Publishers have warned that the fight against illegal copying of digital books could impose a huge cost on the industry, raising fears of a new wave of online piracy.

Gail Rebuck, chairman and chief executive of The Random House Group, part of Bertelsmann, said illegal copying was “engrained culturally”. She cited The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown’s follow-up to The Da Vinci Code. It had spawned more than 1,000 illegal websites by the end of its first week on the market.

Dame Gail was speaking at a breakfast on Thursday to launch this year’s Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award.

Digital book sales are growing, fuelled by the introduction of e-readers, including Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad, but are small as a proportion of overall sales. E-book sales in the US by value represented 1.3 per cent of the American Association of Publishers’ estimate of total books sold last year. In the UK, digital products were 4.9 per cent of the total, according to the Publishers Association.

At current levels, Dame Gail said, the industry could cope with the pirates’ challenge, but when e-books reached a significantly higher level of overall sales, “that is going to be a huge cost for the publisher”.

Tom Weldon, deputy chief executive of Penguin (part of Pearson, which owns the Financial Times), said: “The only way to fight piracy is to publish digital content across as many formats as possible, through as many channels, at a fair price. If we go for exclusive or proprietary formats, we’re completely screwed.”

At the same event, Shriti Vadera, who helped negotiate the UK government’s last anti-piracy deal with record companies and internet service providers, said the book industry was way ahead of the record companies, which “didn’t see [the piracy threat] because they weren’t listening to their consumer”.

For information on the Business Book of the Year Award, visit www.ft.com/bookaward

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