The Rise of the App

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.

Logberg-Heimskringla’s birthday party

Publishing in Iceland has a long and honorable tradition. Jón Arason, the last Catholic bishop, and a well-known poet, brought the first printing press to Iceland around 1530.

In 1584 Guðbrandur Þorláksson printed the first translation of the Bible into Icelandic. This printing had far reaching consequences because it helped to preserve the Icelandic language.

Most early publications in Iceland were religious. However, gradually, secular material was published. By 1773 the Icelandic journal ‚Islandske Maaneds Tidender‘ was in print. It was mostly intended for a Danish readership. It stopped publishing in 1776. Other publications that followed it were written for the upper, ruling class in Iceland. Around 1848 new newspapers appeared. During this time and up to about 1910, the papers were essentially editorial sheets expressing opinions about Iceland‘s struggle for independence. The editors were also the owners of these often short-lived papers and they used them to express their personal point of view.

According to Richard Burton in his book of 1875, Ultima Thule, “The first newspaper printed in Iceland began in 1775.” By the time Burton went to Iceland, the paper had failed but he says that back issues were available in the College Library.

At this time, three periodicals were being published. Two of these were published in Reykjavik. Thjóðólfr was printed twice a month. The editor was Hr Procurator Jón Guðmundsson. The Tíminn appeared once a month. The third periodical was Norðanfari, published in Akureyri. It was usually published every two weeks.

Burton was in Iceland in 1872 but his book, Ultima Thule, came out in 1875. His interest in Iceland was intense. He made many contacts and friends in Iceland and managed to keep up on Icelandic news so even though his book was published three years after his visit, his information was current.

It is at this time that our ancestors are beginning to leave Iceland. It was this view of newspapers and their role that the emigrants take with them. They were used to the idea of a newspaper being a single sheet printed on both sides. Or two sheets. They were used to the idea that the paper‘s purpose was to express the views of the editor and the editor would be the owner of the paper. The paper would take a political position. It wouldn’t attempt to be objective. It would be less a news paper than a paper expressing the editor‘s opinions.

In 1876 in New Iceland, Jon Gudmundsson started a handwritten paper, Nýi þjóðólfur. This was the same name as the paper mentioned by Richard Burton. By choosing the name of an Icelandic newspaper, Jon was making it clear that he would attempt to create a paper like the one in Iceland. He wouldn’t try to create a new paper for a new world. The Icelandic influence was very clear. Jon took his newspaper from house to house and read the news aloud.

When the large group of Icelandic settlers arrived, the writing out of a paper and taking it around to read at individual homes became impractical. Some form of publication was needed to to provide the settlers with news, with information, and with a place to present their opinions and their ideas. In spite of the smallpox epidemic and all the other hardships, The New-Iceland Printing Company was established. Shares were issued at ten dollars each. The surprising fact is that in spite of the poverty of the settlers, there were subscribers. Enough to pay for a printing press.

Rev. Jon Bjarnason was in Minneapolis. At the request of the settlers, he purchased a printing press and shipped it to New Iceland. The paper was named Framfari (Progress). It was printed at Lundi (Riverton). The first issue appeared in 1877.

Heimskringla appeared in 1886. Lögberg was created in opposition to it in 1888. Both papers were highly political. Heimskringla supported the Conservative party and the Unitarian church. Lögberg supported the Liberal party and the Lutheran church. As had been the tradition in Iceland, the papers were filled with polemics. The papers not only reported on controversies in the community, they stirred up controversy. There were often bitter battles. However, in 1959, faced with declining subscriptions and financial problems, the papers amalgamated. It was an uneasy marriage at first and the way to keep it from being a divorce was to avoid taking positions on politics and religion. That still holds true, for though the fierce battles of old have faded with the secularization of society, there are still enough people who have strong opinions about religious matters to start a war. Old political divides, now not just between Liberals and Conservatives but, also, with the NDP, have meant avoiding taking political positions.

We‘re celebrating Lögberg-Heimskringla’s 125th birthday shortly. It totters, teeters, on the edge of going out of business. It’s teetered and tottered for years. There are discussions about it turning into a monthly magazine, into a newsletter for the INL. It depends for its survival on donations and, although the Icelandic North American community has spread out, been largely integrated, the cheques keep coming. The community is both generous and loyal. However, fifth generation kids are a Canadian hodgepodge of every national group you can imagine. A youngster might have an Icelandic name like Valgardson but be English, Irish, Russian, Scots, and one sixteenth Icelandic. The Snorri program and Nuna both try to help remedy this but they can only take in a small number of young people. What is needed are subscribers. That will keep the paper going. The paper, in turn, will help keep the community going. The current editor is Joan Eyolfson Cadham. She’s producing a paper worth buying and worth reading.

Because Icelanders integrated so quickly, the paper, a long time ago, lost its immigrant purpose. It doesn’t need to help people find jobs, learn English, get training or education. It now is about preserving our heritage, providing communication among the far-flung Icelandic organizations and communities, and providing a voice for the writers of our community.

One hundred and twenty-five years is a long time. Long enough to make LH the longest, continuously published ethnic paper in Canada. It’s a tradition worth having pride in, worth supporting. Take out your credit card and subscribe. Jón Arason started this tradition a long time ago. He lost his head. Let him at least keep the tradition.

(There is going to be a birthday party at the LH offices on Oct. 13).