Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Ihnatko's Sun Times column hits the target; the importance of Apple's tablet introduction to publishers

I want to give a shout out to Andy Ihnatko's Sun Times column from late last week. I was referred to it by a MacRumors post, but because it was from one of those media types (that would be us!) it got very little attention on the computer forum . . . but I really thought Ihnatko hit it out of the park.

The column is basically Ihnakto's take on the much rumored introduction of an Apple tablet -- or as Ihnako inventively calls it, the RAT. Ihnatko goes through his thoughts on the features we might find on the new device, but probably only of interest to those who love the inside game: "The RAT will have a "slate" form factor", or "The price will be above $500 but below $800".  Good stuff if you have been paying close attention, and I can not argue with anything he says.

But then comes the money paragraph. Holy cow! (as the late Harry Carey would say):

Apple will not sell periodicals and books through the iTunes Store.

At least not in the way that they sell music and movies, as discrete products. Instead, they’ll stick to the mechanism that the iPhone uses: publishers and distributors can release their own apps and build their own storefronts for their own content.

It saves Apple from innumerable headaches and opens the RAT up to be “the reader of Everything.” It also emphatically continues Apple’s momentum as the publishing platform of  choice.

Are you Time-Warner? Great. Release a free “newsstand” app for your group’s publications.   Apple’s SDK supports in-app purchases. The user can buy or subscribe to magazines easily; the publisher gets ongoing sales through the biggest store for digital mobile content, and as usual, Apple gets a big cut of every dollar spent on that planet. 

Are you an independent publisher? Or maybe even just an author with a collection of short-stories? Great. Hook up with an iPhone developer and hand over a copy of your book in PDF or HTML format. He or she can quickly stick it in an app wrapper and you can release it as an saleable ebook without going through any publishers or distributors. There’s no vetting process; Apple is happy to just take 30 percent of the purchase price.

And there, in just a couple of paragraphs is the essence of the article to me: this introduction could be a major step towards an ubiquitous (as Zinio said in their own product introduction) publishing platform that would be of value to not only major publishers like Time-Warner, but also citizen publishers, or  small publishers trying to find ways to monetize their electronic publishing efforts.

And that, in the end, is the issue: how do publishers finally get to make money and drive subscriptions online? (I've deleted some thoughts that would have appeared here on why publishers have so far failed online. Let's save that for another day.)

That's why I think small publishers may have a huge stake in the tablet/reader market. If a new Apple tablet/reader can successfully create an "open" marketplace that is friendly to individuals or entrepreneurial publishers, just as they have for music with iTunes, or software developers with the iTunes app store, then we may have a gold rush of new media publishers. Small publishers may fine that building an app for use on a tablet (and the iPhone) is potentially a more profitable alternative to the web (though I seriously doubt any publisher would want to surrender their web presence).

So am I alone in my praise for Ihnatko's column? Hardly. Bill Barol on True/Slant loved the column, displayblog sang its praises, and the column was reproduced by the WSJ on its All Things Digital site.  But despite being late in singing the praises of Ihnatko's column I think the points he makes about publishing are just too important to let slip by. Go read it yourself!

(Or better yet, sign up for Instapaper's Read Later and use this handy app on your computer or iPhone (iTunes link) to save the article for later viewing.)
Cross posted on Citizen Publishing.