At the conclusion of another Frankfurt Book Fair — my thirty-somethingth — here is something I actually knew before but have taken on board in a whole new way: there is an enormous gap between the US and everyplace else in the Western world (at least) in consumer ebook takeup and acceptance.
Here is what I think: it can’t stay that way forever.
Here is what I deduce: the rest of the world is in for what will be, for many, a vertigo-inducing ride while they catch up.
It seems pretty obvious why the US is so far ahead: 300 million people in a single developed economy with a single currency and a single language. Those same factors also largely explain why the US is also so far ahead in Internet print book purchasing. (There is another big cause at play there: the service infrastructure provided by our national wholesalers, Ingram and Baker & Taylor, without which it would have taken a multiple of the initial investment to get Amazon.com off the ground 15 years ago.)
One thing leads to another. Because Amazon had, by the end of 2007 when it introduced the Kindle, built a loyal customer base of tens of millions of book buyers, they had the pillars in place to roll out an ereading device. That really required two things nobody else in any other country has even today: a big enough customer base to reach a critical mass of consumers without any assistance or partnerships and enough leverage with the publishers to get them to put their books into the ecosystem that supported their device.
One thing leads to another. Amazon’s Kindle, with a much larger selection of titles and a smoother path from file server to device than had previously been offered by other ereading platforms (which were, before Kindle, the Sony Reader device for some and reading on PCs or handhelds such as Palm Pilots for others, with me in the handhelds group), gained pretty rapid uptake. That led Barnes & Noble, which also had leverage with the publishers to get titles into their store and access to and brand credibility with millions of book readers, to follow on with their Kindle-like device, the Nook, almost exactly two years after the Kindle. As most of us know, the iPad followed the Nook shortly thereafter, coming onto the US market in April 2010.
All of this has resulted in getting the US to the point as of Frankfurt 2010 where a US publisher launching a book of straight text can expect ebook sales to be a mid-teens percentage of the book’s total sale, with occasional reports that are even more dramatic (such as the anecdote that the first wave of Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom” was one-third ebooks!)
One thing leads to another. As has been written on this blog many times, all these Internet-based sales put enormous pressure on brick-and-mortar stores. We see shelf space diminishing and there are those among us who believe that over the next ten years it could pretty much disappear.
The Kindle hasn’t had nearly as dramatic an impact abroad as it has in the US for a host of reasons. Amazon doesn’t have the same audience share. They don’t have the same huge number of titles available as they do in the US. And they haven’t had two other big and influential companies (B&N and Apple) pushing the device-reading experience into the public consciousness. It seems Nook and iPad’s arrival have only served as catalysts for Amazon to sell even more Kindles and for the ebook uptake in the whole US market to accelerate further.
So we find ourselves today with this massive gap between the penetration of ebooks in the American market and the penetration in any other country’s market outside of Asia (I didn’t talk to any Asian publishers at the Fair, and I don’t know the situation there.) Certainly (assumption alert: a priori argument not based on any data) this is a situation that cannot last forever. In five or ten or fifteen years the percentage of book sales that are digital and the percentage of print book sales that are transacted online will be pretty much the same in all developed countries.
If that assumption is right, then other countries — starting with the English-speaking ones and then moving on from there — are going to experience the changes we’ve felt in America in a much more compressed period of time.
There are legal and institutional barriers to change which have already been “effective.” The world’s largest natural moat has protected the Australian book market, keeping print book prices high and the retail book trade healthy. It was evident from conversations I had with some Australian booksellers at last May’s BookExpo that they are feeling the winds of change beginning to blow a gale, fanned by the arrival of Kobo ebooks in the market. (Kobo is a sleeper from the US perspective: a small almost-an-afterthought ebook platform in our country but painstakingly building a presence around the globe and some impressive OEM relationships everywhere, including in the US.) Ingram’s POD setup in Australia will surely introduce a lot more titles into the print marketplace. That’s important because POD drives consumers to online purchasing by offering more titles than any bookstore could ever stock.
All of this is frightening to any sentient Australian bookseller.
Retail price maintenance, territorial and language rights restrictions, and variable rules about applying VAT (sales tax to us Americans) to books seriously complicate the development of the ebook marketplaces in Europe.
But the biggest complication of all, in the short run, will be the paucity of titles available in the epub format in languages other than English. Epub enables reflowing of text, which is essential to deliver a reader-friendly ebook experience to a multiplicity of screen sizes. We have hundreds of thousands of titles in epub in English; no other Western language is close. This is a subject that first surfaced for me in Brazil when I was there in August.
One thing leads to another. The epub gap spawns another serious issue for the European book trade as it catches up with the US. Most educated people in most European countries are comfortable reading English. A publisher in tiny Slovenia (formerly part of Yugoslavia) told me that one-sixth of the books sold through the largest chain of bookstores and the largest online bookseller are already in English. Somebody else told me that 25% of the books sold in Denmark are in English. In Holland, I was told, there has been recent legislation requiring “windowing” of English ebooks on titles that have a Dutch edition, holding back the English edition until the Dutch edition has had a minimum time of availability.
The biggest adjustments even for the players in the US book trade are still ahead of them. As far as I can tell, big publishers have not really taken on board that bookstores are pretty much going away in the next ten years and, one thing leading to another, taking the big publishers’ major value proposition with them. There is almost no visible acknowledgment of the shift from IP to eyeballs that I believe is coming. But the change we’ve had and the change we’re facing in the US publishing world is dwarfed by what will be seen and felt by our friends and trading partners in Europe and elsewhere in the next decade.
Some of what this post is about had already been anticipated as we prepared the program for the Digital Book World conference taking place January 25-26. We had already planned a panel on how territorial and language rights trading will be affected as ebook uptake spreads. Now I think I’ve found somebody who can lay out the European landscape as US publishers and agents should be thinking about it. I’m working with her to prepare what I think will be a significant addition to our program covering a topic that is, as it should be, increasingly important to American rightsholders.
Another topic for another day is that the world is getting smaller and publishers in every country will need to understand what’s going on in their foreign markets better. We’ll be delivering just one compressed seminar and a panel or two at Digital Book World because that’s what bandwidth we think conference attendees this January will be comfortable investing in the topic, relative to a lot of other things that need to be discussed. By a year from January, I think understanding how the ebook markets work in countries around the world will be a top-of-mind concern for every publisher and agent in America.