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Too much, too fast

2 November 2009

These are nervous times in the book world. Too much seems to be happening too fast and no-one is sure what it means or where we're all going to end up.

Having said that, it's worth remembering that readers want the same things out of books whether they get those books in traditional print form or through an e-reader, mobile phone or some other device yet to be invented. Those two things are information and stories, and we should think separately about these two very different areas of publishing.

Broadly speaking, information publishing, which encompasses non-fiction trade (or general) publishing as well as enormous areas such as specialist, professional, academic and educational publishing, can benefit from delivering information online. The devastation of the encyclopedia and reference business in print form shows an extreme form of this, even though many of us will continue to reach for our print dictionary for many years to come.

But for fiction and narrative non-fiction, or 'reading' books, the story is the point, and that will continue to be delivered in print form because there are many book-buyers who like to access their books in that way and will continue to do so. However the figures for e-book sales for The Lost Symbol in the US are truly amazing - it has been outselling the hardback - and more readers may be ready to switch to e-books more rapidly than anyone might have forecast a year or two back.

So people in the book world have to think through what this means for books in print form. A figure just released last week shows that only 4% of British readers have so far read an e-book, but Americans are two years ahead on this and many of them seem happy to adopt the new e-readers. This shows that there is potentially a very much bigger market for e-books than many observers had expected.

At the same time it's clear that the second great change in the process of buying and reading books is accelerating. Amazon showed a growth of net income in the third quarter of 68%, as compared to last year, with a 28% increase in net sales. The latter increased by 33% in the international division during the same period. Of course the Internet giant is now successfully selling many items other than books, largely because it offers both range and convenience (the same things which attract book buyers), so books make up just a part of these figures. They do show the trend towards online retail and the price comparison that makes possible.

And at this moment a price war has broken out in the States and is experimenting with the use of books as loss-leaders, in exactly the same way as UK supermarkets have done, with the very same book, The Lost Symbol.

So the future looks as if it will involve far greater sales of e-books and even more online and supermarket sales than has been the case in the past - both trends which will continue to have a massive impact on the whole book business.