Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Books v2.0

Will e-books drive a stake through the heart of book publishing?

Vancouver Sun: 2008 October 22


Saturday, Oct. 25, 4:30-6 p.m.

PTC Studio 1398 Cartwright Street, 3rd floor Granville Island

Admission: Free

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Paper-and-cardboard books are old-fashioned and bulky and therefore doomed in the electronic age. Right?

Amazon's Kindle e-reading appliance sells for around $350 and once you own one you can choose from 185,000 titles to download wirelessly, anywhere there is cellular service. It weighs 10 ounces, about the same as a paperback novel. Kindle will store 200 books at a time and fits easily into a coat pocket.

Amazon estimates that it will sell almost 200,000 Kindles in 2008 and more than 2.2 million by the end of 2010, by which time the online bookseller expects to rake in $750 million in e-book sales. That's about three per cent of the market.

Book publishers have to be salivating.

E-books cost less to print, nothing to warehouse and less to transport. It's a no-brainer.

Daily newspapers suffer many of the same disadvantages that books have: bulky, costly to print, easy to deliver electronically. Most are preparing for life after death of the paper edition. Some newspapers have already dropped some paper editions in favour of electronic delivery. A few are already available on Kindle.

So is Kindle the devil that finally extinguishes our 2000-year love affair with the printed page?

Raincoast Books marketing guy Jamie Broadhurst doesn't think so. Books are special in a way that newspapers, it seems, are not.

Burn a copy of the New York Times outside the Vancouver Public Library and people will stop to warm their hands. Flick your Bic under a copy of Sons and Lovers, The Satanic Verses or any of the thrilling adventures of Harry Potter and you might well be curb stomped.

Certainly you will be verbally abused and inevitably labelled a Nazi by people wearing hemp shirts.

"Ten years ago people thought that the cookbook would die with millions of recipes available online," Broadhurst said. "Who would walk out their door to get a cookbook?"

"But people still love the idea of a beautifully made, illustrated book."

"From the time you are a child and you curl up with your parent and read Goodnight Moon, you have a special bond with books," he said.

Harry Potter may have given birth to a generation of readers that will keep the publishing industry vibrant for many years to come.

Raincoast sold 850,000 copies of the last Potter title in 48 hours.

Purveyors of paper books continue to swim against the current of digitization, actually growing their market by about 2.5 per cent a year in the U.S. and Canada.

The early book on Kindle is that the devices are mainly in the hands of power readers, people who are also the heaviest consumers of traditional books.

"I think e-books are an opportunity," said Broadhurst. "I don't see it as a threat, rather it is a way to sell more books."

Broadhurst is the moderator of a special late addition to the Vancouver International Writers and Reader Festival, a panel discussion with CEOs and editors from Canada's top publishing houses and book sellers.

"It's early days still with e-books, but tracking downloads for Kindle there has been phenomenal growth," he said. "But it's still a small part of book retail."

Broadhurst remains bullish on the future of traditional book sales and reckons that Vancouver has one of the most vibrant book retail markets in North American in terms of both mainstream and specialty book sellers, such as Books to Cooks and Vancouver Kidsbooks.

Is he nagged by the possibility that once books are released in digital form that people will simply start trading them around for free the way MP3 songs were on Napster and still are on Lime Wire?

You can already get books for free at the public library, he said.

I'm not so sure it's the same thing. You have to ride the bus to get to the library and that's a lot more work than pressing a button.

The Internet has driven a stake through the heart of compact disk sales; it probably has enough wood left to do in the paperback, too.

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A book is an object, as much as a painting or sculpture, especially when particular care is given to design and illustration (where most of my attention is invested). There is a certain tactile quality, presence, portability and thoughtful scale inherent in a well designed book that is hard to beat. However, it is really just one medium among many others, and I think writers and artists have always adapted their skills to suit the materials, processes and markets that are available at any time.

I don't see why an e-book could not be as affecting as a physical book, as long as the interface is aesthetically comfortable (maybe not entirely the case just now). It would likely change the content of my creative work a little, but I'm used to that having already moved from large-scale painting to illustrated books, which is itself a sort of transition from "physical" imagery to "virtual" counterparts in print, which has all kind of limitations I have to negotiate, but also some advantages. There's always a solution, I think, to any constraints presented by a new medium.

Shaun Tan, Illustrator, graphic novelist (The Arrival)

For me, the medium is not the relevant bit. Sure: books on paper are wonderful. They smell good to me. They feel good in my hand. I like the weight and heft of books on paper. I like how books never run out of batteries and don't ever need to be plugged in. And how I can take a book to the beach/ski slope/on rapid transit and not worry if it will work in that place. I know that it will.

Let's face it: the traditional book's design is a good one. It's timeworn and it works. Sometimes all the kerfuffle about e-books seems like a lot of inventing better mousetraps. And sure: there are some good ideas. But when the dust settles, what's in my hand? A book. Always, a book.

In the end, it will be preference, won't it? A good book transports us, does it not? It lifts us from the place where we are -- with a paper book or an e-book reader in hand -- and drops us into the world of that story. The message does that, then. Not the medium.

As is so often the case in life, it's all about the journey. The method of transportation barely factors in.

Linda Richards
Author, journalist (Death Was the Other Woman)