By MARK EGAN and CHRISTINE KEARNEY
GIANTS and upstarts of publishing gathered at the annual BookExpo America in New York City last week agreed eBooks will transform the business, although exactly how it will all shake out remains unclear.
From biggest publishers to newcomers, there was agreement on one thing: the big change will come when there is a standard format across which all eBooks can be published and shared.
The industry has been going through a tumultuous period as Apple and Amazon.com duke it out for dominance in the nascent market for electronic books.
Both want their devices – the iPad and the Kindle, respectively – to be the one consumers use to read eBooks, and each wants to be the biggest virtual store where such content is sold.
Ultimately, consumers want freedom, says David Shanks, chief executive of leading publisher Penguin Group USA.
“Our fondest wish is that all the devices become agnostic so that there aren’t proprietary formats and you can read wherever you want to read,” Shanks says. “First, we have to get a standard that everybody embraces.”
The issue, he says, is the fear of piracy and how to set a common digital rights management system to thwart it.
The battle over technology formats is a familiar one. A century ago, (record manufacturers) Edison and Victor made records that could not be played on each other’s players. There was the Betamax/VHS videotape struggle and more recently, Blu-ray beat out HD DVD.
BookExpo showed traditional books are alive and well. There was buzz for the upcoming book from news parody king Jon Stewart and raucous Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richard’s memoirs as well as a book on home design by Barbra Streisand.
And there was evidence of change coming in the age of eBooks, although the new format was displayed only in one small corner of the sprawling Javits Center convention halls in New York.
Among the digital companies there were Sideways, which helps authors and publishers transform text into multimedia content, adding video, pictures and features such as Twitter feeds.
Eileen Gittins of Blurb, which helps authors and companies self-publish, predicts eBooks will make up half of all sales in five years. In 2009, the global publishing business, including print and digital, was worth US$71bil (RM238bil), according to PriceWaterhouseCoopers.
“We’re seeing now in book publishing what had happened previously in the music publishing industry. And that is, a massive disruption of the business model,” she says.
The problem is that the cost of printing is a minor cost of publishing whereas developing work with an author and marketing it consume the lion’s share of costs.
That means, she said, that the book industry will become more like the movie business. “The book publishing industry is becoming more blockbuster focused,” she says.
Susan Petersen Kennedy, president of Penguin Group USA, says publishers will not make the same mistakes as the music industry, which had an epic struggle over electronic distribution and piracy and lost huge market share.
“It’s always treated as if the publishers are the Luddites,” she says. “The devices have not caught up with the content. Contrary to popular opinion, the book is actually so far more flexible.”
Serbinis says the industry will see dramatic change. He predicts consolidation among publishers and says tablet computers will be common. He expects readers to eventually be able to lend eBooks to each other.
And books won’t just be for bookstores any more, as new distribution channels from mobile phone companies to gaming companies join the party, he says. “It won’t only be the bookstores that have gone digital,” he says. – Reuters