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E-book revolution favors the agile

As conventional book sales sink, small presses lead the way in mass digitization.

By Matthew ShaerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 30, 2009

Ugly duckling presse: Founder Matvei Yankelevich (r.) acknowledges that many readers still have an emotional attachment to the printed word.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor

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New York

The mood is one of gloom and not a little confusion. For months, the publishing industry has been rocked by successive setbacks – shrinking sales, widespread layoffs, and a grim fiscal forecast for the new year.

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Still, as the critic Lev Grossman wrote this month in Time magazine, publishing isn't dead yet. It is "evolving," he argued, "and so radically that we may hardly recognize it when it's done." According to a recent study published by the National Endowment for the Arts, "literary reading" has risen 3.5 percent since 2002 – the first spike in decades. And an increasing number of readers are consuming content on their computers or on digital readers such as Amazon's Kindle.

In an otherwise bleak Jan. 23 report on November sales – a 14.4 percent decline over the same period in 2007 – the Association of American Publishers noted that e-book business had more than doubled for the month, to $5.1 million. Over the course of the year, e-book sales were up 63.8 percent. It is in these figures that many industry analysts see hope for the publishing industry at large, which is turning slowly – and not without some grumbling – toward mass digitization.

But it's not the bigger houses, such as Macmillan or HarperCollins, that are moving the fastest. Instead, some of the most extensive restructuring efforts are being undertaken in the independent publishing world, traditionally a hotbed for innovation and experimentation.

Last month, in a much-trumpeted example, New York's Soft Skull Press announced it would begin to move its entire catalog online. Richard Nash, Soft Skull's publisher, tells the Monitor, "The aim is to have every one of our front- and back-list books available [digitally] by the end of the year." (Heavily illustrated books, which are very expensive and unwieldy to convert, will likely be the exception.) If successful, it would be a feat unmatched by any corporate publisher.

Meanwhile, Johnny Temple, the publisher of Akashic Books in Brooklyn, says he is in talks with Amazon and Sony, which produces its own digital reader, and hopes to begin making a swath of e-book content available as early as February.

"Right now, we're at the turning point," Mr. Temple says. "There are lots of reasons to get excited: economic reasons and environmental reasons. People are realizing digitization is inevitable."