With the iPhone and the App Store, Apple has introduced not only an excellent device for reading, but also a powerful new distribution channel for writers and publishers. However, this combination gives Apple a lot of power, and they may be exercising that power to make decisions they have no business making: decisions about what kind of material people should and should not read.
Smartphones and PDAs can be terrific devices for reading. I’ve been enjoying novels and book-length nonfiction on handhelds since I started using a Sharp Zaurus in 2002. Most of my e-reads have been classics from Project Gutenberg, and a few free titles released under Creative Commons licenses.
Palm and other platforms have had commercial ebooks available for purchase before now. Amazon is building an enthusiastic audience for its Kindle ebook reader. Even so, the iPhone and App Store offer a whole new level of accessibility and ease of use for people who are not interested in carrying yet another device just to read ebooks, but who might take advantage of the chance to buy and read books on the phone they’ll be carrying anyway. I count myself among that group — I love ebooks, but the last thing I want is another piece of hardware to carry.
A number of app developers have jumped at this opportunity. Hundreds of ebooks are available on the iTunes App Store. Most are classics going for $0.99, while others are contemporary commercial works costing more.
But there’s a problem with this model of selling stand-alone ebooks via the App Store. It’s the same problem application developers have run into. Before an application can go on sale on the App Store, it has to get Apple’s approval. Because stand-alone ebooks are considered applications in their own right, they need approval as well.
All of which means that Apple is in a position to approve or reject novels and other books based upon their content.
The iPhone SDK agreement states that “Applications must not contain any defamatory content or materials of any kind (text, graphics, images, other content or materials that in Apple’s reasonable judgment may be found iPhone or iPod touch users.” So, you want to publish a novel that contains adult themes or language? Watch out.
This is not just some speculation about what Apple might do if it wields this power badly. Apple has already rejected at least two novels from the App Store: David Carnoy’s Knife Music and Mur Lafferty’s Playing For Keeps. The case of Playing for Keeps is especially strange, because Apple initially approved this novel. In fact it’s still available on the App Store for $4.99. A later version, with additional blurbs added, was rejected.
Now, I hesitate to call any of this censorship. And before anyone gets lathered up, this is not a First Amendment issue. (Few things enrage me quite as much as people citing the First Amendment in situations that don’t involve government action.) Apple is free to sell what they like on their own store. But users are free to vote with their actions and their dollars, and I think it’s high time for that.
For those interested in selling and buying ebooks, there is an alternative to selling books as stand-alone applications: selling ebooks as files to be used with ebook reader software.
The best ebook reader I’ve used is Stanza by LexCycle. In addition to a comfortable user interface, Stanza provides access to direct downloads from a growing library that includes free books from Project Gutenberg, Feedbooks and Book Glutton, and materials from major magazines and newspapers.
More recently, the Stanza online catalog has added sections that allow users to buy books for actual money, some of which presumably goes upstream to help compensate the authors. Through Fictionwise, readers can purchase books from well-known publishers — and contrary to the “Fictionwise” name, their offerings include hundreds of major nonfiction titles as well. Stanza also allows readers to purchase books from Smashwords, a digital self-publishing service.
Whether Stanza will secure a place as the leading iPhone ebook reader, and whether Fictionwise, Smashbooks, and other stores will find success as content providers, we can’t yet tell. But they already demonstrate that there are ways to sell books for the iPhone other than as stand-alone apps.
The important point here is that because the books themselves are not sold through the iTunes App Store, they do not require approval from Apple. If they did, I doubt we’d see 358 titles in Fictionwise’s Erotica category.
Only the reader software need be approved by Apple. This lets Apple keep its attention where it belongs: on ensuring that their store sells well-constructed software that won’t start crashing iPhones. It also leaves the decision as to what constitutes acceptable reading with the right parties: publishers, authors and — most importantly — readers.
UPDATE: A version of David Carnoy’s Knife Music is now available in the iTunes App Store. Apple approved the book for sale after Carnoy removed words Apple found objectionable.
The original, uncut version of the book is available in the Stanza reader from Smashwords.
Carnoy seems happy with this arrangement, and believes that distributing books as stand-alone apps in the App Store is superior to other options such as Stanza with Smashwords. Maybe that’s true, but it’s not worth giving Apple control over an author’s choice of words. Until Apple finds a way to distribute novels without interfering in their content, Stanza and its variety of distribution channels is the better way to go.