Cracks in the (UK’s) Publishing Industry’s Armor…

There are some signs that the publishing industry is slowly beginning to get one foot out of the 19th century and into the 21st century. In an item under the headline “Fiction for Free from Penguin”, reports:

Penguin is to offer free downloads of the first chapter of every fiction title it publishes.The publisher has been trialling its “Penguin Tasters”, making PDF downloads available from selected novels via its website, for the past six months. It currently has the first chapters of over 50 titles available for download onto computer screens, iPhones, Palms and Blackberrys. The publisher says the decision to include all fiction in the scheme as of next week is “a 21st century version of what Allen Lane set out to do when he started Penguin-making good quality contemporary fiction available to everyone”.

In a similar vein, the same site posted this item:

Random House chair and c.e.o. Gail Rebuck last night welcomed digitisation as a liberating force for books—but said it was inevitable that it would transform the book publishing industry. Rebuck compared current digital developments to the advent of moveable type in the 15th century, and argued that book publishing faces a time of great challenge but also “unprecedented opportunity” which will free the book to reach new audiences in new ways. Rebuck warned against complacency around e-books, describing them as a phenomenon that traditional publishers must take seriously. She also stressed the need for vigilance over copyright, not just in the interests of publishers but most especially for writers. However, she said that ultimately it did not matter if, in 2050, a writer is read in a traditional paperback or a hand-held device. “As a publisher, I am happy to supply either to customers, and the essence of what I am selling will be the same, whatever the technology transmitting it. I think there is an irreducible quality to reading that means the book will never die.”

And in a hint that the Kindle and Sony’s reader are coming to the UK, theBookseller reports:

The two biggest publishers in Britain are to offer dozens of likely bestsellers to read on a hand-held screen this autumn in a sign that, after many false dawns, the electronic “ebook” may finally have arrived, reports the Sunday Times. Two rival devices due to come on sale in Britain over the next few months – Sony’s Reader and Amazon’s Kindle. Random House and Hachette, which together control just over 30% of the British book market, are to offer downloadable versions of titles by authors ranging from Delia Smith to Ian McEwan and Michael Parkinson. Every other major publisher is drawing up plans to follow suit, pitching the books at just below the price of a hardback, according to the piece.

But in this article describing Penguin’s decision to sell its audiobooks DRM-free, it’s apparent that the suits at the big publishing houses are starting to pay some attention to the digital revolution. Quoted in the Guardian, the CEO of Pearson, Marjorie Scardino, said last week:

“I don’t think we can be worried about every incursion from electronic selling and electronic use. We have got to think about what the future is going to be and look at how to experiment with it”. Scardino admitted that another potential electronic version of literature – digital books or e-books – has yet to take off because there is still no attractive digital book-reading device. Last year Amazon tried to revitalise the market with the Kindle, but Scardino reckons it “is not quite there yet, and I think we are still waiting for that piece of kit. It’s like downloadable music – iTunes came first but without the iPod I think that would not have really mattered.”

OK, it’s time for a short history lesson here. The iPod was introduced in 2001, although there were other MP3 players on the market at that time. Music sales peaked at $16.7B in 2000 and fell by over 30% by 2006. Whether or not Amazon’s Kindle will turn out to be the iPod of ebooks is unknown at this stage, but one thing is clear: the traditional model of publishing using dead trees and glue is going to crumble over time. Ever hear of of a company called Harms, Witmark & Remick? They were the largest sheet music publisher in the US in the early 20th century. In 1929, they were bought by a “new media” company, Warner Brothers, because the introduction of the grammophone led to a decline in sheet music sales. Can you spell Deja Vu?