|The emphasis of the Frankfurt Book Fair remained on the print medium [Reuters]
As pastimes go, there's little that is more old-fashioned, quiet and basic as reading a book. Or, at least, that used to be the case. But with the competitive flood of electronic readers, or e-readers, hitting the market - as well as e-reader applications for smartphones - the reading experience has been getting a progressively modern makeover.
Bill McCoy, executive director of International Digital Publishing Forum, based in Seattle, Washington, said that while it's hard to gauge just how the sale of digital books (e-books) is growing, it's clear that the sales, as a percentage of the overall market, are in the double digits "and on a fast-growing vector".
"In North America, depending on whose numbers you want to believe, e-books are already 15-25 per cent of book business," said McCoy, speaking earlier this month to Al Jazeera from Frankfurt, where he was attending one of the world's largest book fairs.
"Amazon is saying that they're selling more e-books than hardcover books. And in many cases, depending on the title, they might be selling more e-books than physical books."
Europe, he said, is a couple of years behind the North American market, and that consumer adoption has not been as quick due to fear of piracy and loss of control over the market.
The Associated Press news agency reported that Germany's book industry association used the fair to draw attention to the issue of pirated copies of e-books.
Gottfried Honnefelder, head of the group that represents publishers and booksellers, said at the fair's opening news conference that around 60 per cent of e-book downloads in Germany were pirated through internet sources such as filesharing sites.
"In North America, depending on whose numbers you want to believe, e-books are already
15-25 per cent of book business."
- Bill McCoy
"But the publishers clearly see that it is coming and it's clearly going to change the value-chain of publishing drastically, but at today's Frankfurt Book Fair, you're still seeing big stands full of printed books as the dominant theme," said McCoy.
"But I don't think that will be the case three years from now."
While the move toward digital publication is already happening, expanding and seemingly unavoidable, it seems rather premature to write the ink-printed book's obituary.
For one thing, even McCoy admits that as a cultural object - an artifact to collectors and aficionados who swoon at the crack of a bound spine - the shiny convenience of carrying a library on a device can't replace the beauty of a hardcover.
"You can't give an e-book as a gift the way you would a hardcover book," said McCoy. Plus, there's the serendipity of the book as a found object - left in a waiting room, at the airport or on a bus by a thoughtful reader who completed a great read for others to enjoy.
After all, leaving books on flashdrives in public places doesn't quite have the same feeling. Besides, doing so would probably violate a whole host of piracy laws. And the fear of piracy and theft is what McCoy said keeps many authors and some publishers away from the e-book market.
But things are starting to change.
Old and new media meet in the British Library
Even JK Rowling, the creator of the wildly successful Harry Potter series, who rather publicly spurned the idea of producing an electronic edition of her books, has gradually come around, offering direct electronic editions via her Pottermore site.
In fact, some authors, such as Amanda Hocking, have made a name - and millions of dollars - for themselves through e-publishing and not traditional publishing houses. And Amazon is even starting to pen publishing deals directly with authors, bypassing traditional publishing houses entirely. This move brings to question what might really be threatened in this shift to the digital age: The publishing industry as a business model.
"Trade publishers typically distributed books through channels to end readers they didn't directly interact with," said McCoy.
"They sold books the way Procter & Gamble sold shampoo - in the digital world, you can have much more engagement and interaction."
Of course, not all aspects of publishing are steeped in pragmatic salesmanship or a romanticised view of the printed word.
Having content of its scholarly and academic material available electronically has been the "biggest growth area" for Oxford University Press, said its communications director, Rachel Goode.
Individuals seldom subscribe to or purchase such journals, it is often institutions, so the purchasing model there isn't as dependent on a person's whims or tastes. Institutions make those purchases and from there, it's up to the particular institution to allow its researchers and academics to access the content on a mobile device such as an e-reader.
"Our scholarly journals are all mobile optimised, so theoretically, they can be accessed on a mobile device."
The sales of higher education materials, she said, were "highly variable".
"It is, in the end, almost entirely driven by public investment in technology in the classrooms," said Goode.
She did not respond to questions regarding sales figures or the cost of getting content mobile-optimised.
Reading vs screen-scanning
It might seem that somehow, the high-tech way of receiving the written word comes with some unnecessary noise. The more whizz-bang readers come with web browsers, movies and music, leaving those prone to distractions open to folly.
Olaf Hauk, a researcher at the UK's Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit told Al Jazeera that any differences between the brain's reception of old-school print versus digital words essentially come down to the user.
"Our visual system is sensitive to the size of letters, fonts, contrast, etc. This will be the same for e-readers or printed text," said Hauk.
"As long as these properties are chosen appropriately on an e-reader, there is no reason to assume - or I wouldn’t know of any evidence - that reading behaviour is different for an e-reader than for printed text."
Furthermore, he said the key to a reader's ability to focus rests with the person, not the device.
"But maybe the question here is whether readers read with a different intention or attitude than when they read a conventional book, for example whether readers read more superficially with e-readers than with books, pay less attention etc," said Hauk.
"Or maybe people who use e-readers are people who take reading less seriously than those who buy 'real' books."
In other words, if you're prone to getting totally distracted from your reading material by the iPad's endless apps, it ain't the iPad's fault - you're just not that into reading.
However, Hauk's colleague, Matt Davis, added that experiments assessing how e-readers will affect reading behaviour and detention in the long run are yet to be done.
"It is worthwhile to do these studies before making any definitive statement concerning the pros and cons of reading electronic rather than printed texts," said Davis.
The future is here
It'll be interesting to see if and when experiments on the potential impacts of e-readers on memory and cognition are done, as the market has definitely reached a point of no return in terms of moving away from printed pages.
Stephanie Mantello, senior public relations manager of the Kindle group at Amazon.com, gave answers to Al Jazeera that didn't include specifics, but implied massive quantities.
For instance, when asked how many Kindles the company has sold since the product was first introduced in 2008, Mantello simply said, "Millions. Millions of people are reading on Kindle ... Kindle is also the best-selling product in the history of Amazon.com."
It is the most-wished for on the "wish list" function account holders have on the company's site. It's given as a gift more often than any other single product. It has the most 5-star reviews... you get the idea.
She did say that between April 1 and May 19, for every 100 print books the company sold, it sold 105 Kindle books.
"This includes sales of hardcover and paperback books by Amazon where there is no Kindle edition. Free Kindle books are excluded, and, if included, would make the number even higher," said Mantello.
Traditional brick-and-mortar stores are hip to these realities, which is why the ones that can - from the big-chain Barnes & Nobles to indie favourites, such as Portland, Oregon's Powell's Books - are setting up their own e-book stores. But it's unclear how the content will go from the author to the reader and who - if anyone - will get to be the middleman in the equation.
"We're in the twilight of book publishing as it's been done for the last two centuries, and publishers are scrambling to see what the future is going to be now that half - or more than half - of the consumption is digital," said McCoy.
"But nobody knows yet."
Follow D. Parvaz on Twitter: @Dparvaz
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies