The organizers of the Buenos Aires Book Fair, which will run for the next few weeks, invited me to speak at an opening session of their event last Friday. They left the topic completely up to me. What I offered to do, which the organizers liked, was to review the history of the past 20 years of digital change in the US and in the English language which has brought us to this point. The presumption is that understanding how it happened to us will help them understand what is going to happen in their market, in other Spanish-speaking markets, and in other countries and other languages.
The underlying premise of my talk, which was delivered formally at a Book Fair opening event last Friday and informally to other gatherings they scheduled for me — of students, of young editors, and of some publishing executives — and in a meeting consulting with about 20 employees of one publishing house, was that what happened in the US and then elsewhere in English was unique and would not be replicated in the same way in other languages and territories. What I had identified as the unique characteristics of the US market were:
Three hundred million people with one language, one currency, one commercial set of rules.
A powerful player (Amazon) able to change both publisher behavior (twisting arms to have them provide more titles as ebooks) and consumer habits (getting them to consider what started as an expensive device — a $400 Kindle) with their marketplace power.
Indeed, no other market has those two elements. In fact, in many markets, including all of the players I talked to in Latin America, Amazon is not seen as a really signficant factor.
In addition to the conditions that made the US market unique, I stated two additional assumptions which drew little objection from my audiences in Buenos Aires.
At some point — whether it is five years from now or 20 years from now — the world’s book publishing markets will look very similar. That is, the effects we see in the US — patterns of ebook uptake and the consequently devastating effects on bookstores — will somehow be replicated in other markets.
Both because the unique market characteristics of the US don’t exist elsewhere and because the market already made in the US has created global players and infrastructure that weren’t here when the ebook revolution caught hold, we need to expect that it will be a different path to the future in other places from what we saw in the US. The markets will not be made by the inherent marketplace scale and by Amazon, as ours was.
I thought some things we’ve seen constituted “universal” lessons worth taking on board. We’ve seen ebooks consistently work commercially for narrative reading and not for any other kinds of books. We haven’t seen “enhancements”, like video or interactivity, pay off in bigger sales or in making it easier to command higher prices. I suggested they should expect the same, and the people I spoke with agreed. They should also expect that the product competition from outside the commercial publishing community, which we’ve seen so far primarily from self-published authors, will drive down the prices for books from established authors as it has in our market.
But the more I probed, looking for what would make the market, the more I ended up in blind alleys. There is no online purchasing market anywhere in Latin America to compare with ours. That’s why Amazon hasn’t gained a strong foothold. Kobo’s strategy of working through local booksellers — an alliance has been formed in Brazil and they are clearly looking for partners elsewhere — apparently hasn’t made much of a dent either. One publisher said Apple sales were “promising”, but they’re still “insignificant”.
The reality underlying all this futility is the relative dearth of credit card use. In the US, we have had about three generations of ubiquitous credit card use. They are second nature to us. And the online purchasing world — Amazon in particular — would never have achieved the position they have if that weren’t true.
Well, it isn’t true in Latin America.
There is no way to make an ebook market, which must be an online market, without a payment mechanism. And the one we have in the US isn’t set up to work in Argentina, Brazil, or the rest of Latin America (or, for that matter, in many other parts of the world).
Of course, the cell phone carriers, who do send a bill and collect money from the masses in all these countries where credit card use is limited, had figured that out a long time ago. Nokia and others have been dancing around this opportunity for years. Txtr, a Germany-based ebook play, targets the cell phone companies as its path to the market. Txtr is building an inventory of titles and has come up with an ultra-low-cost ereading device called beagle to jumpstart their market. In doing that, they show that they learned something from Google’s experience, where ebook sales only started to grow when the Nexus7 tablet, which is tied to Google, made its way into the market.
All the conversation led me to come up with my own version of an “answer”; I don’t know if anybody else has made this suggestion but the small bit of conversation I was able to have between having this thought and leaving Buenos Aires didn’t uncover evidence that anybody else had.
It takes three components to make an ebook market:
1. A device to read the ebooks on. That could be a laptop or desktop computer or dedicated ereading device, but it is most likely to be a smart phone or a tablet.
2. A store: a merchandised selection of ebooks that can be shopped through browsing and searching that is compatible with the device.
3. A payment mechanism.
In the US, we really didn’t think about the payment mechanism. For many other places in the world, that’s a very tricky part.
Txtr is trying to deliver the missing pieces to the solution to the telcos, right down to delivering a very inexpensive device that can be the reader if the cell phone is not.
What occurred to me, and I’m wondering whether it is being developed by anybody else, is what I think would be an even better — as in more likely to build a market quickly — solution. What I’m imagining is that a device manufacturer (or more than one, but if one, preferably one that makes both smart phones and tablets) teams up with a cell phone company (to do the billing) and persuades the ebook retailers — Amazon, Google, B&N, Kobo — to accept payment through the phone company. Then that hardware manufacturer has a fabulous value proposition to help them sell their devices and the ebook market has a choice of the best retailers with the best selections of ebooks already aggregated.
Actually, persuading one retailer will persuade them all. If Samsung were pushing a tablet and smartphone and got any of the major ebook retailers to go for the proposition, the others would surely have to follow. And, in fact, it would make sense for either Apple or Google to do this when they sell apps in credit-card-challenged markets as well.
Another complication in some places — particularly Brazil and Argentina at the moment — is created by complex regulations that make the sale of hardware manufactured outside their country either impossible to get or extremely expensive. Although that’s a problem that extends beyond the book business, it is much more likely to be solved by a multi-function device-maker than for one dedicated only to ebook consumption.
It is interesting to think about Apple’s position here. The other big ebook retailing operations already provide apps for both iOS and Android devices as a matter of course. The iBookstore, however, is a Mac-only play. If the solution I’m envisioning were to roll out around the world — and one can imagine a company like Samsung making such a thing happen — would that continue to be the wisest play for the Apple-owned ebook retailer? I think not, but one can only imagine how intense the internal discussions around that point could be.