Yes, yes, the iPad has arrived in the United States, and yes, they've sold bucketloads already, but this isn't yet-another-iPad-post because the one piece of information of interest to me is yet to trickle through from across the Pacific: which publishers have chosen to take up Apple's DRM offer and what restrictions they are placing on readers. So while I wait for someone to make it known, I'll draw your attention to this:
Eoin Purcell made the provocative claim over at Publishing Perspectives that all this hoopla over eBooks misses the point. For Purcell, the internet is the platform for the future of publishing, that writing can essentially be untethered from any printed page or device and become what tech-heads call 'device agnostic'. Seems strange to adopt a quasi-religious term for this, but tech-heads were never great with language (exhibit A: the numbingly stupid adoption of the word 'spam', but I digress).
Purcell's post makes the great point that for too long publishers have been overly concerned with the object through which they deliver stories, rather than the stories themselves. The flapping around in a panic over eBook pricing suggests that some publishers (especially at the big end of town) are simply shifting their object emphasis from paper to eBooks. What's frustrating is that publishers are actually in an incredibly position to become an essential link between writers and readers.
To achieve this simply requires a little device agnosticism.
Publishers take years to build a strong publishing list, often with likeminded authors that go out to a similar readership. Big publishers replicate this effect this with imprints. To use Random House as an example, I know I'm more likely to enjoy a Vintage paperback than, say, an Arrow paperback. Maybe I know this because as a writer I take more note of imprints than the average reader, but then I don't think readers are blind to the fact that, in their library, they see the same imprints over and over. This is the beginning of the reader—publisher connection.
I like to think I've seen the non-light and I'm working behind the scenes right now to make more of my writing available on as many platforms as possible—to make my work device agnoistic. But I'm just one person, I can only represent myself online and sell short stories I myself have written. What's more, as a relatively unknown and obscure writer, I have a limited audience to whom I can flog my still meagre backlist.
Now consider a publisher's position. A good publisher has many authors, some with a considerable crossover of readership between them. They also have a long and illustrious backlist if they're any good at their game. The opportunity for a publisher to become the mediator between authors and readers is palpable. Freeing a publisher from its status as a kind of midwife for books opens up a world of possibilities. Fiction lists, for example, could be offered as complete works or split into chunks—even (egads!) as novels sold per chapter to whatever device you please. This makes even more sense for non-fiction works or edited collections.
With a substantial backlist and a visible profile in its own right, a publisher may consider offering works across their list on a subscription basis, allowing readers to chow down at an all-you-can-read bar, again through whatever means the reader chooses: non-fiction accessed through the browser window, longer works downloaded to a reader, a novel printed (whether on-demand or not, I suspect readers don't care) and delivered through the post, individual chapters delivered via an RSS feed or to an email inbox.
Not all these ideas would work. Not all readers (myself included) are quite ready to untether themselves from paper completely. But the possibilities present and the only barriers arise from a lack of courage and imagination.
Who will step up to the plate?