Cows, calves and codes: e-books and the future of publishing

Storage capacity was more of an issue than battery life with the first tablets

 The Fifty Shades of Grey series started out on Twilight fan fiction websites and has since sold over 40 million copies in various formats. I thought I’d read it to see what all the fuss was about, but it costs over $7, even on Kindle, and I’m not that interested, so I used the free preview instead. This starts with somebody who looks “gamine and gorgeous, strawberry blond hair in place and green eyes bright…”. I’m hooked already, dying to find out where the strawberry blond hair goes when it isn’t in place, but you don’t buy this for tales of wandering wigs, do you? Sure enough, a few lines later, we’re in the thick of the action. “Get back to bed.” Oh my, whatever are they going to do now? “I made you some soup to heat up later”.

Right, that’s enough eroticism for one day, thank you, now let’s talk about the digital revolution in publishing. Actually, despite all the hype, it’s not much of a revolution yet. According to a new OECD report, eBooks: Developments and policy considerations (now there’s a title that leaves nothing to the imagination!) e-books accounted for only around 1% of book sales in most OECD countries in 2010, the exceptions being the US at 8% and the UK at 2 or 3%. E-book sales are rising rapidly however: up 29.4% in 2009 and 38.9% in 2010, with Amazon now selling more e-books than print. This has prompted speculation that the printed book could suffer the same digital death as the CD and, pretty soon, the DVD, with customers preferring to download a file rather than buy the physical object.

That speculation seems unfounded, for the time being anyway. In fact e-books seem to be helping print sales. Total estimated revenue for all publishers rose 3.1% in 2010, to $27.9 billion, with $1.6 billion from e-books, following a 2.5% increase in 2009.

Another argument against the death of print is the nature of the work itself. Music downloads are so successful because you still listen to the final product the same way whatever the technology, but you don’t have to buy a whole album just to share one song on your mobile phone with everybody else on the bus. But if you’re interested in Moby Dick, say, you’re unlikely to want just the bit where the whale bites off Ahab’s leg, and reading a whole book is a far more pleasant experience with print for most readers.

That said, digital is likely to replace print to a large extent for some types of publication, such as reference. It’s already happened with the Encyclopaedia Britannica and is increasingly the case in scholarly publishing. At the other end of the market, digital is also promising for pulp fiction, comics and anything else the reader would be unlikely to keep for long in printed format. (Be careful though: a copy of the first comic featuring Superman sold for $2.2 million last year.)

There’s also the fact that you can add lots of content such as audio or web links to e-books, but one thing you can’t do with many of them is share it with a friend. Digital rights management (DRM) means that you’re not buying ownership of the publication, just acquiring a license to use it within certain limits. Governments could oblige sellers to be more transparent about what you can and can’t do with a book before you pay for it.

Another annoyance for e-book buyers is interoperability of the hardware. An e-reader bought from one retailer won’t read books purchased from another. A common DRM standard would help to address this, but sellers seem to prefer a business model that locks in clients to their product, so although e-readers could give unlimited access to the world’s literature in theory, in practice they limit choice to one particular catalogue.

For publishers and booksellers, piracy and copyright infringement are the big worries. The report talks about the “tradition of sharing books that has existed since time immemorial”, but since time memorial at least this tradition has been bound by law. The first known copyright ruling dates from 6th century Ireland, when St Finian of Clonard brought a case against St Columba to stop him copying books (another monk buried his library in an orchard when he heard that Columba was on his way). Diarmaid, High King of Ireland, ruled against Columba on the precedent that a calf belonged to its mother, no matter where the two happened to be: “As to every Cow its Calf, so to every Book its Copy”.

At the time a copy had to be made by hand (on calfskin), but as technology evolved, so did the law, with the introduction of printing being closely followed by laws governing what could be printed, sold and read and by whom. Many of these laws are still in place, but digital publishing raises new issues, not all linked to how easy copying has become. For example should e-books pay the same tax as print? Should libraries have special rights?  Should governments introduce obligations to make digital content available to the visually impaired or those with other reading difficulties? What are the implications of projects to digitise everything ever printed?

eBooks: Developments and policy considerations discusses all of these questions, and hopefully there will be a sequel addressing what the authors call “relevant subject matter not covered in this report” – the future of book shops, the trends affecting different categories of e-publishing, and technical issues such as the metadata used to describe a book in a digital distribution chain (title, author, subject category, price and so on).

But more of that another day, I’ve still got 49 and half shades of grey to get through.

Useful links

OECD work on the Internet economy

OECD iLibrary