enhance my life. It added to its isolation and dehumanization.
Some typed emails or chats are not the same as a discussion, an interaction, coffee together, being in the same physical space. We used to have record stores. Going to them was thrilling, exciting, involving. The internet, in spite of all the hype, does not bring people closer together. It isolates. Those who can afford the technology sit in their electronic caves. The virtual community, in spite of the hype, is no community just as pen pals weren’t pals in the sense of the kids with whom we went to school. Electronic communication is enjoyable but not anywhere near as enjoyable or meaningful as attending a Thorrablot or the INL convention.