The book business is starting to go electronic -- and local publishers are embracing the trend, in part because e-books are just as profitable.
Figuring that a book is a book, whether you turn the pages or scroll through them, Minnesota publishers are scrambling to get their share of the growing market for electronic books downloaded from the Internet.
Some publishers say their future is tied to the e-books now being sold through amazon.com and Sony's online eBook Store, and read on one of two devices, the $299 Kindle 2 from Amazon and the $199 and $299 Sony Reader. They note that e-book sales are increasing, while printed book sales aren't.
"Minnesota publishers are thinking about e-books, unless they're planning to retire this year," said Don Leeper, president of BookMobile, a St. Louis Park company that converts print books to e-books.
"If you're not investing in eBooks, you're crazy," said Doug Armato, director of the University of Minnesota Press in Minneapolis, which plans to issue e-books soon. "We use the music industry as the best example of how not to go digital: Stand in the way for as long as you can. We think it makes sense to go where the market is growing."
Unlike the music industry, where the arrival of digital music undercut sales of more profitable CDs, the book industry is in a much better position. Profits from printed books and eBooks are about the same because, while eBooks are cheaper to buy, they have none of the overhead cost of printed books, such as printing, warehouse storage, trucking to bookstores and, if they aren't sold, a return trip to the publisher for a refund.
So if e-books cannibalize the sales of a print book -- such as the Minnesota Historical Society Press' "Creating Minnesota: A History from the Inside Out," which has a suggested hardcover price of $27.95 but an eBook price of $9.99 -- no one seems particularly worried.
"I think there is a distinct market for e-books, so I'm not worried yet that they will cannibalize sales of other books products," said Nick Motu, chief operating officer of Hazelden Publishing of Center City, Minn., which offers 72 of its 320 titles as e-books. "But even if they do, the profit is about the same for us whether it's a print book or an e-book. So I don't care which form people buy it in; what I'm concerned about is that they buy it."
Leeper of BookMobile says e-books probably do cannibalize print book sales, but says it's not a problem because they have the potential to increase total book sales because of their ease of use.
"My book-buying habits changed when I got my Kindle," Leeper said. "I found I was buying many fewer printed books, but more books overall. It's a good sign for the industry if e-book users buy more books."
Leeper's company has done e-book conversions of print books for two local publishers, the Minnesota Historical Society Press in St. Paul and Hazelden Publishing, a part of the Hazelden Foundation that treats addictions. Graywolf Press in St. Paul has published one e-book and is planning others. Milkweed Editions and Coffee House Press, both of Minneapolis, plan to introduce e-books in the next few months.
But the e-book doesn't yet -- and may never -- threaten the existence of the traditional printed book, publishers say. Today, e-books account for less than 2 percent of unit book sales, although their sales are increasing quarterly.
Consumer surveys show that e-book sales are held back by the cost of the reading devices from Amazon and Sony, and a reluctance by most people to give up print books. A survey by the New York-based NPD Group research firm found that nearly 40 percent of consumers weren't interested in e-book readers.
The next big thing?
But there is also evidence that the $9.99 e-book may be the next big thing in publishing. Forrester Research says that by the end of this year, U.S. consumers will have bought a total of 3 million e-readers. And that doesn't include reader software for smartphones or computers. In addition, there are benefits for readers. An e-book reader can be adjusted to make the type larger on the screen, and can carry a large number of e-books without the weight of printed books.
The market also may be getting broader. Google and Barnes & Noble will be competing with Amazon and Sony in the sale of e-books, which should expand demand by offering them in a mass-market format: for PC screens, not just proprietary reader devices. A more competitive market also will make publishers less beholden to Amazon, the e-book sales king.
"The e-book is a good thing, because you have people 15 and 20 years old who are completely comfortable reading on the screen, and may be looking for something to read at 2 a.m. when they have no access to a bookstore," said Pam McClanahan, director of the Minnesota Historical Society Press. So far, the society has 50 e-book titles.
It plans to republish another 50 existing titles as e-books and then issue some new books in both print and e-book formats, McClanahan said. Some books that contain maps or other special graphics won't be offered as e-books because they can't be displayed on a screen properly, she said.
But not everyone in the book industry likes the e-book.
"There are people in the book industry who don't like it. It's a visceral thing," McClanahan said. "So I don't think the print book will die in my lifetime, and I'm 47."
Jim Perlman, editor and publisher of Holy Cow Press in Duluth, is one of the skeptics.
"The e-book is such a new frontier that most of us who are lovers of the print media are probably cautious about pursuing it," said Perlman, whose firm publishes two to four titles a year and has no plans to sell e-books. "I'm personally not invested in reading books off of an e-reader. It's just not something I'm comfortable with."
But the real problem for publishers is that they must invest in e-book technology during a recession, Leeper said.
"In the short run, the e-book is a quandary. But in the long run it's good for publishers," Leeper said.
Added McClanahan, "The book market is a bit troubled now because of the recession, so whatever you've got to do to attract book buyers and please readers, you've got to do it."
Some in the book industry predict that by 2014 e-books could account for one third of unit sales of books, McClanahan said.
"We look at the iPod sales, and they went through pretty steep growth from 2002 to 2008," McClanahan said. "But whether or not people will adopt handheld devices to read books they way they bought iPods for music, we just don't know."
Steve Alexander • 612-673-4553