The future of books

These are troubling times in the book business. As I sit down to write this month’s Resource Talk, the dust is still settling after the financial collapse of the owner of two of Australia’s largest bookselling chains. The management is blaming a mix of factors: the high Australian dollar, the rise of online retail­ing (whereby customers can buy books cheaper and tax-free from overseas), the heavy discounting tactics of department stores, the global financial crisis, and the rise of the ebook.

There is no doubt that these various pressures are putting the squeeze on booksellers and publishers around the world. But interestingly, out of all these factors, the one that probably made the smallest contribution to the collapse of Borders and Angus & Robertson is the one that will most significantly reshape the publishing industry over the next five years: the rapid growth in the sales of ebooks.

After many false dawns, it seems that ebooks are finally coming into their own. This is mainly because electronic readers are finally penetrating the market in sizable numbers. Something in excess of 15 million iPads have been sold worldwide since its release by Apple a little over 12 months ago. Numbers for the Amazon Kindle are harder to come by (because Amazon won’t release them), but the best guesses are in the region of 8 million. Sales of ebooks are also growing rapidly, although they remain a fairly small proportion of overall book sales.

Does this mean that the book (the physical book, that is) is on the path to extinction? And that in a few short years everyone will be turning virtual pages and scribbling digital notes in the margin?

Almost certainly not. There is something distinctive about the experience of browsing, buying and reading a physical book that will continue to attract people, even when ebooks are readily available and convenient. In my opinion, this is one way in which the rise of digitally-delivered reading will be different from the rise of digitally-delivered music. The experience of listening from a CD is all but identical to the experience of listening to the same music delivered on an iPod—and so when it became cheap, easy and convenient to obtain music via iTunes and similar channels, digital music sales rapidly ate into the sales of CDs.

With ebooks I think it will take longer, and the older delivery method (the paper book) will continue in a healthy state for quite some time, because it offers an experience that people will continue to value.

Of course, for us at Matthias Media, the really interesting and important question is this: what opportunities do ebooks provide for us to distribute resources for ministry more widely, more economically, and more effectively?

Our mission is not to sell books but to promote gospel ministry, and to equip Christians for that ministry around the world. Ebooks provide us with a whole new way to do that.

Like everyone in publishing at the moment, we’re not really sure how it will all unfold. But we’re excited about the possibilities, and pleased to be offering our first batch of ebooks for sale. You can now go to our website for ebook versions of:

  • The Essential Jesus (a free give-away version of Luke’s Gospel)
  • The Trellis and the Vine (by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne).

These will be closely followed by:

  • The Archer and the Arrow (by Phillip Jensen and Paul Grimmond)
  • Naked God (by Martin Ayers)
  • God is Enough (by Ray Galea)
  • The Road Once Travelled (by Mark Gilbert and Cecily Paterson).

You can purchase and download editions of these books in formats compatible with most ebook readers (including the iPad and Kindle).

The other excellent thing is that all of these ebooks are easy to share. Every copy you buy comes with a licence allowing you to give away a copy free to a friend (except The Essential Jesus, which you can give away as many times as you like—because it’s a free download to start with). And sharing is easy—just email your friend a copy of the file that works with their reader, and off they go.

We hope that those of you who jump on the ebook bandwagon will find these new editions a useful addition to your ministry toolbox.

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