In January, Steve Jobs unveiled Apple’s iPad tablet that, among other things, digitally accesses and stores many books that can be read on a 9.7-inch screen. The iPad follows the great success of Amazon’s e-reader, the Kindle, which can hold up to 1500 books. This has led to speculation that these and subsequent e-readers mark the turning point in the market for hard copy books. I do believe that e-readers foretell an enormous change in the book publishing industry.
I do not expect the market for hard copy books to decline rapidly at first, but decline it will, as e-books substitute increasingly for hard copy books. The competition offered by e-books will increase as the prices of Kindles, iPads, and other e-readers fall from their present levels of over $250 for Kindles, and $499 and up for iPad tablets (these tablets are far more than just e-readers). Within a few years, the most basic e-reader models will sell for considerably under $100, and they will become much easier to use.
Mysteries, beach-reading books, biographies, and other books with a general appeal that are read while traveling or on holidays are most suitable for e-readers. Why pay more to buy hard copies of such books when it is far more convenient to carry many books around in a digital form? Less attractive for e-readers are more technical books, such as books on economic theory or mathematics, where it is frequently necessary to go back and forth between earlier and later discussions. These books are much less likely to be popular in e-book form than the less technical and quick-read books.
A good comparison is with the devastating effects of the Internet on the markets for newspapers and recorded music. The Internet has permanently changed these industries. Readers can more efficiently and quickly obtain updated news about sports, weather, movies, advertising, stock market performance, and political developments from the Internet rather than from hard copy newspapers and magazines. Hardly any young people any longer read newspapers, certainly not general-purpose newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post, or even The Daily News.
Owners of the major papers are still searching for ways to make a profit with their online editions. The New York Times first gave away their content online, then tried to charge for some of it, and then went back to giving all of it away-the present state. The Times recently announced that in a few months it would again start charging for some of its online content. The Wall Street Journal has continued to charge for some online articles and opinion pieces, but it is unclear whether their online business is profitable.
The music recording business has been even more affected by the Internet than newspapers since unauthorized copying of online songs in the early days of the Internet greatly reduced sales of new albums. Album sales were finally killed after Apple’s launch of the iPod in 2001 that allowed individuals to download single songs cheaply. Total music recordings are down considerably due to the competition from digital sales. Yet the great success of the iPod preserved a considerable demand for music, even though much of the revenue now goes to Apple rather than to either recording studios or musicians.
Cheap and efficient e-readers will have comparably huge effects on the book publishing industry. The cost to publishers of selling e-books is much less than selling hard copy books since publishers save paper, printing, and shipping costs by selling books in digital form. Amazon originally set the price of most books it sells for the Kindle at the same cheap level of $9.99, although it recently agreed with MacMillan to allow publishers greater say in pricing books sold for the Kindle. Apple announced that it would allow publishers considerable discretion in setting prices of books sold for iPads.
Digital copying of e-books will become a problem for the e-book and hard copy book markets, as it has been for the music market. Already available software will make copying easier, and hence more threatening to the entire market of published books.
Handbooks of essays on particular topics, and other collections, including articles by the same author, will be less popular on e-readers than they have been in hard copy form since individuals can use their e-readers to easily buy and store the particular articles that interest them. The market for books may follow the film industry where publishers have an initial limited run of hard copy books, and then follow that rather quickly by making new books available for e-readers, where most of the sales will occur.
I have no doubt that e-readers will eventually enormously affect the types of books published, and the form they are published in. That does not mean quick and sharp declines in the book publishing industry, but it does mean that the industry will eventually be radically transformed.