One way to see this activity is as chaos. "Traditional book publishers are scared," says Peter Olson, a former CEO of Random House who now teaches at the Harvard Business School. The "executive summary" of Olson's comments on the Harvard blog Working Knowledge asserts "book publishing is changing before our very eyes, even if the industry itself is fighting the transition with every comma it can muster...the fundamental question to be asked in the Internet age is, how popular will books remain?" A major take-out in The Economist is also framed on the downside: "E-publish or perish" is the headline.
Well, okay. This is unquestionably a moment of dramatic change, and upheaval inevitably leads to winners and losers. For consumers, however, times could hardly have ever been better.
The iPad, of course, is the latest big development. Within minutes of picking mine up at the Apple store, I was set up on iBooks and looking at books I had published displayed on the device. They looked wonderful. This is not just a digital file. It is an exact representation of the book itself. The pages flowed smoothly as they turn. The screen is back lit. The graphics and color are superb. The effect is much more glamorous than the suddenly dowdy Kindle; like moving from clunky cassettes for movies and audio to shiny CDs and DVDs.
The Kindle app for the iPad features pages also, but no color (that I saw). Amazon and the other reading machine developers are scrambling to provide upgrades. Strikingly, book-related apps dominated iPad downloads in the first couple of days they were available: after the iBooks app, Kindle, B&N Reader, and Stanza were 2, 3, and 4 respectively. There were hundreds of thousands of book downloads, although how many were for free books out of copyright was not disclosed. It is too early to say for certain, but the Kindle still seems the handiest device for reading-on-the-go. It is more compact, lighter, and the selection from Amazon is much bigger. Many Kindle prices are heading up by a few dollars in the continuing tussle over margin between publishers and distributors, but a book at half price is still a bargain.
As for the notion that overall readership is collapsing, final numbers for 2009 show that not to be the case. E-book sales are surging, up 176.6 percent, to $313 million. Even adult hardcovers were up 6.9 percent, to $2.6 billion. Some categories were down (audiobooks and el-hi textbooks showed the biggest losses). But in a year of deep recession, the total was off by just 1.8 percent. Carolyn Reidy, CEO of Simon and Schuster, one of the savviest publishers in the industry, told The Economist she thinks e-books could be as much as 25 percent of the market in the next five years. For all the angst undoubtedly felt by publishers (and the truly embattled brick-and-mortar stores), the book business did not fall into the trap of newspapers and magazines that now want to start selling content online that they had been giving away free.
That brings me back to my original point. Whatever the outcome of this era of transformation, for now these are bonanza days for book buyers. If you want to read David Remnick's superb new book, it has never been easier or a better value. On behalf of writers, publishers, and booksellers everywhere prepared to grapple with innovation, let's hope we and our readers take full advantage of a great opportunity.