Prepare for a revolution in digital publishing

1 Apr 2010

Two millennia on and the bound book has morphed into a potentially lucrative market for electronic books where devices like the Sony Reader, the Amazon Kindle and the Apple iPad will become our personal libraries.

In the first century AD, an astounding technology was developed that would change the dissemination of information forever. It was the codex – separated pages bound by a cover – the new format for books first used by the Romans instead of the old-fashioned scroll.

Two millennia later, another new technology is on the rise. This time it involves flat screens and digital ink.

E-book popularity looks to increase

While reading e-books is still a minority sport in Ireland, its popularity looks set to rise significantly in the next few years. Ken Halpin is the marketing manager for Sony Reader, the most popular digital reading device on sale here. Having sold 50,000 units in the past 18 months, he believes the success of e-readers is inevitable.

“(Some) 2–3pc of the Irish book-buying market are now accessing their content on e-readers. We project that in the next two to three years this will rise to 25pc,” he says.

While the Apple iPad has yet to reach our shores, Amazon has begun shipping its Kindle to Ireland and the Sony Reader is widely available here. E-books are also accessible on devices such as the Nintendo DS Lite and the iPhone, and they are easy to download, according to Halpin.

“You can buy e-books from numerous websites – a lot of the UK bookstores have their own e-books websites or you can download from Google Books. Many Irish libraries also have e-books to download – you can download them for a certain length of time the same way as you’d loan a book,” he explains. 

What about traditional publishers?

So what does this mean for traditional publishers? Fergal Tobin, publishing director at Gill & Macmillan, says Irish companies are preparing for the forthcoming challenges. 

“I don’t know anybody in publishing who doesn’t believe that digital delivery systems generally and e-books specifically are going to be a major feature of the future. This is a technological breakthrough moment – a lot of the publishing future is going to be digital. To have a problem with digitisation is like having a problem with the tide coming in,” he asserts.

However, Tobin acknowledges that digitisation raises some difficulties for publishers. “We have become accustomed to an established business model and, rather like the music industry, we now have to adjust and try to find a digital business model that actually delivers profits. That search is still continuing.

“This process of a move to digital is unlikely to be uniform right across the board. I think there are certain areas of publishing that will become completely dominated by digital – educational publishing for example. It’s very easy to see the end of the heavy schoolbag era once the physical reader devices become more robust. The idea that you can hold all your schoolbooks on something like an iPad – that’s very obviously the way of the future. Educational publishers are alert to this and are planning for it.”

The piracy problem

One of the problems book publishers will endure, like their music publishing counterparts, is piracy. Digital files can be easily illegally copied and distributed on the internet, something Tobin says the industry is all too aware of.

“If you’re really good with computers, you can bypass most existing systems, so yes, the digital system is vulnerable, but bear in mind the traditional system wasn’t watertight either – there are huge instances of piracy, particularly in Asia. So this is not a new problem, it has just assumed a new shape.

“There are some encouraging developments from the point of view of rights holders. The Pirate Bay case, involving one of the most flagrant file sharing sites, resulted in a criminal prosecution and a conviction. 

“Rights holders do not want to see people going to jail, but if somebody puts his hand in your bag and steals your purse, just because he’s able to, that doesn’t make it right. I think that rights holders have no choice in these circumstances but to look to the law to enforce their rights, in the same way as any other property right is enforceable by law.”

So does the advent of the e-reader mean the death of print? Halpin doesn’t believe so. “I doubt traditional books will ever die out. You’ll always have people who prefer them,” he says. 

Tobin agrees. “There is a lot of affection for the traditional book and that affection is borne from the fact that the codex is a brilliant piece of technology. It may be old technology, but it’s wonderfully functional and efficient. You don’t have to switch it off when the plane is taking off!”

By Deirdre Nolan

Photo: The Sony Reader at work