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Kindling the Fire

August 21, 2008 By:
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The fate of the electronic book and its effect on publishing was the subject of yet another article in the Arts section of The New York Times. Reporter Edward Wyatt began by asking "Is the electronic book approaching the tipping point?"

This was a topic, he wrote, that both "energized and unnerved" people attending BookExpo America out in Los Angeles. Last month's event was described as "the publishing and bookselling industry's annual trade show."

The device that was the focus of most of the attention was the Kindle, Amazon's electronic reader, which is the brainchild of Jeffrey P. Bezos, founder and chief executive of Amazon, and which has been praised for "its ease of use." Bezos spent one early session at BookExpo, according to Wyatt, "evangelizing about the Kindle, which he said already accounts for 6 percent of his company's unit sales of books that are available in both paper and electronic formats."

But the excitement swirling around the Kindle, which was introduced back in November, has worried publishing executives, according to Wyatt, who also have fears about Amazon's still-expanding power as a bookseller.

"Those executives note that Amazon currently sells most of its Kindle books to customers for a price well below what it pays publishers, and they anticipate that it will not be long before Amazon begins using the Kindle's popularity as a lever to demand that publishers cut prices."

Like publishers, booksellers, noted Wyatt, were just as unnerved by the ascendancy of the electronic book. They're concerned that devices like the Kindle could become more than just "a passing fancy for an electronically savvy subset of customers."

"It certainly does feel like a threat," said Charles Stillwagon, the events manager at the Tattered Cover Book Store, a large independent bookseller in Denver.

Many of the publishers contacted by Wyatt agreed that their sales of electronic books, which have been available, remarkably, since 1968, grew in 2007, even though the numbers are still small. For example, Carolyn K. Reidy, the chief executive of Simon & Schuster said at the L.A. convention that its electronic-book sales last year were about $1 million, which is just "a sliver" of its roughly $1 billion annual sales. But the publisher does expect to convert another 5,000 titles to electronic format in 2008, "more than doubling its number of electronic books and making available many of the best-selling books on the company's backlist of consistent sellers."

Everyone apparently agrees, noted Wyatt, that all this expected growth in electronic books can be traced to the Kindle. "When Amazon introduced the product, it sold out the machines on the first day. The company needed months to adjust its manufacturing capacity and supply chain to be able to keep Kindles in stock, which Mr. Bezos said it has now accomplished."


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