2009 saw significant developments in eBooks and tablet device, and this has indeed been the fastest-growing segment of the publishing market. This is as per the new survey of US consumers and their attitude towards eBooks conducted by the Book Industry Study Group. The survey also suggests that eBook readers are altering their purchase habits with nearly 20% of respondents saying they’ve stopped buying print books in favour of buying eBooks. Affordability was indicated as the main reason for this trend.

There have been many new e-books that have been introduced over the last year. The most popular amongst these are: Amazon’s “Kindle”, Barnes & Noble’s “Nook” and the Sony eBook reader. Kindle is a watershed event in ePublishing. It is not the first eBook device, and may not ultimately be the one that will prevail. Yet, Amazon’s Kindle is touted as one of the most ambitious projects after the Gutenberg’s printing press. The latest to hit the market is Steve Job’s iPAD, the $600 plus tablet computer.

The single most interesting component of eBooks is its paper-like display. Rather than the LCD displays used in previous book readers, this display uses E-Ink technology invented at MIT’s Media Laboratory. Another notable feature of E-Ink is that it can be laid onto a plastic substrate, even a flexible one! This means that devices such as Kindle are very resistant to the greatest threat facing LCD display in laptops – cracking and shattering.

Factors contributing the growth of eBooks

Improved display technology will be a positive catalyst of change and will help contribute to the development of eBooks.  Developments in XML (eXtensible Markup Language), will help in repurposing data into cross-media platforms.

Environmental considerations will also have an impact on the choices people make. Printed books are supposed to generate about six times more CO2 emissions compared to eBooks. This kind of data would push policy makers to increasingly produce more content electronically.

There are arguments in support of the printed books, too:  Kindle does not give you the “holding, feeling, smelling” experience. Nor is it convenient to read to your children in bed.

Several book buyers step into bookstores to buy a specific title, but in the process, end up buying books that grab their attention, for future reading. With eBooks however, users will only download a book when they actually want to read it.

That being said, though, Kindle-like devices pose a serious threat to printed books in the years to come. EBooks will also change the existing business models in publishing. According to Steve Kessel, Amazon’s vice president for ePublishing, about 48% of book sales in the US now happen via Kindle. He expects products like Kindle to replace physical books in the future.

According to the Association of American Publishers, eBook sales had gained 150 per cent since April 30th 2009.  This is to be contrasted with overall book sales, which dropped over 4% Overall, $112 million worth of eBooks were purchased last year, a figure predicted to rise to $400 million in three years time.

My brief on eBooks and the inroads it has made into publishing are more western economy centric. According to the Sunday Edition of “The Times” (UK), more than half of all books will be electronic by 2020. Amazon said that on Christmas Day, sales of eBooks outstripped print for the first time. Recently California’s Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger passed legislation that all textbooks would go electronic. Based on this one policy, several companies in Silicon Valley are likely to be doing R&D to develop technology for cheap and efficient etext books.

Indian perspective

Such trends are kindling worries for traditional publishers and printers. However, from the Indian perspective, do we need to feel threatened?  There are contradicting views on this.

India’s per capita consumption of print is one of the lowest in the world. India’s GDP growth rate is predicted around 10% and within the next 10 years India is poised to become the third largest economy. But India cannot achieve this unless we focus on education. For this, we could need more schools, more universities, and therefore MORE TEXTBOOKS. This segment will be one of the drivers of the Indian printing industry.

India has already taken steps in moving documents to an e-platform, especially in the financial sector. Over the years, stock certificates, annual returns, tax returns have gone electronic. With the advent of XBRL, several financial documents (including Annual Reports), will go electronic.

Cross-media platforms

Printed publicity material will also see pressure from the e-segment. Magazines are moving to the online media. In the UK, many niche publications have stopped their print version. Companies such as Pressmart offer a full suite of online publishing services to the newspapers and magazines and deliver them on Web, Mobile, eReader, Podcast and other digital channels seamlessly.

The Smart Phone will play a pivotal role in ePublishing, as it has done so in other segments. My domestic help was mentioning that till recently, his village in Jharkhand did not have phone connections. No PCO booth. It still does not have a PCO booth. However, several villagers have a mobile connection.

The point I am making is that today, we may skip intermediary technologies to move directly to the latest available one.

Wireless technology has changed businesses dramatically. From my own personal experience, with the advent of SMSes, our greeting card business is on the downswing. This did not happen with the internet (in fact with the internet, printed greeting cards were booming). The Smart Phones (especially iphone apps) are making its impact on ePublishing.

To summarise, eBooks are here to stay, but are currently no threat to the Indian Print industry. Hopefully, we have another decade or two before us of business. Nonetheless, I have started working on my golf, just in case I need to retire early.

Bimal Mehta is the Executive Director Vakil & Sons Pvt Ltd and Mentor of the BMPA Share To Benefit Forum

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