Memo to the Publishing Industry: Forget About the iSavior

It’s hard not to be seduced by the visions of tablet-powered bliss that have been popping up all over the Intertubes lately: there’s the video of a Sports Illustrated prototype with full color and even moving images, the somewhat amusingly named Skiff tablet from Hearst and of course, the Kindle. They all look a bit like those futuristic newspapers that Popular Science magazine assured us we’d be reading each morning before hopping in our jet-cars to fly off to work.

The grandaddy of them all is the much-hyped Apple tablet, which is supposed to be unveiled later this month, and which TechCrunch writer Paul Carr wishes everyone would just stop talking about. Fat chance. If you’re in the consumer technology business or the media/content industry, the Apple tablet is the sun, the moon and the stars. And if you’re a media entity that is struggling to figure out how to make online work for you — i.e., a newspaper, magazine or book publisher — then it looks like it might just be the biggest thing since the invention of pull tabs on beer cans.

To take just one example, in a recent piece entitled “A Media Savior In The Form of A Tablet,” NYT media writer David Carr gushed that the iTablet would represent “an opportunity to renew the romance between printed material and consumer,” and that while he didn’t know what the business model would be exactly, “somewhere between the iTunes model and the iPhone app store…there may be a model for print.”

So is the iTablet, or any tablet for that matter, really going to be the savior of the traditional newspaper, magazine or book? In a word, no. In fact, rather than being the holy grail for the media industry, it could wind up being what desert wanderers used to call a “fata morgana” — a vision of a lush oasis shimmering on the horizon that turns out to be a dangerous delusion and leads travelers to their deaths.

In a smart piece responding to Carr’s love note, Slate writer Jack Schafer said tablets “can’t possibly save magazines and newspapers,” and compared the industry’s infatuation to earlier dalliances with interactive CD-ROMs and online portals such as Compuserve and AOL. In a somewhat pithier response, the former editor of recently compared the iTablet to the Tooth Fairy.

The uncomfortable reality for newspapers, magazines and books — and for music, movies and television, for that matter — is that there is no holy grail, no silver bullet, no iSavior that will bring profits and happy readers by the truckload. Will more people subscribe to newspapers or magazines, or buy books and other content with a tablet? Experience with the Kindle seems to indicate that they will and the concept of “in-app sales” might help break down the barriers to paying. But will it be enough to “save” the entire business model of existing newspapers and other publishers? Not even close.

As Om noted in a post about the Kindle HD, everyone talks about the iTunes model and the iPod, but while those devices have been phenomenally successful for Apple itself, the music industry as a whole is still a complete mess. A single device, however powerful or magical, can’t change the entire cost structure of an industry. The publishing industry should spend more time thinking about how their business is changing fundamentally — regardless of what platform the content appears on — and less time thinking about how to make a Hail Mary pass to one specific platform.

Thumbnail image courtesy of Flickr user lakewentworth; in-post image courtesy of Flickr user Photo Giddy, who credits Flickr user

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