In 2011 Evan Schnittman said that you know you have a robust e-book market when the Kindle lands in your region.
At the time Kindle had only recently moved out of the States into the UK, and looked like it could be the pioneer behind digital marketplaces the world over. There was also hope back then that both Barnes & Noble (via its Nook platform) and Kobo could challenge Amazon’s hegemony of these robust markets, and warnings that the big tech players such as Apple, Google, and even Facebook could monopolise the routes to the customer.
Much has changed since then, of course, but that comment about Kindle has largely remained true. Where Kindle is strong, digital marketplaces—in all their market growing retail destabilising glory—are also strong, and even when starting out show robust rates of growth. Where Kindle has little presence, growth is much slower and the digital marketplace much flakier.
At least that was and has been the theory. But I wonder now whether this view might be increasingly off the mark. That the global e-book market in its somewhat ramshackle development might at last be showing signs of general health with more local players taking advantage of being able to build their businesses gradually.
Kindle has certainly played its part, as it has spread across the globe: but its progress and take-up has been patchy, its market share in areas (outside of the US and UK) less pronounced, and its offer somewhat mixed as it has had to deal with local publishing mores. Amazon’s Kindle store-fronts now operate in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, India, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Japan, France, Holland, and Spain. But it is not always able to make the same offer in each of these sectors. In Australia, for example, it shows 3m Kindle books, and in Mexico lists 2.5m English-language titles alongside 120,000 Spanish titles. But in France only 145,000 local-language books are offered, while in Holland it has just 23,000 Dutch titles versus 2.7m in English.
Kindle's spread has been matched by others. Apple offers e-books in twelve countries, while Kobo says that it now sells ebooks in more than 190 countries, and has localized stores in Canada, the US, Brazil, France, the UK, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, South America, India, and Japan.
But in terms of actual market growth the data is sketchy. We expect Amazon to be in the lead wherever it lands, but in some regions it has been matched by Kobo, Apple, or other strong local players, such as Tolino in Germany. In other markets such as France, Italy, Brazil, and Spain, local players are less strong, but the digital market is still so marginal Amazon’s dominance is not yet fixed. In Italy, according to consultant Marcello Vena, Amazon has 50% of the €40m e-book market; in Brazil, according to journalist Carlo Carrenho, Amazon is only narrowly ahead of Apple, and local player Saraiva. In Scandinavia, where there are large numbers of English-language readers, Amazon is still readying to launch officially, but is being outgunned by local operators such as Mofibo (a Danish-based subscriptions company).
Implicit in that 2011 comment about “robust e-book markets” was that these markets would develop under one linear model. But the shift to tablet reading, and the launch of subscriptions services has shown this to be false. Amazon has recognised this. In some regions, for example, it is leading with Kindle Unlimited (its subscription service) while in others (in France, for example, where Kindle Unlimited has been declared “illegal”) its offer is more standard.
To grow globally now, not only do you have to deal with local players, laws and customs, but you also have to trade under different business models. You may also need to be patient. According to consultant Rüdiger Wischenbart, who compiles the annual Global eBook Report, e-book growth has continued to be very limited all across continental (non-English) European markets, with a “flattening out” at very low levels. He blames a variety of reasons: from fixed prices, to piracy, to VAT.
While is it too early to call this, two things stand out. The first is that it is no longer true that when Kindle lands in your region it is a signal of a robust e-book market: in some of these areas Amazon has not kick-started the market. But neither is it true that Amazon is the first requirement to having a robust e-book market. The experience in Scandinavia suggest that e-book markets can form around local players as consumers acquire content differently and read across a range of devices, not just e-readers.