When in 1439 Johannes Gutenberg thought up moveable types and oil-based inks and fixed them on an agricultural screw press, no one could have thought of it as a revolution. But it was indeed a revolution, making ideas and learning available to an audience larger than ever before.
The year 2011 will perhaps be remembered for an invention that is likely to have an impact of similar magnitude: the e-book.
On the face of it, there is nothing revolutionary about reading a digital rendition of a book. It is certainly more convenient to carry an e-reader with a dozen books on it than to lug a dozen books in your travel baggage; “revolution” seems to be too big a word to describe this weight-saving invention. So why all this excitement and anxiety in the cultured world of publishing?
For one, e-books are downloaded from websites, bypassing and imperilling bookshops, those charming symbols of civilisation. Will the entire system of publishing, made up of agents who discover talent and editors who help authors shape the manuscript, wither away? Will this affect the incentive for books to be published and perhaps make that genteel mark of civilisation, “the reading habit”, just another quaint memory?
For starters, Stephen King, master of horror novels, and Paul Coelho, author of The Alchemist and other bestsellers, are reported to be considering direct distribution of their books via e-books. Perhaps they are hoping to expand their earnings beyond authors’ royalties and acquire a share of what their publishers used to make.
There are other ominous signs too. Books that were once sold for $20 in their printed avatars fetch half that price, $9.90, in their e-book version without any noticeable increase so far in the number of copies sold.
Some of these anxieties were fuelled when Amazon announced recently that more e-books were being sold nowadays on its website than printed books.
But pragmatists point out that such statistics are probably misleading. E-books make up just 10 per cent of all books sold even in the US. In countries like the UK and the Netherlands, and even in Gutenberg’s own Germany, e-books now account for a mere one or two per cent of all books sold.
Although e-readers and e-books burst on to the scene just last year, they had been on the anvil for more than two decades. The first attempt was by Sony, with its 1990 product, Discman. It hoped to do to books what it had successfully done to music with its Walkman. More attempts by Sony and others met a similar fate. For e-books to take off, there was a need for a large enough number of internet-enabled consumers, lower price points and, most of all, enough e-books available for download. All of this came together in 2007 with the launch of Amazon’s Kindle in the US.
Today, there is a dog fight in the business of e-readers. In addition to dedicated e-reader makers, tablet manufacturers, notably Apple with its iPad, are in the fray, not to mention every PC and mobile phone maker in the world. Models are getting thinner, lighter and cheaper, and batteries are lasting longer than ever. Social software features showing what other readers have bookmarked enhance the reading experience.
There are many incumbents who look to be the winners in the e-book movement. Textbooks – those weighty, dull staples of college life – are blossoming in the e-book era by adding audio and video content. In some examples that I saw recently, physics and chemistry textbooks came to life with these multi-media enhancements.
Magazine publishers, too, are looking optimistically at the e-book era after facing a decade of onslaught from the Web and its free culture. Consumers seem to like reading magazines on e-readers and, more importantly, seem to be ready to pay for subscriptions.
E-books, as we noted, account for a minuscule part of book sales even in advanced Western countries, but the tipping point may not be as far away as it appears. A recent study by PricewaterhouseCoopers in the US, UK, Germany and the Netherlands, shows merely 15 per cent of people in these countries read 50 per cent or more of all books. That means if e-book penetration rises from its present modest levels to even 10 per cent, a tipping point will be reached. Some experts say this penetration level would be reached if e-reader prices drop below $50 from the current $125.
Like Gutenberg’s invention, this may herald the true democratisation of knowledge.