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    Posted on 07 January 2012
    Binoo K John

    A new world of books is upon us

    Indications are that the book in printed form is nearing an end. The wonders of a digital world and its commercial lure may be too much to resist

    By Binoo K John

    Illustration: Sanjoy Naorem

    GAME-CHANGING technologies are upon us before we can adjust to their presence. We dread them and often we pretend that the game would not change. Closing our eyes to change is an old human habit. We have no answers so we remain smug. This is happening to the publishing industry worldwide. Technology has changed, the devices have changed, the economics has changed, the rules have changed and so has the scale.

    So will the book, the printed and bound book, be a thing of the past?

    Can the digital library, the Kindle store, the Apple Store, the many e-readers and tablets finish the book and the wooden bookshelf that decorated our studies and occupied our minds?

    It’s possible. The only reason why the printed book might survive for a while is that publishers do not want the traditional model to vanish so fast. The brick and mortar world of publishing is too quaint and too good to be closed so fast and forever. Also, reader habits do not change that quickly. But the change is upon us. How do we cope? When Julian Barnes, while accepting the Booker Prize, sounded a clarion call to keep the bound book alive, he was pointing once again to the imminent danger: the printed book is no longer viable. That is why he wrote a short novel and was duly awarded. This year’s Booker Prize was a business award as well for it wanted to tell publishers the 1,000-page novel is over in printed form.

    So, how will it pan out? School texts, either subsidised by the state or privately, would survive for many years. That is a huge number and form the majority of all books printed. The hardcover has almost disappeared. Fiction and nonfiction, including comics and graphic novels, would be printed in small numbers just to give it a physical feel. Actual sales would be in digital bookstores.

    The pattern in India would be the same as in the West, because devices used for reading or downloading books are available here though not all books are. So, books would be bought digitally. Libraries in India too would have access to huge digital warehouses. The cost of digitally downloaded books would be lesser than printed books even if the payment is in dollars. Books are bought by the elite or educated classes in every society so they would have easy access to digital sources and have the money to pay as well.

    PUBLISHERS WOULD still retain a big bargaining point. The technology and the devices are with someone else but the publishers have the content and the authors. Authors even now want to see the printed book first and publishers refuse to give away digital rights to digital warehouses. So they can hold on for until it is no longer viable. But then, the authors would not want to miss out on digital sales and so the big writers too would want to sell digital rights elsewhere and give just the printing rights to the big publishers. It is to be noted that renowned writers are not available digitally. John Grisham may be downloaded here digitally but VS Naipaul, Salman Rushdie or John Updike has not been digitised yet. Writers would be able to put up their books on digital stores like Amazon and soon they might not need the help of publishers. But being merely a digital author may not have the required heft to be considered a big name in writing.

    Sadly, bookshops might have to be moved to the endangered list because book portals have taken over the job. The success of Flipkart means that several small bookshops in India have lost business and almost all of them might have to close. Two recent examples of closure in New Delhi: Oxford Book Shop (a joint venture between The Statesman and Oxford Book Store) and Bookworm (in Connaught Place). Small bookshops cannot run in high markets anymore but retail chains like Odyssey, Landmark, etc., can hold out for longer by sales of peripherals and stationery. Smaller bookshops would turn to art and crafts to survive (like Quill and Canvas Gurgaon). The brew-while-you browse concept (coffee shop in a bookshop) seems to have failed because a coffee shop ambience needs to be different – the Oxford Bookshop had a tea counter but it still failed. Also, getting a restaurant license is problematic with inspectors seeking bribes. Books are tax-free and a bookshop need not even have a VAT account.

    Jurisdiction is king in publishing and a Penguin book in India may be a Knopf book in the US. So, an Indian book may be downloaded in India but cannot be downloaded in the US – the portals check you out by credit card or ip address. Therefore, many books up on Amazon cannot be downloaded in India. Even though no Indian publisher has digitised yet, Penguin looks like it could be the first off the blocks.

    Recently, I downloaded three books from Amazon: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, the controversial Mahatma Gandhi book Great Soul by Joseph Lelyveld and Life by Keith Richards. I bought them digitally before they were available in India. Once these books are imported into India there is no big price advantage in digital downloading. A $10 book is always sold in India for $5. But soon the price would fall for e-books and we may be looking at $2 books in the near future.

    If you have an iPad you can download the iBooks app available on the iPad and then buy available books. I now subscribe to National Geographic magazine on iPad at a subscription rate of $1.5, far less than the sale price in India of about Rs 300 an edition. As soon as I open my iPad in the third week of a month, the next month’s NatGeo is ready for download. The amount is deducted from my credit card, which as to be registered with iTunes store (a one-stop shop for music, books and videos for Apple devices). So, plenty of foreign magazines can be downloaded on an iPad and can be read while travelling. It’s cheaper, the pictures are dazzling and there are embedded videos. Try the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue on an iPad for a dazzling multimedia experience. Apple has no PC app yet so you need an iPad or an iPhone to download books from the iTunes store.

    By this time in 2013, digital books could become a fashion statement in India. It depends a great deal on which Indian publishers take the lead to digitise their books. Also, buyers of smart devices need to get used to the idea of having books and magazines on their devices. By the next year, there could be enough iPad and e-reader users in India to offer a potentially big market for e-books. That is when things would start to change. If Indian authors start to sell 5,000 copies digitally, it could signal the beginning of the end of the novel in printed form.

    The opinions expressed are the author's own

    Binoo K John is author & columnistbased in New Delhi.
    [email protected]

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    Posted on 07 January 2012



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