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
    +2

    Comment number 40.

    There is so much rubbish being self-published that publishers can rebrand as gatekeepers of quality. They must however rejig the royalty payments structure. With the new methods of distribution, their costs can be significantly lower, and writers should benefit from this.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 39.

    36.Global Yawning
    I will continue to steal e-books from torrent sites until their sale price is within a fair proportion of production and distribution costs.

    Yeah and beer is mostly water with a big markup for Mr Tesco so I feel justified in wandering into his supermarket and stuffing a few bottles under my jumper. Seriously you can't justify thievery because of percived profit.

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 38.

    I really should be writing this with a quill pen as I love books as a physical entity and I am really pleased that 'real' publishing is holding its own against the digital competition. That said, if digital books encourage more people to enjoy literature, this can only be a good thing.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 37.

    "Blame Osbourne. Printed books are VAT free. eBooks carry 20% VAT."

    Amazon ones don't - they're sold from Luxembourg where the VAT on ebooks is 3%

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 36.

    I will continue to steal e-books from torrent sites until their sale price is within a fair proportion of production and distribution costs.

    The joy of piracy is it has given the consumer a great deal of power. And it doesn’t fund terrorism, despite what the propaganda might say. Our government supply them with their arsenals (but that discussion is for another article).

  • rate this
    +11

    Comment number 35.

    Bill Walker
    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".

    Er... yes you can. You are also able to read many more reviews from members of the public giving honest opinions, as opposed to handpicked professional reviewers who are sometimes reviewing books written by their friends.

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 34.

    All digital media - but especially books and music - currently exist in a property no-man's land where you don't own a copy, merely a license to use it that can be tied to a device or lost, and can't be transferred to another person.

    Until this is sorted out, I won't touch paid-for digital content with a bargepole!

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 33.

    As a publisher and book designer, I agree that the price of e-books is still too high compared to a real book. But those of you saying there's "no production costs" are very much mistaken. The e-book still has to be designed, typeset, proofread, edited, illustrated etc, and everyone in that process needs to be paid. The only saving is paper and printing costs.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 32.

    "RobJ
    The corporate publishing industry is dying -and a good thing too. Looks like the corporate music industry will also die out in its current form"

    Unfortunatly as we still need our PCs etc and ISPs to get the music/litriture/media into our hands, it just shifts which big business holds the strings & music piracy in particular whilst the big labels suffer unfortunatly so do the artists.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 31.

    We still buy paper books but buy far more thanks to the kindle - so much so we are buying the kids one each for christmas (the kindle fire so they can also use it for facebook). Thanks to universities etc putting classics on the internet for free i'm now reading books i would not have dreamt of buying but I still buy lots of new ones

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 30.

    The corporate publishing industry is dying -and a good thing too. Looks like the corporate music industry will also die out in its current form. Both are parasitical exploiting the creativity and hard work of artists, producers and editors. They are not needed and their gimmicks are not going to get their noses back in the trough. There is a new generation with much more reasonable demands - good!

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 29.

    Books wont go away, they will become like vinyl to music lovers. I collect vinyl but I havent ignored CD or MP3 technology as its convenient and makes discovering new music much easier, if I really like an artist or album I will seek it out on vinyl as well so its vary rare for me to have just something analogue.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 28.

    @Yeokel: Seeing how easy it is to collect data from books over 100 years old, and how much of a hassle it is to collect data from computing systems over 20 years old, my money is on the printed medium

    Hm, we can copy data onto newer systems - after all, backup strategies are always perfect, and geopolitical stability and resource abundance means everyone will have a computer until the end of time

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 27.

    3.penguin337
    "Books are a tactile permanent record of Human knowledge or imagination
    e-books are highly volatile..."

    Yep, it's a good job books are not volatile and are not damaged by water & other chemicals, fire, wear and tear, carelessness, mice, or any other peril.
    Oh, hang on......

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 26.

    @ CC Baxter
    This is surely to encourage purchasing of physical books - removing an incentive like this would hurt high street sales of books and thus reduce competition and choice.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 25.

    I love my kindle and am definately in the category that spends more on books now than ever before. I can buy the next book as soon as I finish the one I'm currently on as so my reading is endless! I find larger books soon become tatty, but my kindle is always pristine! I do read it in the bath, its no worse than dropping a book in if it all goes horribly wrong!

  • rate this
    +10

    Comment number 24.

    Slightly off topic -
    But it seems that far too few people realise that you can 'borrow' Ebooks from your local library just as if you were borrowing actual books, you don't have to pay the (extortionate) costs that some companies charge.

    So fans of e-readers, please do make use of your local library before you lose them completely!

  • rate this
    +8

    Comment number 23.

    we have a lot of books at home, nothing better than being able to pick one up and thumb through the pages at leisure, having said that kindle and the like has its advantages, one device = huge qty of reading material, also disadvantages ie expensive to buy, still have to buy downloads, oh and it doesnt bend!!

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 22.

    @Bill Walker I know what you mean but yes you can. Lots of sample chapters on Amazon, let alone publishers sites, other retailers etc

  • rate this
    +21

    Comment number 21.

    As pointed out below the crazy cost of e-books compared to print will eventually lead to more people finding free alternatives. However one look at a pirate website also tells you that the big books are there already, the reason they do not currently get pirated as much as music is because a) not as many people read compared to listen to music and b) the demographic of the people who do read.

 

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