I was struck when I visited Australia three years ago at how the protection of thousands of miles of ocean had kept their book trade looking like ours did three decades ago. Prices of books were very high in stores and there were lots of stores and lots of independent stores. But the biggest moat in the world couldn’t keep the forces of digital change at bay forever. All of the forces of online bookselling, discounting, and ebooks are now hitting Oz, and booksellers are feeling a dramatic impact. When an old publishing salt brought two Australian booksellers in to visit me last May and I was pretty apocalyptic describing what they should expect, they didn’t disagree with me. They were feeling it.
So a purely anecdotal report of the difficulties of one specialist independent in Australia resonates, even though I generally don’t put much truck in one person’s opinion about one entity’s fate.
This week I am in Brazil. My new friend Ricardo Costa, who runs Publish News, a local operation reminiscent of our Publishers Lunch (and who has been translating a post from The Shatzkin Files into Portuguese for his audience weekly for several months) gathered a group of publishers and a bookseller to join me for dinner on Monday night so I could learn a bit about the state of the Brazilian book trade. Because they were not joining us to be put on the record, I’m keeping my dinner companions anonymous.
For many reasons, the situation on the ground in Brazil is much more like Australia three years ago than it is like the US today. There has been very little take up of ebooks. One major reason for that is that there is a paucity of devices. Brazil charges punitive taxes on electronics assembled outside the country, which all ereaders are. The only device that got any play in the market previously was the Cool-er Reader, and that company has gone bust. One of our dinner companions is a bookstore owner (a small but very important chain) that started selling a new ereader yesterday. This e-ink device with no wifi or 3G, requiring (like Sony) that you import to your computer and then transfer to the device, will sell for the equivalent of just under $400. That’s about triple what Kindle is charging US consumers for its new wifi-enabled device.
I got to handle the device. It’s smaller and lighter than a Kindle, with touch-screen capability and a built-in dictionary, and a more solid feel. But at its high price and without the direct connectivity to enable acquiring new books directly into the machine, it is no more than a step on the path to widespread ebook uptake.
Discounting through online resellers has entered the market. (The retailer in the crowd, which has a very successful web operation, refuses to discount his online sales below his store prices. “That would be telling my customers not to visit my stores!”) My dinner companions were concerned about the effects of the discounting. The online resellers get books from publishers totally on consignment (no inventory carrying cost) and are selling at very deep discounts. This inevitably will have negative consequences for brick-and-mortar stores.
As one of my dinner companions, who runs a large publisher, said, “we want to know what happens in the US because it is what will happen in Brazil five or ten years later.” Both he and the bookstore owner could see that the future for stores will get increasingly difficult.
The entire table agreed that retail price maintenance, such as exists in France and Germany but which is almost universally sneered at by the Americans and British, would be a boon to the entire book trade.
One of the party, a children’s book publisher, reported that Mexico had just introduced retail price maintenance. As a result, her company was renegotiating all their terms with retailers and wholesalers in Mexico to take discounts down. And, at the same time, they will be lowering the prices of their books. From her perspective, the prices to the consumer will remain pretty much the same as they were with discounting, her take will remain pretty much the same as it was with the lower prices and lower discounts, and the effective margin to the retailers will also be pretty much unchanged. But the market will be more stable and less subject to control by the biggest players who can afford to be the most aggressive discounters.
This is not the picture that is painted by most powers-that-be and economic experts in the US and the UK.
One thing that became abundantly clear here in Brazil is that epub conversion in smaller languages is going to be a bottleneck. Most of the ebooks available in this market are PDFs because the market is too small to encourage publishers to invest in the conversions. Of course, PDFs don’t deliver nearly as attractive a reading experience. But there aren’t the same resources available for epub conversions in Portuguese that there are in English (and, presumably, in Spanish or French). That is going to slow down adoption of ereading in many parts of the world and, furthermore, tilt those who do use ebooks to read in English rather than their local language so they can get the benefits of reflowed delivery. I’ve seen ebooks as a potential boon to publishers in smaller languages, enabling them to reach a scattered diaspora, but it isn’t going be as effective if putting Welsh or Danish into epub is expensive.