-Analysis-

PARIS - Whether or not they pose a real threat to the traditional book publishing industry, e-books are indisputably the talk of the town. Still, few in the sector are able to fathom the full extent of the ongoing digital transformation, which is both far-reaching, yet still largely invisible.

From booksellers to printers, everybody has to deal with this emerging market, driven not only by supply (the publisher's picks) but also by demand (the reader’s choices). Online retailers are in constant, direct contact with their customers/readers and can offer a huge selection -- and more importantly, detect trends. Warehouses have given way to computer files that help avoid costly piles of unpopular books.

Halfway between the good-old paper book industry and tablet computers’ E Ink, "digital manufacturers" have found their niche. Adjusting to market demands, they are capable of both developing digital files and printing a given number of books in the shortest possible time -- thus meeting the client’s needs, whatever their choice of format. No more "returns" to deal with, no more (or very little) stocks to pay for, no more surplus to get rid of: every printed book gets sold and delivered. An editor’s dream!

Self-publishing, limited editions, specialized books, reprints, out-of-print editions... Although this whole new actor -- in a sector that has been going downhill for the past few years -- is actually experiencing an annual 20% growth, it mainly benefits new players. Using modern tools, companies like Google, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon are tackling up-to-date objectives: Internet traffic, market shares, advertising, subscriptions, tablet sales -- the book itself being merely a way to get a foot in the buyer’s door.

Beyond the bestseller

So are these new allies really a threat to the book industry? Granted, these "digital manufacturers" do trigger the creation of many new paper publications. But they also tend to disperse sales, thus decreasing average circulation – on which printers and wholesale distributors depend.

Besides, new players are the ones really benefiting from the growth: apart from spectacular but one-in-a-million bestsellers, the traditional book industry has been characterized by a disturbing apathy for too long. The fact that readers see no perceptible change in the sector means that these new markets – although they are synonymous with growth – can eventually bring confusion to the way the traditional book trade usually works.

For lack of significant innovations in the digital world – but also on the distribution and logistics front -- the traditional book industry risks missing the oportunity to tap into these markets. New actors will thrive in the sector, and gradually elbow their way up the book supply chain.

The changes in the book printing business are all the more powerful for their invisibility to readers. It is high time today’s digital technologies helped revive a declining profession. Only such an alliance can ensure that printed books retain their rightful place as a premium and ever-modern product.

*Frédéric Mériot is a Paris-based publishing industry executive