Publishing's digital switchover

e-book reader

Take two industries trying to adapt to the digital era, music and publishing. One is packed with bright young ruthlessly ambitious people who have to be aware of the latest trends - the other is, well, publishing. So which is coping better? Publishing, believe it or not.

The latest figures from the Publishers Association make surprisingly positive reading for anyone in the book trade. For some years, readers of specialist, technical and academic titles have been going digital - now the general reader is embracing e-books.

Spending on digital fiction books rose from £23m in the first six months of 2011 to £64m in the same period this year. In total, digital sales now account for more than £1 in every £8 we spend on books.

But what will cause the publishing industry to raise a glass of dry sherry is that the figure for physical book sales is down just 0.4% - and overall physical and digital sales are up 6%. It seems that the move to digital is not eroding the overall value of publishing as it has in the music industry where, as the saying goes, analogue dollars are being replaced by digital cents.

"It looks like unalloyed good news", Richard Mollet, the chief executive of the Publishers Association, told me. It seems that all those people reading Kindles or other e-readers on the way to work are actually consuming more books than they did before.

Of course, the big contrast with the music industry is the extent of online piracy, which has yet to make much of an impact on publishing. "We do send thousands of copyright infringement notices to Google every month," Mr Mollet told me, "but it's not on the scale of the music industry."

The book trade did have the benefit of observing what happened to music long before its own digital transformation got underway. What's more, legal digital platforms like the Sony Reader and the Kindle were around before consumers had the chance to choose an alternative unlicensed "brand": "We didn't have a Limewire or a Napster to contend with," Richard Mollet says.

Maybe pirated copies of digital books were never going to be as popular as their musical equivalents - or maybe times will get harder as the pirates work out how lucrative this market can be. And of course if you're a high street bookseller, squeezed for years by online giants like Amazon and now watching readers use your shops as showrooms before going home to download to their e-readers, it is hard to be cheerful.

But for now, the fusty old publishers are looking rather more comfortable in the 21st Century than the hip young gunslingers of the music industry.

Rory Cellan-Jones, Technology correspondent Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    I prefer books and have no intention of ever using my Kindle which I won about 18 months ago. However, if there was some mechanism whereby you could get a well-discounted Kindle version when buying the physical book (or vice versa), I'd probably go for both versions. Surely this would be better for retailers & authors as they'd sell 2 copies instead of one, and it'd be better for consumers too?

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    I think part of the reason could be that books might appeal to an older market than popular music and that market might have rather more disposable income.

    I also think it's a lot more difficult to rationalise stealing from a publisher than a music company. Even though in both cases you're ultimately stealing from the creator.

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    There are still issues with ebooks that go against what the consumer wants. Whether that be pricing or content controls that prevent you moving the source material from one device to another the publishing industry can and should do more to improve the digital experience of readers.

    The Music industry. If I listen to them I'm an enemy not a consumer so I feel no empathy for distributors.

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    I love my Kindle and also the fact that I will be able to return to buying magazines too. However I have one major complaint and that is why are the texts of English books - I too have the complete T Pratchett, Americanised; Homicide instead of Murder and center instead of centre etc. etc. This is not a good thing as english english is already under threat from politicians.

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    113 Pdibs - I also have the complete Terry Pratchett in hardback - but have most of them on Kindle and Audio too. The standard Kindle screen relies on reflected light so is as easy on the eyes as paper. I urge you to try an ebook reader. I carry mine everywhere, so always have my library with me.


Comments 5 of 120



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