For years, spooked by the spectre of Napster and what file sharing did to the music industry, book publishers have sat on their hands rather than develop models for digital delivery. The lack of a viable platform hasn’t helped much either. But now the success of Amazon’s Kindle and the looming possibility of a tablet computer from Apple — likely to be a “game-changer” if the iPod is anything to go by — not to mention demand from readers, has begun to force their hands.
There’s little doubt that 2010 will be the year of the e-book. Make what you will of Amazon’s e-book sales figures (rumours say they give away copies faster than an ailing broadsheet), but it’s clear that the Kindle has broken the e-book into public consciousness. E-book readers are among the most downloaded apps for iPhones. Google Books’ digitisation-of-everything project has also put the wind up the entire sector. And the popularity of free file-sharing sites featuring pirated current bestsellers has put paid to publisher’s fond hopes that they could hold out for a tightly enforceable digital rights model before entering the digital fray.
When Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol was published last year Amazon reportedly sold more copies in its Kindle version than hardback copies. Within 24 hours free versions had appeared online on sites such as Pirate Bay, Rapidshare and BitTorrent and within days over 100,000 pirated copies of the book had been downloaded.
Publisher Random House was just grateful that pirated versions hadn’t appeared before publication.
Smart punters have known for some time that new media doesn’t simply replace old. Nothing just “dies”. And the same will be true of the traditional codex book. Radio was supposed to kill the book. So was television. The internet wasn’t meant to help much either. For all the hype about “new media” the Australian book publishing industry and book sales have steadily grown in recent years.
A comprehensive survey of the Australian book publishing industry, which Jenny Lee, Leslyn Thompson and I recently conducted, found that there are currently almost 1000 book publishers in Australia all of whom contribute to a $1.7 billion to $2 billion industry, though the market is dominated by the top 10 players who hold 60%. In 2007-08 the industry published almost 10,000 new titles and sold 175-200 million individual books. Profits were steady at about 6.5% and look set to grow. That doesn’t sound much like a medium in its death throes.
E-books, if anything, should help rather than hinder sales of traditional books, as well as become a phenomenon in their own right. It’s doubtful they’ll be an “iPod for books” as some have predicted. You can’t really walk around doing other things while reading like you can while listening. But readers are already demanding them and there is growing expectation that every print book will have a digital version.
If publishers are smart and can scramble together a decent model, they’ll be able to get both forms of media working side by side much as cinema screenings and DVDs do now, using the strengths of each to exploit various niches and to appeal to different users and use contexts. Some genres, such as novels and anything instructional are perfect for digital delivery. Where tactility is paramount — lavishly illustrated large-format books for example — print will remain king. E-Books will suit highly mobile people in a hurry; print will suit those for whom the processes of book-hunting and reading are necessary ritual.
Disruptive technologies have a way of blindsiding established players in a major media industry. That’s what iTunes did to the music industry and the net is doing to newspapers. Big players with the most to lose are often the slowest to move. But right now publishers have no choice.
Mark Davis is director of the Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Melbourne. The University of Melbourne Book Industry Study 2009 is available from Thorpe-Bowker.