The meteoric advent of ebooks leaves the industry facing a number of dilemmas. For while the potential rewards are vast, piracy is just one byproduct of the digital revolution.
A whole new chapter for book publishers
Electronic books (ebooks) and the computerised devices used to access them are evolving at a faster and far more dangerous rate than publishers or booksellers had anticipated.
The book industry is at a confusing crossroads as it makes the transition from paper to the internet. So far, the changes have been ominously smooth.
The publisher HarperCollins says it benefited from a 600 per cent growth in ebook saleslast year. With increased ownership of ereaders expected in western markets after the Christmas rush, the overall ebook readership can be expected to grow rapidly this year.
The research company Forrester predicts ereader ownership among US adults will leap from 8 per cent at the end of last year to 23 per cent by 2016. In the same period, Forrester estimates the ownership of tablet computers, which can also download electronic books, will grow from 11 per cent at the end of last year to 34 per cent in the US.
But some in the industry are hearing alarm bells sounding for this year. The record industry went through a similar false dawn after it introduced CDs to the market to boost its existing sales channel. However, in digital format, their records were easy to copy and distribute for free across the internet.
A generation has grown up reluctant to pay for any type of content downloaded via the internet, which dramatically reduced record industry revenues.
The book publishing industry is now facing a similar dilemma as ereader manufacturers, tablet makers and smartphone operators all compete to distribute books in digital form.
"For book publishers, the offline versus online scenarios highlight the risks and rewards between creating book apps and distributing ebooks," says Allen Weiner, an analyst at the research company Gartner.
"Once downloaded in a connected or tethered environment, an ebook file can be read on any device from a PC and smartphone to an iPad or Android tablet."
In addition to the danger of piracy, ebook publishers will also face a struggle with public libraries. As long as libraries offer traditional paper books or only highly restricted lists of digital titles, book publishers are happy to leave them alone.
But any library offering new titles for free in digital form without the publisher's express permission may soon find themselves facing the industry's legal wrath for breaching copyright law.
The problem the publishers face is that while they can try to apply legal restrictions in some countries, digital libraries can easily be built in cyberspace in the same way that pirate music and video websites are hosted on computers located anywhere. Faced with the prospect of its entire digital library of books one day being viewed for free by the public, the industry is busy finding additional ways of enhancing its online offerings.
Late last month, the publisher HarperCollins unveiled the latest ebook to have all available technological add-ons as well as the original printed text. The Art of the Adventures of Tintin includes the entire text of a book and visual, audio and video enhancements.
By offering multimedia products over the internet, book publishers want to make it harder for pirates to copy or download their content, and hope to generate an increased volume of digital advertising.
But to be able to access enhanced and commercialised content, consumers will need ever more sophisticated devices.
In the last quarter of last year two readers were introduced that offer many of the functions of a top-range tablet computer: the Kindle Fire and the Nook Tablet.
"The Achilles heel for these new seven-inch tablets is the need for persistent bandwidth to take full advantage of their capabilities," says Mr Weiner.
"These seven-inch tablets boast some publisher-friendly attributes when connected to high-speed bandwidth. However, when in non-Wi-Fi mode, they are little more than colour ereaders."
In a world where much of the digital content of the internet is downloaded for free, digital booksellers are anxious to attract advertisers of all kinds to their content. For that, they ideally need ereaders to be constantly connected to the internet.
"The biggest concern for publishers and device manufacturers is that connectivity negates the inherent interactive capability of advertising," Mr Weiner says.
As the publishing industry develops a growing range of multimedia products aimed at increasingly complicated devices, it is also taking a gamble on new forms of entertainment becoming popular with the reading public.
"Publishers such as Simon & Schuster report sales of premium-priced enhanced books are sluggish at best," Mr Weiner says.
Publishers, however, are now hoping that the digital revolution will not sweep away their traditional revenues too swiftly.
"None of us think that physical books are dead," says Siobhan Kenny, a HarperCollins spokeswoman.
"Experience so far shows that while they embrace digital formats, they continue to buy books."