The Future of Books and Electronic Reading

This article, by Cliff Jones, originally appeared on the Times Online on 5/24/09.

Random House’s e-book list has authors for downloading with ‘rich media’ content to phones, computers, PDAs and e-readers

Random House has just launched the UK’s first “enhanced” electronic book list. The Book and Beyond project brings together 10 of its authors — with more to come soon — making their new books available, unabridged, for digital download to phones, computers, PDAs and e-book readers. This, in itself, is nothing remarkable. The e-book market has been with us for nearly a decade in one form or another. What is significant is that it is the first download list to feature books embedded with “rich media” content. (Video, pictures, music, games and computer apps to you and me.)

While we’re used to the idea of bonus content as a marketer’s siren call, that content is usually little more than the digital sweepings from the editing process and/or a hastily shot, behind-the-scenes short. With Book and Beyond, this content is designed to become part of the e-book reading experience itself. Download Jacqueline Wilson’s My Sister Jodie and you get a computer game, links to the Wilson community and a no-expense-spared, cinema-style trailer for the book. Irvine Welsh, when his content is added shortly, will offer a gritty video commentary on the characterisation of his book Crime and a taster of his prequel to Trainspotting. Danny Wallace and the mentalist Derren Brown get the enhanced treatment, too, with audio books and text being combined, so you can hear the book as well as reading it. It is Random House’s intention to lead high-profile authors confidently into the e-realm, blurring the margins between the written word and other forms of entertainment as they go. Indeed, just as television, cinema, gaming and radio coexist, the e-book is not intended to replace the traditional book, but to exist alongside it, as a new kind of reading experience.

“I’m not in the business of selling books. I sell writing,” says Welsh. “It doesn’t bother me how they want to read it as long as it’s true to the ideas I had. People criticise e-books for being nothing like the real thing. But they’re not trying to be. E-books are just a different way of getting writing and story­telling. Personally, I like a nice book. I need that private intellectual space that a real book gives me. But I don’t expect everyone to feel the same way.”

Last Christmas was the turning point for e-publishing. More Sony Readers, Kindles, iPods and iPhones were sold than even the optimists anticipated: sales of e-books rocketed on Boxing Day as a result. Up to 1,300 a day in the UK are being sold currently. In America, there were 2.5m such legal downloads last year and more than 500,000 e-book readers sold. And with electronic readers being enthusiastically taken up by Britain’s schools and FE colleges, the e-book experience may, at last, be about to have its moment.

The man who developed Book and Beyond for Random House is a former marketing executive for Sony BMG Records, Jonathan Davis. He wanted to ensure the giant publisher was ready for the digital tsunami. “I lived through it once, and I like to think we’ve learnt from the mistakes made by the record industry. It was freefall. Big mistakes were made early on. The download was demonised, and all they really succeeded in doing was to stifle a new market for a year or two. Publishers need to listen and look at what people are actually doing and respond with the kind of books and reading experience they want for the way they are living.”

Read the rest of the article on the Times Online.