Thursday, January 15, 2009

Historic setting, modern subject

Digital quartet (l to r): Angus Phillips, George Walkley, Peter Crawshaw and David Kohn

The previous post was on e-books. Here's some more. To the creaking George pub on Fleet Street, opposite the statue of Sam Johnson, to hear e-books discussed at the Galley Club, ‘the social organisation for all involved in publishing and book production’. It was an evening of fascinating gobbets. Waterstone’s Head of e-Strategy David Kohn revealed that on Christmas Day Waterstone’s took more orders for e-book downloads than it did for books. “I don’t think that we’ve reached a tipping point yet,” he said, “but there is significant demand out there. We’ve sold 30,000 Sony Readers and 75,000 e-book downloads since September.” He had a simple plea for publishers: “We need more books, and more books in the epub format. The worst case scenario is that Amazon will come in and dominate – we need a viable alternative.”

Angus Philips, Director of the International Centre for Publishing Studies, Oxford Brookes University, mentioned Amazon too. “The story going around before Christmas was: what if Amazon buys the new Dan Brown for the Kindle and then licences print rights?” He thinks that what we are looking at in the future is a mixed economy of print and digital. But he asked: “Why not release the digital versions first, for a price?”

George Walkley, Director of Digital Strategy at Little, Brown, and self-confessed “geek” agreed. “Publishers should consider digital editions much earlier, and we also need to be able to add value – we have barely begun to explore the potential for additional content within the e-book.”

Peter Crawshaw, co-founder and Director of, was concerned about price. “At the moment, you pay more for the e-book version of Henning Mankell’s Firewall than the paper version. That is preposterous and unsustainable.”

Interestingly, environmental issues were not mentioned at all, perhaps because people are confused over the relative carbon footprints of e-book reader production and paper books. The best question from the floor concerned VAT. Currently, this exists on e-books, but not on printed books. Kohn said envisaged no change, and that the revenue from e-book VAT at the moment is tiny. However, as the market grows larger, this area will need watching. Currently, books do not have VAT because it would be seen as a tax on knowledge. But a book is a book is a book. If it is a tax on knowledge on printed books, then surely it is a tax on knowledge on e-books and should not be applied.

No comments: