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Taking books into the digital age

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New initiative aims to move New Zealand's most popular cultural pursuit into the digital age

AUCKLAND, 8 December 2008. The book, a cultural staple for centuries, is about to receive a digital makeover. The Digital Publishing Forum, formed by book publishers, authors and their copyright agency CLL, this week embarks on an ambitious programme to ensure that New Zealand is ready for the challenge.

"The shift in how we buy and consume books is going to have a major impact on New Zealand, both culturally and economically," says Forum director Martin Taylor. Books rank as New Zealanders’ favourite cultural activity, according to the 2002 Cultural Experiences Survey. Buying books and going to the library are more than twice as popular as any other cultural activity, including buying music, visiting museums, or going to concerts or movies.

"Based on what's happening overseas, there's plenty of evidence that we're about to see a big rise in the market for so-called 'ebooks'. These are digital editions of books that are read on screens, smart mobile gadgets like Apple's iPhone and, increasingly, on dedicated readers like Amazon's Kindle that emulate the experience of ink on paper."

According to Taylor, this presents great opportunities for publishers and authors to expand the overall market for books and reading. But along the way, there are issues publishers will have to navigate as technology changes the economics of the book industry and the behaviour of consumers, he says.

To this end, the Forum's first goal is to get New Zealand's publishing community working together as they begin creating and selling ebooks and other digital publications. Publishers and authors will meet at a series of workshops and conferences around the country, starting in March 2009, to develop the skills, business networks, technology and sales and marketing initiatives needed to jumpstart the industry here. Publishers and others can register their interest in these workshops at digitalpublishing.org.nz.

"New Zealand won't succeed if every publisher tries to work as an island," says Taylor. "Expect to see some innovative and far-reaching initiatives from us both within New Zealand and internationally."

"New Zealand already has a substantial book export industry with up to 20% of its turnover coming from exports, much of this in educational markets. The digital opportunities can greatly expand this," says Taylor. "At the same time, it's important that we build a strong domestic industry so that our unique culture and voice isn't swamped as technology lowers barriers even further to imported content."

A book publisher and former publisher of technology magazines and websites in New Zealand and the US, Taylor has already seen a lot of technology-driven changes first-hand. Books have come late to the party largely, he says, because of some unique technology problems that needed to be solved first.

"We're starting to see reading devices that can support the thoughtful, immersive experience that people enjoy with books," he says. Amazon's Kindle, launched a year ago in the US, and Sony's Reader are at the vanguard of this trend, as are smart mobile devices like Apple's iPhone or those that will use a new system from Google called Android.

Ebook readers are not yet available in New Zealand but, "part of our plan is to encourage companies like Sony and Amazon to enter the New Zealand market early and help to grow it," he says. "We'll be very proactive in assisting them." As a small market, this can be challenging as big companies' investment decisions favour larger, more profitable markets, says Taylor. "But we don't want to wait for years and then find we have an immature publishing industry trying to compete with large, seasoned overseas players."

ENDS

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