WHILE e-publishing is changing the way consumers in developed countries buy books, SA's R1,6bn industry has been slow to embrace the digital publishing age.

The arrival of the tablet PC on the market has changed the face of publishing, encouraging the use of electronic reader devices such as Kindle, which have altered the way people consume literature.

Tim Richman, director of Burnet Media, says most South African readers still prefer hard copies over their digital counterparts and that e-publishing has had "a minimal effect" on hard-copy sales.

"I think South Africans are only slowly taking to e-books, but a large section of the reading market still prefers hard copies."

Mr Richman also says the different devices and formats with e-books could frustrate some consumers because they cannot easily share them.

"The digital world is growing in terms of film, music and e-books. The market needs to adapt to the complications that arise. It is, however, worthwhile for publishers in SA to invest in e-publishing."

The international digital market is not without its problems, though, and one of them is the system put in place to protect content - digital rights management (DRM). DRM refers to a system used by publishers, copyright holders and individuals to limit the use of digital content and devices after sale to protect their copyright and prevent piracy.

In April, Macmillan-owned publisher Tor UK abandoned its DRM model as it had caused frustration among users who were unable to share e-books among devices. For someone owning more than one type of electronic reader, this means that they have to purchase the same book more than once if they wish to read the same title on a different device.

The CEO and publisher of Bookstorm, Louise Grantham, says whether the South African e-book market opts to keep the DRM model or not will depend on what other international sellers do. Currently, all electronic books in SA are protected by DRM.

"I think SA's next move will be led by international markets since we have yet to see big profits from e-books," Ms Grantham says.

She adds that whatever happens to DRM internationally will not have an immediate effect on SA.

Intellectual property and entertainment consultant Carlo Scollo Lavizzari says Tor's decision to end DRM was influenced by its market, which is "techno savvy".

"I think sci-fi and IT publishers, (whose audience are) digital natives, are likely to be among the first to offer DRM-active-free e-books. I think it may be early to assume that Macmillan as a whole or all trade publishers will drop DRM active."

Mr Lavizzari says the incompatibility of devices is a bigger challenge for the e-book market than the restriction of active DRM.

" Readers tend to be attached to their analogue libraries and digital collections of books. L osing or needing to repurchase the collection if standards, devices and gadgets change is still holding back sales," says Mr Lavizzari.

This is because electronic devices are changing faster than the methods of protecting content.

Mr Lavizzari says publishers should consider passive DRM and e-book watermarking as alternatives to the active DRM system. This allows sharing but the content is protected from piracy because the content can be traced back to a source device. This limits the amount of times a single book can be shared.

Ben Williams, GM of Exclusive Book s' online business, says that at the moment DRM is the e-publishing market's best option for protecting electronic literature.

"We need to reinvent how books are sold electronically. DRM is the best measure against piracy. But piracy is not the main challenge here. The main challenge is making e-publishing and e-books more attractive in the local market," he says.

While not all local publishers have adopted electronic publishing, all South African e-books are protected by DRM.

magubanek@bdfm.co.za