Are we facing a digital book revolution?

The book is one of the oldest media still in popular use today but it has also been the last to really feel the effect of the digital age. However with electronic book readers finally becoming practical and affordable the printed word is facing the same kind of revolution that the music, TV and film industries have been grappling with for some time.

While computers have been masters of text-based communication from their inception they have never previously been seen as much of a threat to the book industry. Even though it has been easy to find the full text of books – in many cases those still in copyright – online for years few saw any appeal in reading from a screen at length or wasting reams of paper and ink through printing it.

Besides this laptops have only become truly portable in the last few years while pocket PCs were always too small to be used for reading, which meant being tied to your desk if you wanted to read your book of choice.

That is until E-Ink was invented, or so the argument in favour of e-books goes. E-Ink is a type of screen technology that was designed to mimic the properties of ink on paper, most importantly how it reflects light. This allows manufacturers to remove the backlight which takes the strain off the reader’s eye, making it much easier to read for extended periods of time. As the images are formed by polarising certain points on the page it also means no battery power is used to maintain an image – it is only necessary when changing it.

Since that breakthrough the floodgates have opened and the e-book market has kicked into life, led by companies like Sony and, in the USA at least, Amazon. People can now purchase digital books and transfer them to their e-book, just as they would a song to an mp3 player, and with that the debates already well underway in the rest of the entertainment industry have begun anew in the book world.

Arnaud Nourry, chief executive of French publishing group Hachette Livre has been the most vocal opponent to the trend of late, although his criticism has been aimed more at the companies pushing e-books than the technology itself.

“On the one hand, you have millions of books for free where there is no longer an author to pay, and, on the other hand, there are very recent books, bestsellers at $9,99, which means that all the rest will have to be sold at between zero and $9.99,” he said in recent weeks.

His argument is based on the fact that Amazon has imposed a sub-$10 price-tag on the digital books it sells online and did so without consultation with publishers or authors. Amazon sells files for its Kindle e-book range, which as of yet has not launched in Europe.

His concern also stretches to Google and its Book Search plans, which is putting thousands of out-of-copyright books online for free viewing and download. The search giant recently struck a deal with the Association of American Publishers which will see copyright works also become available on the service, although users will have to pay an as-yet unspecified price and authors can opt-out if they wish.

It is no wonder that some publishers and authors are getting concerned especially if they look to the power Apple now exerts over the music industry through its iTunes Store, which was initially disregarded by record labels as a niche platform. What is equally unsurprising is the fact that Google and Amazon are now squabbling amongst themselves as they seek to position themselves as the strongest digital library. At the end of last month Amazon, Microsoft and Yahoo joined forces under the Open Book Alliance to oppose the settlement reached by Google and the book companies.

Their argument is that Google is trying to monopolise the library system and they have a point. As part of Google’s deal they will share revenue from sales of e-books and grant institutional licences to companies, while also allowing free access to the content in US libraries.

Of course the three companies can hardly be called altruistic on the matter either either. Yahoo and Microsoft are Google’s biggest rivals and as reported here recently, they are now working together to challenge its dominance. Any information they can stop Google offering web surfers will help them in one way or the other.

As for Amazon, the more books Google has to offer in its library the less attractive Amazon’s becomes and the less revenue it can generate. Perhaps more importantly the Google Books system publishes files in the .epub format, which is currently incompatible with Amazon’s Kindle.

That point itself opens up a whole other element to the growing challenges of the digital book. Just like with digital music, early investors in the e-book industry have been pushing their own propriety formats in an attempt to corner both sides of the market. All it really means is there is no cross-compatibility between one brand’s online book shop and another’s e-book, meaning the customer loses out in the long run.

Some may have learned lessons from previous format battles, however. Sony recently announced it would switch to the .epub format too, making it all the more likely that it will become the industry standard.

However there is still the core question that could make all of this positioning irrelevant – do people really want to read books on a device instead of a book? Initial interest in e-books has been mixed with the balance between devices and content not always proving successful. The addition of things like WiFi and even 3G chips might help move things along, however, as it opens the door for daily newspaper content to be delivered along with over-the-air purchases of books.

Many argue that e-books will only have a place in education, though, replacing the numerous heavy workbooks with a light and portable machine. In that market at least the emotional connection to the physical book will be far less strong but companies like Sony are sure to hope it is not their only revenue stream.

Sites of interest for e-book owners: – Google’s book library which includes numerous full texts and previews of copyrighted work. – Project Gutenberg offers thousands of free books and audio-books for download, including many out-of-copyright classics.

An edited version of this article was published in Business & Finance magazine on the 10th September 2009.

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