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The e-book arrives - or does it?

18 February 2008

This week has seen two big publishers announcing initiatives to prepare for the e-book world. At the same time, battle has been joined on e-book royalties.

HarperCollins is to post entire books online for anyone to read. They believe that this will stimulate demand for e-books, but that no-one will want to read an entire book on screen. CEO Jane Friedmann says: 'The best way to sell books is to have the consumer be able to read some of the content.' Joel Rickett, Deputy Editor of the Bookseller, said: 'HarperCollins is gambling that people aren't comfortable reading for an extended period of time on screen.'

Random House, for its part, is making a business title by the brothers Chip and Dan Heath available online for $2.99 (£1.50) each chapter.

In the meantime a battle is looming on e-book royalties. The US and current UK norm appears to be 25% of published price, but Random House and Little Brown in the UK have just announced to agents that they are going to press for 15% of net receipts. Their argument is that it is expensive to digitise books and make them available as e-books. Random House worldwide claims that it will not break even on its investment in its digital warehouse until 2013, but this obviously depends on the speed of take-up. Once set up, e-books will be very cheap to deliver, especially if they are sold online. No-one knows how they will sell.

The very nature of potential e-book sales means that different royalties for different territories is a very dangerous concept for publishers, as there's nothing to stop book-buyers downloading the book from a website anywhere in the world. Authors will want a decent share of the action and will not want to accept lower royalties from UK publishers.

It's been quiet recently on the Amazon Kindle front (see News Review 26 November), but e-book possibilities depend on the development of a universally marketed e-book reader at a reasonable cost. Readers of HarperCollins' new e-books will not be able to download them to laptops or to an electronic reading device. In that sense their experiment is more akin to Amazon's promotional Search Inside programme, which is thought to have increased sales.

But whilst big publishers slug it out competitively with their digital developments, readers in Japan have already jumped ahead of them. Last year cellphone novels, composed and read on tiny cellphone screens, took five of the top ten spots in the bestseller list. More on this and on Amazon's takeover of Audible next week.