Do We Need A “GarageBand For Books?”

My Dad used to take me to Long’s Bookstore on the Ohio State University campus when I was young – I’d say this was during the 1980s and very early 1990s although in my mind these afternoons spent on campus are tinged with a 1970s wash out of color, as if I were remembering my time in Kansas before Oz. We’d rumble through the stacks, picking out used titles from the basement that were beaten and worn by years of the students’ buy/read/return-for-a-pittance cycle so common at universities. Most of the books there were, obviously, but Long’s stocked quite a bit of ephemera including my favorite Mad Magazine digests and sci-fi.

Long’s is now a Barnes & Noble, its handsome neon sign taken down during a massive restructuring of OSU’s student core. Most of the old book stores are gone. The local head shop, Monkey’s Retreat, turned into a Taoist center. Long’s and its competitor, the University Book Exchange, are gone. Even Larry’s, where I went to poetry readings as a petulant high-schooler is gone. To paraphrase Joni Mitchell, they paved paradise and put up a Quizno’s.

If all goes according to plan, on Thurday OSU can expect even more changes afoot. The biggest racket in publishing – textbook sales – is apparently going to be shut down by Apple this Thursday as they announce what many are calling “GarageBand for books:” a system for authoring and selling ebooks that is so simple that even the benighted publishing industry will shift their brandy in their large crystal glasses and admit, between toots of Adderall, that these Apple fellows are onto something with this whole ebook business. And, just like that, their industry will change overnight.

First, where are we getting this from? Most prominently we’re seeing some quotes by Matt MacInnis, CEO of Inkling, who believes strange things are afoot.

“When you think about what Apple is doing… they are selling tens of thousands of iPads into K-12 institutions,” MacInnis told Ars. “What are they doing with those iPads? They don’t really replace textbooks, because there’s not very much content on offer,” he said.

Clearly, then, what we’re looking at is an opportunity to own the educational space much as Apple owns it now and much as it owned it in the days of the Apple II. However, rather than selling Macs to schools and then having the students go home to work on their parents PCs, most of these kids already have access to an iPad and I doubt any school administrator would be fired for rolling out a fleet of iMacs and iPads rather than a similar number of PCs and… Xyboards?

But Apple isn’t in the content business. It’s in the hardware business and, more important, the creation-enabling business. Building an e-book is actually very difficult. It is akin to building an HTML website circa 1997 – standards are constantly changing, what is considered state-of-the-art is still up in the air, and the devices being used to view the content all run competing formats. For Apple to step in and say “Put your Word file here, the program will do the rest” is a revolutionary prospect, one akin to the endless possibilities afforded by GarageBand and iMovie. They’re essentially building a still for the purification of written text. What liquor comes out at the end depends on the mash that’s put into it.

It won’t, of course, be just a simple conversion tool for your folder full of fanfiction .rtf files. Like iMovie and iPhoto, it will be a suite of tools for creating a few kinds of e-books: travel books, children’s books, things that require a little rich media but not a lot. You can put a text file right onto many e-readers and tablets, but doing things like deep formatting, in-line images, and interactive elements are still in the dominion of more sophisticated publishing tools.

This is not to say we won’t have a glut of e-books that are unreadable and generally unacceptable. However, it will give an entrenched industry the opportunity to make the jump into ereading without much investment and with the benefit of state-of-the-art tools made by a company that is synonymous with the production of good content.

So, Long’s is dead as are most paper book bookstores. Long live whatever Apple is working on. Huzzah and excelsior. Whether all this will come to pass (and I’m betting on it) is up in the air. Thursday is two days away.

The only thing that I will regret is that I will never have a rainy Sunday afternoon spent with my son browsing the aisles of a cavernous bookstore’s basement, looking for comic books. On the other hand, he will never have to spend $200 on a textbook to use for a few months and then sell back for a pittance. It is in a way bittersweet, but that’s the flavor of most rapid and complete change.