Glad Tidings for E-Books

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On a rainy Sunday afternoon in November, I decided to read historian Antonia Fraser's Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday). Pinter, the playwright, actor, and Nobel Prize winner in literature died of cancer in late 2008, and Fraser, his lover and then wife for more than 30 years, had put off work on her biography of Elizabeth I so she could collect this diary of their lives together. The reviews had been enticing: "Glowing," wrote Dwight Garner in the New York Times, "There's hardly a dull page." In the early 1980s as a correspondent, I had met them in London, had read at least one of Fraser's books, and had seen nearly all Pinter's plays and movies. So I reached for my iPad and for $9.55 downloaded the book via the Kindle app. (My wife has nearly full possession of the family Kindle.) The entire process had taken barely more than a minute, and I spent a satisfying evening with a book that, for all its appeal to me, was hardly intended to attract a mass American audience.

As recently as late 2007, the purchase of this book would have involved a trip to a bookstore, the distinct possibility that, given its rarified subject, it would be out of stock or, if ordered from Amazon, would not arrive for a week unless I was willing to pay the high cost of expedited shipping. The odds are that those prospective obstacles would have led me to do something else, and I would never have gotten around to reading Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter. That would have been too bad, but hardly a big deal. By now, the notion has embedded in my mind that I can choose on a whim to read a book and obtain it instantly, a fundamental change in the psychology of book buying. You don't really possess the book in the sense that it lands on your shelf as a lifetime fixture, but the notion that the book is available and affordable is a significant incentive to make the purchase.

About 22,000 print copies of Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter have been shipped, according to the publisher. As of last week, Bookscan, covering about three-quarters of actual sales, recorded 6,591 copies sold in the six weeks since the book was released, which, by the standards of high-end nonfiction is not a bad start, especially with the Christmas gift season in full swing. The number of digital books sold for the title is not available, but the latest report from the Association of American Publishers shows that, overall, e-books now represent about 8.7 percent of the $9 billion book market (an increase of 3.4 percent for all books for the year to date). Last year, the e-book percentage was 3.3, and in 2007, barely more than 0.6 percent. If publishing revenue numbers are up for 2010, and e-books are making an increasing contribution towards those totals, there is cause for optimism about an industry that has perennially been described as besieged for one reason or another.

On my iPad, in addition to my Kindle app, I now have access to Barnes & Noble's e-books, Apple's iBook, Borders e-books, and as of last Monday, Google eBooks, which instantly became a major factor in the digital book marketplace. When I wrote about Google's plans, I said that with its launch, there would be a fully competitive array of booksellers from which consumers could choose and that books could be read on a myriad of devices, from mobile to tablet to desktop. Now, every day, more books, including those far more specialized than Ms. Fraser's account of her life with Pinter, are being digitized and put up for sale. Although I have been writing regularly about the progress and prospects of digital publishing, I am still amazed at the pace of growth and overall role of e-books in our industry. Significantly, the predicted perils of that transformation—piracy, pricing, and measurable cannibalization of more lucrative sales of printed books—haven't yet led to a crisis of confidence or commerce so characteristic of the digital era in music, movies and television.

Not surprisingly, the evolution of the e-book market has major implications for traditional bookstores. Publishers Weekly has selected Len Riggio, chairman of Barnes & Noble Inc., as its "Person of the Year." The basis of that choice—which comes as Barnes & Noble is in the midst of a strategic review, including the possibility of a sale or a return to private ownership by Riggio—is the company's adaptation to the digital realities. "Len is the only person looking to integrate print and digital," Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy told Publishers Weekly. What that means is that the chain's existing brick and mortar stores, B&N.com, its online bookstore, and the company's proprietary Nook reading device are being crafted into an entity that serves customers across the board, and Reidy is right that only Barnes & Noble has the capacity to do that and has shown the skills to fulfill the challenge. Meanwhile, Borders, the second largest chain, is struggling, and reported a discouraging third quarter last week, with lower sales and margins that indicate further trouble in 2011. Borders has an emerging e-book strategy, and some hedge fund investors have set the goal of turning this lump of coal around with financial derring-do that includes making an offer to buy B&N, which seems an awfully long shot.

Google eBooks, in a departure for a company based on ad-supported search and services, is acting as a retailer, but also has provided the country's independent booksellers with encouragement to use it to create e-book stores of their own. "This levels the playing field," Oren Teicher, chief executive of the American Booksellers Association, told the New York Times, "If you want to buy ebooks, you don't just have to buy them from the big national outlets." Looking ahead, the likelihood is further turbulence in the various arenas where books are sold, but whatever the outcome, it is now safe to say that e-books truly have arrived.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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