Monday, October 01, 2007

Will publishers take a punt on pixels with the e-book?

Will publishers take a punt on pixels with the e-book?
It's been rumoured for years, but now e-books are being taken seriously at last.
By Daniel Lee

We could soon be able to read all our books electronically rather than in great chunks of decorated paper and cardboard, according to leading authors, agents and publishers.

New chapter? Howard Stringer of Sony with the company's Reader e-book
"In two years there will something that is sufficiently sexy to tempt a lot of people," predicts Simon Trewin, who co-runs the literary division of leading international literary and talent agency Peters and Fraser & Dunlop (PFD), which represents the likes of Alan Bennett, Margaret Drabble and Joanna Trollope. Electronic versions of books might offer clever extras, such as footnotes that automatically update, embedded movie clips, and links through to discussion forums.

"Publishing has to evolve or it will die," Trewin adds. "The cyber generation spends the majority of its leisure and work time in front of screens and we need to find ways of taking books and author-led content to this audience."

Publishers are not wasting time. They are preparing the ground for this new era of the book, says Linda Bennett, founder of Gold Leaf, a company that recently researched the uptake of "e-books". "People talk about the tipping point. In the academic world this was 2005 and now most academic publishers go online if they can. This year the big publishers are digitising their content" - uploading it in electronic form to their websites and letting users "browse" novels. "The electronics industry is developing handheld readers. We could expect an almost paper-like electronic reader towards the end of this year. Some electronic readers will upload between 50 and 500 novels, which will be great for travelling."

Heady stuff, indeed, and this new magic is not going to be missed by Harry Potter publisher Bloomsbury, which is also home to big names such as Margaret Atwood and the chef Heston Blumenthal. A few months ago its chairman, Nigel Newton, talked of using new media to "create a unique community for readers, writers and publishers??as well as our digitisation project".

With this vision in mind, the company's dotcom director, Stephanie Duncan, explains the possibilities for e-reading. "The nature of the specific book will determine whether or not e-books change the reading experience." Duncan says that while links to other websites or books would be appropriate for reference books, they won't work for novels. "People want to get immersed in a work of fiction, such as a novel, and it will be important for them not to be distracted by other things."

All exciting plot twists for the next chapter in the story of the written word, but is that likely to be the final chapter for the life of the printed book? Not according to Duncan. "The new forms of publishing will be complementary with traditional books," she says. "We started with hardbacks, then paperbacks, now digital. Everybody likes reading books differently."

Trewin agrees. "Along with hundreds of thousands of other people, I love the smell of a book's binding, the quality of the stitching and the paper quality," he says. "The publishing world can have some huge fun with digital versions of books but we will still need authors with amazing imaginations."

Freedoms offered by e?reading could open up much more choice and create a richer literary landscape for the reader. "Reader choice has been hindered enormously by publishers ceding control to the booksellers," Trewin says.

"The notion of taking the reading experience online may reclaim some of that lost ground." Just as cinema did not kill theatre and TV did not kill cinema, it seems that e-reading is unlikely to kill the printed book. Each new piece of technology is another chance for self-expression.

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