Booksellers are hoping to achieve for their business what the internet has done for music: widespread sales online. But they are finding that, along with the hoped-for benefits of such a move, there are many hurdles.
The arguments for switching to an electronic reader - which can read books downloaded from the web - are many. The readers weigh little, are easy to use and are becoming ever more plugged into the net.
But there are drawbacks. Unlike physical books, items downloaded cannot be resold, much less lent to a friend.
Whatever happens, there is a long way to go for the electronic books industry. Whereas downloaded music made up 17 per cent of sales in the music industry for 2011, electronic books only accounted for 1 per cent of the publishing industry's business - and that was twice as much as in 2010.
Publishers hope to reach the music industry's 2011 figures by 2015. Those hopes will be on full display at the Frankfurt Book Show, which runs October 10-14, when ebook innovations and the newest readers take centre stage.
"We have special areas and six hotspots where a lot of start-ups and digital service providers can display," says Kathrin Gruen of the fair. She notes that many publishing houses have set up special departments for ebooks.
"More and more, an ebook version is coming out along with the hardcover version," she says. An industry study showed that 42 percent of new releases in 2011 also came out digitally.
A lot of this storytelling now comes with new multimedia and interactive features. There's a lot of experimentation with apps in children's books or books in the EPUB-3 format, which can be enriched with audio or video features.
That could automatically turn every ebook into an audiobook. Belgian company Acapela Group will demonstrate text-to-speech options that feature pleasant reading voices.
"Maybe the black-and-white ebook is just a transitional phenomenon," says Gruen.
Other bonuses include text searches, definition and translation services, digital notes and bookmarks. Thanks to their colour displays and loudspeakers, tablet computers are also drawing some of the electronic book market. But many ebook fans swear by electronic paper technology, which provides strong contrast, even in direct sunlight, while holding a battery charge for weeks or months.
But there are still comparatively high introductory costs to ebooks. And different markets vary, with physical and digital books priced almost the same in some countries, but with wide variations in others.
There's also the issue of what to do with an ebook once it has been read. Many enjoy lending out their old books, but that's almost never an option with ebooks.
About 61 per cent of publishing houses protect their wares with electronic watermarks (DRM), which make it almost impossible to pass on a book. DRM-protected books can only be opened on a maximum of six devices registered to a user. That policy also prevents resale of a book.
However, ever since the European Court of Justice ruled in January that trade in downloaded software should be allowed, the industry has puzzled over whether that applies to downloaded music and books.
German media expert Christian Solmecke says the owners should be able to sell on ebooks, just like they do with physical books. "Digital goods have to be treated just like material goods," he says. But he notes future rulings will be required to create clarity.
Such arguments might be minimized by other changes like flat rates for ebook purchases or lending options. In its efforts to emulate the music business, the book industry might still break some new ground.
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