Read the fine print

The technological revolution in the book market is lagging behind the music industry. In Israel the process is even slower.

By BY AKIN AJAYI
February 19, 2010 17:29
Apple's iPad.

iPad Apple tech 311. (photo credit: AP)

 
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The online audiobook portal Sonicbooks.co.il came about courtesy of an enforced career change.

“I’d been laid off from my job in the hi-tech industry, and was searching around for something different and interesting to do,” proprietor Liat Shnapp explains. “I’ve always been a big reader, and I was intrigued by the popularity abroad of audiobook portals like audible.com. So I decided to give it a try.”

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Three years later, it’s still around, featuring noted Israeli authors like Eshkol Nevo and Shulamit Lapid, as well as a selection of audiobooks in English and Russian. It’s but one example of how small entrepreneurs and enthusiasts, book lovers with the technical literacy to identify and exploit potential gaps in the market, have led the Israeli book industry into the digital revolution.

Curiously, it has taken time for books to catch up with that revolution, both in Israel and elsewhere. While online digital file-sharing – legitimate and otherwise – has irrevocably altered the music and film industries, books have remained relatively immune to the seductions of the modern age. It isn’t necessarily because the technology is lacking; print is just as suited to digital transmission as audio and video. More likely, a wariness of expensive technological solutions that become obsolete as quickly as they are introduced – Betamax videos, anyone? – combined with an innate conservatism within the publishing industry, has retarded progress up until now.

This is certainly the case in Israel, where developments in the book industry have been incremental rather than revolutionary. Despite a thriving book culture – according to the most recent statistics from the Central Bureau of Statistics, the average Israeli household spends more on literature than on cinema, music or nature activities – the relatively small overall market diminishes the incentive to move on from the dominant business model, the good old “bricks and mortar” model of selling books.

That aside, it is fair to note: If something isn’t broken, why try to fix it? Broadly speaking, selling books in print through bookshops serves most consumers very well. Orly Finkelman, marketing director of Steimatzky – the country’s largest book chain – points out that even the technically savvy Israeli consumer might hesitate before embracing a new form of bookselling.

“It’s not quite the same as with, for example, music, where no matter how one purchases an album or collection of songs, it will end up being played in a music player,” she says. “[Technical innovation] will require a change from one way of ‘consuming’ books to something totally different.”

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In other words, old habits die hard, especially old habits that still work for most people.

STILL, THIS is not to say that innovation has nothing to offer book lovers. Take the audiobook, for example, which has been around in one form or another for decades. One thing audiobooks have always offered is the option of accessibility, particularly for the visually impaired. Now, with the availability of high-speed Internet access making it both practical and convenient to distribute audio files electronically rather than in a physical format, consumers can sample, purchase and download spoken books at their leisure.

However, Shnapp, who has run Sonicbooks.co.il for three years, notes that sales are still evenly distributed between online downloads and “physical” – compact disc – sales in shops. She hypothesizes that consumers are still a little wary.

“It’s natural to stick to what one knows – going into a bookshop and picking up what one wants,” she says.

An aversion to new technology or not, most people at least know how to work a mobile telephone. This, coupled with near-universal ownership, inspired the recent launch of subscription service Kzarzar. Founder Dedi Zoker explains that the idea for a cellphone book subscription service came to him after working on a short story competition for the National Lottery a year ago.

“We invited people to send in short stories of 140 characters – the length of an SMS message,” he says. “We received 11,000 entries in just 11 days, which was completely unanticipated.”

Although Zoker did not have a background in traditional book publishing, the success of the competition prompted some lateral thinking.

“I can’t say that I knew that there was an actual gap in the market; it was rather a gut feeling, that people were willing and ready to buy and read stories through their mobile phones,” he says.

Once subscribed to Kzarzar – either online at www.kzarzar.com, or by SMS – the reader selects from a range of short fiction and poetry, and receives individual segments of approximately 150 words each day. The service costs NIS 1.50 per segment, and currently offers original work by noted authors like Yoram Kaniuk, Yair Lapid and Amnon Danker. Zoker expects to have up to 20 authors signed up by the end of the current quarter.

“I think the platform particularly appeals to authors, because it offers them greater control over their content,” Zoker says. “They receive a higher royalty rate than through traditional publishing platforms.”

Perhaps the most significant recent development in the evolution of the publishing industry, however, has been the rapid growth in the market presence of a new generation of electronic book-reading devices – e-readers. Combining functionality and state-of-the-art technology, e-readers seem poised to provide the most significant change to reading habits in generations. Some industry analysts predict that they have the potential to revolutionize the manner in which readers engage with the written word, much as MP3 music players reformed the listening habits of music lovers a decade or so ago.

Current market leader Kindle – marketed by online bookseller Amazon.com – demonstrates many of the benefits e-readers can offer. Not much larger or heavier than a paperback book, the bestselling device – an estimated two million units have been sold since its launch two years ago – with its 4-GB memory, allows readers to store up to 3,500 books and text documents at a time. Equipped with both wireless Internet and 3G telephone connectivity, consumers can browse and buy books literally at will. More significantly, Amazon.com’s online e-bookstore offers more than 400,000 titles – books, magazines and newspapers – many at prices significantly cheaper than their physical counterparts.

That said, the Kindle is not quite set to turn things around in Israel. Amazon does not market the device in the country at present; while it’s possible to purchase one abroad and use it here, the $400 price tag for the DX model suggests that it might not become a practical substitute to the printed book, at least for now.

THERE ARE local alternatives available, though, such as the PocketBook, marketed by local firm eboox.co.il. Marketing director Rueven Tillis claims that the PocketBook offers local consumers a level of functionality hitherto unavailable in Israel.

“Across all communities, book-buying is popular, and more and more books are readily available in English, Hebrew, Arabic and Russian,” he notes.

The Pocketbook is indisputably an impressive little gadget. Base Model 300 utilizes an orientation device called an accelerometer to allow the reader to read text in either landscape or portrait orientation, and text can be reshaped and resized easily. Running on rechargeable batteries, the PocketBook lasts for up to 8,000 page refreshes – page turns – between charges. New models due to be launched this year will also feature wireless and 3G connectivity.

However, the PocketBook, like the Kindle, is not cheap. The 300 model retails at NIS 1,800 – Tillis notes wryly that the Customs Authority classifies it as a “video device,” which bumps up import tariffs significantly. While the device will allow for significant savings on the purchase price of books – something that should tempt anyone unfortunate enough to have tried buying English-language books regularly in Israel – the overall cost might deter the more casual reader.

Still, Tillis is quietly confident that with time, the the device will capture the public’s imagination. He cites, as an example, the potential it offers the religious community: “Imagine being able to carry your entire library of holy texts with you all the time, available to be consulted immediately at the touch of a button.”

It’s probably too soon to gauge precisely what impact e-readers will have upon book sales and the publishing industry in general. One point that is becoming clear, though, is the enthusiasm with which writers – content providers, if you like – are embracing the potential of digital publishing solutions. Both Zoker and Shnapp have commented on their writers’ preference, when possible, for getting their work to the public through these nonconventional routes.

And last December, thriller writer Ram Oren became – according to some claims – the first Israeli writer to publish a Hebrew-language book on a digital platform when he released Red Days (Yamim Adumim) on the iPad. Oren argued at the time that writers in particular stood to benefit from a movement away from traditional modes of book publishing: “Authors can communicate directly with digital companies… they control their own material as they wish, as is becoming the case with music.”

Finkelman is a little more cautious. She acknowledges that the chain is watching developments very closely, but has “no concrete plans” to retail e-books at the present time. Still, she is keen to emphasize that the principal objective is to serve the reading public efficiently.

“As part of an organization that really cares about literature and culture… it isn’t how people read books that matters; the more people that read, the better, and if [digital technology] will bring literature closer to people, then that is excellent.”

Certainly, the hype around the current incarnation of e-readers seems infectious, given the near-ecstatic reception that the launch of Apple’s new tablet computing device, the iPad, received last month. Described by one person as the “most eagerly anticipated tablet since Moses and the Ten Commandments,” the iPad, using a touchscreen interface and a full-color screen, offers remarkable versatility. Finkelman predicts manifold uses for e-readers like the iPad in the future.

“Given the functionality of the device, high school and university students create a natural market,” she notes. “It will become very useful and very important to have all of one’s text books in one place, and to be able to navigate the text with ease. I think that this market segment in particular is a very important audience.”

But she doesn’t think the humble paperback is doomed.

“I think that in 10 years’ time… printed books will still be very important for the consumer,” she says.

And for what it’s worth, I tend to agree. But one thing is certain: Although the digital market – in all its forms – for books in Israel still accounts for just a fraction of overall sales, with the democratization of the book-publishing industry, the consumer will probably be the winner in the digital publishing race. Choice is good, after all.

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