Prepare to embrace the book's digital future

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The Independent Tech

In the brave new world that's fast coming, book shops and libraries may seem charmingly vintage. Instead of browsing the shelves in a leisurely fashion we'll buy books from the internet, download them in minutes then read them digitally, probably on our mobile phones.

This isn't something I look forward to. I love books, the smell of them, the colours of their spines lined up on a shelf.



I like being in rooms filled with books. And I'm not convinced any digital reader would stand up to the punishment I mete out to the average book, the scribbling and highlighting, the folding over of pages, the splattering of food, the occasional dropping into a hot bath or over the side of a boat.



But Martin Taylor of the Digital Publishing Forum says change is inevitable and the best thing we can do is embrace it.



It may still be early days for the e-book, with them accounting only for a fraction of sales even in established markets like the US. "But once it gets traction with early adopters things will take off," promises Taylor.

Internet bookstore Amazon recently revealed that when a book is released simultaneously in electronic and paper format in the US, on average 35 per cent of sales are electronic.



Here in New Zealand we can't buy Amazon's digital reader, the Kindle, pictured, or versions from other makers such as Sony. That's something the Digital Publishing Forum is working to change.



"We've talked to Sony but they're rolling out in a very staged way," says Taylor. "Still, we want to do the groundwork now so when they're ready it's easy for them."



This week in Auckland, Taylor is gathering publishers and other interested parties for a conference on the future of the book.



Within the year he's hoping to have a digital warehouse to store and distribute e-books and he remains relentlessly positive about what lies ahead.



"It's likely that being able to read books digitally will increase the reading people do," he argues. "The availability will be better, it will be easier for people to buy and read. So this is a real opportunity for publishers to create and sell more long form reading." There are concerns, of course. Both the music and movie industries have seen profits hit by illegal copying. For the publishing world, libraries pose a particularly tricky problem and there is talk of having to use methods of encryption to prevent books being copied.



But Taylor, who has a background in publishing, is more focused on the positives - such as the possibility of the global market opening to local books. "Certain categories will switch to the e-format faster - like computer books for obvious reasons and genres like romance, sci-fi and fantasy where the readers are huge consumers," he says. "They're the ones who will take to this technology quickly."



As for the experience of reading a book digitally, Taylor gives it the thumbs-up. "It's a close facsimile of ink on paper with some advantages. You can change the font size if you'd rather read with larger type, for instance, and one device carries a lot of material."



So is the book as we know it dead? Taylor doesn't think so. He envisages paper books being around for many decades to come with large format, colour books being the last to go digital.



He does, however, see the writing on the wall for bookstores trying to make their profits largely from mainstream fiction. "They'll have a harder job than the independents," says Taylor. "But I think good book stores are going to do well. The ones with better book selection, chosen carefully to give you interesting, surprising choices in a nice environment. There'll be a market for that for quite a long time."

This article originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald

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