Are e-books taking over?

The Johannes Gutenberg bible is recognised as the first book ever printed using the German’s groundbreaking mass production press in the 1450s. The publishing industry has come a long way since Mainz-born Gutenberg revolutionised the world. Now there’s barely a need for paper with 20% of people reading books on electric devices according to a new survey on reading habits.

Electronic books made their presence known to the UK in September 2008 via booksellers Waterstone’s, and within two years the company had sold one million downloads.

“It’s a growing part of the market. We are seeing is that availability is now getting better, which is very important. We want people with e-readers to have a good choice and selection; we want people to have the similar kind of perspective as if they walk into a bookshop on the high street,” says Waterstones’s press officer for electronic literature, John Howells.

The survey of Londoners aged 15 and above reveals that 52% agree that the digitalisation of literature is a positive development. Marketing student Liz McKenna, 23, thinks anything that makes life easier is good. “We already have so much course literature, carrying my e-reader with me is far better than another big book if I want to read for pleasure as well.”

As for most electronic inventions, youths have embraced the new technology to a further extent than senior citizens. Out of the 24% between the ages of 15-25 who participated in the survey, two thirds prefer e-books to hard copy. Meanwhile none out of the 32% of people 56-years-old and above had an interest in electronic literature.

“I know they exist and I’ve got a computer, but I wouldn’t dream of trying to read books on it,” says Herman Dier, 62, who’s had a personal library for as long as he can remember.

Dier is one of many who fears the digitalisation may have severe effects on bookshops as four out of five people think it would be a shame for bookstores to have to close.

“Going to the shop is part of the pleasure; it’s a process starting with scouring the shelves, then taking your time to read the book and then recalling it as you see the cover a couple of years later in your home,” he says.

Howells of Waterstone’s believes that it’s to soon to make a judgement of what the e-book means to hard copy sales: “It’s still a small part of the UK market. We have to put into perspective that we’ve been in a recession for the last couple of years and people aren’t feeling so confident about money. That affects the whole high street.

“We closed 15 stores earlier this year, but that’s just part of being a business that’s been around a long time. The physical, printed book has been around for 500 years; it’s very resilient; it’s a design classic; you can’t beat it.”

One problem growing alongside the availability of e-books is the decline in sales revenue for publishers, authors and bookshops. And adding to this is the introduction of e-libraries.

Electronic lending services have already been integrated in over four quarters of UK libraries. They offer the option of downloading titles ranging from Sophie Kinsella’s Shopoholic series to The Collected Short Stories of Roald Dahl, which after 14 days expire automatically and disappear from your system without ever resulting in a fine.

More than 75% of book readers find these types of libraries to be a good idea and more than half of e-book users would prefer borrowing to buying.

Amazon, the biggest e-book retailer in the world, offers users to download a wide range of free e-books for their Kindle e-reader, most of which are classics with expired copyrights. And in the US the company allow the person who’s purchased an e-book to lend it to another user for 14 days – a period when the owner himself cannot access the book.

“It’s so easy getting books online and from Amazon nowadays, I don’t see the same need for [physical] libraries anymore,” says accountant Simon Bingham, 34, who buy on average 10-12 books a year.

The digitalisation of libraries has lead to controversy. Publishing house HarperCollins have announced the books they supply to e-libraries will only be available for 26 downloads before the library has to buy a new license. The number 26 being the average amount of times a physical book can be lent out before having to be replaced because of damage according to Josh Marwell, US Sales President of Harper Collins.

This puts another heavy load on libraries already suffering from economic cuts. During the UK nationwide Save our libraries-day on 1 February 2011, it was stated over 400 libraries were under threat of closure. But according to Jude Williams of Ealing Council Library Services, electronic services haven’t had a negative effect on libraries.

“The e-books are positive for us because they’re available 24/7. The biggest reason we see people stop borrowing books from the library for is lack of time. They don’t have the time to return the book and then it incurs a fine,” she says.

“Libraries and bookshops,” says Howells of Waterstone’s, “offers a service that compliment each other in more ways than we compete. I think it’s the same for e-books and printed books. I’m sure there will be a place for both a libraries and bookshop on the high street for a long time to come.”

Sidebar: Highgate books

Near the top of the steep hill that is Highgate Village lies Highgate Bookshop, a small, picturesque store that doesn’t stir up a fuss. The recession and the new digital era of literature have forced the shop’s sales into a negative trend, but it still manages to stay in business.

“Sales stared declining slowly a few years ago. How much of that is directly correlated to the digitalisation of text and written media, and how much is Amazon and business like that I don’t know,” says shop assistant Rob Sharples.

Owner Michael Goodwin, however, is thinking of closing his other shop in Kent. But in a small community, Sharples sees a clear need for a bookstore. “They have a lot to offer. We have a pretty loyal clientele, everyone knows each other and they would be upset for us to close. It’s a cultural landmark which people still feel connected to since it’s got a cultural value,” he says.

Highgate Bookshop was established in 2000, and despite opening during the peak of the Dot-Com bubble, there are no plans on going digital. “In a store you can browse and see what tickles your fancy. For the same reason people still like buying records, they like the physical aspect of things. You like to see your records or books on the shelf, to see your library as opposed to see your digital file or folder.”

But the future is uncertain: “We don’t have any threat hanging over us to close down in the foreseeable future,” says Sharples, “but if sales continues to go down, then at some point we might have to close.”

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