I succumbed and bought an iPad.
I wasn’t going to – I should have followed my usual rule of waiting until the second generation of a new product. And I wasn’t going to buy Apple anyway, on principle. I’d long been appalled at the way the Steve Jobs juggernaut markets its products and controls how people use them. No, I was going to wait until a more democratic, cheaper, and possibly better Android tablet computer became available.
But I fell before the juggernaut…and I’m glad I did.
I’m a long-time PDA and netbook user and I could see the point of small tablet computers, especially for reading books and consuming other media. In fact it was books that finally sent me to the iPad store. Not the actual reading of them, though.
Also driving my change of tune was seeing that the iPad was going from strength to strength and had become the platform of choice for the most creative application designers. It had achieved technology momentum – as the IBM PC did in the mid ’80s and as the Apple iPhone did more recently. The iPhone had been a big hit and the iPad was clearly leveraging off that success, because both platforms essentially used the same operating system and software applications (‘apps’). It also meant that plenty of kinks had been ironed out before the iPad came along, so it wasn’t entirely a first generation product.
epublishing was my main excuse for buying an iPad. That, and an unnatural level of interest from Liz, whose normal responsibility is to temper my enthusiasm for electronic gadgets.
I design and publish books for a living, and I’d been wanting to investigate electronic books as an add-on to my usual paper productions. But I needed an ebook reader to get a proper feel for the new paradigm. (I apologise for using the P word. I hate it too, but it actually fits here and it stays unless I come up with anything better before I finish writing this blog.)
I also wanted to be able to test any ebooks I produced, on the real thing.
I considered buying a relatively cheap Kobo or Kindle reader, but on their own they would be limiting cul de sacs. I’d really need to buy both of them and even then I wouldn’t cover the territory. The iPad wasn’t cheap, at nearly NZ$1000, but it could be several ebook readers in one. This is because you can install free apps that temporarily turn your iPad into a Kobo, a Kindle and others. The iPad also had Apple’s own, excellent, iBooks reader. (It works well, but unfortunately its companion commercial bookstore seems to be a failure – Amazon/Kindle has it well and truly licked.)
Anyway, I could justify buying an iPad on my business and make it relatively cheap because I could claim for tax: GST and depreciation.
My iPad readers are now well stocked with books, but I haven’t read any yet. Instead, I’ve been installing and sampling more and more apps that do all sorts of things, useful and useless. It’s a cornucopia of free and cheap delights. It’s fun, it wastes time and it’s why I haven’t written a new blog post for many weeks.
I have quite a few older copyright-free books that I may get around to reading. In the meantime they look good in the e-bookcase. Yesterday I nearly started reading a couple of airport blockbusters I’d bought as Kindle books from Amazon. I decided against it because, now the weather is warmer I like to read books in our bright back porch and I hate distracting reflections on the iPad’s shiny glass screen. I went to the library and borrowed a paper book instead.
But those e-blockbusters have been read and enjoyed by Liz. She went to a conference in Melbourne recently, took the iPad with her and read both books in the plane. She said they were much nicer to read than paper books in a gloomy cabin .
While I’m not reading whole books yet, I am reading many articles from newspapers and journals. Most are read in an app called Instapaper. It’s a wonderful system that collects web articles you send to it for later reading, and some that are tagged for reading as they become available. Also, you can allow the Instapaper ediors to select and send articles to you. They serve up good stuff – the sort of stories you might find at the Arts & Letters Daily website. Instapaper re-presents articles in a very clean format, shorn of extraneous web stuff. They look very like pages from an ebook reader.
One of the first things I did was install PDF versions of some of the books I’ve already published. It was nice to have them there, but PDFs are a poor medium for ebooks. They have the advantage of preserving your layouts – particularly valuable if you have complex layout with illustrations. But unless it is made extremely large in the PDF – say 16 points – the text becomes too small to read comfortably when pages are reduced to e-reader size. While you can ‘swipe’ your fingers on the iPad screen in a way that increases the font size, the whole page enlarges and part of it moves off the screen, only to be made visible by tedious scrolling. In the process, pictures can get magnified to the point of fuzzy pixellation.
Today other options for ebook production are relatively limited, particularly if you don’t want to dirty your hands too much writing XHTML code. I don’t want to do more than I absolutely have to.
The most common ‘real’ ebook format is the open-source ‘ePub’ format. Effectively this includes the Kindle’s Mobi format, which is essentially ePub with proprietary tweaks. The nice thing about both ePub and Mobi formats is that they let readers change font sizes, and even fonts. Which is one reason why Liz enjoyed reading those books on the aircraft. When you increase text size, you don’t expand any graphics that may be present, so the overall page still fits on the screen.
ePub is reasonably OK if you want to produce text-only books, or books with simple graphics inserted without worrying too much about fancy design. That of course covers a huge number of perfectly good books. Unfortunately it doesn’t cover most of the books I’ve published. But I’m making a start, with books from my catalogue that are mostly text.
My trial horse has been Roger Smith’s Up the Blue, which I published ten years ago. I’m converting the original text file with an open-source ebook editor called Sigil. It produces books in the ePub format, which can be read by the Kobo and iBooks readers. Also some other readers that haven’t made it to New Zealand yet. Sigil is apparently the best there is out there, but it’s a work in progress: rough around the edges, flaky and doesn’t produce ePub files that behave consistently on different readers. (The latter problem, of course, may be more the fault of the ereaders than Sigil itself.) It’s also possible to export ePub from my InDesign layout program, but everything I’ve read about that suggests I’ll have to do quite a bit of code tweaking to tidy things up. If I had a Mac, I could also produce ePub files via a text editing program called Scrivener.
My first distributor will be a pioneering Kiwi e-bookstore called meBooks. It’s run by Wellingtonian Jason Darwin, who is doing a great job putting New Zealand writers onto the internet in electronic form. Few Kiwi publishers have taken the plunge with him yet and I would join only Random House, Victoria University Press and the NZ Electronic Text Centre. The latter organisation has already converted hundreds of out-of-copyright Kiwi classics, and meBooks makes them available free of charge.
I will supply titles in the ePub format, and meBooks will convert them to the Kindle format as well. My ultimate aim is to get some of the Ngaio Press catalogue into the big overseas ebookstores, especially Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Marketing books through Amazon in their physical form is uneconomic for a small downunder publisher.
I’ve produced a decent-looking e-version of Up the Blue, but it’s not performing properly on all the ereaders I have on my iPad and until I iron out the issues, I won’t go public.
Return to Apple
Back in 1982 I bought my first Apple product, an Apple II Plus. I used that, then early Macs, for the next six years, then Apple and I parted company for 22 years. I’m back, but not boots and all – I don’t expect to move to Macs for mainstream computing. Traditional computers work perfectly well with Windows, especially Windows 7. I won’t toss out thousands of dollars’ worth of Windows applications for no good reason. Nor will I pay Apple’s extortionate prices for hardware.
Slate Magazine called iOS, the operating system for iPhones and iPads, a velvet prison. It certainly is a constricting environment and it treats users like children. For instance it gives you very little freedom to manipulate files: saving and sending what you want, to where you want. There are ways to get partly round these constrictions, but they all feel like a kludge. Even the official ways of doing housekeeping on your iPad feel like a kludge, and chief kludge of all is the slow and unintuitive iTunes program you run on your main computer to sync with the iPad.
The velvet part of the environment refers to the way it is possible to live very comfortably within the iOS ecosystem if you’re not too demanding. The prison part refers to the total reliance on Apple’s iStore for new applications. But so far it hasn’t bothered me because I’m still having fun with apps on the approved list – only 300,000 more left to try.