The sky is not falling on the traditional book

Word On the Street's Digital Drive Stage was packed all day, as curious book-lovers came out towards glean what a shift to digital sales means for the publishing industry. (OUTSIDETENT_IMG_2127(E))

A former Canadian publishing executive says, contrary to popular myth, e-readers have not killed the hard-cover book.

On Sunday, publishers, readers and writers gathered at Queen’s Park during the annual Word on the Street festival to discuss what the shift to online reading will mean for the industry at the ‘Digital Drive’ workshop tent.

Cynthia Good, director of the creative book publishing program at Humber College and former president of Penguin Books Canada, says the traditional book is not dead.

“Writers can still make a career,” she said.

Panelists (l-r) Ashleigh Garder, Allen Lau, Natascha Helbig and Cynthia Good guided readers, writers and booklovers through a one-hour e-guide at Toronto's annual Word On the Street book festival on Sunday. (PANEL_IMG_2121(E))

The lower price-point of online “e-books,” as well as sites offering free content for digital readers have book lovers wondering if publishing faces the same decline that’s wracked the commercial music industry since Napster appeared in 1999. But, according to Good and her co-panelists at the Digital Drive workshop tent, an economically viable digital shift is underway for writers and publishers.

“Even though there are a lot of approaches (online) that offer free books, there are just as many approaches where people have to pay,” Good said.

Through websites such Smashwords and Kobo, writers can sell their content online, without hiring agents or publishers. These websites reportedly allow authors 70 to 80 per cent of the sale price.

Good said authors with publishing contracts can expect to about 25 per cent of the book sale price, depending on whether they retain their digital rights.

High foot traffic at the Sony digital reader vendor tent is one hint of their record sales in this, their third year at Word On the Street. By mid-afternoon, sales representative Karol Waminiec reported that e-readers have surpassed their 2008 and 2009 totals. (READERS_IMG_2135(E))

Readers are more willing to pay for a book, suggested Ashleigh Gardner, content manager at Kobo. She sees that attitude as yet another reason why the book industry is buffered against the decline seen in music.

“Readers invest so much of their time into a book purchase,” Gardner said. “They’re not just going to read a whole book because it’s free.”

Professionally published books are also coded to protect against piracy, the same way songs are on iTunes.

Meanwhile, Good said the increased volume of content is creating demand for publishers, editors and reviewers to guide readers towards quality.

Karol Waminiec has sold Sony readers at Word on the Street since 2008. Digital reading devices can cost anywhere from $200 to $800, but vendors and users at the festival indicated the e-readers are still only selling to a niche market.

“It’s a lot of avid readers who are usually in the older demographic,” Waminiec said.

Good was asked if e-readers are popular among younger consumers.

“My students can’t afford them,” she said. “And frankly, they’re not interested. They may just as well have a book.”

Good owns iPad and iPhone readers, she said, but only finds them practical for travelling or killing time. “If I’m at home,” she said, “I’m reading a physical book.”

“They aren’t supposed to replace books,” Gardner added, “and publishers aren’t thinking of them that way. It’s just another platform we can offer people. It’s just a convenient option for some people.”

Meantime, Amazon, the world’s largest book retailer and online bookstore, reported an increase in digital book sales of 150 per cent between July 2009 and 2010. Their e-books now outsell hard covers, and are expected to surpass their online paperback sales from Amazon sometime next year.

The Toronto Public Library recently upgraded its online catalogue to include thousands of free, digital versions of books that expire two weeks from the date of download.