How will publishing respond to e-books?

Stephen Page is the head of publishing house Faber and Faber. He was interviewed by Monica Attard on Radio National for Sunday Profile last week. This post summarises the interview.

The central question was how will publishing respond to e-books? Will it like newspapers loose market share? Will it struggle to find its feet in a new digital distribution mechanism like music? Page thinks that publishing, will learn from the experiences of the movie and music industries. He did not see e-books threatening publishing in the same way that the internet has threatened newspapers. Newspapers are a medium that deliver information quickly, which is something that the internet as a medium does better. But the physical book, Page argues, has an inherent advantage. A book has an aesthetic quality that cannot be compared to the experience of an e-book. People “furnish their house with them”, but people cannot fetishise an e-book. People do fetishise Apple products though. Page referred to the iPad as “a machine trying to do many things” but not a device suitable for the experience of reading a long narrative. The Kindle however, with its e-ink technology solves the problem of eye strain caused by luminous screens. Its devices like the Kindle that are more likely to grow the small channel of the e-book and offer another route to readers.

And what of the cost; presumably e-books should be much cheaper? At this point have a think about what you would be prepared to pay for an e-book version of a $15 paperback. What is the cost of a book? It is so much easier to think about the cost of a tangible product. Perhaps because we can touch it we assume the cost is in the printing, the production of the object, the transportation, the distribution to retailers. Page pointed out though that the costs of printing are a minor component in the costs of a book. A publisher has to make the investment in copyright which has its value and worth for the author. A publisher’s expertise (and costs) are in finding writers, in editors, in marketing and publicising works. At this point, Monica Attard noted that the e-book is more likely to threaten the independent book seller than the publishers themselves. It was interesting to hear Page speak of price point management; the market cycle of a book from hard cover launch to wider paper back release. While piracy is an obvious threat, a threat is also posed if retailers (Apple, Amazon) engage in a price war, so we can safely assume that publishers will place conditions on retailers and monitor pricing activity.

While the experience of a book may be hard to compete with, the digital channel can offer an amplified experience: rich content, author interviews and access to similar works. Page describes a business model where readers can be lead from one book to another; where readers can not only read but listen and download other content. Print on demand is also on the cards, and Page described a scenario of giving someone the ability to select their own anthology of poems and have that created into a book as a gift. This presents a vision of a publisher more akin to Apple’s iTunes music store.

Its great to hear a traditional business, embracing the advantages of a digital medium. I just wish Monica Attard had asked one more question of Stephen Page, and that is his thoughts on Google’s Internet Archive.

Related Links:

Google Lets You Custom-Print Millions of Public Domain Books
The Fight over the Google of All Libraries: A Wired.com FAQ

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