The old tune

Sainsbury’s has exited the e-book market with a whimper after barely making a bang in the four years since it acquired a stake in the e-book vendor Anobii. In digital circles the news sparked a brief discussion—as had the folding of Nook’s UK e-book arm before it, the closure of blinkbox books before that and, naturally, the shuttering of Sony’s e-book store in 2014. But there was little comment beyond these circles. Rather like some long-running Samuel Beckett production, we have been here before. What we know today is not much different from what we knew yesterday: the economics of e-book retailing are severe, the level of investment huge, the price points unsustainable and the competition brutal. Even Beckett might think twice before trying this one again.

And yet a niggle persists. Amazon, Apple, Google, Rakuten (and Nook in the US) are now competing in a multimillion-pound market for digital long-form reading that is itself part of a multibillion-pound global digital entertainment market. We might say that books must not be left behind, but in truth it is the traditional book business that looks caught on its heels, particularly if, as appears to be the case, Amazon continues to favour its own publishing, self- publishing and Kindle Unlimited subscriptions service. The point is not that individual titles won’t continue to sell well on the platforms available to digital readers, but more that our ability to have any input into how this market develops will weaken over time as competitors and market share diminish.

Newspapers and music publishers lost their control over how large swathes of their content was distributed and (if they are lucky) sold years ago, while Amazon Prime and Netflix are pulling off a similar trick in the broadcasting business. If you are a consumer of digital content, the chances are that you are locked into an arrangement with a business that barely existed 20 years ago, but one with which you will need to maintain a long-term relationship in order to retain access to the content you desire (and may have purchased). If content is king, access is now the executive.

At present, books are not treading the same path as those media products that went over first. CDs, DVDs and newspapers are disappearing from homes, just as cassette tapes, VHS tapes and vinyl records did years earlier. But printed books prevail. In fact, if the mood at the Independent Publishers Guild conference, or Laurence King’s 25th anniversary party, is anything to go by, there’s a real sense that physical formats—along with the rules over how we buy them, what we pay for them and how we use them—are here to stay. That means there remains more opportunities than threats—for now.

But digital is here. There’s no cure for that.

Philip Jones is editor of The Bookseller.