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E-Book Versus Paperback: The Threat to Traditional Publishing That No Author Can Ignore

24/04/2014 16:13 BST | Updated 23/06/2014 10:59 BST

When I first started writing for newspapers back in 1985, we were still using Smith Corona typewriters and correction fluid.

After you'd typed your story, you stuffed your sheet of paper into a small plastic canister. You then pushed this into a network of pipes to be sucked away to other floors - to the editor, to the sub-editors, to the typesetters, and so on. This was the height of technology and time-saving gadgetry at the time.

When computers first started being introduced, we journalists had to retrain. Some newspaper offices had them. Others saved money and clung on to the old ways. At home, we all still had typewriters, albeit electric ones with digital screens.

Fast-forward to today. Mention an Olivetti or a Remington to a teenager, and they stare back at you blankly. The only time you're likely to see a typewriter is in junk shops or at vintage collectors' fayres.

Change may happen so slowly you barely notice it. You can embrace it, or resist it. Sometimes, it's not until you look back 10 years on that you realize it's happened.

Which brings me in a roundabout way to the question of: are e-books sounding the death knell for hardbacks and paperbacks? Are we witnessing the final demise of bookstores?

Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat, is acutely aware of the changes in publishing, and notes that how these have taken both publishers and literary agents by surprise.

"When I first signed up for Transworld, the idea of e-books was so nebulous, and there was a general feeling in the business that it would be a faddy thing that would never take off. Agents were selling e-book rights left, right, and centre; or worse, giving them for free! This happened to everybody. This wasn't very long ago - it was only 13 years ago. E-book rights were just being given for free as part of 'rights' packages. It was like audiobook rights - who really cared? It's become enormous now. It's become a whole new way of buying and perceiving books. It will get bigger and bigger, I think."

American author, Sharon Lechter, is an astute businesswoman, as well as co-author of the bestseller, Rich Dad, Poor Dad. She predicts further sweeping changes in the years to come:

"The world of publishing has changed dramatically in the past ten years. And I follow that by saying the world of publishing has changed in the past two years. The world of publishing will change dramatically in the next year: because of the presence of online ordering ability and Amazon being a dot-com; because of the number of bookstores that are going out of business; and because of the rising popularity of e-books. All of those dynamics impact how to become a successful author and have multiple sales. You need to make sure your book is available in as many formats as possible ..."

These predictions are backed up by sales figures from the world's top authors.

There's no denying the popularity and rise of e-books.

Bestselling author, Jeffrey Archer, has seen a massive change in the way readers are buying his books and the way in which his writing is promoted:

"Five years ago, I'd say 5 percent of my sales were on e-books; it's now 50 percent ... They don't bother to send me to New York now. They say, "Put a blog out, put a tweet out, Jeffrey. Let everybody know it's coming," and my fans read the blogs or the tweets or Facebook, so they know it's coming. If I go to San Francisco, 150 or 200 people come out for a signing session. It's not worth it!"

Anne Rice, author of Interview with The Vampire has also noticed the dramatic changes in sales of her books: "It's changing rapidly. On my last novel, the last I heard, they were 50 percent. For every 100 hardcovers, they were selling maybe 50 e-books. So the total for e-books was half of the final total for hardcovers. So that's amazing, because it was not that way in the past, but e-books are gaining popularity every week ... All the time, you see more and more people recommending e-books. In the beginning, it was a minority. Now they're all admitting that they're going to e-books for various reasons."

There are wider implications for authors too - such as less face-to-face contact with readers when it comes to book launches. Instead, writers are more likely to market and promote a book via social media.

Anne Rice says she's getting the same demand as usual to go on tour. However, the problem is the bookstores aren't there any more.

"I'm getting a lot of requests to come sign in this place or that place, a lot of requests to meet people individually in an autograph line. I think that will continue but the problem is, the bookstores where we used to go over the years - to have these wonderful big signings - they don't exist any more. They're dying out. They're closing. They're gone!" she explains.

Bernard Cornwell, author of the Sharpe series, estimates that around 60 percent of his novels are being sold as e-books in the American market. He confesses reading on an iPad, and his wife Judy on a Kindle.

"I don't know whether it's good or bad. A fish doesn't complain about the sea it swims in. I don't know where it's going. One part of me thinks I'm awfully glad that I had my career before e-books came in. But another part of me thinks you probably sell more e-books at a slightly lower price than you do of physical books."

However, he notes a darker side of digital publishing: "My big worry is when somebody manages to break the code. Already, if you go online - and you'll find this with every author you're interviewing - there must be 20 or 30 sites that are offering my books at a dollar or one pound each. What they've done is, some guy has sat there and scanned the whole book and they're selling a PDF edition. They're all over the damn place!

They try to take them down if they can. I know that all the publishers get together and hire someone, or a company, that scours the Internet to find these people. I'm not too worried about the PDF, because who wants to read a whole book in a PDF version? It's going to be really a pretty gruesome experience. But eventually someone's going to crack the code and the books will be out there. Look what happened to the music industry. File sharing could kill us, but I don't know enough about it to talk about the technicalities."

Personally, I love to have a glossy book that I can flick through. I've always enjoyed browsing in bookstores. Yet I confess that I also like the 24/7 accessibility of e-books, the speed, the instant access, the lack of clutter in my home.

I'd hate to think we are witnessing the demise of paperbacks and bookstores. But I wonder if I am contributing to it, and in 10 years time if teenagers will stare back blankly when you mention the words 'paperback' or 'hardback'.

Extracts taken from Celebrity Authors' Secrets by Stephanie J Hale

Available for pre-order on Amazon.