How will the digital age change publishing?

Written by Thomas Abraham | Published:November 3, 2011 3:39 am

One of the hottest debates in the world of books is on the future of publishing in the digital age. The debate generally centres on the following,depending on who you are — reader,publisher,bookseller or author.

One,will reading be the same? Cold screens can surely never replace warm paper. Two,publishers,like brick-and-mortar bookshops,are now an endangered species and will probably be extinct,or certainly redundant. Anybody can directly publish themselves. Three,e-books will be hugely cheaper with the removal of paper and inventory costs from the mix.

Starting with the first argument,it has been staggering how quickly people have converted to e-books,yours truly included. And I’m not even talking of a generation that has been brought up on screens being a natural reading interface. The simulation on an e-ink device approximates the reading experience of a book,with only the smell and touch of paper missing. Offsetting that is the advantage of storing hundreds of books in one device,making travel a much better experience and getting a lot more out of certain categories.

The problem for India in terms of barriers for adoption is different. Typically of India and its IT status,we had three e-reader devices in 2010 before we had a single full e-book programme from any publisher. Not surprisingly,those devices went nowhere; they were just novelty items. Our core problem is that we are a low-priced market and we don’t have leisure reading as a common enough habit to ensure mass conversion. Not many are going to spend upwards of Rs 8,000 on a device and then download books on it where they again pay per book. Might as well buy the physical book. Either the device prices have to crash or actual convergence must happen — something possible with the tablets of today,where e-reading is an “also available” function on a device primarily bought for a lot more. Over 10 million tablets were sold in 2010 and over 60 million tablet sales could happen before this year ends. This penetration will only exponentially increase in a country like India.

The next point in this debate is the disintermediation angle. The shift to digital is affecting all media: in the UK,every national newspaper but one has declined in circulation. YouTube now reaches more consumers than the three big American television networks. So there are different types of transition. In the worst case,a new form of technology largely supplants an existing media: e.g. the effect of satellite navigation and web cartography on the sales of road atlases; or Wikipedia on encyclopedias.

So,are publishers relevant in this coming age where anybody can upload a book? One’s outlook and prophecy would depend on how one views publishing. If publishing function is just seen as that of investor who paid for a print run,then with e-books,that reliance is not needed. But if publishing is viewed as much more (my view for instance,borne out for now,in the decade we’ve seen online publishing),with the editorial process — from acquisitions that build certain kinds of books to the reshaping of books — being paramount alongside essential marketing and mastery of distribution channels,physical or online,then nothing has really changed. Publishers will continue to exist. True,there will be success stories in self-publishing and there will be much more freedom in terms of product ranges being expanded,but these finally remain exceptions to the rule. They do not change the game itself. Let’s not forget that the publisher-as-investor reason has been almost invalid for the past decade with the advent of POD (print on demand). Just like an upload,any author today can self-publish a few copies to put out there without having to build a print run. The problem lies in getting larger traction and taking book sales to the next level. Toujours le distribution!

The pricing argument goes on. The savings in paper will be offset by higher content costs and digital infrastructures; in a nutshell,the cost reduction is not significant enough to actually ensure a radical change in pricing structures — certainly not in a low-priced market like India where the physical books on an average are priced lower than they should be. But,yes,there will be different pricing according to geographical market needs; so whenever India has mass offtake in e-books it will have differential pricing.

Finally,a word on the other bugbear that has plagued publishers in India — piracy. Ironically enough,with all the unbridled freedom of the Net,it is easier to police piracy there than at traffic lights.

So all things taken into account,physical books are certainly not going away for the next decade or two even. And e-books,from a publishing point of view,are a “consummation devoutly to be wished”.

The writer is managing director of Hachette India,express@expressindia.com

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