Kiss books goodbye, here’s iPad

Anyone who has attended a literary festival will know the form. First the reading, discussion and questions, then the book signing. Several people bring a book to be signed.

Among them may be a man who slips several copies of your book out of protective plastic covers. He’s probably a dealer. The easiest way to find out is to ask: “Who shall I sign it to?” A dealer will say in a rush: “Oh, nobody — just your signature is fine.”

What happens to your book next? Does he post it on eBay? Does he lay it down in the garage like a vintage, in the hope that something magnificent or terrible, the Nobel prize or suicide, will happen to you and add enormous value to a signed book?

A printed book is more than a medium for reading. In the five centuries or so since Gutenberg invented movable type, entire ways of living, thinking and making money have grown up around books as tangible objects. The arrival of the ebook threatens this.

Last year Amazon sold half a million Kindles, its electronic reader, across the world. This year the target is at least three million. Apple recently launched its iPad, which has an iBook application that will allow access to hundreds of thousands of titles in the iBookstore, in the US.

The ebook abolishes the cost of ink, paper, binding, warehousing and shipping, as well as salaries and overheads in bookshops, if they survive. The benefits look like increased profits for publishers, improved royalties for authors and lower prices and more house room for the reader.

But look at it through the paradigm of supermarkets and suppliers: Amazon and iBookstore are the supermarkets, the publishers are vegetable growers working on thin margins and the authors are the vegetables.

Publishers and agents are apprehensive about a revolution that will transform centuries-old economic models. One publisher told me: “Amazon were claiming at Christmas that six out of 10 sales were for ebooks, and if that becomes a general pattern then print runs will be dramatically smaller.”

Publishers, meanwhile, try to straddle old and new worlds. Macmillan in the United States forced Amazon to sell Macmillan ebooks at higher prices than Amazon’s bargain basement $9,99, which is a more complicated story than it appears.

Amazon loses money at $9,99 but needs to win customer loyalty, market share and, above all, sell more Kindles at $259 each. Conversely, Macmillan loses money at its higher prices because 30% goes to Amazon in agency fees.

On the one hand, Amazon wanted to extend its ebook market; on the other, Macmillan needed to protect the sales of its printed books from dramatic underpricing of its ebooks by Amazon. Rupert Murdoch, who owns HarperCollins, has expressed similar anxieties.

Why is the ebook coming? Because a lot of capital has been invested in it. A good book’s relationship to all this is like a strawberry’s to the supermarket. We should enjoy them while we can, but think just a little of the grower. — © Guardian News & Media 2010

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