Why publishers would be mad to support ebooks

Are e-books a death sentence for the publishing industry?

Publishing, we're told, is on the brink of its iPod moment. Something - maybe the Kindle, maybe something else - will make electronic books so brilliant that it'll change the way we read forever.

That may well be true, but if publishers fall for it they're signing their own death warrants.

For all its joys, digital music has been a disaster for record companies. But while the internet was always going to hurt the CD, that doesn't mean it has to do the same to books.

The difference is digital. Music has been digital since the CD was invented, so it was only a matter of time before the internet took that digital data and stuck it on Napster, Kazaa, the Pirate Bay and so on.

On the legal side of things, it quickly became obvious that whoever dominates the market gets the power, which is why Steve Jobs is now the most important man in the music business.

Books are pirate-proof

Books, though, generally aren't digital. And that's what makes them so great, not least because they're pretty much pirate-proof. If there isn't a digital source, it's hard to make digital copies.

Who can be bothered looking for a scanned or retyped version of Jade Goody's biography when the real thing only costs a couple of quid, isn't hobbled with some daft DRM scheme and can be turned into a flaming torch or hurled out of a window when the prose gets too tedious? And who's going to bother scanning or retyping it in the first place?

Books aren't music. You don't read a book when you're concentrating on something important, you don't skip between chapters, books and authors in the space of a few minutes and you don't need 1,000 different titles to read on the bus.

Unless you're constantly hopping on and off planes or lugging around heavy textbooks, the electronic book is the answer to a question you didn't ask.

There are other differences. The MP3 player owes its existence to unauthorised copying, especially in the UK where CD ripping is technically illegal.

By contrast, there's no easy way to rip your existing library of books - are you really going to scan them? Really? - and while illegally copied books are available online, book sharing isn't mainstream.

Pirate content

That means there isn't much illegal content to drive hardware sales, which mean that the Kindle is some way away from being the iPod of books. If publishers are smart, they'll keep it that way.

Don't get us wrong. Electronic books could be a boon in some areas: niche titles that won't trouble your local Tesco, for example, or short stories, self-publishing and anything else that doesn't do big numbers.

They make sound sense for subscription content such as magazines and newspapers, too. But for mainstream books, the blockbuster novels and the celebrity autobiographies, there's absolutely no reason to make them digital.

The music industry discovered far too late that it wasn't in the music business: it was in the business of making plastic things that just happened to play music. The internet made those plastic things obsolete.

Right now, the publishing industry faces a similar change. If it goes digital, it's moving into a world where there are bigger, more powerful and more experienced players, and those players will eat the publishers' lunch; if the book trade thinks supermarket discounting is making its life difficult, it ain't seen nothing yet.

By sticking to dead trees, however, the book publishers can keep on doing what they're doing. Sure, some people will be happy with a leaked download of Harry Potter, or a badly scanned how-to manual. But they'll be the minority.

Recorded music is a relatively new invention, but books have been around for nearly two thousand years and mass-produced books for several hundred. If publishers don't rush into digital, they could be around for hundreds more.


Carrie Marshall

Writer, broadcaster, musician and kitchen gadget obsessive Carrie Marshall has been writing about tech since 1998, contributing sage advice and odd opinions to all kinds of magazines and websites as well as writing more than a dozen books. Her memoir, Carrie Kills A Man, is on sale now and her next book, about pop music, is out in 2025. She is the singer in Glaswegian rock band Unquiet Mind.