This report was prepared for the Shenzhen-UNESCO International Conference on “Digital Books and Future Technology” (November 29-30, 2014 in Shenzhen, China) by A.D. Hitchens.

From the Introduction:

The digital revolution continues to modernize, disrupt, and fundamentally change the way in which we engage with our surroundings. The resulting increase in interconnectedness is continuing to catalyze the human thirst for immediate access to information and content.

Amidst all of the changes, there are many questions that should be asked and explored: Are we able to draw any conclusions about how eBooks will fare by looking at other digital content industries? How will the economic interests of publishers and rights owners influence the spread and use of eBooks? Will the globalized media corporate landscape impose a “developed-country” first approach or is there room for developing and emerging countries to adapt their own strategy? Can traditional print continue to coexist with the explosive growth of its digital form? How can governments aid in the development of this industry?

KindleHitchens argues that exactly because eBook technology is the last piece of the content industries’ assimilation into a globally interconnected world, its development and promulgation will trigger major changes in the publishing industry and in our ways of consuming books.

The report provides an excellent summary describing the state of eBooks in the global landscape before exploring the state of digital books region by region:

The US and Europe — Not surprisingly, the majority of growth in the eBook industry has been focused in countries such as the US, UK, Germany, and to a lesser extent France and Spain. Much of this growth can be attributed to the location of the major media companies that control the vast majority (by revenue) of the book trade.

India — India has become one of the top markets for digital publishing outside of the US and Europe. While the 2013 show eBooks make up 2% of the market, this segment is contributing 84% of the profits. Netscribes predicts that India’s eBook market will see a 20-25% growth in the next two to three years.

China — With one of the highest literacy rates in the developing and emerging economies, and very well developed digital infrastructure, China has a number of factors that enable it to emerge as one of the next decade’s digital publishing powerhouses of the world. The year 2013 saw China overtake the United States as the largest eCommerce market in the world. Combined with the world’s largest mobile phone penetration of approximately 1.1 billion people, China continues to provide a significant market opportunity for the growth of eBooks and digital content.

Hitchen’s then goes on to explore issues surrounding copyright law and Digital Rights Management (DRM) and makes some projections on eBook growth and adoption rates before turning to look at the issues facing libraries.

There are at least five main challenges facing libraries in the new era of eBooks:

  1. Libraries have always been traditionally focused on serving a local community and population. eBooks have disaggregated this concept and made the Internet the world’s virtual library.
  2. It takes more effort to go to a library, research a book and check it out than simply getting it online. This includes the time to go to the library, effort to locate the text, a willingness to wait for a copy to become available if it has been checked out by other patrons, amongst others. eBooks remove those hurdles entirely and while there is a cost, increasingly consumers are paying small fees for conveniences that could pose a challenge to the very existence of the library as a resource.
  3. Physical books can degrade and wear down over time whereas eBooks never will. Libraries are forced to reorder titles on an ongoing basis and publishers would lose revenue if libraries had a access to a perpetual use digital version of that book.
  4. Shelf space will become obsolete since advanced research tools, primarily facilitated by computers, minimizes the browsing that a library patron must do.
  5. The operational model for physical books is well known and has been refined over time. With eBooks, this process is, as yet, still undefined. As a result, very few publishers remain unwilling to actively invest in pilot tests to work with libraries to adapt to the digital age.

The pricing that publishers charge has become arbitrary and often onerous for libraries seeking to expand their eBook collection. To varying degrees, eBooks have almost become prohibitive because of restrictions such as maximum number of checkouts by library patrons or extremely high pricing for digital copies. This is all an effort by publishers to ensure that they do not lose money on the new perpetual digital medium.

Hitchens concludes:

The future of reading, in whatever form it takes, will be a slow and deliberate process that will take time to understand and shape. Powerful interest groups will compete with innovators and entrepreneurs who will continue to use technology to democratize access to industries that were once reserved for a few powerful companies through the innovative and growing medium of self-publishing.

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