Digital specter worries publishers in Frankfurt
Whether it is school textbooks or philosophical tracts, the signs of books being converted from bulky paper into ever-so-tiny computer memory chips are undeniable.
Frankfurt -- As carpenters put the finishing touches to displays at the Frankfurt Book Fair Tuesday, the specter of the digital future worried many executives attending the world's biggest annual book-publishing gathering.
Whether it is school textbooks or philosophical tracts, the signs of books being converted from bulky paper into ever-so-tiny computer memory chips are undeniable. Only gift books, lofty literature and children's picture books seem immune to the trend.
When the fair opened for business on Wednesday, many publishers may have stopped for a moment to marvel, or to shudder, at the stands displaying the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader.
Weighing about 250 grams, these devices exploit so-called e-paper to display entire books with minimal battery use. After launching in the US, both products are currently being introduced in Europe.
A survey released this week by the organizers of the Oct. 15-19 fair discovered that 60 percent of publishers responding neither make personal use of e-readers nor download the e-books.
However, based on the views expressed by a 1,000 respondents, e-book sales are undeniably growing steadily and bookshops will have a tough time surviving when most books are only a download away.
When asked which publishing industry players would still exist half a century from now, 25 percent forecast that bookstores would largely disappear with online distribution of books by firms such as Amazon taking over.
Of those polled, 21 percent predicted literary agents would vanish as publishers learn to find authors online.
But only 14 percent thought publishers themselves would vanish, respondents said. After all, somebody will always be needed to package book content and sell it, whether that is electronically or on paper.
The survey was notable for a wide disparity in views with 12 percent of publishers convinced that new e-readers will prove a short-lived flash in the pan: The first e-readers introduced a few years ago never caught on because of short battery life.
In fact, 30 percent of those surveyed were convinced that sales of digital content would never exceed those of paper books, whereas 40 percent predicted this would happen within the next 10 years.
More than half took comfort in the forecast that Internet users may surrender a little of their culture of wanting to obtain everything for free, with online users more willing five years from now to pay for quality digital content.
The survey queried subscribers of the Frankfurt Book Fair's online mailing list.
"This annual questionnaire gives us a way to get a picture of the trends and changes in the sector," said Juergen Boos, director of the Frankfurt Book Fair, which has 7,373 exhibitors. "Some of the results are remarkable, such as the prediction that China will lead the world in the digital future."
Currently, the United States is the market that is most advanced in digitalization, said 51 percent of respondents, while 15 percent viewed Japan as the current leader.
But only 29 percent thought the United States would still be in the lead five years from now, whereas 28 percent thought China would soar ahead as the world's heavyweight in e-book publishing.
While few expected Europe's staid publishing industry to race into the lead of technological change, 70 percent of the respondents said they were themselves ready for the digital challenge.
Meanwhile, trade professionals meeting this week during the fair will discuss how to make money out of digital books.
That will include topics such as the enforcement of copyrights and software locks, known as digital rights management (DRM), on downloadable books to prevent customers selling the files to others.
Surprises may also be in store for book-lovers who imagine that they will be buying most of their books, digital or paper, in the future at Amazon and its smaller online-bookselling rivals.
Survey respondents said that book publishers trying to get their content out to customers should form partnerships with some other industries that have not been particularly intellectually oriented in the past.
A full 22 percent said the wireless phone industry -- both manufacturers and the phone operators -- could be a key partner in transmitting magazine and book content to the new e-readers.
However, 20 percent picked movie distributors and 18 percent chose the music industry as the most promising ally. Both of those industries are much farther ahead in the mass-selling digital content.