LONDON (Reuters) - The Internet has the potential to save the book trade instead of dealing it the near-fatal blow it dealt the music industry, the more optimistic participants at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair believe.
Fear and hostility toward the Web has turned to resignation among publishers and booksellers, and some -- like best-selling author Paulo Coelho -- hope that giving content away for free on the Web might even boost book sales.
Online bookselling is the most important development in publishing in the last 60 years, according to a survey carried out by organizers of the world’s biggest book fair, which begins on Tuesday and runs for a week.
Forty percent of the 1,000 industry professionals from more than 30 countries who responded to the survey believed e-content would overtake traditional book sales by 2018 -- although one third of respondents predicted this would never happen.
Coelho, author of “The Alchemist” and “Eleven Minutes” is the closest thing the publishing industry has to a pop star and a poster child for the promotional power of Internet piracy.
The Brazilian author, who will make an opening address to this week’s fair, has been distributing digital versions of his books for free over the Internet for years -- a strategy he believes boosted his book sales in Russia, at least.
"You realize how important it is to give away. If you go to my blog (www.paulocoelhoblog.com) you'll see a lot of free things," he told Reuters TV in an interview. "I don't know if it sells books, but I know that I'm sharing my soul."
What most publishers understand by digitization, though, has less to do with sharing and more to do with putting proprietary content online.
Willi Bredemeier, publisher of German electronic information services newsletter “Password,” says this attitude betrays the spirit of Gutenberg, born in nearby Mainz, whose 15th-century printing technology helped fuel the European Renaissance.
“The heirs of Gutenberg have not yet responded accordingly. We all started much too late. And then, in many cases, digitization was treated in house like an information-technical project,” he said.
While almost all can now see the benefits of online stores such as Amazon, projects such as Google’s book search -- which allows the full text of books Google has scanned to be searched -- still strikes fear into the hearts of many.
Google has scanned well over a million books and has partnerships with publishers as well as libraries. “You would sell a lot more books if a lot more people knew about them. We can help make that happen,” it says on its website (www.books.google.com).
Some fear that book publishers could suffer the same fate as the music industry, which shut down illegal file-sharing company Napster at the turn of the century but sat on the sidelines while Apple cornered the digital music market.
The literary equivalent of Apple’s iPod, the e-reader, will be a hot topic at the book fair, with sales of portable electronic readers such as Amazon’s Kindle and Sony’s Reader growing fast.
Technology research firm iSuppli predicts that global ebook display revenue will grow to $291 million in 2012 from $3.5 million in 2007.
Many eyes will also be on China, who will succeed this year’s guest of honor, Turkey, in 2009, and whose private publishing market -- in contrast to its dwindling state-owned publishing industry -- is being driven by the Internet.
According to studies by the Frankfurt Book Fair’s Beijing satellite office (BIZ) and Chinese trade magazine Publishing Today, 20 percent of last year’s Chinese bestsellers originated on the Internet, many of them by previously unheard of authors.
“We’re in this paradoxical situation where the Internet is actually driving the Chinese publishing sector forward, instead of being in competition to it,” says BIZ director Jing Bartz.
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