For our tenth and final LAPIS lecture of term (the day also marked our final lecture of the taught part of the course – it’s gone by very fast!), we were visited by Alastair Horne, the Social Media and Communities Manager for Cambridge University Press ELT. His guest lecture was the most open and free-form of all, as we were encouraged to answer questions that he posed to us on many diverse subjects relating to current publishing models and reading practices.
Essentially, the purpose of the questions was to get us thinking about the essential differences between print and electronic books. In the last few years, e-readership has soared: in August 2012, Amazon.co.uk announced that its sales of e-books had surpassed those in print format; a recent Nielsen BookScan report indicated that sales of print adult fiction have fallen by £150 million from 2009 to 2014; and the U.S.-based Pew Research Center has recorded a steady and sustained rise in the ownership of e-readers and tablet computers. However, more recent developments have suggested something of a reversal, as sales of e-readers instead have begun to slow. This can partly be explained by the market starting to become saturated—those people who already own a device are unlikely to buy a new one for several years—but also by the intangible benefits offered by print books.
This was illustrated by a brainstorming exercise that we undertook during the lecture: we were asked to produce a list of advantages of e-books over print books, and another one vice versa. We were able to come up with a whole series of advantages for e-books—for example: portability, search functionality, linking to the Internet, multimedia content—whereas for print books the advantages were difficult to define, instead focussing on the overall experience of reading a physical book: the tactility, the feeling of tangible physical ownership and of using a “real” object. It is true to say that most e-books are simply electronic versions of the printed text, and that “enhanced” e-books—offering additional, multimedia content—have as yet failed to have much impact on reading habits; perhaps this will change as the underlying technology continues to improve, and the first generation of children who have grown up with e-books and ubiquitous portable computers—perhaps with radically different reading habits compared with those of us who are firmly grounded in the print paradigm—become adult consumers.
Another image problem faced by e-books is that they are often no cheaper than their print edition, which is damaging as the general impression seems to be that money should be saved on printing and distribution costs. In fact, this constitutes only a small fraction of the total publishing budget for a particular book. Moreover, producing e-books also results in additional expenditure, such as investment in new forms of information technology, whilst the e-books themselves also suffer by being made subject to VAT at the point of sale, unlike print books. This useful video explains in more detail how e-books are priced:
In all, I can say that LAPIS was an extremely interesting module which covered all aspects of libraries and publishing—from general philosophical questions on the nature of authorship through to the technicalities of how current publishing models, such as Open Access, work—and also featured an impressive selection of guest speakers who provided a diverse range of experiences and opinions on the subject.
My posts will probably become less frequent from now on, but I intend to keep the blog going with some musings on my dissertation topic over the summer (which will help to preserve my sanity, if nothing else!). I hope that you have enjoyed reading so far!