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 60.

    *yawn* As usual the philistines who don't "get" art are crowing about the death of it, claiming to have higher motives when they really just want to continue stealing things and getting away with it. Without book publishers all you'll be left with is "50 Shades of Gray" and the like - rubbish.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    #58 If it wasn't for the paper industry those trees wouldn't have been planted in the first place. Its not Amazonian rain forest getting pulped for paperbacks but commercial spruce plantations. Its quite a nice bit of carbon capture (although paper making is badly polluting in other ways) CO2 in the atmosphere to wood to paper where the CO2 stays locked up on your bookshelf.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    Its sad to see books eventually fade and die out, but its good for the environment right? how many trees each year are cut down to make books?

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    52. xyriach
    You do realise that with a hardcopy book, when you give that book to someone else to read you are sharing, no different from the people sharing online through "filesharing".
    A better analogy would be photocopying the book and giving the copy to someone else, not the original. There's no problem with gifting or selling a 2nd hand CD. There's a big problem copying it

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    51. Bryn Roberts - Sadly (or not) I have some books in Hardback, Kindle, and Audiobook format and have paid for them all! Hardback because sometimes it is nice to handle a book, Kindle so I always have it with me, and Audio so I can listen to it in the car on long journies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    "the big contrast with the music industry is the extent of online piracy" is also total nonsense. Books are pirated just as much /copy and /$ as music is. The differences are 1) that the publishing industry still produces content people want to pay for and 2) they don't waste most of their profits on nuisance lawsuits and illegal activities that have no effect on either piracy or profits.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    "packed with bright young ruthlessly ambitious people who have to be aware of the latest trends" is so far from an accurate description of the music industry it's bizarre that a professional journalist could even consider it. The music "industry" is dying at it's own hands due to decades of greed and incompetence. It will not be mourned.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    Two ideas: Surely e-readers create space for a completely different media entertainment form? A bit like books, a bit like films and a bit like high-class games? Its yet to be invented, I think. But publishers like Faber are leading the search with some of their new classics and poetry e-"books".
    Two, shouldn't books be bought just once, at a fair price? The buyer then gets all formats in one go.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    You do realise that with a hardcopy book, when you give that book to someone else to read you are sharing, no different from the people sharing online through "filesharing".

    The scale is irrelevant, the same law governs both. Even worse, people will openly sell second hand books and the none of these profits go to the authors.

    Piracy's not a clear cut as you thought.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    My approach is simple: if I like a book enough to buy a paper copy, then I like it enough to buy a paper AND an electronic copy. That way, I have one copy that, if needs be, I can lend to my family to read, and one copy that I can carry with me.

    Sure, it costs a little more to do it that way, but it's still cheaper than a moderate-sized round of drinks!

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    There is something wrong with our society when we feel its ok to pay so much for the latest gadgets, i-phones and technology while subscribing to broadband with a corporation yet we are happy to steal peoples art? Its like raising a big 2 fingers to the small indivdual artists while just handing sacks of cash over to big corp. Worst at this are the pretentious 'hipsters' and 'alternative' people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    Always amusing that the oldest form of self expression was the first to embrace the digital age and prepare for changing consumer attitudes.

    If authors can do it, why not musicians or film makers? The initial cost of the venture can be crowdsourced which serves as marketing in itself.

    Hopefully, before long the artistic world will be rid of middlemen who serve no purpose in modern media.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    I recently bought a hardback novel on Amazon. Its list price was £12.99, Kindle cost £6+, the paperback was priced at £7+, but I only paid £5+. What price e-reading?

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.


    I don't believe controls and monitoring will stop piracy. I think pirates will always find a way round. It's a sort of arms race.

    My problem with that is that those that don't pirate and don't want to have to find ways round are caught up in it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    I can vouch for the fact that becoming an author/publisher these days is simple and very profitable. The internet is destroying all barriers.

    Sadly, as with music and film, the middlemen aren't liking it one bit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    We got an ebook reader last week. It's early days but I don't imagine it will lead to many ebook sales. I think most of what we want will be public domain/ out of copyright and available on sites like Project Gutenberg.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Global Yawning
    Really? Last I read, Tesco were selling low quality brands at a loss

    I don't care, its about perception of profit and it proves my point.

    It doesn't matter if the margin is huge or not, what matters is taking something that isn't yours. While pirating did you steal bandwidth from your ISP? Did you steal your PC? If stealing is OK why not steal them? Where do you stop?

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    "All I can see it achieving is increasing controls and monitoring on the Internet..."

    Maybe, but that will achieve very little. Piracy is so widespread it will be impossible to prosecute the 'average user'. ISP's have tried and failed to shut down/block torrent sites, 'Pirate Bay' being a prime example. Within 1min of it being blocked new links were circulating, bypassing the blocks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.


    Yeah and beer is mostly water with a big markup for Mr Tesco


    Really? Last I read, Tesco were selling low quality brands at a loss...

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    36. Global Yawning
    "The joy of piracy is it has given the consumer a great deal of power. "

    It hasn't changed the attitudes of governments or the record companies, etc. and I don't believe it will.

    All I can see it achieving is increasing controls and monitoring on the Internet...


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