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Will e-books sound the death knell for print?

Last updated on: April 27, 2011 14:37 IST

Will e-books sound the death knell for print?

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You don't have to be a super smart detective, like Sherlock Holmes, in order to decipher the advantages of eBooks. An eBook is cheap to produce and cheap to buy. Their environmental impact is trifling. They are easy to store, tote, and transfer. In many cases, they can also be interactive. The only thing that an eBook might not be able to provide you is the feel of holding an old fashioned book in your hand, and the smell of the pages! But who says that holding a swish iPad or Kindle in your hand cannot be a source of as much joy!

In fact, with storage space being what it is today, you could hold hundreds of eBooks in one handheld gizmo, which can serve as a proverbial library you can carry along wherever you go.

An eBook is basically the short form for electronic book, which offers text and images in digital form. The Oxford Dictionary of English continues to define an eBook as "an electronic version of a printed book", but that may not be entirely true, for the simple reason that these days we have many eBooks, which don't have their equivalent in print format.

The first eBook portal in the world was Project Gutenberg, which took off in 1971 and it continues to be very popular till this day. From here thousands of classical books can be downloaded in a variety of formats. The sale of eBooks really took off with some major companies in the world coming up with their own dedicated reading hardware.

Amazon's Kindle, and Sony's Reader are quite popular. Now we also have the Apple's iPad whose flamboyant looks and features have enthused many buyers.

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Image: A collage of e-books

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eBooks versus Print

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In July 2010, Amazon created a major flutter in the publishing world by announcing that the sales of eBooks for its proprietary reading device, Kindle, had outnumbered the sales of hardcover books for the first time ever. The online retailer is said to have sold 140 eBooks for every 100 hardcover books, and since then the number of eBooks sold has risen even further. However, the sale of paperback books continues to be much larger as compared to hardcover or eBooks.

More than ninety percent of all the books sold are paperback.

This shows that it is not as if the printed books have lost the game completely. People continue to be more favourably inclined towards printed books. Only thing is that they are not prepared to pay too much for hardcover books, they would rather go in for the cheaper paperback edition.

The book market consultancy Codex Group concluded a survey of 6,700 book buyers in the middle of April 2010 and came up with some interesting revelations.

The survey indicated that Kindle owners bought only 37 per cent of their books in the Kindle format and 50 per cent of their books in print, while iPad owners bought 46 per cent of their books in either Apple's iBookstore or in the Kindle store, which also allows books to be read on the iPad.

It is still to early to say what kind of impact the iPad or the Kindle will have on book sales in the really long term. The trends that are in place indicate that people who own an iPad or a Kindle buy more books and newspapers, in either eBook format or in printed form. But that could merely be indicative of the fact that people who own such devices tend to buy more books and magazines anyway.

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Books are here to stay

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It is partly true that the trend towards eBooks is on the rise. However, we should not also ignore the fact that the sale of printed books actually saw a marked rise in 2010. Even online retailers have managed to sell more paperbacks than eBooks. So the paperbacks and the hardcover books that all of us cherish so much are not going to fade out of the market suddenly. They are here to stay and coexist with eBooks for a long time to come.

There is no doubt that eBooks are cheaper, but people buy them for their content and not because they are cheap. Despite the rise of digital means of storing information, the role of printed books continues to be critical for the entire human race. Since time immemorial, printed books have been seen as the preferred way of keeping a permanent record of our civilisation. This is not going to change for many years to come.

Sudhir Malhotra, Director, Orient Paperbacks, says, "Instead of seeing eBooks as a threat to survival, publishing houses should take advantage of this new technology. Books can be sold in both electronic and printed format."

The mainstream publishing world has been quite enthusiastic in embracing the eReaders; almost every major international publisher is releasing its books in digital as well as printed format. In fact, an analysis of print titles indicates that the books sell many more copies in printed format after their eBook version is out. This could be because after having a tryst with the electronic edition of the book, a customer might end up deciding that he needs to have a printed edition as well.

Many customers, who purchased eBooks on Kindle or iPad, have later on decided to buy the same book in printed format. Roshni Khanna, a Delhi University student, and an avid book reader says, "Fluff one can read in digital form, but the works of real importance have to be enjoyed the print only."

Almost five centuries after the Renaissance inventor, Johannes Gutenberg revolutionised human society by inventing the printing press we are having the second revolution, which is heralded by the onset of eBooks. Reading material is now available much more easily to anyone who is equipped with a reading device and a broadband connection.

The transmission of ideas, which is what books are all about, is now being done at unimaginable speed. Sitting in New Delhi, you can download a book from Amazon, which is based in USA, in a matter of seconds. This is something to be cheered about. But at the same time we have to ensure that traditionally printed books, which are repositories of the most important examples of wisdom, knowledge and art, continue to thrive and prosper. The high quality works should always be printed.

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Interview of Sudhir Malhotra, Director, Orient Paperbacks

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1. In the long run, are eBooks good or bad for the publishing industry?

In the long run eBooks should be a good thing, because such books give publishers a new way of bringing content to readers. The thing is that most publishers don't see themselves as paperback or eBook creators. I certainly don't. We are the creators of creative content.

In the end, the creative content will be created in the format in which the readers prefer to read it.

2. Is piracy easier with eBooks?

That is possible. But again now we are having some technologies that make it very difficult to share digital files. How well the system works only time can tell. The experience of the music industry in tackling piracy has not been that good. Piracy is a problem with all kinds of creative content, whether it is music or books.

3. Is Orient Paperbacks taking out digital editions of its paperback and hardcover editions?

Yes, we are planning some major initiatives in that direction. Some of our books are already being sold on digital platforms in Western countries.

4. What is the one big advantage that a paperback offers and an eBook doesn't?

People from my generation continue to be fond of books printed on real paper. Many of us prefer to live in a house filled with books. A Kindle can hold more than 5,000 books, but it does not allow you to have a library at home. You can curl up on a bed with a book in hand, but with a Kindle you might not get the same feeling. But the younger generation seems to be more inclined towards eBooks.

5. What do you think is the future of reading? Is it in printed books or in eBooks?

With time everything changes. So I won't be surprised if eBooks became more popular in the future. But for the next 20 to 30 years, the tradition of printing on paper will continue. Who knows, after 30 years we might have technology for circulating creative content that is even more advanced as compared to eBooks.

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