Books: final chapter yet to be written

By Andrew Stone

Conventional books sandwich a Kindle 3G electronic book reader. Picture / Bloomberg
Conventional books sandwich a Kindle 3G electronic book reader. Picture / Bloomberg

Printed works aren't about to be killed off by digital readers just yet, says global publishing expert

The reassuring news about printed books - for those who devour them - is they are not ready to surrender to the digital tide.

That's the perspective of a book lover who reads ebooks and who sits at the top of the world's publishing industry.

Jens Bammel, a German lawyer and secretary general of the International Publishing Association, watches the business of books from Geneva. He likens its condition to surfing an avalanche, given that the irresistible momentum of digital publishing is sweeping all before it.

In areas like trade publishing and highbrow scholarly works, the revolution is complete. Articles go directly online and users subscribe to a database.

The digital market for mainstream fiction, paperbacks and self-help works is big and getting bigger. Erotic titles are popular too. Bammel thinks the attraction might be that "no one sees what you're reading on screen when you're on the tube."

A standout space in bookshops, much to the delight of an industry under pressure, remains filled with cookbooks.

It's the same in Britain, where Jamie Oliver sells titles by the trolleyload, or New Zealand, where self-published Annabel Langbein had two titles in the top 10 last year.

"With cookbooks you are buying something that you can't replicate on a screen," says Bammel.

But publishing cannot survive forever on titles churned out by celebrity cooks. The industry remains under siege on several fronts, nervously watching the next move of Amazon.com and Apple, which typically has a dazzling new piece of technology called iBooks Author - now the target of much online heat.

Author Jonathan Franzen thinks ebooks are fouling the shelves of printed works. The bestselling novelist fears that as "a literature crazed person" the prospect of bound books giving way to letters on a screen means "it's going to be very hard to make the world work if there's no permanence like [the printed book]."

Bammel's perspective is less bleak. Despite the hype which greeted Apple's push into digital textbooks in January, Bammel notes studies which urged looking before leaping into online education.

A Colorado report found students at the state's full-time online education programmes lagged behind their peers on virtually every academic indicator, while the New York Times, after an exhaustive national investigation of the trend, concluded that "schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning."

All this suggests that it might be too soon to be burning hefty school textbooks.

But Bammel concedes the industry faces tough times. Take piracy, which after creating havoc in the music and film industries is invading the world of books. It is possible to smash digital protection systems set up by publishers and illegally download a bestseller in less than 60 seconds.

Last month an alliance of publishers shut down a piracy operation with a turnover estimated at $15 million.

The filesharing sites had 400,000 ebooks available for free illegal downloads, and made money from advertising, donations and the sale of premium-level accounts.

The industry considered its legal victory an important milestone, noted Bammel, describing the internet library as organised copyright crime.

The business, he said, would not tolerate "freeloaders who make unjustified profits by depriving authors and publishers of their due reward."

Bammel will be in Auckland next week to address publishers. He is coming to a market wrestling with the same forces that are reshaping the global publishing landscape but insulated a little by distance.

So far New Zealand has been slow to get on board the digital trend because we are still a few years behind the US in embracing electronic readers.

Against the odds, the New Zealand publishing industry held steady last year, while mature markets in Australia, the US and the UK all contracted, according to industry monitor Nielsen. Retail data recorded sales worth $154 million in NZ, up slightly on $152.45 million in 2010. The figure is understated because Whitcoulls does not release information.

Publishers Association of NZ president Kevin Chapman says the lack of data from the big retailer makes the overall picture hard to read but he feels the industry held up well in tough trading conditions.

And despite the digital shadow and explosion of Kindles and iPads, Chapman says New Zealand authors and publishers will get huge exposure this year on the back of Germany's Frankfurt Book Fair. New Zealand is guest of honour at the fair, the world's largest content publishing event which draws 300,000 visitors and 10,000 international journalists over five days in October.

Chapman takes off in two weeks with 10 established New Zealand authors - among them Alan Duff, Elizabeth Knox, Kate Camp, Damien Wilkins and Jenny Pattrick - for the Leipzig Book Fair. A little brother to Frankfurt in the convention stakes, it still draws 150,000 visitors and hundreds of industry heavyweights.

Part of Bammel's message to local publishers will be to embrace the tide of change. He mentioned a nifty feature of the Nook, the e-reader of the US bookselling giant Barnes & Noble.

Bammel likes its ability to record children's books. "You know what it's like reading the same story over and over," he says. "It's a great feature."

And then there's the "enhanced e-book" - an omnibus package shown to great effect in the US with the bestselling work, Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F Kennedy. The book deal comes with eight CDs, transcripts of interviews, archival pictures and background material on the project. Its retail cost is US$60. The e-reader form includes audio, video, photographs, text and transcripts and sells for a third of the price.

Bammel, 44, inhabits both the digital and the print world. "I read books on my Kindle, my iPhone and my iPad. I still buy paper books and really enjoy going to a book shop and leaving with a pile of books."

Book sales
* Down 7.2 per cent Decline in Australian book sales in 2011

* 7.2 per cent Decline in British book sales in 2011

* 4.5 per cent Decline in US book sales in 2011

* 0.1 per cent Increase in NZ book sales in 2011

Source: Nielsen BookScan. Note: NZ figure excludes Whitcoulls

- NZ Herald

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