Keeping to tradition in an e-book age

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Keeping to tradition in an e-book age

MUMBAI - With the excitement around the launch of Apple’s iPad and the growing popularity of other digital devices, it is a challenge to retain the romance of the printed book, according to the head of publisher Penguin.

The iPad, a cross between a smartphone and a laptop, is helping foster a market for tablet computers that is expected to grow to some 50 million units by 2014, and with it, also expand the market for e-books, which has been hard to crack.

So far, book publishers like Penguin, owned by Pearson, have struggled to find an online model that works successfully in terms of content and the consumer’s propensity to pay, said John Makinson on a visit to India.

But with the iPad, book publishers see a new chance to get their electronic offering right and win more bargaining power if the iPad emerges as a viable rival to Amazon’s Kindle.

“Large-screen digital devices are opening up bigger opportunities for us: opportunities for interactivity with readers, and around social networking,” said Makinson. “There are opportunities not just in a marketing sense, but for actual content and new material.”

It is not just a younger demographic of readers drawn to the cool applications and greater interactivity that are flocking to digital devices, but also older readers who like the ability to increase the font size, for example, said Makinson.

While there is huge potential in India, the world’s fastest-growing wireless market with more than half a billion mobile subscribers, rising levels of literacy also mean the appetite for newspapers, magazines and books is still strong.

Penguin, which was the first international publisher to also publish in Indian languages including Hindi and Marathi, is keen to tap that opportunity, Makinson said.

“The printed product still has a very lively future in India,” said Makinson, who launched a new imprint in India, Shobhaa De Books, a line of celebrity memoirs, commercial fiction and biographies focused on lifestyle and cinema, picked by writer and former beauty queen Shobhaa De.

People often compare the book industry to the music industry, where digital sales have overtaken sales of CDs, but there is an emotional connection to books, said Makinson, who studied English and history at Cambridge and began his career as a journalist.

“We need to keep the emphasis on the reader’s emotional relationship with the book. It’s still important to produce a well-designed, beautifully printed book that looks good on a shelf, and that you can gift to a friend,” he said.

“And the challenge is not to lose sight of the main act, which is still the book. The definition of a book itself is set to change, but there is a tradition, a romance to a book that is essential to retain,” he said. Reuters
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