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Digitalisation - opportunity or threat?

10 September 2007

Digitalisation has become such a huge issue in the book world that News Review will be investigating the latest developments over the next two weeks. First, what are publishers doing about it and how will this impact on writers?

Over the last year or so the big publishing companies have realised that they need to take digitalisation seriously, or they may wake up to find that bigger players, such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft, have taken over their territory.

But what, you may ask, is digitalisation and how does it impact on writers? Digitalisation essentially makes the book into a digital file, and after that it can be printed using print on demand or, potentially, delivered to readers by a download to an e-reader, a computer or some other device yet to be invented.

At the Making the Most of Digitalisation seminar in London last October, Francis Bennett concluded that: 'Going digital presents publishers with real opportunities for exploiting their texts in a totally new way. But making the most of this opportunity is a daunting process because it calls for the rewriting of so much of what has become established practice in the industry - from the way we think about authorship and the role of the publisher, to redefining the contractual basis of our business, how we sell the content we publish, and how we find new ways to reach our markets.'

Publishers have responded to these threats and opportunities by setting up their own digital stores. HarperCollins internationally was the first in the trade (or consumer) publishing world to do so in August 2006, when it had already scanned 10,000 titles and made them into digital files. Random House UKPenguin Random House have more than 50 creative and autonomous imprints, publishing the very best books for all audiences, covering fiction, non-fiction, poetry, children’s books, autobiographies and much more. Click for Random House UK Publishers References listing followed with the announcement of a £5 million investment in October 2006. It has already digitalised all the company's titles from the past 2 or 3 years and expects to have several thousand books in its digital warehouse by later this year. Other publishers are following suit. Interestingly, Random House has also set up a 'Search Inside' function, copying Amazon.

This scramble to set up digital warehouses raises the issue of whether this is done though the intermediation of booksellers or direct by publishers, which is the particular issue which is causing anxiety in the publishing world. Francis Bennett again: 'The problem faced by booksellers and publishers alike is that no one knows where the digitations frontier lies, what ground is secure and what isn't.'

Peter Bowron, Group MD of Random House UK says: 'The theory behind what we are doing is that far from not wanting to work with Amazon and Google, we definitely want to work with them. We are not going to stick our head in the sand, but we want to be the people holding and managing the material and the copyright. We will then serve up pages to whoever we have dealings with.'

We are in unknown territory here. It looks as if writers' interests are best served by publishers continuing to handle their work, as they will produce and market it, protect authors' copyright and pay royalties. But digitalisation also offers up opportunities for self-publishers, providing that they can work out how to sell their books.

We are beginning to see the immensity of the change all this may bring, but there are bigger challenges to come. As Jerry Fishenden of Microsoft says: 'In just a few years, the digital age has been more disruptive than the industrial revolution, and we are still very much in the nursery stage.'

Next week: How digitalisation is affecting bookselling and distribution.