“KINDLES are the new microwaves,” says Benjamin Trisk, the newly returned CEO of Exclusive Books.
The ubiquitous little food-nuking boxes have increasingly been banished to dark corners of middle-class kitchens, used more to heat cold coffee than roast chicken. It’s just not cool to say you cooked dinner in the microwave anymore — see how far you get with a romantic candle-lit dinner cooked in a microwave.
Mr Trisk is betting the “cool” must-have factor that pushed the sales of e-readers through the roof in the past three years will grow tepid as the First World reading public increasingly reverts to the literary equivalent of the conventional oven — the tactile wood-based dog-eared page.
So firmly does Mr Trisk believe that the future is in physical books that he and Purple Capital chairman Mark Barnes “snatched Exclusive Books from the altar” where it was to be wed to private equity group Medu Capital.
Last year, Times Media Group spun off Exclusive Books and academic bookstore Van Schaik, deeming them non-core assets. Medu initially bid for both, but settled with Van Schaik, which allowed the consortium led by Global Capital to walk away with South Africa’s foremost bookseller and its chain of 45 stores.
Mr Barnes and Mr Trisk make a formidable team with no small measure of business acuity.
Mr Barnes has spent more than 30 years in financial services and private equity and Mr Trisk, as well as successfully leading the bookseller in one of its earliest iterations, has been a strategic partner in companies ranging from diamond mines to forests.
It’s hard not to be swept away by their conviction that physical books are the way of the future. E-readers will, like the microwave, ultimately be regarded as a second-rate convenience shunned by purists and commoners.
Books are like swimming pools in South African gardens, says Mr Barnes: everyone’s got one even if they rarely dip into it. They are gifts and messages, and they don’t run out of batteries.
There are many who will agree. Most will likely be under five or, like Mr Barnes and Mr Trisk, over 50.
That’s not a bad thing, says Mr Barnes: the elderly are the fastest-growing population in the world — in Japan, adult diapers are outselling babies’ nappies.
The group most likely to disagree with Mr Trisk’s assessment will be those who spent over $10bn in Apple’s app store last year. The statistics show that e-book sales have slowed to a canter from the jaw-dropping sprint circa 2010.But the plateau is coming off a high base, and while sales appear to be slowing, the annual percentage increase of electronic books is expected to far outstrip sales of physical books over the next three years at least.
A PricewaterhouseCoopers outlook report, which came out towards the end of last year, predicts total print sales — educational and consumer books — will increase 1.3% from 2012 to 2016.
Total electronic sales were expected to grow 45.7% in the same period.
But while e-book penetration is growing faster, real numbers put the physical book market light years ahead in terms of total sales. PWC predicts that in 2016 more than R4bn will be spent on printed books, while only a fraction of that — just R59m — will be spent on electronic books.
Nevertheless, technology isn’t going anywhere, and it is fundamentally affecting the printed book market. So why not embrace it?
Mr Trisk says Exclusive Books was in talks to sell e-books before Global Capital took it over, but he buried the idea when it became clear that there was little upside for the physical stores.
And, as for selling the e-readers on an “electronics” shelf beside the cookbooks? Mr Trisk is emphatic: “It would be like inviting a serial rapist into your home to meet your nubile daughters.”
But, faced with a similar situation in which the technology of the day was threatening the status quo 15th-century Venetian magistrate Filipo di Strata said: “The pen is a virgin, the printing press is a whore.”
While e-readers might become the microwaves of the 20 teens, but it’s worth bearing in mind that despite being squirrelled away in the dark recesses of the kitchen, in the socioeconomic strata that can afford them, it’s hard to find a house without one.
Author: Tina Weavind
• This article was first published in Sunday Times: Business Times