25 May 2011

Form and Content

I'm off next week to the national AAUP conference, at which Paper Age oldsters stagger around like Jack Nicholson in "About Schmidt," trying to work through the life-negating death of print publishing that (inexplicably) they never saw coming. Last year everyone suffered through session after session of bad news, then went looking for a bar to get proper drunk in. Academic publishing is suffering more than trade, in some respects, because its main customers, academic libraries, are defecting from paper books at an even faster rate than retail consumers.

Five years ago academic libraries were willing to pay $120 each for your arcane little monographs. Sell even 1000 copies at that price and you are still making money. Now libraries only want your publications if they come in huge, discounted ebook packages from vendors like Elsevier, where you may earn as little as a few dollars a title. No wonder the publishers' long faces.

The iPad is not helping things. It provides such a great reading experience that, not only do libraries not want to buy paper, soon nobody will want to read it. Publishing is just starting to reinvent its content for tablets, and already the results are astonishing. Obviously graphic-rich publications (glossy mags) benefit hugely, but more surprising is that even longform, text-heavy publications can, too.

John Biggs just discussed this with respect to the New Yorker. Talk about graphically spare. It's the anti-Wired. But even so, the iPad version is a substantial improvement over the paper.

    There are no graphical tricks, not too many multimedia events, and when there are, they’re great (one poetry reading by Sherman Alexie in the latest issue was amazing). And even the ads are unobtrusive and, dare I say it, beautiful in full living color. Everything about the iPad version is the same, yet strikingly different. This isn’t some rush-job given to a bunch of magazine designers who slap a little video in the corner of a horribly laid-out page. This is a full rethinking of the title and changes entirely how we consume long-form writing.

This leap to tablets is not just a design issue for publishers. It demands new forms of writing from authors. We'll start seeing more and more books like Al Gore's Our Choice, that simply "does things that no paper book ever could" (gushes Gizmodo). Designers like Craig Mod are completely rethinking what books without pages, designed for the "infinite content plane" of the iPad, should look like. On a multimedia device without any fixed content plane, or even the necessity of static content, do the monomedia codices of the Paper Age even make sense?

Reading habits change over time, always have, but the shift we are experiencing right now may be without parallel in its abruptness and rapidity. While the evidence is not unambiguous, I think longform has been in decline for some time, in part because the internet makes longform reading less necessary, or in many cases unnecessary, for informational purposes. (Thanks for that, Google.)  Certainly monographs are dying a slow death in academic publishing.

But writers have a bigger problem to worry about. They will increasingly, by themselves or collaboratively, be forced to become more than monomedia writers of words. The supplantation of books by multimedia tablets is already creating a new demand for rich content, even beyond the current demands of the internet. If hoary old standards like the New Yorker get that fact, this reality will very soon impose itself on even the most fusty Paper Age relics.

As print publishing dies, print writing will die with it. Words will still be words, and sentences sentences, but content will necessarily follow form. And the form of tablet publication is already so fantastic that even the internet looks dull and quaint beside it. Tablets must be recognized as new medium, and they are utterly irresistible.

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