After 1,000 years, is this the end of the story for books?

With sales of electronic readers soaring, are crammed bookshelves and well-thumbed paperbacks soon to be a thing of the past?

By Anne Joseph, January 28, 2011

'The only thing more exciting than collecting boxes of Yiddish books was opening them. What treasures lay within!' writes Aaron Lansky in his book, Outwitting History, which describes his attempt "to rescue the world's abandoned Yiddish books". He began collecting in the early 1980s and eventually founded the National Yiddish Book Centre in America where 1.5 million Yiddish books are preserved.

Similar projects may become all too common if fears over the future of books turn into a reality. The rise in popularity of the electronic reader - which allows reading material to be accessed and downloaded onto a variety of different devices in seconds - has cast into doubt the book's long-term survival. It is a question much on the minds of authors, publishers and industry figures in the run up to next month's Jewish Book Week.

There is no question that "these are interesting times," says Jonny Geller, literary agent at Curtis Brown and managing director of the leading talent agency's books division.

According to Nielsen BookScan, which charts UK national books sales, 226 million books were sold in the UK last year. Although no organised track of electronic book sales exists, figures based on publishers' records of e-downloads indicate that one to two per cent of these overall sales were e-books (approximately three million copies). However, in the US the percentages are much more advanced, says Geller. "It is becoming, as we predicted, a very, very big market. Although the UK is slower, I anticipate a big leap in the e-book industry."

Benny Har-Even, the JC's technology correspondent, agrees. Overall he does not believe that the printed book is doomed, but he does think that it will be heavily affected by the e-book. "The e-book will become increasingly dominant. In 30 years I believe that new printed books will be rare. But they will always maintain a place in the hearts, minds and shelves of the public, even though eventually they will become a niche, specialised product.

They will remain as a special experience for reading to young children and revered texts, but school text books will be predominantly digital."

"It is a transitional time," says Penguin Classics and Reference publisher, Adam Freudenheim. EBooks are of enormous significance, he believes, but it is too soon to say exactly what their influence will be. He accepts that the UK will follow the US market trend - "they've not yet had a big impact here but I expect they will in the next couple of years."

The arrival of Amazon's third-generation Kindle, which became available in the UK last summer, has created the potential for a dramatic change in the way we read. Although there are no specific UK Kindle sales figures, in early January the trade magazine, The Bookseller, reported that Amazon had announced that the Kindle electronic reader was its bestselling product of 2010. The internet retailer also revealed that the Kindle has become its biggest selling product of all time. On one day alone, November 29 2010, Amazon said it had received a staggering 13.7 million orders worldwide.

Numbers aside, electronic readers are simply "great devices,' says Har-Even, with the Kindle 'hitting a sweet spot for performance and price".

With the possibility of books being read on a growing choice of tablet computers and mobile phones, Har-Even believes that it will become more attractive to buy digital books. Geller agrees. In the US, he says, a hardback is priced at $26 and an e-book at $9.99. Looking at the cost alone, the attraction of the eBook is obvious Not all technological advances are viewed positively. Authors are concerned "whether there will be publishers still in business to pay them in a few years time or whether they are going to have to publish themselves, which is something they don't want to have to do," says Geller.

The increase in book-buying over the internet has seen a decline in the number of bookshops on the high street, which in turn has pushed even more people towards the internet, Geller says. "And once you're on the internet you're thinking, well, maybe I should just download this book" rather than buy it in its conventional form.

He believes this is a natural progression and predicts that 35-45 per cent of all book sales will eventually be downloads. But he adds: "I don't think it's bleak. I think there will be room for probably very big book sales. Books may have to become more beautiful and sort-after objects and probably higher priced. A lot of independent bookshops will sprout up and with independent bookstores you get wider choices."

Nicola Solomon, a lawyer and incoming general secretary of the Society of Authors, is acutely aware of writers' concerns. "Authors need to ensure that they know what can be done with their books and negotiate the amount they are paid for rights on e-books, which currently is a pathetic amount," she says.

"We're at the edge of a new age," she adds, "and there is a completely different delivery mode happening. But I don't think there's such a huge need to be scared. It is also a time of great opportunity."

These opportunities may lead to travel books with pop-up maps, novels describing a song and then being able to play it, speculates Solomon.

"These sorts of things are tremendously attractive if people have the money to pay for that kind of enhancement." Book design and illustration will be able to incorporate interactive pictures, adds Har-Even, and other possibilities could involve pay-per-chapter with cliffhanger-style endings.

But are we danger of losing the physical and emotional connection that reading a printed book allows? "No," says Freudenheim. "People will always read deluxe editions; hardbacks or paperbacks. And ultimately it's the quality of writing that matters.'

Jewish Book Week begins on Feb 26.

Last updated: 5:15pm, January 31 2011