May 16, 2010

Reading world turns a new page

by Kerry Lengel The Arizona Republic May. 16, 2010 12:00 AM

It's not just Hollywood that breaks out the blockbusters every summer. The big publishers have plenty of star authors lined up this year, including Arizona's own vampire queen, Stephenie Meyer.

"The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner" is just a spinoff novella, but at the end of April, a month before its May 31 release, it was the No. 1 advance order on barnesand No. 2 was the e-book version of the same title.

That's a mark not only of Meyer's popularity but also of the growing acceptance of e-books. Earlier this month, Simon & Schuster announced that first-quarter sales from its digital division (which includes audiobook downloads) had more than tripled, to $12 million, and now account for nearly 8 percent of income for the publishing house.

But although it's clear that e-books are here to stay, it's not quite as clear what that means to the industry as a whole or, more important, to the future of the good old-fashioned hardcover or paperback book as a mass medium.

iPad debut

E-books have been gaining ground steadily since the Sony Reader hit the market in 2006 with its paperlike display, followed by's Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook.

The latest game-changer is Apple's iPad, which, despite some initial skepticism from the technophiles, reached the 1 million sales mark in a mere 28 days, less than half the time the iPhone took.

"I think the true breakthrough will come this summer" when Apple's new iBooks app is released for the iPhone and iPod Touch, says Michael A. Stackpole, a Valley-based sci-fi and fantasy author who has been following closely as the publishing industry has responded to changing technology.

"Electronic publishing is absolutely the wave of the future. You will watch in the next two to five years, and I'm betting more on two than five, a collapse of publishing very similar to what happened with what digital did to music."

Of course, the Internet has inspired many such apocalyptic predictions, most of which turned out to be overblown. But the iPad as e-book reader is not what has the Apple acolytes genuflecting, anyway. Sure, its successful release has spurred e-book sales - Apple reported 1.5 million iBooks downloaded as of April 30 - but compared head-to-head with the specialized readers, it does have some drawbacks, particularly the lack of that "virtual ink" look.

Instead, the iPad has generated excitement because its larger display, coupled with a touch-screen interface like the iPhone's, opens up the possibilities for multimedia on the go.

"People become more used to reading on a screen, so their very definition of 'book' is something you read on your iPhone or another device," Stackpole says. "You can have beautiful books with illustrations, but they can also be interactive with video files and sound files. Books can take on other dimensions that you didn't expect."

That's exactly the idea behind Vook, launched last fall as a website and iPhone app, which pairs text titles with video and Internet links.

"The iPad tripled our sales," says Brad Inman, CEO of the San Francisco-based startup.

Vook's fast-growing lineup is a mix of non-fiction (cookbooks, "Crush It!"), public-domain classics ("The Call of the Wild," "The Phantom of the Opera") and some current fiction (Anne Rice is a top seller).

The experience of reading one of those titles will be familiar to the Web generation, except that instead of searching YouTube for a clip from the 1925 "Phantom" film, all the extras have been curated for you.

And, Inman adds, although Vooks can be viewed with a Web browser, the iPad app looks a lot sleeker.

Which is the point of the excitement about iPad, as the first successful "slate computer." Its form and functionality will reshape the content of media, just as surely as Gutenberg's printing press gave rise to the novel and the long-play record led to pretentious '70s concept albums.

As the Washington Post's Michael Gerson put it in a recent paean to the iPad, "The Information Age is now affordable, portable, intuitively organized and infinitely customizable. All future content, including books and newspapers, will need to assume the shape of this innovation."

Paper's place

Not. So. Fast, say bibliophiles everywhere. The iPod may ultimately slay the CD player, but the book isn't going to disappear. This isn't Betamax or the 8-track we're talking about. The original mass medium has proven popular for more than half a millennium.

"E-books are going to become like audiobooks, part of all the platforms, but I don't buy into the idea that they're going to completely replace the printed technology," says Barbara Peters, co-founder of the Poisoned Pen Press, a boutique mystery publisher in Scottsdale.

"E-books have several advantages. Instant gratification; a lot of people really like that. They are cheaper. They have less mass."

Peters is no technophobic Luddite (she called from France via Skype). But as a regular traveler, she's noticed that e-book readers have a downside, for instance, at the airport.

"It has to go through security," she says. "You can't read it while you're sitting on the runway because it's a portable electronic device. . . .

"In a blackout, you can still read a book by candle, but you're going to have a hard time recharging your Kindle."

Now that e-books have proven their economic viability, the publishing industry is going through the same kind of shake-up that already has changed the balance of power in the music business. But that doesn't necessarily spell the doom of a literary format.

"I think their concern in the book world is much more, 'How is it going to be distributed and who is going to get the money?' " says Dave Barry, the best-selling humor writer who muses on the digital present, among other topics, in his latest book, "I'll Mature When I'm Dead."

"Digital this, digital that. There's a lot of talk about rights and distribution, but when people are talking about stuff like that it's because there are people buying books.

"Now, some of these books are not that great. But they're selling in huge quantities."

Budget end

Robert Rosenwald, co-founder and publisher of the Poisoned Pen Press, thinks e-books are destined to be the "budget" end of the publishing price spectrum.

"I have priced our e-books at $6.95, which is the price of a mass-market paperback," he says.

"This differs from what most publishers feel and how they deal with e-books. Many view it as some sort of competition to their print books, so they tend to price e-books anywhere from 60 percent of the hardcover print price to 100 percent, which I think is off the charts. I don't understand why anyone would pay $25 for an e-book."

His partner, Peters, is convinced that e-books are a complementary technology rather than a replacement.

"Some publishers have been bundling e-books with hardcovers," she says, targeting the commuter market: Read the e-book on the go, then curl up by the fire at home. Old school, baby!

As for Barry, who ended his long-running Miami Herald column in 2005, he offers grim predictions for the newspaper business in his new book, but the book itself gets a rosier outlook.

"I write these young-adult fiction books for Disney with Ridley Pearson, and I have a 10-year-old daughter, so one of my feet is in that world," he says. "And kids read a lot. My daughter reads a lot. Partly it's because her parents are writers, but her friends read a lot, too. The 'Harry Potter' books, no books ever sold like that in the history of the world. . . .

"I have to think that books have a chance."

Reading world turns a new page

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