War of books: E-books v/s Print books Where are we heading?

The only thing which is constant in the business world is ‘Change.’ With new developments, business models and strategies also get updated. The only thing that remains the same is the customer. Before the advent of computer and technology, one of the strongest industries was the publishing industry or print media as we call it. There was a time when libraries were the most crowded spaces. The publisher was not only a position of responsibility; it was also equated with great respect and accomplishment.

However, in the current ambience printed books have lost their essence. People of today’s generation won’t be able to experience the feelings which books evoked in older times. Reading an old book again brings a different kind of nostalgia that electronic devices fail to do. The smell of a book ties a person to it. Each book smells different.

Ray Douglas Bradbury, the American author and screenwriter have said:

’You can’t hold a computer in your hand like you can a book. A computer does not smell . . . if a book is new, it smells great. If a book is old, it smells even better. . . And it stays with you forever. But the computer doesn’t do that for you….’

India is counted among the top seven publishing nations in the world. It ranks third in English language publishing. India’s print market presently produces 90,000 new books a year in 24 languages. It is serving around 1.28 billion customers. However, recent changes in the business setup have raised questions regarding the sustainability of traditional publishing houses.

Publishers are not only facing a lack of readership for printed books but also lack of good content with the emergence of what we call Self-Publishing’. Writers are now publishing and marketing their own books. They are turning to self-publishing platforms such as CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing (for ebooks only) by Amazon, Smashwords (ebooks only) and Lulu. These portals not only provide authors with printing services, they also assist in the marketing and distribution of books. But this new concept is disrupting the flow of traditional publishing.

To understand the importance of traditional publishing culture, we need to first understand its process. Publishing houses are not just involved in the printing of an author’s manuscript. In fact, publishing is one of the last stages of the book-completion process. The role of a publisher extends far beyond it. The most crucial role of a publisher is that of a Peer Review Person. A publisher helps you understand,

  • How to write a book?
  • How to present a book?
  • How to market a book?
  • What will sell?
  • What will not sell?

The answer to these complex questions comes to a publisher with years of experience in creating, publishing and promoting hundreds of books. Self-Publishing portals may replace the intermediary between an author and the audience but it also makes the quality of content decline. Authors need to realize that the content they create can be made much more valuable with what a publisher brings to the table.

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Secondly, with fast-growing technology, the publishing industry is facing a copyright challenge. Copyright crisis means anybody can download your book illegally and use it without paying you your due payment. Academic books are the ones most affected by this issue. Nowadays, people photocopy a book for using in class without paying for it. This not only hinders the growth of the sector but also affects the success of the book. Author’s success is based on the principle of sales. Imagine, a book which would be able to break sales records is just left on bookstore shelves because people will access it without buying it.

One of the most threatening challenges to the existence of trade publishing is the growing number of e-books and e-readers. Trade publishing precisely means printing books for the general public, which in turn transforms into a buying-selling process. But in this new culture readers don’t really buy books, they just ‘subscribe’ them. Getting subscribed to a specific app gives access to a lot of books which are quite inexpensive as compared to print books. This is one of the most supportive factors in the growth of electronic media.

In fact, as per recent LinkedIn data, around 56% people enjoy reading books on mobiles and computers. They have become the mini bookstores which you can access anywhere and at any time. The success of e-books can be tied directly to Jeff Bezos’s plan to introduce the Kindle e-reader into the market in late 2007. With the launch of Kindle, the publishing market has been transformed. E-books have created a new, modern reader. With the advancement in technology, e-readers have grown by 80%.

ebookAmazon Kindle has been a success in India because it not only provides readers with English language books, but also contains digital books in five Indian languages – Tamil, Marathi, Malayalam, Hindi, and Gujarati. Around one-fourth of Indian readers prefer reading books in their regional language. Getting it on their computers and mobile screens is no less than a blessing.

Amazon’s idea is not limited to providing digitized versions of printed books. Jeff Bezos is also acquiring Indian publishing houses. Last year, Amazon announced the acquisition of Westland, a subsidiary of the Tata group for Rs 40 crore. Some of Westland’s bestselling authors are Amish Tripathi, Devdutt Pattanaik, and Rujuta Diwekar, among others. Ajay Shah, Transaction Advisory Services Partner at EY, Media, and Entertainment, said  ‘There has been a huge movement from physical books to ebooks in the Indian market. There is a chance that Amazon Kindle might look at more acquisitions of Indian publishing houses if they get access to exclusive titles.’

Google Cloud and iPhone have further strengthened the growth of digital books in India. A recent development by Google in the sector has been the launch of audiobooks. This means users can now download and listen to audiobooks on the Play Books app or by asking Google Assistant to read it for them. In an interview to Tech Times Greg Hartrell, Head of Product Management for Google Play Books said  ‘. . . interest in audiobooks is on the rise, along with audio content generally (e.g. digital music, podcasts, etc.). But most importantly our users are asking for them.’

All these challenges question the sustainability of the publishing industry in the coming years. What does the future hold for the publishing industry? Are printed books and traditional publishing things of the past?

The answer to these fearful questions is ‘No.’ The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) identified publishing as one of its major focus areas with several initiatives to boost and step up the Indian publishing scenario.

If there is something which ties us to our fathers and forefathers then it is a printed book. We often think of our parents teaching us with books in their hands when we were kids. For every student, physical books evoke many beautiful memories of childhood. Not only memories, physical books also provide students with focus which media devices fail to do. E-books are designed to distract us with links.

Reading as a concept has changed with the advancement of digital books. Reading is not about browsing links and reading bullets. It also helps in improving your grammar and pronunciation.

But are e-readers really reading? The way we read on a screen is different. As reported in Scientific American, a 2005 survey at San Jose University by Ziming Liu found that screens cause people to take shortcuts when reading. They look for keywords and absorb them rather than reading things sentence by sentence as we do on paper. So essentially, e-book readers are being trained to skip to the good parts. Reports further found that readers using Kindle were less likely to recall events in a mystery novel than people who read the same novel in print. People retain more of what they read in print.

Whereas staring at a screen can be tiring for the eyes and the brain, a print book does not harm its reader’s eyes. Reading digitally requires a higher cognitive workload than reading on paper. Also, staring at LED screens at night can disrupt sleep patterns.

Psychologically, kids aged 3–5 have a lower comprehension level when they are read from an e-reader than a physical book. There could be a few reasons for the discrepancy, but the prevailing notion is that both the child and the adult-focused more attention on the device and its settings than they did on the content.

Reading storybooks or teaching academic books to kids also creates a kind of bond between the child and parent. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Professor of Psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia said, ‘What we’re really after in reading to our children is behavior that sparks a conversation. But if that book has things that disrupt the conversation, like a game plopped right in the middle of the story, then it’s not offering you the same advantages as an old-fashioned book.’

There is a kind of practicality and sentimentalism war between e-books and physical books. Printed books have ruled our past. E-books might be the most liked ones by today’s generation but it’s really very hard to eliminate physical books. Charles Darwin’s theories can teach us the practical aspect of nature, but to understand the real beauty of nature, we need to touch it, smell it and most importantly see it. An artificial flower will not give us the same feeling as a fresh one. In the same way, we can read on a screen but to feel the beauty of reading we need a physical book.

As mentioned earlier in the article, 56% people enjoy reading on screen. However, the question is, are they really buying what they enjoy on screen? According to a recent study, the average e-book reader in India doesn’t really contribute to its sales. E-readers would rather spend their money on the hard copy of a book they want to read, than purchase a digital version, which, according to them, has its own shortcomings.

In India, a lot of college students prefer physical books over digital ones. In a recent study, students marked out the following reasons for buying physical books:

  • They download the free books from portals, so there is no need to spend money on e-books.
  • Books are required in college lectures, wherein students make notes in margins and underline the important parts. Reports further highlighted that, in most of the Indian college mobile phones are banned; hence, students cannot read digital books in classrooms.
  • Another irritant is that Kindle only shows the percentage of how much you’ve read and not the page number. Plus, you can’t put bookmarks.
  • It’s easy in a print book to flip to the index or some other page, and back to the page you were reading. In digital books you leave your spot at your own risk. It’s very easy to get lost.
  • You can get used print books, which are cheap. But you can’t buy a ’used’ digital copy.
  • One of the most pertinent issues for college students is that they can resell printed books after the completion of their semester. But you can’t resell the digital books.
  • Visitors to your home can glance through your shelves and gather what kind of a person you are and what you think by the books you keep.

Other than academic books, India has seen a rise in fictional readers in the year of 2017. Delhi recently topped the list of the most well-read cities in a survey by an online portal. Most people view reading novels as the best pastime while commuting in metros.

Despite all the challenges of digitization, the Indian publishing industry has achieved much. As long as the industry publishes the finest books around the world and provides the highest service levels to authors, booksellers, and readers, it will be financially successful. In other words, the industry’s creativity drives financial success. E-books have their own advantages but they don’t have an edge over print books.

Also check out our blog We Just Rediscovered Books!


Gurleen Sethi is Executive – Marketing with Viva Books. Writing is her passion which keeps her high with energy. Other than writing, she enjoys reading.


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