eBooks near tipping point?

This appeared in Business Standard

When Johannes Guttenberg, in 1439, thought up moveable types and oil-based inks and fixed them on an agricultural screw press no-one watch all this could have thought of this as a revolution. But a revolution it was, by making ideas and learning available to an audience larger than ever before.

This year, 2011, will perhaps be remembered in times to come for an invention that is likely to have an impact of similar magnitude, the eBook.

On the face of it, there isn’t anything revolutionary about reading a digital rendition of a book. It certainly is more convenient to carry one eReader with a dozen books on it than to lug a dozen books in your travel baggage; the word ‘revolution’ seems to be too big a word to describe this weight-saving invention. Then, why all this excitement and anxiety in the cultured world of publishing?

For one, eBooks are downloaded from websites and that bypasses bookshops, imperilling those charming symbols of civilization. Will the whole system of publishing made up of agents who discover talent, editors who help authors shape the manuscript wither away? Will this lower the incentives for books to be published  and perhaps make that genteel mark of civilization, ‘the reading habit’, become just another quaint memory?

In a sign of changing times, Stephen King, that master of horror novels and Paul Coehlo, the author of  The Alchemist and other best-sellers are reported  to be considering  direct distribution of their books via ebooks . Their hope perhaps is to expand their earnings beyond author’s royalties and take a share of what their publishers used to make.
There are other ominous signs as well. Books that used to be sold for $20 in their printed avatars fetch half that price, $9.90, in their ebook version without, as yet, any noticeable increase in the number of copies sold. 

Some of these anxieties were given a fillip when Amazon announced recently that more ebooks are nowadays being sold on their website than are printed books.

But pragmatists point out that statistics of this kind are probably misleading. eBooks make up just 10% of all books sold even in the United States. In  countries like the UK and Netherlands and even in Guttenberg’s own Germany, where one would have thought early adopters for new reading methods abound, eBooks account now for a mere 1-2% of all books sold.

On the face of it eReaders and eBooks burst into sight just last year but they have been in the coming for more than two decades. The first attempt was by Sony; with their 1990 product Discman, they no doubt hoped to do to books what they had successfully done to music with their Walkman. More attempts by Sony and others met a similar fate. For eBooks to take off, there needed to be a large enough number of internet-enabled consumers, price points needed to be lower and, most of all, enough eBooks available for download. All of this came together in 2007 with the launch of Amazon’s Kindle in the United States.

Today, there is a dog-fight in the business of eReaders. In addition to dedicated eReader makers, tablet manufacturers, notably Apple with their iPad, are in the fray not to mention every PC and mobile phone maker in the world. Models are getting ever thinner, ever lighter, and ever cheaper and batteries are lasting ever longer.  Social software features that, for example, show what other readers have bookmarked, enhance the reading experience.

There are many incumbents who look to be winners in the eBook movement. Textbooks, those weighty, dull staples of college life, are blossoming in the eBook era by adding audio and video content. In some examples that I saw recently, physics and chemistry textbooks really came to life with these multi-media enhancements.

Magazine publishers are another lot who are looking optimistically at the eBook era after facing a decade of onslaught of the web and its free culture. Consumers appear to like reading magazines on eReaders and, more importantly, seem to be ready to pay for subscriptions.

 eBooks, as we noted, as yet account for a miniscule 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 done by the consulting firm PWC in the US, UK, Germany and the Netherlands, shows that a mere 15% of people in these countries read 50% or more of all books. That means that if the penetration of eBooks rises from its present modest levels to even10%, a tipping point would be reached. Some experts say that this penetration level could occur if eReader prices drop to below $50 from their present $125.

Like Guttenberg’s invention, this may herald the true democratization of knowledge.

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