IPA President Youngsuk "Y.S." Chi spoke about the transformation of the e-book market at the 79th IFLA World Library & Information Congress in Singapore.

I’ve been asked to share with you all on what the transformation of the e-book market means for publishers. I thought I would do this by imagining some of the things that the “E” in e-book stands for, if not “electronic”. I have 9 words:

The first word is “Excess”: today, more books are more available than ever. In 2003, approximately 300,000 books were published in the US. By 2011, that number five-folded to 1.5 million. This was a result of gigantic growth in reprints and on-demand titles, particularly public domain works, as well as self-published and ”micro-niche” publications. In 2011, more than 235,000 self-published books were published in the US [87K e-books and 148K print books]. This was an increase of 287% since 2006.

With more and more books available online, readers feel they should pay less and less for those books. This undervalues the hard work authors put into their writing, as well as the value added by publishers. It also brings me to the second word, which is “Easy.”

In today’s world, consumers also expect content to be easy to find and easy to access. E-books are available for instantaneous download on any device—be it laptop, e-reader, tablet, or smartphone—so long as you have a WiFi connection. But we have a while to go before everything about an e-book becomes easy, which brings me to my third word... “Expansive.”

It may seem like e-books are less work for publishers because we aren’t printing them and shipping them to bookshops—that e-books are easy to distribute. But actually, e-books create more work for publishers. It is true that some of publishers' functions—packaging books and promoting them to shops, for example—are becoming obsolete. But print books have not completely disappeared—if anything, the reverse E to P process of books like Fifty Shades of Grey demonstrates that print is still very much in demand.

We still do everything we’ve always done: we act as the venture capitalists of the words business. We pay advances to authors to enable them to write books that might not get written otherwise, and we never ask for this money back if the book doesn’t sell. Scholarly journal publishers manage the 2 peer review process. People tend to forget about preservation in the digital world, but we’re seeking out partners like CLOCKSS, a joint venture between academic publishers and research libraries around the world, to ensure all our works continue to be preserved for future generations. And our core role—as editor and connector of author and reader—is increasingly important as readers struggle to navigate an ocean of content (remember word #1).

In addition to all that, we’re also taking on new roles. We’re investing in digital infrastructure: production processes now involve XML tags and metadata, and book designers must know mark-up language and be familiar with the latest e-reader devices. We need to meet the individual technical requirements for different online retailers and e-reader devices. In the past, you just created one product—a physical book—and delivered that to different retailers. I am sure librarians understand how complicated this can be, as you deal with different platforms and systems.

So, despite all the threats of the death of publishing, the role of publishers is actually expanding in the digital age.

This brings us to word #4: “Enigmatic.” One result of this expansion is that there is now a lot of ambiguity about where everyone fits in in the publishing ecosystem. Publishers are increasingly moving towards licensing, rather than sales. So suddenly, it seems like publishers and librarians are competitors—our offerings look identical. Furthermore, the boundaries between digital “containers”— whether they are e-books, apps, or websites—will only continue to blur. So, there’s a lot of uncertainty.

Word #5 is “Experimental”. Albert Einstein once said, “Problems cannot be solved by thinking within the framework in which they were created.” In this time of uncertainty, it is essential that all stakeholders think outside of the box.

The Internet has destroyed the framework that created the traditional publishing landscape. We are still figuring out what works in this new digital environment. For a start, readers are still trying to figure out what they want. Some are in favor of extending first sale doctrine to digital objects, but others don’t want to own any e-books. They prefer to license everything, as long as it’s available to download off the cloud whenever they want it.

So publishers are experimenting with different business models. We have agile publishing, subscription models (book clubs), freemium (i.e. 1st book in a series is a loss-leader), ads incorporated into books (as with online newspaper articles), and bundling with other (physical) products. It’s really important that we keep trying new things to find what works as our customers figure out what they need.

Word #6 is “Experiential”. Much in the way the music industry has moved toward selling concerts, publishers will need to think creatively about ways to monetize content. One way is to use technology to create a reading experience—what some call augmented reality. Books can now be interactive—they can incorporate different kinds of media, or even employ non-linear storytelling. Furthermore, in the past, books were confined to physical objects or dedicated e-readers that were not fully connected. But now, readers are just one-click away from the world. This has huge implications for connectivity and social integration of reading— for how we experience the act of reading.

Word #7 is “Ephemeral”. Right now, the only thing that is certain is that everything is changing.

Technology is constantly changing: dedicated e-readers are being replaced by tablets and smartphones, and some are already predicting the demise of the e-book by 20171.

The market is changing: a lot of people are worried about Amazon, but once upon a time, AOL enjoyed similar dominance over Internet access. That is now a footnote in the beginning of the Internet. New entrants will continue to change the balance of the market. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t worry about Amazon, but all these changing factors favor a more open ecosystem.

Attention spans are getting shorter and shorter, and books are now competing with games, movies, TV, and social media for readers’ eyeballs.

Finally, the product itself—the book—is changing. Literally. Books used to be static—once they were printed, that was it. Now, authors can change anything about the book at any time. Readers expect to engage with the author directly or with other fans online in forums, wikis, and social media websites. Some authors and publishers—Sourcebooks for example—are releasing books early, then soliciting feedback from readers, which get incorporated into the print version of the books. With technology we also know a lot more about how people read. Apps for tablets record how much time people spend reading a book, where they stop reading, and which passages are popular. All of this can be helpful information to authors and publishers and incorporated into the book at any time.


So books now can be constant works in progress. That may terrify or enthrall writers (and readers). But the most dangerous thing for publishers or librarians to do is to ignore this change. It’s essential to engage. Which brings me to my next word… “Empathy.”

As this e-volution continues, the more you truly understand what's going on, the better decisions and choices you will be able to make for yourself and your readers. Publishers and librarians have historically had a close relationship. We share similar missions of promoting literacy and a love of reading, and providing books to as wide an audience as possible.

It’s clear the issue of e-lending is key to our relationship in the digital age. We are now connected through licensing whether we like it or not, and we’re in it for the long term. It can’t be about one side winning over the other. The good news is that publishers want to work with librarians. We value librarians and the role you continue to play in society. We also have to work with technology companies. That requires everyone to approach this in a very different way. Lots of experimenting is needed, but also goodwill and empathy from all parties. Only by trying things will we move forward and find what works.

My final word is “Eternal.” A lot is changing, but the book is not going anywhere. The digital transformation is not a threat to books, but rather an opportunity. It’s a chance to rethink how we use books, how people will pay for them, and even what a book is. There’s never been a more exciting time to be in publishing. And until the book’s function—to entertain, to educate, to enlighten—dies, the book will never die.

Thank you, and I’d be happy to take any questions you may have.

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