With all the hoopla about the iPad and how it's a device that's going to save the book industry, there is another aspect to the channeling of the book business through Apple's prism that is worth commenting upon.
Perhaps the greatest contribution made by Amazon to the book industry over the past 15 years has been the depth it has provided to the book-buying experience. The astute focus on searchability and on taxonomy is reflected in those other titles that appear on any given search page. Amazon both revitalized deep backlists and enhanced the shopping experience with those constellations of titles. Amazon took this associative tool further with the invention of Search Inside the Book. These tools and tricks went a long way toward giving online book buying some of the look and feel that previously had been the domain of the well-read independent bookseller. Yes, the idea is to sell the buyer another product. But it also gives obscure corners of the backlist some light.
The Apple shopping experience is grim by comparison. And publishers who are seeing the iPad as the saving grace of the industry should think about the ramifications of only the most patently commercial and obvious titles appearing while one is browsing the Apple store. (And you can't even see how poorly the iBookstore is organized until you've shelled out the money for the iPad.)
Does anyone actually try looking any further on the App Store than the top 25? The pathetic taxonomy of the App Store, with all of 20 “categories,” makes it impossible to just look around. Everything is buried beneath that single echelon of the top 25 (conveniently segmented into top 25 paid and top 25 free). With iBooks numbering only 60,000 currently, this problem is only going to become more and more apparent as huge numbers of titles are added into the mix over the next weeks and months.
Apple's approach to selling is a cult of the “bestseller” that would leave any self-respecting member of the publishing community in tears were it not for the currently fashionable appeal of the devices through which this pablum is delivered. This dumbing down of the retail experience reduces everything to the obvious. You can find the brand name. You can search for the literal title you are after—once you've heard about it elsewhere. But the pleasure of discovery is lacking.
An ironic effect of this narrow window is the magic wand waved by inexplicable appearances on the “What's Hot” or the “Staff Recommendation” lists provided when accessing the Apple store on a computer. A row of random icons appears without even the inane four or five words of a Zagat-style review, catapulting otherwise obscure products into the spotlight. The depth of intellectual reflection and recommendation displayed there is further enhanced with an option to view those apps that have appeared in Apple advertisements. Winner takes all!
We've been fed an idea that the Web would democratize voices across the globe, giving each and all an equal opportunity to weigh in on the relative values of things and thus do away with the need for professional reviewers or filterers of content. Instead, we're getting success directly driven by the whimsical approbation of some junior staffer in the Apple office on any given morning.
Unless Apple fixes the way in which iBooks and apps are displayed and found, one of two things will happen. Either the luster of the Apple experience will wear thin and readers will return to the portals where books can actually be explored (Amazon, BN.com, Powell's, and others). Or the expansion of the book industry that began with the advent of the superstore and, in a sense, reached its apogee with the Amazon user interface will begin an inevitable contraction to a handful of brand-name authors who can draw their own readership to themselves in the dark hallways of the Apple shopping experience.
Amazon's device prowess with the Kindle has proven to be limited. But its expertise at dealing with book buyers is off the charts. Apple mastered the mechanics of the user interface with its devices. However, the user interface of its retail environment is a potentially devastating doorway through which our industry is passing. Apple is at present simply a lousy bookseller.
An awful lot has been made about pricing, agency plans, and mechanics. But it may be that the test of this new player will be not how we can find a way to charge higher retail prices. Instead, the challenge will be to see how Apple manages to deliver the book-buying experience to potential readers.