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Ebooks - still a hot topic

20 July 2009

Since News Review last reported on e-books and e-book readers in the spring (News Review 2 March) what's happened to the 'big story' of the book world? Well, everyone's been pretty preoccupied with what else is going on right now, with all eyes on the developing recession and how this is affecting booksellers and publishers. But ebooks and the effects of digitisation are still the hot topics of the moment.

It's surprising that a London Book Fair survey showed that only half of UK publishers have a digital plan. Mark Smith, MD of Quercus, said: 'Everyone is realising that it's essential to get into the digital space - I don't think we completely understand how it will all play out in future, but I would have thought most people would realise they need to be there, because if they are not, someone else will be.'

In the UK ebooks are currently just 1.5% of the consumer book market, but they grew by 174% from January 2008 to January 2009. Random House US reported that ebook sales were up 400% in a year and the ebook market is much more developed in the US, partly at least because of Amazon's Kindle. This is still not launched in the UK, although there are rumours that it may be coming soon.

The Lexcycle Stanza, mostly used on iPhones, has acquired 1.7 million users in a year and for education, academic and professional publishers digital sales may already account for as much as half of their turnover.

Two considerations are affecting the growth of the market. There are now more than 25 ebook file formats and the proliferation is harming the market. A cross-platform format is much needed and the open ePub standard looks like the format of choice. It is not however supported by Kindle. The Sony Reader and other ereader devices are fighting back. In the US Barnes and Noble are rumoured to be planning to launch a new piece of hardware to compete with the Kindle. Google has joined the fray by putting 500,000 titles in the hands of anyone with a Sony Reader.

The other focus is pricing, with publishers realizing that they may have the opportunity to sell books in a whole other format (which is of course cheaper to produce) but they still need to make sure that that format does not destroy the book business. Prices currently are often around the prices of paperbacks. John Makinson of Penguin has claimed that publishers are 'short-changing authors' if they don't price ebooks at the same prices as books, and Gail Rebuck of 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 agrees. Sourcebooks in the US recently delayed the ebook release of The Farfield Curse for at least 6 months, and CEO Dominique Raccah says: 'Hardcover books have an audience, and we shouldn't cannibalize it, adding 'it doesn't make sense for a new book to be valued at $9.99', a reference to the price point Amazon are trying to establish a for bestselling ebooks.

Future-watcher Mike Shatzkin, founder & CEO of the Idea Logical Company, says: 'We're now in a world where most people don't want to read books on screens rather than paper. So for many of them, if they get a book on a screen and like it, they just become more likely to buy it in paper. This will not remain true forever. A world in which more and more people are reading books on screens will also be a world where freely distributed ebooks will cut into sales, not spur them.'

See also our 2nd Report from the London Book Fair on ebooks