Word for Word: why ebooks are changing everything

Cut price: Penguin is ending its popular classics range

Cut price: Penguin is ending its popular classics range


Two intriguing titbits of publishing news that caught my eye recently revealed a lot about the nature of 21st-century book publishing.

The first was the news that Penguin was calling time on its Popular Classics range. You might have seen them, these snappy paperbacks in green and white jackets (at least in recent years), printed on thin paper but priced very competitively, at about €3. Hard to beat if print is your thing and you want a quick infusion of Twain or Brontë, Verne or, as this is the season for it, Joyce.

The company has, unsurprisingly, not abandoned classics altogether. No, Penguin will still publish its Modern Classics series, but it is killing the popular classic at the low price and abandoning this space in the market to Wordsworth Classics, which publishes an extensive list at a similarly low price, and to ebooks.

The other piece of news was from Bowker, the research firm, which revealed that while self-published books accounted for only 2 per cent of books overall, they accounted for some 12 per cent of ebooks (see Sara Keating’s column opposite) and, in some genres, for 20 per cent of ebook sales.

How do the two news items relate? It struck me that they both demonstrate how ebooks have improved access to the market for new and different publishers.

When Penguin was competing only with other print editions of cheap classics, it could keep publishing and selling editions of its popular classics, but ebooks changed the market by unleashing a torrent of cheap or free editions, making Penguin’s €3 printed Popular Classics much less attractive and prompting the firm to move higher up the value chain.

Likewise, in the world of self-publishing, writers who previously could not find a publisher have gained access to the market.

The unacknowledged talent that was a part of that pool of frustrated writers has slowly but surely found an audience through ebooks, and will continue to do so.

It’s clear from these two news stories that ebooks are changing the way publishers, readers and writers behave. They say to me that we are entering an age of increased access for writers, resulting
in a large increase in the quantity of content coming
on stream.

I see no harm in this for publishers, as such an influx of material might well renew one of publishing’s oldest skills: curation. It could put the emphasis once again on the valuable task of selecting for future generations the new classics, helping modern readers to find relevance in the new stream of titles, and ensuring that the best books get more attention.

Eoin Purcell is commissioning editor at New Island Books. He blogs at eoinpurcellsblog.com.

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