Publish or Panic
The credibility of books is in a million little pieces. The Web is stealing readers. But publishers are fighting back
Exodus. "Where Have All the Readers Gone?" is therefore an apt title for the Association of American Publishers conference to be held later this month. One answer is that readers have switched to nonfiction, says AAP President Patricia Schroeder. "It's a serious time" and people want more in-depth information about what's going on in the world. Nonetheless, she admits, "the NEA is right that we have lost readers in literature, which is tragic."
Another answer is that readers have gone screen-happy and wireless: "People are reading more than ever--screen-based reading, on mobile phone, BlackBerrys, computer screens, reading blogs, and gathering information on the Web," asserts Keith Titan, vice president for new media at Random House. "As a publishing industry we need to provide products that meet the needs of this digital, Internet-savvy generation."
Products that may--or may not--meet those needs include portable digital reading devices that feature long-life batteries and an easy-to-read "electronic ink" display. Darren Bischoff, senior marketing manager of E Ink Corp., says his company's high-resolution paper-and-ink-like display reduces eye strain because, unlike a computer screen, E Ink uses ambient light and does not flicker. Those factors also minimize glare and make the screen easily readable in sunlight.
First to the American market using this technology will be the Sony Reader, scheduled to launch this spring at a price between $300 and $400. Weighing a tad less than 9 ounces, the pocket-book-size reader can store up to 80 E-books; files will be downloadable from a Sony online store featuring thousands of digital titles. A plus for boomers: a button that increases text size.
Two other devices are being readied for U.S. markets for 2007: The Readius, from the Netherlands-based Philips Polymer Vision, features a 5-inch diagonal screen that unfurls from a much smaller, cellphone-size container. "It's the first time the screen will be larger than the device," says Edward van Overbeek, the company's director of business development. By contrast, the iLiad from iRex Technologies, also in the Netherlands, is about the size of a magazine and is accompanied by a stylus that allows you to "write" in the margins or zoom in to, say, one headline among many on a newspaper page. The new E-book devices, says Penguin Group Chairman John Makinson, won't replace books but could provide "an attractive alternative" for reference, travel, technical, or other areas where the ability to search, receive Internet updates, and tap into hot links would prove valuable.
Tech turmoil. E-books, however, represent just the start of the technology discussion in publishing circles. The ability to transform books into digital files and put them online is raising countless and often contentious questions about author copyrights, publisher royalties, and what constitutes fair use, as opposed to piracy, in a Web-connected world.
It's great to preview a page or two on-line, for instance. But who owns those pages and therefore has the right to potential profit from posting longer selections or even the complete book--the site proposing to post the digital file (Google, Amazon, Yahoo! or Microsoft, among others) or the author and publisher? The Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers have filed a copyright-infringement suit against Google for its plan to scan and make entire libraries searchable online.