Sunday, August 9, 2009

The humble paperback goes digital

This week I learned of a new concept - eBooks. According to eBook retailer eBookMall, they are designed to 'provide an alternate reading choice for lovers of technology' (

What are eBooks I hear you say? It seems that rather than publish a large amount of books to be distributed to various retail outlets, publishers have decided it is much more cost-efficient to utilise a print on demand concept. Essentially, this means often books are only printed in hard copy once they have been purchased, eg online via a retailer such as Amazon. This delivers value for money for publishers who no longer face the costs incurred of printing and delivering a large run of books only to find that demand for the books is not as high as expected. In other words books are printed according to demand rather than based on an estimate of sales figures.

Sounds fair enough? Of course it is, it makes sense to only produce a product on demand rather than risk oversupply which in the end is a waste of the publisher's resources. Yet as we progress further in this digital age, where every day society seems to become more insular and isolative, it seems some clever marketer has come up with the idea of skipping the printing process altogether and selling books in a digital format. Yes that's right, turning a page has become so outdated - now we can have a whole book displayed on a computer screen before our eyes that even turns the pages for us! No need to walk into a bookshop and actually speak to a cashier - we can just click a button, buy a book online and start reading straight away. The cynic in me can't help wondering if this is just another way for publishing houses to further minimise costs - one would guess it would be significantly cheaper to send a digital file online to a purchaser than print off a hard copy of a book and incur the costs of shipping the product. What impact will this have on local libraries? Will they purchase digital titles to then be "lent out" online, further doing away with the physical exertion of having to actually walk into a library and select a book off the shelf? Of course this will also spell the end of the good old "family favourite" that goes from mum to aunt to nanna - a paperback is a lot easier to lend to others than a whole laptop with a copy of a book on it!

Another digital issue that has been raised this week is the idea of news media websites charging a subscription fee for their sites. It is an interesting proposal - of course the knee-jerk reaction from the public has been outrage as people generally resent having to pay for online content. However, how many other businesses are expected to give away their product free of charge? Essentially this is what news media websites are doing at the moment, although they still receive some revenue from the sale of advertising space on their websites. Would movie producers be happy if their work was available online for free and no one paid for tickets at the cinema anymore? News sites that charge a subscription fee may initially see a drop in readers, however should the practise become common-place the public would soon realise the only way they could read reliably sourced news articles online would be to pay. With the formidable might of News Corp's Rupert Murdoch leading the charge this may be the case in the not too distant future.

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