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Culture

New Media Cuts Through the Publishing Gloom

Far from killing off the printed word, the Internet is actually creating new opportunities for the publishing industry - but is it helping or just making things worse?

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Quiet! I'm reading

At the 54th Frankfurt Book Fair, which runs from Oct. 9-14, the general atmosphere is one of foreboding and doom. One of the key issues this year is the decline in annual book sales and the much-needed restructuring of the German publishing industry. After years of growth, the industry is suffering its first real economic slump.

At first glance, advances in technology could be held partly responsible for this. In fact, however, new media is giving a helping hand to the ailing publishing industry. It is the single ray of light that has broken the gloom of the annual book fair.

Originally, the Internet was heralded as the death knell for the printed word. A technological wonder that would make the need to search through dusty old book stores a thing of the past. There, on shiny screens, would be the pages we once flicked through and whose corners we bent. The Internet was set to revolutionise literature.

And it has. But not in the same way as many Net boosters claimed it would. Each year technology buffs talk of the end of the book as we know it, even as printed and bound volumes continued to sell like hotcakes. What has happened, however, is that the Internet has become a rival to the conventional way we buy our books.

Time to take advantage of technology, say publishers

Judging by the opinion of 45 per cent of German publishing houses, the time of cost-free Internet bargains is over. It is time to utilise the medium for the benefit of publishing while avoiding Napster's give-away philosophy, which some argue has crippled the music industry.

A boom in electronic media has seen the popularity of electronic, or E-books, improve dramatically. Around one million of these online versions of books, which can be downloaded for a fee, have been bought this year on the Internet, Hermann Salmen, chief executive of the E-book publisher Gemstar eBook told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper.

Handheld eBooks, personal digital assistant-sized computers, have also become popular ways of receiving the manuscripts. PDA's can carry over 4,000 pages of text or the equivalent of ten books.

It is an area of the book market that looks set to expand. Three-out-of-five publishing houses say that they want the percentage of their revenue from electronic books to increase to between five and 20 per cent in the next five years. In most cases, it is currently less than five per cent, according to a survey recently conducted by the Working Group for Electronic Publishing of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association.

Around a fifth of publishers who currently produce electronic publications make a profit from the enterprise while a further 44 per cent break even, according to a report released at the book fair on Wednesday by the same group.

Still room for both markets to grow

But far from becoming a deathmatch between tradition and technology, most of the big publishers agree there is plenty of room for both print and electronic publishing. "The Internet isn’t eating up books, it’s writing new ones," Matthias Winter, manager of an Internet encyclopaedia established by German publishing giant Bertelsmann, told the news agency dpa.

The company is currently showing off both its reference Web site and its most recent print publication, a guide to the site that is already producing healthy sales at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Online shopping has also provided the possibility of a new literary market, allowing those people who would not normally spend hours in a book shop to find the publications they want.

Sales of books - the hard copy, real thing - have increased over the Internet due to the ease with which literature can be found and paid for. Titles from all over the world have become available at the click of a button and all from the comfort of your own home. The larger publishers and distributors have been quick to recognise the benefits.

Online services have hit independent book shops hard

However, it is not all good news as the gloomy atmosphere at the book fair testifies. As a result of the increased popularity of E-books, online shopping and the advent of the book superstore, many independent bookshops have been forced to close. With cheaper prices available from bulk stockists and online traders such as Amazon, customers are choosing to make savings at the expense of the smaller outlets. By 2005, 10 percent of market is expected of publishing sales are expected to be conducted online, Anderson Forecasting has predicted.

Despite these current problems in the publishing industry, the increasing popularity of the Internet and the opportunities it provides for the future means books, in whatever form, are set to be with us for a long time to come.

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