The upheaval in the book chain


Actors in the book chain in the digital age: in order to identify ways of developing digital books in France while preserving the book value chain and the editorial diversity of French publishing, the Centre d'analyse stratégique, in partnership with the Centre national du livre, has produced a series of 3 analysis notes accompanied by proposals, each focusing on one of the actors in the book chain: authors and publishers (I), bookshops (II), public libraries (III). The contents are as follows.

I - Authors and publishers / The upheaval in the book chain

Contours and advantages of the digital book

The digital book does not point to a single reality. It can be a text that is identical in every way to that of a printed book that can be read using a dedicated device (tablet or reader). This so-called "homothetic" book differs from the "enriched" book, which includes sounds, videos or animations that show and hear multimedia content that goes far beyond the realm of the written word.

This homothetic book is currently the most widespread form of digital book. The text read on a tablet or reading machine is similar to that printed on paper. However, this new medium includes features that offer a more personalized and interactive reading experience. For example, readers can choose font size and colour, underline passages, insert bookmarks and also tell their friends about excerpts or share them via social networks such as Facebook or Twitter. Numerical indexing also makes it possible to find specific elements very quickly: relevant pages, names, quotations, etc.

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The other undeniable advantage is the space and weight savings offered by a reading light or a shelf that can hold 1,200 or 1,500 book files. This is a significant advantage for both avid readers, researchers and children whose binders full of textbooks often weigh too much.

The disruption of the editorial chain by digital technology

Traditionally, i.e. as long as the book existed only in printed form, the author of a text could only be published through a publisher, unless he was his own publisher, which was an exceptional case. The printed book is therefore the structuring element of an editorial chain involving the author, the publisher, the distributor, the diffuser and the bookseller.

editeursreunisThis chain has a particularly high degree of integration in France. Whereas in other comparable countries the publisher and the distributor are two very distinct players, the main French publishing houses have developed their own distribution channels, following the example of the Sodis belonging to Gallimard or from Volumen in the case of the group La Martinière. By controlling the distribution process, French publishers have given themselves the means to generate higher margins than with their publishing activity alone.

Today, the integration of distribution remains one of the main sources of the economic health of French publishers, but also of the diversity of the editorial offer. Thanks to revenues from distribution, publishers of general literature can continue to publish texts whose literary, intellectual or artistic interest cannot be judged in proportion to the sales made.

It is upstream of this editorial chain that authors and publishers have built up close relationships over time, even if they seem to be stretching somewhat. According to the results of the fourth barometer of author-publisher relations, published on 12 March, 31 % of authors say they are dissatisfied with these relations, compared with 22 % in 2011(1).

Far from simply taking a manuscript to the printer, a publisher has multiple roles: identifying the most promising talents, accompanying the work of the authors with a range of advice and suggestions, supervising the formatting of manuscripts, etc. Before receiving any income from the sale of a book, the publisher often grants the author a more or less significant bonus depending on the author's reputation and the expected level of sales. Such a system goes beyond simple economic logic when the advance payment makes it possible to remunerate in advance the author of a book known to be destined for limited distribution. This formula, which is sometimes closer to patronage than to a sure return on investment, has enabled many authors to write a work that reaches a relatively small audience; it is at the heart of the activities of generalist publishing houses (Gallimard, Grasset, Fayard, Midnight...) which can, through the proceeds of best-sellers and revenues from the distribution channel they control, finance such productions with more uncertain profitability. This means that a company committed to the diversity of its editorial production needs to have enough successful authors to enable it to take risks on other editorial projects.

However, the arrival of digital technology is transforming the distribution stage as soon as a book file can be directly downloaded from a computer platform to a reader, a tablet, a computer or even a smartphone. Distribution then no longer takes the form of physical delivery of books to points of sale, but of making files available on a downloading platform.

The prospect of a gradual decline in the distribution channels that they control and from which they derive greater profitability than from the publishing activity itself has created a certain distrust among French publishers. There is also a fear of a sharp fall in prices compared with paper books, which could lead to a process of destruction of added value in the book economy. For all these reasons, the French publishing world has remained relatively circumspect about the prospect of a switchover of its editorial production to digital. However, after several years of caution, publishers all agree that they must be the main stakeholders in this digital development.

An editorial production in constant progression

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book editionThe number of titles published is at a very high level in France and its growth over time has been remarkable. In twenty years, the number of books published has more than doubled, rising from just over 30,000 titles in 1988 to almost 75,000 in 2009 (half of which are new titles and reprints, a stable proportion). The total number of books produced has logically followed this curve, rising from 390 million copies in 1988 to 609 million in 2009.

At the same time, however, the average print run of published books has fallen steadily and sharply: from 1985 to 2009, the number of copies printed of each book fell from 12,600 to 8,150.

A still embryonic but rapidly growing market

Sales of digital books are still in their infancy on the French market, where they account for only about 1 % of the sector's turnover. The weakness of this turnover is obviously linked to the embryonic size of the market where only 1 in 10 books is currently available in digital version (1 in 3 in the case of best-sellers). The growth of these figures will naturally be a determining factor in the evolution of the publishing landscape in France.

However, judging by past experience in the cultural goods market, France should logically follow in the footsteps of pioneering countries such as the United States. The American digital book market is by far the largest in the world and has been growing very strongly over the past three years: the share of digital books has increased from 1.2 % in 2008 to 18 % at the end of 2011. It is in Great Britain that the dematerialization of books is the most advanced on the European continent; 13 % of books are sold there in the form of files. And, according to IDATE projections, the digital book market could reach 35 % in the United States and 21 % in the UK by 2015.

The rise of shelves and reading lights

Tablets, which use a backlit touch screen, are not devices specifically dedicated to reading like reading lights. But this type of device is currently the most widely used for digital books. Tablets have the advantage of giving access to a multitude of uses in the same way as a smartphone but with a much larger screen.

ipadAccording to the GFK institute, 1.45 million touch tablets were sold in France in 2011, including 450,000 in December alone. The most widespread model by far remains the iPad by far.Apple. Released in May 2010, this tablet really launched the market where other brands such as Acer, Archos, Dell, HP, LG, Motorola, Toshiba, Samsung... The device is linked to Apple's sales platform, iTunes, which markets digital book files by charging a commission of 30 %. In the fourth quarter of 2011, 15 million iPads were sold worldwide. Google announces the arrival of a tablet by the summer of 2012, supposed to compete for this supremacy.

Reading machines are devices specifically dedicated to reading books and newspapers using electronic ink - "E-ink" - which looks very similar to printed characters. Smaller, much lighter and much less expensive, readers do not offer the versatility of the tablet and most do not have a touch screen. On the other hand, they offer much more comfortable reading and a very long autonomy (one month at a rate of half an hour of daily reading). Marketed by Amazon, the Kindle is currently the most popular model of reading device, with a market share of 60 % in the United States.

kindleThe Amazon Kindle was only launched in France in autumn 2011 at a price of 99 euros. Its main competitor is the Kobo marketed by FNAC. The other competing models (Sony, Oyo, Bookeen...) occupy only a small segment of the market. The figure of 172,000 units sold in France in 2011 may seem anecdotal in comparison to tablets, but the electronic reading light market only really got off the ground in October, suggesting strong growth in 2012.

(Source: Thomas Loncle, lawyer at the Paris Bar; Sarah Sauneron, Social Issues Department; Françoise Vielliard, Sustainable Development Department and Julien Winock, Watch and Foresight Department)


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