The digital books landscape is starting to take on a different look, with mobile and the advent of Virtual Reality techniques.

The evolution of digital books: from e-book to VR

The Ancient versus Modern schism has never arisen! Numbers proved that it was a mistake to fear that printed books would disappear in favour of e-books. E-books have definitely found a niche in the market - sales are predicted to account for one quarter of global book sales by 2018, with 20 billion dollars in revenue expected. But those numbers has not cramped sales of printed books – quite the opposite, in fact.

Nevertheless, the new digital formats have created new reading consumption habits by providing a more interactive, multi-channel reading experience. The market for e-books is certainly growing, but the future will perhaps see a very different multi-faceted way of reading, based on smartphones and virtual reality (VR) technologies.

State of digital books market from the publishers point of view

E-books have a number of advantages for readers: they are easier to store and tidy away, easier to carry around, they are priced more affordably and it is easy to buy and pay for a book online. Despite some initial reluctance, a number of publishing houses have now understood the opportunity brought to them by this market. One example is Paris-based BragelonneClaire Deslandes, head of digital publications at the company, explains: “Bragelonne Publishing got into the digital market very early on – five years ago – with a highly attractive pricing policy. Some people thought our approach was rather aggressive, but we just saw it as proactive. This approach went hand in hand with our publishing strategy, which enables us to move smoothly from print to digital. This has been very successful. We’re now seeing double-digit growth of around 15%.‟ Bragelonne’s digital success story is underpinned by its strategy of publishing books in series to a loyal target market.

This undoubted success is however something of a marginal phenomenon overall, given that e-book sales generally account for only around 5% of a publishing company’s revenue. E-book sales are not yet able to support a company all by themselves, so printed books still remain fundamental to the publishing business model. Anne-Sophie Tardy and Gloria Tononi, Heads of Digital Marketing Projects at French publishing house Hachette Livre, point out that “e-book reading is on the rise but it’s still peripheral. We see that people still want to read printed books. It’s pretty clear. You really feel that readers are very fond of their printed books.‟ Claire Deslandes shares this view. “There are no 100% e-readers. Readers are quite versatile and they read in a multi-faceted way. And people actually feel a strong, even physical, attachment to printed books. I don’t see them disappearing, though in the future there may be greater integration between paper and digital, more fluid interaction.‟  So where does the smartphone fit in?

Mobile apps a promising channel for e-books?

Passengers on public transportation are indeed much more likely to use their smartphones than an e-reader. “The advantages of phone over an e-reader are that it’s easier to carry and easier to use: people have the text right there in their hand,” points out Anne Sophie Tardy. This being so, it is not surprising that close to 13% of Americans who read e-books rather do it on their smartphone and 15% on tablets. As a result, the publishing sector has now entered the smartphone world, seeking to marry literature with technology, as well as raise the profile of their book catalogues.

Gloria Tononi underlines that “e-reading is still a niche market but within this market, reading on smartphones is growing fast.” And the surge in reading on smartphones is changing the way we read: the passages we read are getting shorter, more concise, almost like a sound bite. “The passage you read that way has to meet a number of requirements. The text has to be optimised for the screen. For instance, reading Proust’s 'A la Recherche du Temps Perdu’ [’In Search of Lost Time’] on a smartphone would mean having to scroll down many, many times.‟ But another huge challenge is to be retrievable among the massive amounts of content your smartphone has to offer.

There is a wide range of mobile apps on offer: mobile digital libraries and promotional apps that combine marketing with gaming techniques. More rarely, you can also find ambitious apps that set out to re-invent the art of reading itself. Emile is one of these. Developed by Hachette Livre, this highly-promising app is designed to “enable readers to discover the literature of Paris while in Paris.” Drawing inspiration from literary tourism, it offers an innovative interactive way of reading: when an app-user passes close to a historic building or site, s/he will receive a notification suggests that s/he should read or listen to a high-quality extract from a French literary work that has a connection with the monument.

The promise of VR: reading means experiencing

The development of Virtual Reality headsets is also opening up new horizons for digital reading technology. After all, what reader has not dreamed of seeing his/her heroes for real or has not wished s/he could actually climb inside a book? VR, which is now being used in many areas, has not so far been applied to reading, but may radically alter the reading experience. Indeed, with VR, readers will have the opportunity to truly live a story rather than just read about it.

Besides, this technology is already beginning to shake up traditional ways of writing and illustrating stories. Most of these ‘new’ works are actually adaptations of existing books. It is the case for S.E.N.S, which is adapted from a cartoon novel by French writer and cartoonist Marc-Antoine Mathieu and co-produced by French companies Red Corner and Arte Creative. In fact, the Kafkaesque atmosphere of the book is captured extremely well by the VR techniques, but there is no ‘reading’ – in the strict sense of the word – involved. Only the interactive arrows tell you which pages to turn.

Books can also be created specially with VR in mind. For example, Magnétique from Italian studio Oniride, is a comic book that you read using an Oculus Rift or Samsung Gear VR headset. Magnétique readers find themselves plunged right into the heart of the comic book, with 360° immersion, observing the action just as a theatre-goer might watch an on-stage performance.

You can touch the speech bubbles and virtually turn the pages with a gesture. Fabio Corrossi, a developer at Oniride, stresses that writing directly for VR alters the situation radically. “The timing of the narrative, the pace, the way the characters are painted, the structure of the story, the ‘reading’ point of view – everything is changing and evolving with Virtual Reality. The artist has to be able to draw the eye of the reader to get him or her to focus on the important part of the story that is unfolding. Any mistake, even a minor one, either in the drawing or in the storyline, can result in a story that doesn’t work – thus destroying all the magic of the immersive experience for the reader,” he points out.

The VR book sector, which is still a niche market, has every chance of growing and becoming a major part of the landscape over the long term. Explains Fabio Corrossi: “This wave in VR development is fundamentally different from the past. Computer power and software programs enable you to develop content properly. Moreover, the audio-visual industry is now mature enough to cope with these challenges and make new platform available. Not least, the investment is there, the financial markets are hugely committed.‟

Giving the reader many options

This market is growing but here again there is no direct competition with printed books, as the immersive experience of printed works depends on the reader’s imagination alone. Says Corrossi: “We don’t think that comic books using VR are just an imaginative way of reading traditional comic books, as e-books are for printed books. Comic books using VR are a whole new way of reading especially designed as stories in a new format, a new option for the reader, who has a choice of whether to read a traditional comic book – a printed book or even as an e-book – or to plunge into a graphic story which has been especially designed to explore the power of VR. ‘Complementarity’ is the word that springs to mind here, rather than ‘alternative’.”

Digital technology is thus increasing the range of reading options by providing a choice of devices and transforming our reading habits, without for the moment putting traditional books into the shade. We can see that, whatever happens, the market for books is constantly changing. Summing up the situation, Anne Sophie Tardy and Gloria Tononi reckon the only thing that matters is that “people should be able to read – whether on their smartphones, tablets or in print. We’re now adapting to the way people read. We’re not looking to force people to read printed books at all costs, but instead we intend to continually adapt. Our aim is to be there to meet all the demands of the market and to please both traditional readers and digital readers.‟



By Laura Frémy