iBooks: Goldmine or Black Hole? What Independent Publishers Can Learn

This essay appeared on the Utne Reader AltWire blog on April 7, 2010.

I'm enthusiastic about the potential in publishing for the iPad--it's a phenomenal reading device, and a pretty great tool for specific types of content creation. Reading on it, whether using the iBooks application or an article archiving tool such as Instapaper, is a joy--a tactile experience that feels less like the passive experience of staring at a web browser at your desktop, and more like participating in an interactive magazine. Like paper, almost, only with more features. 

It's clear that I'm not alone: 300,000 iPads were sold on the first day, and 250,000 books downloaded for the device, according to the Mercury News. It's clear that the device will make a major impact on how people read eBooks, whether or not it succeeds at becoming the leading digital reading device in the long term. I find the prospect so exciting that I spent the weekend learning how to author iPad-compatible eBooks, to create an anthology of fiction and creative nonfiction, the online zine I edit.  

But as I navigate the iBooks store, and learn about the submission process, I'm concerned that independent publishers will suffer many of the same issues that App Store developers have faced. 150,000 iPhone applications have been released in the App Store since 2008. And for some of those developers, the App Store has been a goldmine: there are many apocryphal stories about coders toiling in their basements in off hours, building their own successful app business in days thanks to an ingenuous idea or a stroke of luck. But for every success story, there are countless developers whose work is buried deep in the App Store, never to surface. After a few days with the iPad iBooks store, which borrows much from the App Store in organization and interface, I have to wonder: will the iBooks Store empower independent and self-publishers, or will they similarly be hidden in the dark recesses of an online store?  

There are a number of distribution options for independent and self-publishers. As the New York Times reported, Perseus Books Group, one of the largest distributors of independent publishers, inked a deal with Apple to supply books to the iBooks store. Other independent distribution houses are also working with Apple to get their catalogs represented. DIY and self-publishers will have to go through a third-party such as Smashwords or Lulu to get their work in the store. This is similar to how unsigned musicians get their albums in the iTunes music store, which requires that they use a service such as CDBaby to act as the intermediary. As of now, there is no way for a self-publisher to distribute directly to Apple, as is possible for App Developers.

There are many entry points for independent and self-publishers, but this raises a question: how will these books be found? The iBooks store interface shares many of the App Store's issues: it's easy to find top-sellers and titles Apple has chosen to highlight, but no great way to dig deeper into the libraries. Sure, there's a search, but you have to know what you're looking for. The iBook store allows for browsing by category, but the genre distinctions are as broad as those at a subpar shopping mall bookstore.  

And considering how difficult it is to find deep catalog titles on the store with only a handful of publishers currently represented, what will happen once a deluge of self-publishers and independent houses hit the store? Will Apple make any effort to shed a spotlight on these more obscure books, or will they remain hidden in a dark corner of the iBooks store, behind a glistening front page only listing New York Times bestsellers? 

Of course, the iBooks store has been available for less than a week, and it will certainly evolve. Apple recently instituted a Genius feature on the App Store, that recommends apps based on ones you already own; if they could develop something as prescient as Amazon's book recommendation engine, more obscure works could rise to the surface. Perhaps this would even replicate some of the serendipity that comes from browsing in a brick and mortar bookstore. 

But publishers shouldn't expect to command brick and mortar bookstore pricing. Certainly, many publishing houses have welcomed the iPad with open arms: unlike Amazon with the Kindle, Apple is allowing publishers to price books as much as they want. But if the trending of prices in the App Store is any indication, publishers may find that this new market will bear far lower prices than they expect. The Kindle store offers a cautionary tale: many of the store's top selling books are free books, just as many of the App Store's most successful apps are free or less than $2. Giving away your work for free is great opportunity for unknown, self-publishing authors to get attention, but isn't sustainable for mid-level publishers dependent on every book sale, or self-publishers hoping to build a career.  

I am also concerned about the submission process. Will books submitted to iBooks suffer the same long delays and inexplicable rejections app developers have suffered? Considering Apple's slow response time to app developer complaints, and at-times mystifying content standards, there is a legitimate concern that publishers without the leveraging power of a major house may find their works languishing in an iBooks submission queue, with little recourse. I'm hoping that Apple follows the model of the iTunes music store rather than the App Store. For record labels--both major and independent--submitting albums to the iTunes store is a simple and nearly-instantaneous process once the label has established a distribution relationship with Apple. 

No matter how the submission process plays out, indie publishers aren't completely at Apple's mercy: just as music purchased from third party sites such as eMusic and Amazon mp3 can be added to iPods and iPhones using the Tunes software, eBooks in the ePub format from any outlet can be added to the iPad. Independent publishers could bypass the iBooks store completely and still sell iPad-compatible books through their own online stores. Perhaps not as seamless a user experience--customers would buy the book and download it from a separate website, and then sync the book with the iPad from their computers. Still, music fans have had no problem with doing the same to add mp3's to their iPods over the past nine years. 

I must reiterate that I am an iPad evangelist. I'm convinced it will change the way we create and read content. The new paradigm may not look exactly like this in five years, but it's certainly a glimpse of the future. I only hope that as independent and self-publishers rush to get their work on this revolutionary new Apple device, we learn from the experiences and frustrations of the app developers who came before us.