Still safe?Are ebooks merely a footnote to publishing? I attended a Society of Authors' conference yesterday afternoon, and the panelists seemed to take that view. Apparently, according to the latest stats, ebooks in the UK account for only about 2% of the published output, and next year it's not predicted to rise to much above 3%. From this, the panelists concluded that the book industry was unlikely to go the way of the music industry.
Far be it from me to question the experts, but it seems to me that a few things are not being considered here.
Firstly, it's generally the case that when there is a sudden transformation, it's almost impossible to predict that it's going to happen. There's even a theory to help explain such changes: catastrophe theory. A good example is boiling water: until the last second, there is almost no indication that anything dramatic is about to happen to the state of the water.
So, just because only two or three percent of published books are in the form of ebooks should not, in itself, give any comfort to publishers at all.
Secondly, it is now technically feasible to sell books in single chapters. It used to be the case that you had to buy an album, and hope that most of the tracks were OK. Now you can buy only the tracks you want. By the same token, why should I have to buy a whole book, when there may only be one or two chapters that are relevant to my needs? One of the things preventing this may be that there are not good enough micropayment systems around (I say 'may' because there wasn't the last time I looked; there may be now).
Thirdly, when it comes to niche publishing, the situation may be different. I wonder, for example, what the proportion is in educational publishing or, even more specialised, ICT in education?
Fourthly, and this was actually stated by the panellists present, it is essential these days that if you're going to publish a book, you have to make sure there is an e version. This advice probably comes naturally to those of us have been experimenting with print-on-demand.
Like a lot of people, I like the feel of a 'real' book, and I like being able to put physical bookmarks and post-it notes in it, and to annotate it (in pencil, of course). But given ebooks' convenience and lack of weight, and the growing ubiquity of devices on which to read them, I think the panellists were perhaps being more optimistic than may have been justified.