Writers, Readers and the e-Book Revolution

The e-book revolution is now clearly with us.  One report suggests that e-books will be a $9.7 billion market by 2016, a threefold increase from 2011.

Two years ago, commuting from Wimbledon to the British Library, my random checks showed that the Kindle accounted for about 20% of book reading on the London Underground.  Recent reports suggest that e-books accounted for 20% of the American book market in 2011, that 114 million e-books were sold during 2011, that 12% of American adults owned an e-reader of some sort, that Amazon now sell more Kindle book versions than either hardback or softback. (http://www.technolog.msnbc.msn.com/technology/technolog/e-book-sales-devices-soar-121334 ) The e-reader market is responding, even though it still accounts for a smaller market share than “tablets” like Ipad.  Kobo has now tied up with W.H. Smith in the UK, with the latter at the same time announcing an 8% fall in its sale of conventional books.  That is a joint venture of convenience if there ever was one: Smith heavily reliant on the British commuter market, Kobo being the least successful of the e-reader versions.  Both need a huge boost and clearly see that coming from a joint approach. Barnes & Noble have announced a major improvement in its Nook e-reader, a “glowlight” version that overcomes the major deficiency in these devices, poor capability in low light conditions.  Kindle came out with the “Fire” versions to try and undercut the huge selling and drawing power of Ipad which, of course, also has an enormous book option as does Google’s Android system which, in many ways, started all this.

The e-book phenomenon is clearly linked to those other favourite subjects, globalisation and the rise of internet commerce.  This is best symbolised in some ways by the news that Amazon is to open a huge distribution centre in Australia as part of its Asia-Pacific strategy, an option it has had but sat on for over a decade. Of course, Amazon is now much more than the book distributor it started out as all those years ago to the delight of those of us who could not then get the latest things, as much because of ludicrous global “rights” systems whereby publishers carved out their world markets.  Now challenged in many ways by the rise of outfits like The Book Depository (that Amazon has, in fact, recently bought), Flipkart in India, Booktopia in Australia and others, Amazon has engaged the world of e-commerce totally, the sort of move despised by the now-desperate Gerry Harvey of Harvey Norman who has seen his empire and wealth slashed and blames it all on the internet.

As usual, the e-book success has mixed origins.  There are simple pragmatics, for example: it is way easier to carry a dozen books on a Kindle while travelling than it is to lug the same number of conventional copies.  It is certainly easier to read a Kindle version on the Tube than a conventional copy, especially if that conventional book is a “brick” as in J.K. Rowling or Ken Follett’s historical series.  Then, e-books are generally cheaper – although it must be said that many people, like me, have a price “tipping point”, mainly because one of the harder transitions is getting used to the “bare bones” versions on Kindle that are sparse on author bio or publishing data.  Further, people generally are now persuaded by technology, which helps explain why so many have both a laptop and an Ipad, not to mention the Iphone that now replicates many functions of the other two.  It seems highly unlikely that too many e-readers do so because it helps save trees, but no doubt a few see it as being environmentally responsible.

There are, however, some deep structural implications in all this for readers and writers alike.

Some evidence suggests that people with e-readers are buying more books, in part because of that lower cost dimension – they are happier to take a chance on something new at a far lower price than in a local bookshop.  The additional piece there, naturally, is that the online sources inevitably carry a much bigger range.  The attraction of the Borders outlets in Australia was that they carried a much bigger range than previously available, but the high costs of the physical book and the expense of the carrying capacity space meant the business model failed.  The increasing digitisation of materials solves that problem, as demonstrated in other spheres such as the rise of family history where operations like ScotlandsPeople have allowed researchers to comb the archives via their computer screens.  Similarly, historical research is now changing, at least in the preliminary work where the background reading of, say, important nineteenth century texts can be done at home or on the e-reader rather than in the Bodleian.

The story may be bigger still for writers, for the same reasons that the blogosphere has become so popular, opportunity and freedom.  The starting point is a curious paradox: while more and more people are reading because of the e-versions, it is actually getting harder and harder for writers to find either an agent or a publisher in the conventional market.  Both will tell you increasingly that publishing industry prospects are bleak, that they are not taking on “new” talent because they find it harder than ever to serve the writers they have on their books (sorry) already.  One agent, for example, given a proposal for a book on Syria at the height of the crisis there, returned it unread with the comment that “travel” was currently hard to sell, along with every other genre it seems.

In that situation, the natural response for the writer is the e-book because it has the potential to cut out that intermediary agent/publisher layer, with the finished version being directly uploadable to Ipad, Kindle, Nook, Kobo and the rest under an agreement with the platform host.  The writer has the ability to set a market price and to vary it depending on sales, with all business arrangements around royalties and related matters handled by the platform proprietors.  The model here is John Lock, an independent writer who has sold a million Kindle copies without a conventional publisher (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/8589963/Self-publishing-writer-becomes-million-seller.html. )   Some see this as an advanced version of the “vanity publishing” system of old (where an author paid to have a book appear rather than to be paid for having appeared in print), but it is a lot more than that.

For one thing, it raises a whole set of questions about the publishing gatekeepers who, in effect, try to determine what the reading public should or will like.  Writers like John Lock basically set out to write what they know the reading public really likes, and that is why there is a lot of Kindle-hosted romance, crime and self-help material available.  There is certainly “serious” fiction and deep non-fiction, but it is inarguable that the independent publishing possibilities have produced a lot more “popular” works.  That should not be a surprise because even now Japanese manga accounts for an astonishing proportion of e-material.

In some parts of the world, though, like Germany, it seems that local and national affection for “the book” is making it hard for the e-version to flourish. (http://mobile.businessweek.com/articles/2012-04-19/the-story-behind-germanys-scant-ebook-sales )  Observers like Rohin Dhar see some even more fascinating changes.  He argues, on the basis of a rigorous survey, that in the USA college towns show the highest uptake of e-readers while major cities (like San Francisco and Chicago) have surprisingly low participation. Similarly, the survey suggested only a very low correlation between high levels of education and Kindle uptake.  Strikingly, the survey results suggest that the Ipad and other tablets may become much bigger e-book hosts than specific e-readers like Kindle. (http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/04/the-kindle-index-what-city-buys-the-most-e-readers/256096/ ).  The further implications in all this for writers and readers, and for conventional publishers, will be clear.

Certainly, the academic world is already beginning to think about how best to adapt its traditional peer review system to cope with this, part of a broader backlash against the commercial and intellectual tyranny of an ever-narrowing circle of academic publishers.  Writers are having to think about developing new skills and approaches, including an embrace of the social media world now so integral a part of the e-book publishing scene.  If that 2016 prediction comes true, then, in just a short space of time the reading and writing world will have been revolutionised.

2 Responses to “Writers, Readers and the e-Book Revolution”
  1. maxmagpie says:

    This whole debate is fascinating, and thank you Brian for putting so many of the disparate views and contexts together here in this blog. I was a rabid supporter of “the bulky book” some three years ago; now I am a “Kindle Konvert” and cannot imagine heading off on any travel without my Kindle loaded with 3 or 4 books that fit, literally, in the palm of my hand

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