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

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  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    1. CC Baxter
    It has a good early start - but the publishers are endangering the golden goose by inviting pirates to come in and kill their market. If you look on Amazon, many e-books cost more than the paper equivalent, which readers cannot help but see as profiteering.
    Blame Osbourne. Printed books are VAT free. eBooks carry 20% VAT.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    You can collect "permanent" music if you are a serious collector

    Only buy cds with the CD logo

    CDs with Digital Rights Management malware etc are forbidden to display a CD logo

    Books are the same, a permanent record of human creation with no possibility of the government or publisher interfering with it

    E-books are very good for technical publications if they have a decent search function

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    I got a kindle for my birthday last year. I no read a book every evening; if only for an hour or so sometimes. Before I used to be very sporadic in my reading habits. e-books have revived books.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Books that have substance are worth having in book form....the remainder can be loaded up on to a tablet and forgotten about.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    When I buy a book I want to keep it forever. Digital books could be good for this in principle. If I can buy an eBook without DRM, then I'd get one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    I don't think e-readers can totally replace books, but they are a useful addition for short-lived material.

    We've found a tablet useful for picture books, for reading to our youngest child. We still have plenty of physical books, but the tablet is a lot more space-saving than the collection of board books we accumulated for our older kids, which only ever got read for a relatively short time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    "We didn't have a Limewire or a Napster to contend with"
    Yes you did, and indeed still do. That's how I first got into Harry Potter (then bought all the books, saw the films in the cinema then dvd and bluray).
    It's just they embraced it all and had a decent pricing system for the non-big named authors which has really driven things. Big names still cost too much though. They cost more than print!

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    I have 1700 books thereabouts,I treasure them,even if I could stick them all on some sort of device I wouldn't because lose the device and I lose all of the books. Besides you cannot read an electronic device in the bath! However,industry leaders moaning about their own reduced role are ridiculous. Piracy would be severely curtailed if books/music were cheaper to buy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Why do people only view music downloads as a digital format? CDs are a digital medium as well. Vinyl is analogue. I think one of the differences between music and ebook downloads is that a lot more ebooks are downloaded by slightly older groups. Torrenting music is generally done by younger people (students the obvious example) but books tend to be read more by the older generations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    The price of e-books needs to be seriously looked into. I can buy a 'proper' book for less than an e-book, read it then pass it on to someone else, they read it then it goes to Oxfam. Try doing that with an e-book!

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    I love my books sat in my bookcase. I just grab what I fancy at the time. I wonder though, are ebooks like ipods, where you pay for the tune but never actually 'own' it? I buy CD's because of this

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    It does remind me of when MP3s came about in the 90's and the first Rio portable MP3 player got manufactured the RIAA tried to legally destroy it rather than work with new medium that could be used to generate revenue for music publishers from the start. Instead of an official legal framework being setup the culture of pirating music emerged unchallenged and remains to this day.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Unfortunately you can't go into the E-bookshop, browse what's on offer, read the flysheet, check out a couple of pages, then decide "This looks good. I'll buy it".

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    You can't use eReaders in the bath, and they are hard to hold while on the toilet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Good point made Baxter. Anyone who values artistic product of any sort and wishes to see a continued supply cannot condone piracy. However, it will happen if companies continue to be greedy and milk the cash cow. No production cost, no physical materials, no distribution costs and sill costs more than a printed version on the high street? Await the wails when the pirates slaughter the cash cow.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    CC Baxter - Yes, the problem is two-fold. VAT is charged on e-books but zero rated on print and the channels to market like Amazon and Apple take a surprisingly large bite of commission - much more so that traditional bookstores. The government really needs to look at the VAT issue...but it doesn't seem to be hurting sales!

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Both the music and publishing industries will tell you its the money spent on promotion that is important. The music ind especially will complain how their lower profits won't enable them to promote. They never mention that digital cut costs on making, distributing and yes promoting, to next to nothing. Oh yes and coke is really cheap too now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Books are a tactile permanent record of Human knowledge or imagination

    e-books are highly volatile and only really useful as a temporary storage medium for reading material

    I read about one incident where the book you had already bought GOT ERASED by the download publisher when you went online
    So e-readers are good for censorship and control too

    Books set you free
    e-readers make you dependent

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    It shows that embracing technology rather than trying to fight it tooth and nail trying to hold back the inevitable can work. The print publishing market is different to music publishing however I can't help feeling that something can the learnt from how successful e-books have been in comparison to the bully boy tactics of the failing music industry.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    It has a good early start - but the publishers are endangering the golden goose by inviting pirates to come in and kill their market. If you look on Amazon, many e-books cost more than the paper equivalent, which readers cannot help but see as profiteering. Feeling you are being ripped off will push people to cheaper/free alternatives.


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