E-Book Boom Changes Book Selling And Publishing The popularity of e-books and e-readers has soared since the release of the Amazon Kindle three years ago. Now the digital devices continue to drive readers to electronic books. It's changing how books are read, sold and published.

E-Book Boom Changes Book Selling And Publishing

E-Book Boom Changes Book Selling And Publishing

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/132235154/132235143" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The popularity of e-books and e-readers has soared since the release of the Amazon Kindle three years ago. Now the digital devices continue to drive readers to electronic books. It's changing how books are read, sold and published.


Lynn Neary, NPR correspondent covering books and publishing
Peter Osnos, founder, Public Affairs Books
Paul Chan, publisher, Badlands Unlimited


But first, Lynn Neary covers books and publishing for NPR. Her series on the future of books and bookstores ran last week on MORNING EDITION - and joins us now here in Studio 3A. Lynn, thanks very much for coming in.

LYNN NEARY: It's great to be here.

CONAN: So what's changed? Why wouldn't you say that same thing today?

NEARY: Barnes Noble, which has the NOOK e-reader, has come out with the NOOKColor, which also you are able to do that with. And so you can have children's books with pictures. And people are beginning, in fact, to introduce their children to books via digital devices.

CONAN: So in the world of retronyms, we now talk about physical books or traditional objects. Now, you have to talk about traditional e-books?

NEARY: That's right. As I was reporting that series that you were talking about, I was talking with a woman about cookbooks, and I was asking her, you know, what's available out there in cookbooks?

CONAN: Now we have, in addition to the traditional e-book, as I said, we have the enhanced e-books and, of course, apps for books as well.

CONAN: But joining us now is Peter Osnos, the founder of Public Affairs Books, former vice president of Random House, with us from the studios at our bureau in New York City. Peter, nice to have you on the program with us today.

M: Hello again, Neal.

CONAN: And you tell a story in a piece that you wrote for The Atlantic about on a rainy Sunday afternoon, you decided to read Antonia Fraser's "Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter," and that, a few years ago, you would have either had to go down to the bookstore to see if it was still there or, you know, order a copy on Amazon and wait a week.

M: No longer is that the case. You think you want to read it. If you have a device, you can be reading it within a minute. And that's what I did, in this particular case. I must say, I spent a very pleasant afternoon and evening reading a book that, had I had to go out on a rainy Sunday afternoon, I might not have done it - and moved on to something else.

CONAN: Did you feel like a traitor to your cause? You've been a publisher...

M: Oh, no, no, no, absolutely. I'm a big fan, as a publisher, a big fan of the e-book. I think the e-books are in the process of transforming the way we do what we do.

I: If, you know, 35, 40 years ago, I told you that radio was going to be one of the country's most popular, most influential sources of information, you'd have said I was nuts.

CONAN: No I wouldn't, but I'm in radio.


M: But then, Neal, you and I were in radio 35 years ago.

CONAN: That's right.


M: And the Kindle allows her to do that. I don't use the Kindle because she uses the Kindle. I have the iPad. Both of us have made a choice that on certain kinds of books, we will download it. It sure makes it easier to travel.

CONAN: Well, is this a serious problem for the bookseller? It was. But it's beginning to change because the booksellers are beginning to join, basically, the parade. They understand the need to serve the customer in all the ways the customer wants to be served.

I: You can't have it. So what I think is developing is a sense that every transaction that takes place in a bookstore or online can be closed - that if you think you want to read a book, the odds are, overwhelmingly, you'll be able to do it, sometimes, usually in under a minute.

CONAN: And Lynn, in your series, yes, they may be a threat to booksellers but to different booksellers. It's now the behemoths of the industry, the Barnes Nobles and Borders, who seem to be in trouble, not the independent booksellers, who - those who survived the decimation of the past decade.

NEARY: What I thought was interesting - I did speak to Len Riggio, the chair of Barnes Noble. And he said that what they want to do is to get into selling devices more and more - and not just their own NOOK devices, but other digital readers and other devices as well, and that that - the sale of those kinds of things - will support the sale of books.

CONAN: And we should again note: Physical books still make up 91 percent of the market - though the numbers for e-books, Peter Osnos, are staggering.

M: The truth of the matter is, it's an exploding market. And the reason is that people are finding that it is so convenient. And the range of devices has increased.

CONAN: I mean, there was a reason why Publishers Weekly chose Len Riggio as its person of the year. It wasn't just that they thought he was a swell fellow - it's that he has, I think, more than any other of the big moguls in the book world, he has figured out how to integrate all the different ways in which people now choose to read, and provide them through his many stores, his online bookseller and his devices.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. We're talking about e-books. How have they changed the way you read; 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Kathy's(ph) on the line, calling us from Binghamton in New York.

KATHY: Hi, good afternoon.


KATHY: And she was turning the pages in a way that, you know, by the light of the Christmas tree and the little light on the mouse, it was just - there was no way you could replicate that with an e-book - which, you know, doesn't mean that the e-books aren't going to revolutionize things. But it's nice to just remember that books have done for humanity something important in the physical form.

CONAN: I don't think anybody denies that. But Peter, as I understand it, the iPad, the turning-the-page thing is quite similar.

M: But, you know, we've been through technology as it - you know, to many kids today, the screen, whether it's the television or the computer or the iPad, is a - it's a device, it's a spectrum. And they don't make distinctions in any of those things. What they do know is the difference between sitting in the lap of grandpa and having him read you "Ferdinand."

NEARY: You know, let me just point out, too, going back to the idea that you said earlier, who would have predicted that radio would survive television. I was reading an article in the New York Review of Books by Robert Darnton of the Harvard Library, and he said: Remember that manuscript publishing continued to thrive for three centuries after Gutenberg, and that's because it was often cheaper to produce a small edition by hiring scribes than by printing it. So...

CONAN: Well, the scribes union put an end to that.


CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Kathy, and it sounds like you're already having a wonderful holiday.

KATHY: Thank you. You, too.

CONAN: We're talking about the future of e-books, and how they're changing the reading experience, with Peter Osnos, founder of Public Affairs Books; and Lynn Neary, NPR correspondent who covers books and publishing; 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

KATHY: How have e-books changed what you read; 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

CONAN: I love my Kindle. I would not part with it. But I also would not part with my ink-and-paper books. The book- buying change that my Kindle has made in my life is for the secondhand bookstore. I don't buy or sell books there anymore. Those are the kind of books I buy for my Kindle.

CONAN: You know, those page-turners I used to buy at the airport and read in the waiting room on the way to get onto the plane? I download those now, and they don't clutter up my library.

NEARY: And this has been a problem that's been sort of haunting the publishing business for a while, and I think Peter probably knows more about it than I do. But this will help deal with that problem, would it not, Peter?

M: Remember, this is all about choice. This is all about the capacity of the consumer to decide where, when and how they're going to read a book. And that is, in fact, an enormous plus, I think, long term for the reading public and for publishers - and eventually for booksellers as well.

CONAN: Let's get John(ph) on the line, John with us from Portland.

JOHN: So everything's in a column. So for a book like mine, if somebody buys that book, they're getting a totally different experience, and they may not know it.

CONAN: Well, Lynn, it seems to me this is a problem of old technology that may soon be overtaken.

NEARY: So it would seem yes, that possibly your book in a more advanced e-book could - would look good.

JOHN: Well, and the problem is that I think - well, mine was put into the Kindle format, for sure.

NEARY: Which probably didn't work so well for what you're...

JOHN: And so if they're going to do that, it has to be the same format. But this enhanced thing you're talking about, I don't know about this and, you know, I'd like to contact my publisher about it.

CONAN: An angry note, perhaps.

JOHN: Well, yeah.

M: Or an angry email.

JOHN: You know, I mean, I'm sure they have to do certain things just to be in the market.

NEARY: I was going to say: Don't get too angry because it's moving so fast, really the enhanced e-books started coming in with the iPad. Now there are some other enhanced e-book readers available. But that was last April. Just think about that, OK?


JOHN: Yeah, yeah, things are moving very rapidly.

M: I would say that...

JOHN: But it really did take everything out of context now.

CONAN: We understand that, John.

M: There are days - I saw a Random House statistic yesterday that said that a number of their best-sellers sold more e-books in the first week than they sold printed books. This is particularly true of certain kinds of thrillers. People want them instantly. They want them - you know, they want to hold them and get them done in the next day or two - and so that we're really seeing - there's no question we're seeing a fundamental shift.

CONAN: going to the store, buying - for it, waiting for it, all those things. That's changing, and that is a profound transformation in the way the book world functions.

CONAN: Lynn was mentioning enhanced e-books. Well, Paul Chan is the publisher of Badlands Unlimited, a press that specializes in art books, both in paper and e-book form. And he joins us on the line from New York. Nice to have you with us today.

M: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And you would think the art book would be one realm that would be - well, left to paper.

M: Well, with the advent of publishing e-books, we can not only make a paper version of it but - as well as an e-book version of it. So it drastically expands the potential of people experiencing your artwork in a book form, whether it's paper book or an e-book.

CONAN: Can you explain a little bit about your business model? How, exactly, do you make money? It's hard enough when you're just selling 500 or a thousand...

M: Oh, it's a good question. I think we started, basically, in June. We launched in November. And I think our model is to waste as much time and lose as much money as possible.


CONAN: Oh, that's traditional in publishing, yes.

M: I think reading is a very specific kind of experience. And the pleasure of reading, I think, for me, it may - perhaps for other people - is the kind of unique focus it gives you.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

M: And so we don't want to get rid of that, in fact, but we just want to change that just a bit so that in - so that through video, through composition, through audio, through images, you can have that same focused experience, but with an e-book format.

CONAN: Well, given that - all those expanded things you could do with an e-book that maybe you can't do with the printed book, do you see a future for books?

M: But with the advent of e-books, here's another chance of reaching new audiences, and here's another chance of creating another kind of reading experience that may not be the same as paper books - different but hopefully, complementary.

CONAN: Complementary in which way?

M: One of our books, for instance, has video content embedded in it, while the paper version, the soft-cover version, doesn't have video but only has stills from the video. And so we're trying to get a sense of how they'll work with and against each other. And we've also noticed that people who buy the paper version also will buy the e-book version to see how the e-book version looks, and how it functions differently from the soft-cover version. So I think in many ways, this is a new avenue that we're looking into. I mean, I'm not a publisher, I'm an artist who wanted to explore the potentials of e-books as a art form, and as a publishing venture - to sort of expand the readership of art and art history and art criticism. And so I'm learning about it as much as anyone else.

M: In other words, there are ways in which the expansion of the experience - which includes print; which kind of include video; which, in some cases, can include audio - this is all now very much on the horizon. You know, this is not some science fiction fantasy that we're going to see in five or 10 years. The truth of the matter is, it's all going to happen in the next couple of three years.

CONAN: Paul Chan, good luck with your project.

M: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Paul Chan, an artist, the founder of the publishing company Badlands Unlimited. His artwork can be seen at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. And he joined us by phone from New York. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

CONAN: E-books have changed me both as a reader and as an author. As a reader, I now can carry a classic library and best-sellers along with me on my Kindle. As an author, I'm making sure my stories and books are available in e-format, largely by converting and posting them myself for Kindle and other formats.

KATHY: I'm both an author - five books - and a Kindle enthusiast. I love my Kindle because I can carry research, trash, academic articles and other stuff in one place at one time, any time. I buy far more books than I was buying before.

KATHY: And Lynn, we've had a lot of inquires about those who, well, can't afford a Kindle or a Nook or an iPad.

NEARY: Well, that's an interesting question, and to be honest, I don't know the answer - that libraries would start lending them out. I think you can download books from libraries but - not on a Kindle, but on some of the other devices, you can. But as far as lending out an e-reader, that I don't know about.

M: Well, I can answer the question as far as my local library in Connecticut. You can easily access e-books. Now, you won't get them for the Kindle because that's a proprietary system. But now that there's a...

CONAN: That's if you have your own reader, though.

NEARY: Yeah, he...

M: Yeah, you can read it as a PDF on a reader, or you can put it - actually convert it into - and use it on your iPad or on your Sony Reader. There are - the range of choices is expanding enormously.

CONAN: Joining us now is Abigail, Abigail calling from Wilmington, North Carolina.

ABIGAIL: But I'm excited to see things like the Kindle and the Nook and the iPad, and all the software that's involved, because they are furthering the way for electronic text and getting them easily. E-books can sometimes be a pain for blind individuals because a lot of e-books have images and these videos and things that are embedded, which are great for visual audiences, but for someone who is using a screen reader, that program is navigating text ...

CONAN: This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.