Europe and the rest of the world may trail the United States in the size of their e-book markets, but they will be able to develop rapidly by partially leapfrogging dedicated reading devices and going straight to tablets and large-screen smartphones, according to Bill McCoy, executive director of the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF).
Speaking at Paris Book Fair’s digital conference on Friday (22nd March), ahead of the IDPF’s first European forum here today, McCoy urged French publishers not to "bury their heads in the sand over digital books" because they will otherwise have limited outlets for their production. In the US, shelf space for physical books has shrunk by almost 50% in the past three years, and is expected to shrink to almost 10% of the initial level "in much less than a decade".
He acknowledged that "diving into digital" was particularly scary for publishers because most other internet content was free, and no DRM was strong enough to prevent piracy. The solution is to provide quality books at a reasonable price in the competition against other content for readers’ time, he said.
Bestsellers were selling more in digital form than ever in the US. Fifty percent of sales of Fifty Shades of Grey were digital, and 30% or 40% is common for other such titles. A recent survey showed that publishers predict half their revenues would come from digital books at some point in 2014. Tablets and smartphones were eroding sales of dedicated e-readers in the US and would continue to do so as the technology improves, he said.
McCoy claimed Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was responsible for the US taking the lead in e-books. Bezos said that his aim was to kill off Tower Records by selling records online, but that Apple got there first. So Bezos invested massively, selling devices and content at a loss, to ensure Apple did not do the same to books as it had done to music. The fact that Amazon staff talk about Kindle books rather than digital or e-books "gives away their aspirations" he said.
He warned against working with proprietary platforms because of the danger publishers could leave and fall so far behind in the technology race that they cannot catch up.
The list of the first 60,000 digitised titles under the French National Library’s (BnF’s) ReLIRE scheme to revive unavailable 20th-century books was also presented at the conference.