In a recent post, I contemplated the developing ebook markets around the world, and particularly in Europe, and observed that ten years or more of digitization efforts in the English-speaking world would have a sizeable impact on the ebook markets in other language countries. When I wrote about this earlier, it was to enumerate the challenge I think publishers in other languages should expect to see arising in their own local markets.
Today I want to view that same circumstance from the opposite perspective and consider the opportunity from the standpoint of the English-language publishers, Indeed, it is possible that it is so substantial that it will postpone Armageddon for large general trade houses, whose challenges from the inevitable decline of bookstores have concerned me for several years and which has been the subject or subtext of many posts on this blog.
I want to describe an opportunity which is devilishly difficult to size precisely. We want to know how many candidates to read books in English are in the US, in the rest of the English-speaking countries, and then in the non-English countries. Wikipedia says the world contains 914 million English speakers, of which 251 million are in the US, 232 million in India, and 168 million in the non-English countries in Europe. But that data has provenance of no consistent timing, and the US data, for example, is from the 2000 census.
One source I talked to recently who holds a statistics-oriented job and who has reason to know, insists the world has 600 million native English speakers and 1.4 billion English speakers in other countries. If that were true, the US would have less than a sixth of the total within its boundaries.
The US, by almost anybody’s measure, contains fewer than a third of the world’s English-speaking people. And everybody seems to measure “English- speaking”, not “English-literate.” But the English-literate market in non-English countries, whatever it may be today or when it was measured, is almost certainly growing faster than the native markets are. So if we accept the premise that ebooks ultimately put these potential ebook readers within reach of publishers in America (and Britain, Canada, Australia, and other English-speaking countries, of course), we are watching the access roads being built to a customer base that could double or more what has really been available previously.
The biggest single part of that growing secondary English market, certainly from a literature consumption standpoint, is in Europe. My trip to the IfBookThen Conference in Milan this past week, staged by the fledgling Italian ebook retailer Book Republic in partnership with the 4IT Group, gave me a great opportunity to further understand just how exciting this prospect should make the entire community — publishers, agents, and authors — that share the revenue from the sale of English-language writing.
I have some uncommon personal experience to help me anticipate what this is going to look like to the French, German, Italian, etc. consumer as s/he begins to discover the virtue of ebooks. I found out how incredibly convenient and satisfying it could be to read on a small screen when I started reading on a Palm Pilot 10 or more years ago. “Always having my book(s) with me” is an advantage too seldom emphasized in the print-versus-ebook comparison (partly because it wouldn’t apply in the same way to people who read on a Kindle or Nook or iPad as it does to those who read on an iPhone or any other phone or PDA that one always has in a pocket), but it is powerful. It was powerful enough to totally hook me once I discovered it.
But when I started reading that way, I was in a tiny minority and remained in one for many years. The few of us reading ebooks before Kindle pretty quickly encountered a problem that those French, German, Italian, etc. consumers will start to encounter, regardless of what device they read on. There just wasn’t enough to choose from! I remember routinely spending 15 or 20 minutes poring through the choices, seeing what I’d already read each time I went shopping and not nearly enough that I wanted to read but hadn’t yet. That was why, until Kindle arrived and the number of available titles exploded, I found myself making some odd choices: reading Tarzan (glad I did) and buying and reading a biography of Grover Cleveland for which the ebook cost $28! (I was glad I did that too.)
Shopping required an extraordinarily frustrating expenditure of time and inadequate title availability was the reason why I continued to read some print books for the first several years after I would have happily switched over completely (which I have since done.)
But even back in the early years of the past decade, the number of ebooks available in English dwarfed the number most European language consumers will find this year or next. The incredibly paltry number of books converted to epub in most European countries absolutely assures that our European friends will encounter the same annoying frustration I did.
Until they shop for ebooks in English.
And they will. Indeed, they do. I reported in the prior post that we’ve heard anecdotally that 25% of the printed books sold in Denmark are in English. A friend in tiny Slovenia reports that more than 15% of the books sold there are in English. A Scandinavian bookseller with several stores in Scandinavia and Berlin whom I met at IfBookThen reported that 20% of the books he sells are in English. And those sales are being achieved despite the cost (and, therefore, price) and supply (and, therefore, choice) barriers inherent in physical goods.
(The consultants A.T. Kearney did some research with the Book Republic team to prepare for IfBookThen. They found 100,000 epub titles in German and 50,000 in French, fewer than 2/3 and 1/3, respectively, than Amazon had in English more than three years ago. And they found far fewer than 10,000 available in Spanish, Italian, or Swedish!)
And while northern Europe is more English-friendly than southern, I picked up an interesting fact (from a Brit, not an Italian) while I was in Milan. French was the second language taught to all Italian children in schools until 1991 when it was switched to German. German had a very short run. Since 1997, the second language all Italian kids learn is English. So the Italian schools will be turning out customers for English-language publications and increasing their presence in the local population from now on. That’s symptomatic of change taking place all over the world that keeps delivering English-language publishers new customers.
One American friend at a large general house not in the Big Six told me last week that 10% of the ebooks he’s selling are from outside the US (and that wouldn’t be including the UK.) A global ebook retailer told me that 7% of their English-language sales today come from non-English countries. Those numbers will rise inexorably, and sometimes in explosive spurts, for many years to come. It would require one to see around more corners and over more mountains than I care to attempt to forecast how high a percentage of English-language ebook sales might ultimately be made in non-English countries, but it would surely seem that figuring they’ll reach 25-35 percent over the next five or ten years or so wouldn’t be an outlandish guess. (Whether five or ten will be much clearer in one or two.)
And while some people wonder whether the ebook sales they’re making now are cannibalistic or incremental (almost certainly, they’re both!), the sales that will be made abroad in non-English countries are far more likely to be incremental. They could be adding more sales over the next five years than the problems at Borders today will subtract.
This is not some future scenario about which people can be relaxed and wait. This is an immediate opportunity.
It must mean the end of open markets for English-language ebooks, and soon. Open markets have worked for years for print, giving multiple players an incentive to exploit a sales opportunity with effort and service. But open markets for ebooks will almost certainly reward one attribute and one attribute only: the lowest price. Since ebooks benefit from relatively reliable enforcement of differential prices by market (for those that curse DRM, this is one more reason it isn’t going anyplace anytime soon), the non-English consumers will shortly be able to identify the open market ebooks. They’ll be the really cheap ones!
Agents can’t let this situation persist. Those that aren’t closing open markets for ebooks already certainly will be imminently. The UK publishers have been trying to close Europe in their favor for a few years now; I picked up anecdata (love that new term!) in Milan to suggest that American publishers have woken up to this and are now increasingly taking open markets back.
It would seem logical that the open market for ebooks will go to the publisher that writes either the biggest check or the first check, and that will more often be the American publisher.
This also calls for a new awareness of global (actually, more accurately, “glocal”, which I’d describe as “global, but targeted”) opportunities in marketing, particularly as it is done more and more through online means. To take one recent example from my own personal reading, Ken Follett’s “Fall of Giants”, there are hooks galore in the story to interest readers across Europe, but particularly in Russia and Germany, where much of the action takes place. Fall of Giants is a novel; the opportunities will probably arise even more frequently with non-fiction. I don’t know exactly when this calls for every American house of a certain size to put a person on “glocal marketing” or to add a “glocal marketing component” to many books’ rollout plans, but it might be now. It certainly won’t be long.