Lovers of all things printed, bound and published have a new literary hopeful hovering over their heads. But rather than the next Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, it’s the electronic reading device known as the eReader. Thankfully, while Johannes Gutenberg may be rolling his eyes from beyond the grave at the concept of digital tablets that display virtual volumes known as eBooks, the reality is that we’re potentially standing on the cusp of an industrial revolution. Better yet, even the field’s formerly staunchest holdouts – newspaper, book and magazine publishers – are finally waking up and embracing the technology’s potential in growing numbers.
Why the recent shift? Given what analysts say is the increasingly depressing reality of old-world print business models, today’s publishers and booksellers (who’d once adopted a largely adversarial stance) are increasingly approaching this digital development with an “if you can’t beat them, join them” attitude. Mark Cull, publisher of Red Hen Press, admits that he’s gladly partnered with Amazon, giving the online mogul permission to digitize and reprint their books. Cull says that his company, a small but highly acclaimed literary outfit, is enjoying keeping up with the latest technological trends and advancements. “The entire printing world is leaning toward digitized publication with fascination,” said Cull. “We [at Red Hen Press] are actually very interested in the direction the publication of books is going.”
In contrast, Cull does admit there’s been a rogue protest or two over this new literary fad from some writers and readers. Case in point: The Women’s Poetry Listserv, more commonly referred to as WOMPO, had a couple blog posts and online forums trying to sway publishers’ from signing anything with Amazon. Cull says that the rebellion faded fast though, once they realized the slight effect it had on the publishing realm, since these technologies aren’t in a threatening position as they currently cover only one percent of the readership. Even though the option for a digitized version of a Red Hen Press book is available, Cull points out that most of their readers still prefer traditional books. “We are buying into this market, but we’re not worried about sales because we know our reader base,” he says, citing that sales have been on an upward growth path for the past few years.
In addition, Cull says his company is trying new things to keep pace with society and the tech world’s latest trends. “At our last anniversary party, we tried something new: We only advertised the event on Twitter and Facebook to save paper [since we use enough of it as is] and see how many people would show up,” he says. The party was a success, and they had an overwhelming turnout from producing just electronic advertisements and posts. Given such happy results across the board, Cull feels that others in the publishing world have also started to welcome tech-related changes in growing numbers, rather than trying to fight or ignore them.
Similarly, many authors say—even though they themselves personally prefer books in printed versions and want readers to support local bookstores—that they are not opposed to the idea of people reading their work or a digitized book on an eReader.
At Wordstock 2009, we interviewed a number of authors who all confessed that they’d prefer readers to pick up a hard copy of their book at a “local indie” bookstore. Some authors, such as Debra Gwartney—author of the memoir Live Through This—say it does not matter how readers acquire a book though, whether through a Kindle or a local bookstore, as long as they have some sort of access to it. Even writers like former NBA star Chris Dudley (who attended Wordstock to promote his inspirational children’s book Chris Dreams Big) that aren’t huge eBook fans are keeping an open mind. Dudley describes himself as “old-school” and says that he prefers for children to read his book in its traditional print and illustrated form rather than a digital version. However, he’s also willing to admit that he thinks eReaders are convenient for kids, like his two oldest children who are avid readers, because it consolidates many books onto one slim device.
In terms of booksellers, leading retailer Barnes & Noble recently took the “if you can’t beat them, join them” stance to a literal level by actually assembling its own digital library and eReader, the Nook. What sets the Nook apart from others in its category, though? Doug Gottlieb, Barnes & Noble’ Vice President of Digital Devices, says the device is special in this market because it’s made by passionate book people for passionate readers. The Nook is all about the reading experience, he claims. Barnes & Noble, with its in-store café, book-wiz workers and comfortable reading corners, tries to be more of a community center than just a bookstore. Gottlieb says he wants people spending hours socializing, reading, studying and essentially loitering around Barnes & Noble—that’s why it was established—and a device like the Nook simply compliments that goal.
But how can an eReader work cooperatively with a bookstore, whose profits you’d expect it to directly undermine? Simple, Gottlieb says: The Nook interacts with the store by connecting to Barnes & Noble’s WiFi hotspots, giving users free range of AT&T’s 3G network for downloading and purchasing books. Gottlieb says being in Barnes & Noble will enhance the “Nook experience” because users will get exclusive content, special discounts and will be able download and read entire eBooks for free in the store. The booksellers’ employees will also be fully trained in the use and features of this new device, so Nook users and curious customers have the same in-store resources as before.
More importantly, Gottlieb thinks the Nook will help Barnes & Noble keep up with the changing times and attain a whole new readership. “We have a variety of books to suite a variety of readers’ tastes—why not have options and variety with reading devices?” he chuckles. “Some people may prefer an eReader to traditional books and we want to provide a sophisticated device for that crowd.”
Moreover, Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps thinks Barnes & Noble is on the right track for succeeding in the eReader market while still “holding their own” as a bookstore. She predicts “higher-than-expected eReader sales” in the 2009 holiday season and the beginning months of 2010. Epps believes Barnes & Noble’s Nook will do well against eReader competitor Amazon, manufacturer of the Kindle 2 and Kindle DX, due to the former booksellers’ “customer relationships, in-store real estate and publisher goodwill.”
Along with Epps, many tech experts are also saying that the last few months of 2009 will offer a clearer picture of overall consumer opinion towards the eReader market. While the category’s reach still remains uncertain, however, both big-name publishers and independent presses seem confident in the loyalty of their readership and their own ability to adapt. Moreover, these publishers and booksellers made clear that as long as there are writers and readers that there will always be “books”—and that, as electronic options continue to grow and expand, they’re starting to like the overall ambiguity of the term in general.