The reading revolution
We are enjoying books as much as ever — just in different ways, reports Luke Slattery
IN the beginning was the word and the word still rules. Until recently it was feared that portable devices and their gimmicks — from online shopping to Skype — would threaten the survival of long-form reading.
But the opposite has occurred and Australian publishers are increasingly buoyant about the eBook revolution.
EBooks are understood to represent more than 10 per cent of the Australian book market, although some individual publishers, such as HarperCollins, put the figure at 12 per cent. In the US, eBooks account for about 20 per cent of total book sales, while in Britain the proportion of eBook sales is about 16 per cent.
Malcolm Neil, content director at online book and e-reader company Kobo, anticipates that by the end of this year the eBook market in Australia will double to 20 per cent. In no time at all, he says, eBook sales of new releases will exceed print sales by a wide margin. ‘‘ Tablets will have become lighter and more affordable and many readers will be using them, and e-readers will be ubiquitous and incredibly affordable,’’ he says.
Maree McCaskill, chief executive of the Australian Publishers Association, is equally sanguine about the health of publishing and the future of reading. ‘‘ The year ahead is going to bring a lot of exciting developments in terms of market penetration and format developments,’’ she predicts. ‘‘ EBooks and tablets are increasing their use across all sectors of the reading community but the move from print to digital is like our economy — multi-speed.’’
Michael Heyward, publisher at Text, has no doubt eBooks will change the way we read, but he is not convinced one form will supplant the other. ‘‘ There is already evidence that the death of the bookstore for paper and ink books has been grossly exaggerated, which is to say that we seem to be making a collective decision that we want our towns and cities to have public spaces where we browse for and discuss what we read.’’
Fiona Inglis, managing director of Curtis Brown literary agents, agrees that ‘‘ digital and print will survive happily side by side. Publishers will test the market with digital and then, if there is a real demand, be more inclined to invest in a print format.’’
As a commercial representative for writers in this emerging market, she sees increasing opportunities for publication. ‘‘ We’ve done deals for short stories and novellas that would not be as easy to sell if publishers only had the option of print formats. We also represent a number of estates. Many of their titles have been out of print for years but have now been reissued in digital format and for print-ondemand. It’s wonderful that these works can be made available after many years out of print.’’
From her position as digital publishing director at independent Australian publisher Allen & Unwin, Elizabeth Weiss surveys the new digital landscape with a keen eye. ‘‘ We are now well into the eBook revolution and it’s clear that the eBook is here to stay,’’ she says. At Allen & Unwin, as with most Australian publishers, most new releases have a dual life in both print and electronic form.
‘‘ It’s now a significant and normal part of our publishing program,’’ Weiss explains. ‘‘ We have staff employed specifically to work on eBooks. When we want to publish a book we’re not having a discussion about whether or not to publish an eBook edition, it’s a discussion about the terms of publication between publisher and author, and publisher and vendor.’’
The eBook revolution has already prompted some publishers to open digital divisions whose catalogues are focused on genre fiction: romance, fantasy, science fiction and crime. At Pan Macmillan, for example, a dedicated digital imprint, Momentum, was launched last year. It offers the same editing services as the parent company (in marked contrast to most selfpublished eBooks) yet prints only eBooks with the option for print on demand.
Shona Martyn, publishing director at Harper Collins, is another believer in the coexistence of digital and traditional books. ‘‘ People are reading as much as ever, just in different ways,’’ she observes. ‘‘ Above all, digital does not spell the end of the print book.
‘‘ The reading experience on e-reading devices is, fortunately, equal to the experience with a traditional book and digital offers the advantage to download books as and where you are. Fiction readers, in particular, have responded enthusiastically to the e-reading experience and we have seen a significant upsurge of sales of backlist titles as people ‘ discover’ a new author and then buy all previous books by them. Sales of nonfiction, where books are kept in a home library or given as gifts, are currently slower but we are seeing significant growth year on year as more people have devices.’’
Ben Ball, publishing director at Penguin, is finding ‘‘ the digital and physical are interrelated’’, with each ‘‘ promoting and supporting the other’’.
‘‘ With our two current digital initiatives — our romance imprint Destiny and our short-form line of Penguin Specials — we’re seeing growing digital sales, but also a print demand,’’ he says. ‘‘ We’ve recently printed John Garnaut’s Special on Bo Xilai and China’s future ( The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo), and Gideon’s Haigh’s The Deserted Newsroom, and are printing a number of the Destiny titles (and) we’ve had our first few proper reviews of Penguin Specials, in The New York Review of Books and The Australian.
‘‘ At Penguin, we think it’s important to bring to digital publishing our traditional skills as well as our ability to innovate. So we’re still terribly selective about what we publish digitally. We have the same sort of editorial conversations we have over a physical book, and dedicate as many resources to them. Digital-first publishing is a new thing, but we’re still after the old things — a great writer who can illuminate an exciting idea or tell a gripping story.’’