by Mr. Kailash Balani

Recently I was invited to speak on ‘Where Digital Books are Headed’ during Publishing Next— Conference on the future of Publishing’: September 16-17, held at Goa, organised by Mr.Leonard Fernandes of Cinnamonteal Publishing.

My expertise, whatever little I have, is in the academic market and in higher education. The question that we have today is “Where are Digital Books headed”? The answer is “almost question that we have today is “Where are Digital Books headed”? The answer is “almost everywhere”….we can find e-books being used in schools, colleges, universities, research institutions in India, and even at Taiwan airport for the benefit of transit passengers. I even find e-books on TV screens in airplanes where passengers can view table of content and few pages free of cost and if they like the e-book, they can purchase e-book on board by paying through credit card. This is nothing but convenience and results in immediate sale.

I am a firm believer of “Print is Dead”. However, it is not yet dead!! Thankfully we still have time to go digital before it is too late. I started marketing and selling e-books and e-journals way back in 2000 and have gained from this move. The publishers are undergoing tectonic shift and these shifts are going in one direction and that is being digital. In the past we had scrolls at the great Alexendria library, now no more scrolls. We had long playing records, now no more, we then had cassettes, now no more, later came CDs and now no more. Even the new great Bibliotheca Alexendria now has e-books and the digital content !!!

We humans like change and adapt new technologies very fast and therefore, there is no reason that we will not embrace e-books. Publishers now have a new landscape to prepare for future and be future ready.

The rise of e-books in the Indian libraries is like a revolution as the librarians find e-books easy for archiving, and can build library collections overnight, allowing simultaneous multiple access and saving on library space. The customers have choice of buying e-books on subscription, perpetuity and on patron driven access models to optimize use of their budgets. The Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) has given a huge budget in providing e-books to Govt. Colleges under N-List Programme, INFLIBNET Consortia, where1400 colleges having internet access (though they may not have clean drinking water) are already enjoying the benefits of e-books. MHRD’s aim is to provide e-books to around 20,000 colleges. This initiative has received lot of appreciation and many awards from different quarters. This is a big opportunity for all kinds of e-publishers. Apart from this we have hundreds of Universities, Engineering, Medical, Law, Social Science & Humanities and Management institutions who could be buyers and users of e-books. The features of some of the e-book platforms could be that one can search thousands of books simultaneously, mark up on e-books, access anytime time anywhere, view multimedia content like videos etc., can create your own bookshelf for future reference, facility of machine translation in various languages, can check usage of each book by page wise, chapter wise etc.. Today we have many e-book reader devices like laptops, Kindle, Sony, Android, ipad, Blackberry, Kobo, cell phones and many more. We are electronically connected and hardly ever offline. This will have an impact on the declining sales of print books in the field of professional and reference books and for mass paperbacks. Therefore, publishers having e-books or digital content will be at an advantage point. Publishers now can offer and make available their content on different platforms and with different DRM controls to their advantage resulting in more sales and more royalties for authors. According to Association of American Publishers report 2011, revenues from sales of e-books during January 2011 were up roughly 115% percent over sales in January 2010, rising from US$ 32.4 million to US$ 69.9 million.

However, almost 76% of U.S. e-book market is comprised of professional books. So is the case in India at this moment. We don’t see many individuals purchasing e-books at this moment. In a recent survey conducted by Chinese Academy of Press and Publications, which covered more than 19,000 people from 51 cities, it found that 613 million e-books were read by people between the ages of 18 and 70 in 2010.

The survey indicates popularity of e-books. It shows that 16.4 percent of the readers of Chinese e-books buy paperbacks after reading the electronic versions. With the advent of e-books, a new business, that is, print on demand is emerging and bringing in good business for publishers who do not have print stocks any more. Out of print books can be a huge success if made available as e-books.

There are no fixed pricing formulas for e-books as we have in the print world. I think publishers have to rework on pricing and distribution models which were set few years ago and need constant review. Recently I read that Mr. Josh Marwell, President of Sales for Harper Collins announced their new policy, where e-books licensed to libraries can only be checked out 26times, after which time the libraries will need to purchase a new license. In a public letter to libraries Harper Collins defended the loan restriction, saying it will balance the needs of authors, libraries and their patrons, and publishers. Therefore, each publisher will have to design its own rules of pricing and distribution networks to reach different audience and markets. Also, publishers will have to constantly invest in upgrading their hardware and software which becomes extinct by the time you buy it!!!

There is also a huge potential for Indian language publishers in terms of making their content digital. But do we really know where they are? How to find them? Many of them just publish few books and do not even use ISBNs. How do we track such publishers? We need to have a separate forum or an association which can bring these language publishers together, organize book fairs and workshops to make their content known, translate their content in different Indian and foreign languages. I see huge sales potential in this segment for both print and digital markets.

As I said earlier, the publishers are currently going through disruptions and are seeking answer to many questions which I hope we will be able to find during these two days of deliberations. We have to be future ready to benefit from the digital world!!

I would be happy to receive any comments from the readers.