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Friday, 19 August 2011

The Rise of eBooks

It has been a few weeks since my last posting and the Edinburgh Book Festival is now in full swing. A couple of nights ago I spoke at an event on the rise of eBooks. The listing for the event on the Book Festival website and catalogue read as follows:

Earlier this year, Amazon announced that it was selling more copies of books in its Kindle eBook format than traditional paperbacks. Have we reached a landmark moment in the battle between digital and print publishing? In this event the acclaimed historian and piracy expert Angus Konstam discusses the possible end of the Gutenberg era with the highly-respected literary agent and former editorial director Maggie McKernan, Peter Burns, Manager of eBooks at Birlinn publishers, and Nicola Solomon, who recently left the media law firm Finers Stephens Innocent to take up her role as the newly-appointed General Secretary of the Society of Authors.

I think in light of this event, that this is the perfect opportunity to discuss the rise of eBooks and the threat (or perceived threat) they pose to printed books.


Like the vast majority of people who step foot inside Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square gardens this month, I have a very deep love of the printed book. I love the smell, the feel and the look of them. I love the experience of reading them, picking them up, seeing them piled by my bed and on coffee tables and on my shelves, and I enjoy the sense of achievement I feel as I work my way through them. But I am also incredibly excited by eBooks, what they mean and what can be done with them.

A year ago, the publishing world was in a fit of panic over eBooks. Now the feeling is quite different. The rapid rise of eBooks in the public conscience has been facilitated by equally rapid advancements in technology – specifically eReaders, smartphones and tablet computers. Battle lines are being drawn by the world’s biggest companies as they strive to dominate these markets – and all the intellectual copyright and patents that go with that. Apple, Google, Amazon, Windows and Blackberry, among many others, are fiercely battling for dominance – and as a result the products they are producing are just startling. It’s like an arms race. As a result of all the advances in technology, content can be exploited and explored in so many ways that were just unthinkable a few years ago – even a few months ago. And that is what is so exciting for the publishing world. We face a future where the traditional models no longer apply – we have to realise that we are now content publishers rather than simply publishers of physical, printed books. There are so many ways to use the content that we possess and which we commission, and it is an incredibly liberating and creative experience as the only limit to what can be achieved lies in our imagination. Check out Faber & Faber’s The Waste Land and The Solar System apps and Moonbot’s The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore ­­app to see what can now be done with written content. And these are just scratching the surface of what is possible.

There are dozens of tablet computers and myriad smartphones now available on the market. Apple have sold around 30 million iPads alone since their launch in 2010. An article in The Telegraph in June carried stats from a survey carried out by the Imano Digital Agency, which found that 63 % of British iPad users say they use the Apple device to read ebooks, while 70% of British iPad users who were surveyed said that they read newspapers and magazines on the tablet computer.

Google, who have been using their Android software to battle with Apple’s App Store have just made their first foray into hardware by buying the wireless phone maker Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion, throwing them into the smartphone and tablet hardware market. The deal also gains Google control of vital wireless patents that will enable it to become a major player in the mobile device market. The Motorola deal is something of a counter-punch by Google after it lost out to a consortium, which included Apple and Microsoft, to buy a huge range of patents held by the bankrupt company, Nortel.

According to data from Kantar, two-thirds of all mobile phones sold in the past three months in Britain were smartphones. Android has a 50% share in most major markets, including the UK while Apple has about a quarter. Windows has 7%.

And it’s not just 3G (and eventually 4G) internet that is marking a change to the market – it is wi-fi hotspots too. BSkyB is set to double the number of wi-fi hotspots it operates in the UK to 10,000 sites by the end of 2011 as The Cloud, its mobile broadband division, strives to tap into the growing nation-wide demand for wi-fi access from smartphones and tablet computer owners (which saves them the cost of using their 3G networks and increases speed of service). The Cloud is also in talks with supermarkets to see if customers will use a dedicated wi-fi network within their stores, which could attract new visitors to its outlets, just as hotspots have been set up in PizzaExpress restaurants that allow customers to order food and pay via smartphones or tablets connected to the network.

Figures from eDigitalResearch show that more than 50% of smartphones users are prepared to shop on their handset via downloadable apps or websites, which is up from just 20 per cent nine months ago. Retail analyst Verdict Research is predicting that mobile internet sales could double by 2013 to £275 million, making up 4% of online retail spending. 42% of phone in Britain are now smartphones, and Verdict expects that by 2014, 79% of British consumers will to use their mobile phones for shopping. Similarly, analysts at Morgan Stanley predict mobile internet access is expected to overtake desktop PC access by 2014.

But what does this all mean for eBooks?

There are a number of effects. The first, as I have intimated, is what can be achieved on these devices. Video, audio, photographic slideshows, interactive graphics and so on can all be built into book apps to enhance the written content – and that is just the beginning. The other effect is online shopping, as mentioned above. As with digital music and photography, the transformation of books is being driven by convenience. Downloading new titles to an eReader or tablet computer takes seconds and can be done at any time, any place, anywhere.

People buy these devices, then they need to fill them with content. Amazon’s biggest sales day last year was Christmas Day; when people opened their Kindles, their iPads and the new smartphones, they wanted to use them, so they logged on to Amazon and started downloading. And for anyone who has done this, you’ll know how incredibly easy it is and how quick the process is – not to mention how cheap. Reports from eBook retailers around the globe also show that the biggest daily sales periods are on the way to and from work and at bedtime – when people want to read something new and so browse and buy.

As the blurb for the Book Festival event mentioned, Amazon claim that their sales of eBooks now outstrips sales of physical books. Interestingly they don’t comment (nor do they show this on their Kindle harts) that their biggest eBook sellers are pornographic titles – helped hugely by the fact that by reading a book on a device, no one around you knows what is it you’re reading. Mills and Boon have had huge success in the eBook market as well, with an unprecedented surge in sales among adolescent males – for precisely the same reason as Amazon’s adult titles. But while this is an interesting aside, the information that eBooks are starting to do so much better than their physical incarnations is sending shock waves through the publishing world. What does it all mean? Is this the death knell for the high-street bookshop, which has been in such decline over recent years anyway thanks to cheaper online rivals?

I was asked this very question by a member of the audience the other night. What does it all mean to the book world and the book trade?

There are two answers.

The most likely outcome, as I can see it, is that eBooks will largely replace paperbacks while publishers focus on hardbacks and quality special editions.

And if James Daunt can’t save Waterstone’s, and all the little independent bookshops around the country ultimately go out of business, it would be no surprise to me if you saw Amazon (and other competitors) opening showrooms in their stead. There is no doubt about the importance of the browsing experience, and if bookshops disappear then that experience – and the subsequent diversity of sales beyond the ‘top 100’ charts – will be lost. I can envisage showrooms where one copy of each book (with the range tailored to regional interests) will be on display and shoppers will scan covers for video interviews with authors talking about their books, or promotional trailers, which will in turn then allow the shopper to order the book online to be sent to their home address, or to download a digital edition immediately.

It sounds soulless and sad and it is; but I can see it happening. Let’s hope that an equilibrium can be reached that allows room for both the incredible opportunities that eBooks offer, while retaining a place and a space for traditional print editions and bookshops.

Time will only tell.

Speak soon.

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