The switchover from reading print to reading on screens, with the companion effect that increasingly the purchase of books is done online rather than in stores, is far advanced in the English-speaking world and especially so in the United States. In the past 12 months, the UK has begun to resemble the US market in this way.
With all due respect to everbody else, the primary driver of this change has been the efforts of Amazon.com. They made the online selling of print books work in the US and then provided the critical catalyst — the Kindle — to make ebooks happen. Other players — Barnes & Noble and Kobo with their devices and the publishers with their sales policies — have crafted their strategies primarily in response to Amazon. They are participants building out a market that Amazon first proved existed.
The impact of digital change in the US and UK markets has been both profound and severe. Bookstore shelf space has been lost at a rapid pace. (This has long struck me as the key metric to watch to predict industry change.) I have seen no estimates to quantify this, but with Borders gone and Barnes & Noble devoting much less space to books than it once did and the disappearance of many independents, it seems apparent that half of the bookstore shelves that were available in the US in 2007 are gone by now. The book trade in Britain is moving in a similar direction.
The publishers are well aware that their ecosystem has changed and that they have to change too. Many have changed their workflows so that ebooks and print books can be outputs from the same development process. They are all seeking new ways to interact directly with readers, which no general trade publisher would have considered doing ten years ago. They are learning about how to deliver their digital products with better metadata. They are learning to optimize that metadata for search. They’re trying to build vertical communities — or at least develop vertical audience reach — and developing new services and products to sell to the customers that they attract with their books. They’re recognizing that digital distribution newly empowers authors and responding by trying to make the experience of working with them more author-friendly.
And they’re recognizing that the world is getting smaller: that their outputs can reach readers outside their home market much more readily than ever before. That recognition is particularly useful to American and British publishers because English is the world’s leading second language, with potential customers for English language books in every country in the world.
Change has come much more slowly in non-English markets. There are many reasons for that. One is that the US and Britain have exceptional — if not unique — marketplace rules that encourage retailers to compete for book sales using pricing as a tool (or, if you prefer, as a weapon). Amazon used deep discounting to solidify its position in the late 1990s when it was building its print-selling hegemony and then again to create locked-in ebook customers for the Kindle when it launched in 2007.
The combination of price controls on books and VAT rates that have been uniformly higher for ebooks than they are for print have prevented Amazon from replicating these tactics in some other markets. There are cultural differences as well; American (and British) consumers seem more relaxed about online credit card purchases than are the citizens of many other countries in the world.
And because there was a market for ebooks in English before anyplace else, the investments have been made to assure a large reservoir of titles in English faster than for any other language.
But four major companies — Amazon, Apple, Kobo, and Google — (as well as a number of smaller ones) have been methodically building out a global infrastructure to deliver digital downloads (of books or anything else.) Barnes & Noble, which has been the most successful Amazon competitor (albeit only in the US so far), has just gotten a large investment from Microsoft to help finance a global expansion and has announced its first non-US online store will open in the UK shortly.
So the roads to deliver ebooks to the global consumer have been getting paved, even if there is very little traffic on most of them so far. It seems unlikely (at least to me) that there will ultimately be much variation in the ratio of digital to print reading by country or language. (One exception: I’d expect the poorest parts of the world to get to near-zero print faster than the developed world because, ultimately, distributing books electronically will be so much cheaper that printed books will become a relative luxury.)
The US and the UK transitions are in some ways instructive to the book businesses in other markets as they prepare for a similar period of change. But, cultural differences and local commercial rules aside, the next five or ten years outside the English world will only share some of the characteristics of what the English world has seen. Because times have changed.
There are some real differences in circumstances between how things stood when the transition began in earnest in the US and UK five years ago and what we’ll see in the rest of the world over the next five years.
** The companies that built the digital distribution infrastructure for English were “local”, English-speaking, companies. Amazon, Apple, Google, and Barnes & Noble are American; Kobo began as Canadian (which feels local enough to an American). Michael Tamblyn of Kobo has spoken very articulately about what it takes to open up business in a new market and building a team of locals is high on the list of requirements. I think we can expect local language players to be critical partners in most markets as ebooks roll out. That will be less true over time as proprietary device sales by the retailers decline in importance. Which I say because…
** The key for all the players in the first five years of the ebook revolution (which I’m dating from November 2007, when Amazon introduced the Kindle) has been a total offering: device and store. Many who were disappointed by the relatively minor impact of Google in the US, despite its attempt to build an alliance with independent bookstores, blamed the fact that Google had no device to compete with Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo. Of course, Google recently introduced a phone and the Nexus 7 tablet.
It seems likely that the proprietary ereader will have much less impact going forward. (The Nexus 7 isn’t an ereader; it’s a tablet. And Apple doesn’t sell an ereader; the iPad is also a tablet.) When Amazon entered the market, there was no widespread distribution of devices people could read an ebook on, so Amazon had to get them out there. This created an obvious challenge that came with a robust opportunity, which was device lock-in of the customer base for future content purchases.
This is no longer true. Tablet computers are ubiquitous and the question is already being posed whether eink readers dedicated to displaying straight text have any future.
So while device distribution was an important part of building the ebook markets in the US and UK, ebook sellers in non-English markets will be peddling into an environment already heavily seeded with devices.
This cuts both ways. On the one hand, there is an installed base of capable devices, which could speed up ebook uptake. On the other hand, those devices will play movies and songs and do email, so, unlike the original Kindle or Nook, they don’t represent a screen walled off from temptation that tempt you away from a book.
** The selection of ebooks in English is in the millions of titles. Many people around the world can read in English. As they develop ereading capability, they could be tempted by the wider selection of titles in English than they’ve ever seen in any language in local stores, particularly in places where digitization in the local language lags. This is, in the aggregate, a big opportunity for English-language content but, in most individual cases, only a minor sales erosion challenge for local language publishers. All things being equal, people prefer to read in their native language. But the ratio of title availability between English and most other languages makes things far from equal.
** Digital makes everybody global. We’ve observed that ends up engendering competition from English. But it also enables smaller language publishers to find their global diaspora much more effectively than they could in print. I’d expect marketing to pockets of same-language readers distributed around the world will be a worthwhile skill worth to develop to stimulate ebook sales. Digital brings the sale closer and makes the promotion cheaper. It really changes the equation.
** There is another way it will prove important that publishers in a digital world are no longer restricted to publishing for their local market. We learned from some Slovenes last year about small-language publishers who translated their original fiction into English to give them a chance to sell rights in all languages. Now they’re in a position to publish those English translations digitally at very little additional cost. This is an opportunity we are seeing non-English publishers recognize and at least one US entity, Open Road, has seen the opportunity from the other end. They’re courting those publishers for distribution and marketing in the US market.
In fact, the German publisher Lubbe is doing original ebooks in both English and Chinese.
One thing that will be different but similar in the rest of the world will be the decline of bookstores. Retail price maintenance and the fact that in many markets publishers own the bookstores will definitely slow the process down compared to what we’ve seen in the US and the UK, but if the sales move from stores to online (and ebooks will compel that, despite some elaborate schemes and fantasies to preserve a place for stores to sell digital), the stores can’t stay open.
At least the non-English markets will get the benefit of seeing how the English language copes with the challenges of discovery and marketing in a digital reading environment.
Maybe they can even solve the problem of making illustrated books succeed in a digital format, which the English world has not done yet. The Italian publisher RCS (owners of Rizzoli, among others) have done this for a handful of titles so far in a market that has hardly moved the digital needle overall but the successes have been too few in number to call the problem “solved” yet. Perhaps the English-language publishers will find something to learn from them.
I keep wanting to make an observation that isn’t worth a whole post, so I’ll stick it here. The “Fifty Shades of Gray” phenomenon, which hit our collective consciousness in March, was foretold by our Romance study at Digital Book World last January. (A hat tip and thanks to AllRomanceebooks for having done that survey for us.) What at first glance appeared to be the romance community “voting” with their purchases for less DRM turned out, on closer examination, to be votes for more sex. I made the point in this piece that mainstream publishers might be letting fledglings steal the market for raunch. Those days are over.
This piece raises a lot of issues we’ll be covering at our Publishers Launch Frankfurt conference on October 8. Many of the players mentioned here will be speaking there. Check out the entire program and I think you’ll agree that if you can get to Frankfurt on the Monday before the Book Fair, you’ll want to be there. We have shifted the time of the conference slightly, starting at 10:30 instead of 9, to make it easier to travel in that morning and make it.