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Will the iPad Change Publishing? Ask The Atlantic

By posted at 6:18 am on May 3, 2010 11

coverFor those who stay abreast of such matters, the last few months of the Atlantic’s forays into fiction have been positively nail-biting. In November, the magazine announced it would be offering a subscription of two stories a month exclusively on the Kindle. As if to quell a possible uprising of the deviceless, they turned around and released the yearly print fiction issue to the entire subscriber base. This June, they’ll convene two panels on the topic of Fiction in the Age of E-books at Toronto’s Luminato Festival—presumably, one hopes, to settle the matter.

How far we’ve come since 2005’s dark days, when Atlantic editors winnowed fiction down to a yearly newsstand-only digest! The now-quaint rationale was, “Reporting consumes a lot of space.” But in fiscal year 2009, when book review sections shriveled and houses purged editors and authors alike, dreamy fabulists, note: the Atlantic moved forward to find space for fiction again. And we should watch what they do closely. Because, in the past five years, while other news mags stumbled to find a way to get readers to consume their space—the Atlantic’s so-sensible-it’s-revolutionary strategy has made them a model for how print and online can survive side-by-side.

You may by now have noticed I have a little Atlantic problem. By this I don’t mean I have a problem with the Atlantic. (Though I often have a problem with the Atlantic.) My problem is more along the lines of the New Yorker enthusiast who wallpapers his bathroom with covers, or the public radio supporter who accepts the free tote though clearly informed this has diminished her pledge. Like these other fans, my outlet of choice has passed beyond pastime: it has become manifest as some previously inexpressible part of myself, one best revealed through a convenient duck hat or fashionable messenger bag—though part of the Atlantic’s appeal is that instead of redesigning its tote bags, it convenes a panel discussion.

How well I remember each small but strategic move! First, there was 2006’s “tech” column, in which James Fallows gamely chin-stroked over such wonders as Microsoft OneNote (“What makes some software ‘interesting,’ as opposed to merely usable?”). Next came “Print” and “Send to a friend” options. (Standard now, of course. But they were on it.) They linked subscriber accounts to an online profile, and, when blogging began its rise, immediately hired five famous bloggers—and let them blog.) Harper’s continues to plague us with subscriber-only PDFs—annoying in hard copy, unusable by device—and the New Yorker’s doorstop of a CD-ROM has become a series of clunky scans one must select page-by-page to print. (If one can read the hazy type at all.) Meanwhile, the Atlantic has had its Twain and Nabokov up and accessible to all for years.

Now, while the New York Times futzes around with photo galleries and “followers” and Slate piles still more boxes into its ancient maroon masthead, the Atlantic (excuse me—AtlanticWire) is on its umpteenth web redesign, a go-to online entity that has, if anything, cannibalized the magazine. While bloggers Megan McArdle and Ta-Nehisi Coates crank out high-concept cover pieces, P.J. O’Rourke and critic Mark Steyn, the golden mean of the magazine’s original libertarian readership, have been gently phased out. Welcome to newer hires Sandra Tsing Loh and Caitlin Flanagan—the original Tipsy Belden and Nancy Shrew—who duel it out almost every issue, the better to draw women everywhere by offending all of them.

Immediately hiring bloggers when blogging began its rise seems like an obvious way to stay above water – but it was so obvious almost no one else did it. (See Conde Nast’s Flip.) Until recently, numerous publications that will remain nameless still preferred to push their reporters into blogging rather than hiring reporters who already blog. But the Atlantic has never been saddled with delusions of grandeur. Even their poetry—it’s “poetry”!—rhymes.

Now that e-publishing has hit even the books world with the online equivalent of a sucker punch, I am poised to absorb what the Atlantic sees to come.

The cover of Fiction 2010 offers, to say the least, a provocative vision. To our left glides a gentleman in pegged red pants holding an honest-to-God—positively florid—paper-and-ink book. To our right saunters a young lady fixed on the lambent square of her Kindle. They are shortly to meet cute—heads bent, dogs lightly leashed—near a mailbox at the corner of Publishing 3.0. The attractive pair is surrounded by blooms, sunlight, even a deli’s beckoning door. Their future is plentiful and bright—and there is not an iPad in sight.

If you are swayed by certain unimpeachable sources, this vision is akin to blasphemy. The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta recently depicted that same future as a battle epic and brutal, the upstart iPad flashing its pretty UI and 60,000 titles against a staid Kindle, its inkless jabs a pathetic defense. Acknowledging that Amazon got a jump by getting Kindles into readers’ hands first, Auletta reasons that device-based argument is nonetheless is limited: “The analogy of the music business goes only so far. What iTunes did was to replace the CD as the basic unit of commerce; rather than being forced to buy an entire album to get the song you really wanted, you could buy just the single track. But no one, with the possible exception of students, will want to buy a single chapter of most books.”

That’s two assumptions, both incorrect. (This is why you don’t listen to writers whose publications slap up stories in teeny Times Roman.) 1) That all readers read alike, and 2) that whatever device prevails will accommodate books—not that books will change to accommodate the device.

Because, while a chemistry textbook or history of Rome must eventually be delivered somehow in entire, readers of fiction have been buying “tracks” of books for centuries. They’re called short stories – coincidentally, exactly the item the Atlantic is currently offering in an exclusive curated series on the Kindle. It’s just a start, but it’s a nod to an important distinction between fiction and other kinds of writing that must hew more closely to their form of delivery. Even poor poetry is hampered by its linebreaks, but fiction is the original mutable source, one that encourages authors to flex their muscles and tackle it in different media, now deliverable anywhere in any form. Forget your weekly Dickens. Fiction in variant array has bloomed on the internet from the beginning, from Darcy Steinke’s blind/spot to Rick Moody’s Twitter story to Japan’s booming mobile-fiction market.

Of course, your average person sometimes likes to just sit in the bathroom and read a real-life book, too. (Kindles don’t play well with the Charmin.) When it came to news, the Atlantic was the first to realize that, though online news would change to accommodate its new host into blog, comment, tweet, and update, that didn’t mean throwing out the baby with the bathwater. This means, when offering fiction, it’s wise to partner with someone who can deliver it in a dog-earable form, too—like, I don’t know, Amazon. “Neither Amazon, Apple, nor Google has experience in recruiting, nurturing, editing, and marketing writers,” Auletta argues. I’m not sure if Auletta has been on Amazon since 1997, but it actually owns every title, reviewer, reader, crank and author online. His claim makes sense only if you define Amazon’s actions against those traditional publishers—and I think even then most authors would tell you their publishers don’t really recruit, nurture, edit or market their writers, either.

I don’t know how the Atlantic, Apple, Amazon, or Auletta’s collected works will fare in the coming years (though they will certainly be called on first in class). But it seems important to check the hype when a newbie goes up against the mightiest bookstore in the land and a publication that’s remained robust in print, set the pace online, all while trying to see how fiction can fit in the mix. Steve Jobs is banking on my wanting to read on a prettier screen. But fictive folks read in different ways, and I don’t mean being able to turn my screen around and have the type adjust 180 degrees. An iPad is pretty, but it only has 60,000 titles, I can’t take it into my bathroom, and it doesn’t seem to be delivering the Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest. So it’s not that Amazon and the Atlantic got there first. They have always been here—figuring out how to deliver their authors to readers in every conceivable form. Looking at the cover of Fiction 2010 again, I might go so far as to say the real reason they’re the future of fiction and the iPad isn’t is that, unlike Apple, they both have a dog in this fight.

Bonus Links: On The Atlantic‘s Redesign, My Political Blog Hangover and the Virtues of Finitude





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11 Responses to “Will the iPad Change Publishing? Ask The Atlantic”

  1. Rachel @ Musings of an Inappropriate Woman
    at 8:38 am on May 3, 2010

    Beautiful post. I’m a rabid Atlantic fan, too.

  2. XPECTRO
    at 8:44 am on May 3, 2010

    “An iPad is pretty, but it only has 60,000 titles, I can’t take it into my bathroom, and it doesn’t seem to be delivering the Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest”

    There you have some problems:

    60000 is just if you think that the iPad can be filled with iBooks… there’s also Amazon to search for more… And there are more outlets… ;-)

    If you can’t take the iPad, bing your iPhone/iPod Touch and keep reading that little part that you want to continue, and don’t worry, it will update your location in your iPad and computer (if you happen to like to read on the screen too ;-) )

    And mr. Sittenfield’s latest could be bought (as thousand of other titles) in the Amazon kindle store…

    In the end, Amazon Kindle will exist as a machine or as the software… and that is the amazing part. The user is the one who has to make the decision.

    ;-)
    (reading veeeeery happy on an iPad after 3 good years of Sony Reader eInk experience, btw…)

  3. dinger
    at 9:19 am on May 3, 2010

    why can’t you take the iPad into your bathroom – viral marketing emphasizes precisely that advantage…

  4. David Backer
    at 10:42 am on May 3, 2010

    “…figuring out how to deliver their authors to readers in every conceivable form.”

    This is our big question right now. Richard Nash’s thinkcursor.com project seems like a next step.

  5. David Portela
    at 4:43 pm on May 3, 2010

    “An iPad is pretty, but it only has 60,000 titles…”

    Citing a technology’s current limitations hardly gives you substantial ground for predicting the effects it might have on the future, especially when it’s just a matter of time before those limitations evaporate. As another commenter said, you completely ignore the Kindle titles available on the iPad as well.

    I can currently read on my iPad every piece of media I was interested before the iPad came along and which I acquired through other methods of distribution (books/sites/eBooks): I can access my entire PDF papers library from Dropbox in GoodReader, I have access to two huge and ever-increasing bookstores in iBooks and Kindle, I have access to blogs and articles using NetNewsWire and/or Safari…limitations, indeed.

    I wish reading luddites would stop trying to poopoo those of us who want to read on new computing devices. I’m not trashing your books. I like them too. Get the hell off my iLawn, you kids!

  6. cameron
    at 6:27 pm on May 3, 2010

    I read all of my Kindle titles on my iPad (titles which I bought before I owned an iPad) and all of my B&N titles on my iPad (titles which I also bought before I owned an iPad). It seems to me that an iPad was the best solution, since it serves as both a Nook and a Kindle in addition to being a PDF reader and a web browser. Oh, it also has iBooks. I like the fact that I can check with Apple, Amazon, and B&N to find a title and compare prices. That’s just like I can do with brick and mortar stores. I need a copy of something another teacher is teaching and I’m not limited to the $14 iBooks version, since I can buy the Kindle version for $10. Isn’t that competitiveness what we WANT from digital readers? No one can cry foul too loudly at exclusive/closed formats if your device reads them all.

  7. John
    at 7:59 pm on May 3, 2010

    So the truth is still to come. Everyone can be happy when eink gets there color act up and going and or when devices like NOOK will put tiny pin holes in their eink screen to allow light to shine through for a traditional screen to play video and read colorful magazines with a back light that can turn on and off depending on how the consumer is currently using the device. Plus, lets be honest, we have too many of these damn devices anyway so will someone just put out a phone slightly smaller then the NOOK and let it have eink and traditional screen capability. That is what the consumer wants and needs. And by the way could government please step in and make our lives easier please, I want someone to enforce or agree on one version of a credit card reader at a register in all these stores and one laptop plug in cord and one plug in cord for all cell phone batteries and please, please let someone standarize all ebook formats and please get rid of DRM and let eretailers earn the business, and not enslave their customers to their DRM. PLEASE GOD HEAR MY PRAYERS AND FIX MY 21ST CENTURY PROBLEMS!

  8. Monday Medley « No Pun Intended
    at 6:04 am on May 17, 2010

    […] older but still timely pieces from The Millions: Lizzie Skurnick on iPads, The Atlantic, and publishing; and Edan Lepucki on committing “social media […]

  9. Will the iPad Change Publishing? Ask The Atlantic | Lizzie Skurnick
    at 5:46 pm on May 22, 2010

    […] via The Millions. […]

  10. Last informations before radio silence | Lizzie Skurnick
    at 7:20 pm on May 22, 2010

    […] Wherein I admire the Atlantic and scorn the iPad […]

  11. More on “Wrong Question” — Jill A. Smith
    at 8:10 pm on May 22, 2010

    […] From Lizzie Skurnick: What iTunes did was to replace the CD as the basic unit of commerce; rather than being forced to buy… […]

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