On Wednesday night, I was invited to a Wired UK dinner about ‘The Future of Entertainment’. At the end of the night, we were asked what we thought entertainment would look like in 15 years; some people predicted the death of copyright, others talked about the rise of videogames and live experiences. In a nod to the hosts, I talked about publishing, giving my usual doom-and-gloom analysis about the frankly obvious death of publishers, whether they’re in the music, TV, book or even videogame industry. I think that jolted them a little, and the guy from Conde Nast actually walked out of the room at that point (although, on balance, I don’t think that had anything to do with what I said).
That wasn’t the only time we talked about publishing though; earlier on, there were pointed questions about whether magazines had any future. Given that The New Yorker and The Economist are the healthiest they’ve been for quite some time, I’m not ready to call time on those two magazines yet, and I’m sure that the high end of the market (which Wired UK aspires to) will do just fine. Much of the reason for this is that their content is very expensive to commission and very hard to imitate. It also happens to be presented in a really good format.
Format is important. For instance, I can read a lot of text on the iPhone’s screen without strain, and there are plenty of people out there who spend over an hour a day browsing the web and reading books on the iPhone; it’s certainly more convenient than carrying a bunch of books around, and in any case, you can’t surf the web on a book.
Lately, most of my iPhone reading has been of RSS feeds. I use a great application called Byline that not only downloads and stores the latest news items from my Google Reader feeds, but crucially, it also synchronises the information back, meaning that if I’ve read an item on my iPhone, I won’t have to read it again on my computer. When I’m travelling any distance, it’s a very good way of keeping up to date, and keeping my unread items count from getting too big (I receive, and read, about 500 items every day).
That’s not the only reading I have to keep up with; I have weekly subscriptions to The New Yorker and The Economist, and a monthly subscription to The Atlantic. That’s a lot of pages to be getting on with every week, and if I neglect them – as I did when I spent a month reading Infinite Jest – then the resulting pile can take several days of concentrated reading to get through. During those days, I got the distinct sense that I was on the cusp of losing the battle, and something had to give; I just was trying to read too much, and I was starting to enjoy it less.
A few days ago, I realised there was another problem; I was reading badly. Sure, the iPhone meant that I could read my RSS feeds on the tube, saving precious minutes and providing me with news whole minutes or even hours before I sat down in front of a computer, but it was really a terribly slow way of reading them. At home, not only is the experience of reading RSS feeds much easier, since I have a faster net connection and a much, much bigger screen, but it’s also much better.
Now, whenever I’m tempted to read on my iPhone, I just open up a magazine. Whether I read it at home or on the tube, it’s still the same magazine, with the same high quality layout and high density of text, easily beating the iPhone’s little screen. So far, this is working out splendidly well, and I’m spending less time obsessing over RSS feeds and playing Flight Control on my iPhone, and more time reading quality content; and when I get home, I have more time to read my RSS feeds (which, as mentioned, actually takes less time), watch Mad Men, play games, and read books.
I might still unsubscribe from The Economist and The Atlantic though…