Publishers are learning from music labels' struggle to make online music profitable and combat piracy, but so-called e-books will only add value to the industry and not replace printed books, experts say.
Amid a global economic downturn, the publishing industry is also trying to deal with a growing demand for online content driven by advances in technology with electronic readers like Amazon.com's Kindle and Sony Corp's Reader.
But it is learning from music labels, who have seen a shift in fans to digital sales from physical sales. These labels have filed countless lawsuits to combat free online music-sharing sites, while trying to make digital distribution profitable.
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"Our aim is not to beat up the music industry ... but that said, they sure did screw it up," Andrew Albanese, Publisher's Weekly features editor, told a panel discussion on the topic at the recent Book Expo America in New York City.
Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, told the panel the Internet broke the traditional physical distribution model for music and is now doing the same for publishing.
But while he said the popularity of the MP3 music format is a rejection by fans of compact discs, "the difference is with books there's nothing wrong with books, the book is not a value-subtract medium but a value-add medium."
"Over time (e-books) will tend to enhance and contribute to the success of the book rather than replace it," he said.
While the music industry fought free music-sharing sites such as Napster and Kazaa in court, Jared Friedman, co-founder of social publishing website Scribd, said he was optimistic about the transition of the publishing industry.
"We seem to be going straight from an Adams model to an iTunes model and skipping the many years of Napster's and Kazaa's that went in between for the music industry," he said.
Apple Inc's online music store iTunes dominates the sale of digital music, but Friedman said it was important that publishers encourage a more competitive marketplace.
"It's clear now that there's going to be enough demand for books distributed as digital content, that there is going to have to be a digital distribution mechanism for books," he said. "If we handle the transition correctly the electronic model may actually monetize better than the print model."
But Penguin USA chief executive David Shanks and president Susan Kennedy are still wary of the piracy of digital books. Penguin is owned by British publishing group Pearson.
The thing that's the most frightening is this sense of some people that everything should be free Penguin USA president Susan Kennedy
"The thing that's the most frightening is this sense of some people that everything should be free," Kennedy told Reuters at the Book Expo Shanks added: "Piracy is an issue that we're concerned about.
"The industry still feels that we need some sort of digital rights management ... and that's sort of evolving," he said.
Oren Teicher, the chief operating officer and incoming chief executive officer of the American Booksellers Association, said one of the key challenges is the creation of open platforms that allow all retailers to sell digital books.
"There are very clear lessons and we are very conscious of trying to prevent repetition of what happened in the music industry," he told Reuters. "The challenge for us is to incorporate all the new ways that people access information and to continue to be relevant in that dialogue."