The prevailing mythology around tech is that the giant internet companies will dominate globally, just as they do nationally. They are borderless and all powerful. Facebook has 1.44 billion monthly active users, YouTube 1 billion unique users. So what happened with e-books? Five years ago pundits were talking about how Amazon, Apple, Google and Kobo would roll out globally to meet the worldwide demand for e-books: an eco-system built largely in America for a global audience. But something got lost in translation. Like the print-book market, the global e-book market has become complex—pulled in different directions by local nuances.
The Global E-book Report 2015, compiled by Ruediger Wischenbart, shows just how different each market can be and how this should alter how we think about this transformation. While both the US and UK have seen robust e-book growth for a numbers of years, leading to digital as a proportion of overall trade sales at about 30%; in mature book markets in non-English speaking countries the rate of progress has been much slower, and in some cases non-existent. As the report notes, in these non-English speaking countries (including Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, and Sweden), the market share of e-books within the trade segment of the book market is below 10%, ranging from as little as 1 or 2%, to 4.3% in Germany. More alarmingly, even at such low levels of penetration, the report adds that growth is showing signs of flattening out.
However, the non-arrival of a robust digital segment is a double-edged sword. First, without the fillip of digital growth, these markets have not been as sheltered from the global recesssion as other sectors. As the report, suggests in much of continental Europe, for the last several years, book markets have seen sales decline. Some countries, with relatively robust overall economies, like Germany or France, saw a modest, yet nevertheless steady decline in book sales. In others, like Spain, or Italy (or Greece, where no reliable data are available), the crisis impacted on the book trade with full force. In Sweden, the report also notes, that a mix of highly specific local factors brought about the sharpest decline in decades.
Second, bookshops even in digital-averse markets have been challenged by the undercurrents normally associated with e-book penetration. As the report notes, hardly a large book retail chain has remained untouched during the past half-decade, and several have had to either undergo severe restructuring (Fnac in France, or Thalia in Germany), or had to file for bankruptcy, or are struggling on for survival (like Weltbild in Germany), with some seeing brands disappear altogether (like Chapitre in France, or Polaris in the Netherlands, each chain being dismembered, with units sold off to become new independent bookstores). Publishers have largely been spared, but the report found that all across Europe the pressure to consolidate has mounted significantly in recent years, resulting in a widening list of mergers and acquisitions among trade publishers. The report suggests that the impact of digital can hit even before it makes a material difference to sales, particularly with the arrival of those global companies such as Amazon, or Apple, prompting a period of re-adjustment by the incumbent players.
The report also found that though digital penetration across trade books may be still small in these non-English speaking markets, but there were pockets of excitement. The report states, that “anecdotal evidence has it that in the e-book top segments, like blockbuster fiction or romance, e-books can account for 30 to 40% of sales, or even more - and so in some specific cases even in countries with a particularly low presence of ebooks, such as France.” In Germany the marketshare among those publishers who are actively engaging with digital for consumers, which can reach levels of around 10%, as is the case for Germany (based on a round call to publishers by the trade association Börsenverein). In the fiction market alone German and Holland now see digital sales at 10% of the overall amount sold, but that is double the proportion seen in Italy and treble what has happend in France.
It concludes: “The evolution of e-books in non-English language European book markets is highly diverse both in terms of market penetration, and by showing significant differences in policy debates, expectations by various stakeholders, and overall market contexts. In some countries like Germany, e-books have become a standard feature, at first appreciated by strong readers and by consumers of genre fiction, and with Amazon shaping that process as the market leader. In others, notably in France, both publishers and consumers seem not just to largely resist the emergence of e-books as a new market segment, but to see a French cultural specific trait in their skeptical approach. In Scandinavia, ebooks had started initially through libraries, not online retail, while most recently, streaming platforms offering subscriptions at a flat fee seem to define largely how ebooks build a dedicated audience. In the smaller markets of Central and Eastern Europe, digital editions of domestic trade titles are confronting another set of specific barriers of entry. This includes the comparably high cost of investment required upfront, which makes it even harder to break even in a small market. Moreover, notably the well educated and more affluent readers throughout the region seem to embrace e-books in a foreign language, notably in English, before or instead of picking up the local offer.”
Outside of Europe, the report also includes snapshots of so-called emerging economies:
The Brazilian e-book market is only emerging. Brazilians are technology savvy, and that attitude is shared by the government. . . The challenges, however, should not be neglected. In 2013, around 2.5% of all trade books sold were in digital format. This was a 400% growth over 2012, when only 0.5% of trade titles were digital. In 2014, the growth was much slow- er. Brazil finished the year with only 3.5% of its trade titles being sold as ebooks.
While no numbers are available for ebook sales, the market share for digital editions of trade books from publishers is currently estimated at around just 1%, with another few years to wait befor expanding to account for significant sales. However, this must not lead to an under-evaluation of the broader evolution of the digital market for various segments of published reading content.
English-language trade publishers producing ebooks continue to report that sales of ebooks remain less than 1% of total sales, although some reports say that it has risen to between 2–5% in the last year. It is impossible to verify these figures though . . . In India, because it is a low-priced edi-tions market, especially in trade segment, e-books don’t yet compete with print books since price is not yet a major differentiator. But publishers are experimenting and there is no pricing norm in place yet.
70% of Russian readers read e-books, according to a survey in 2013, and the competition from online and digital is seen, by 65%, as the main reason for a decline in the circulation of printed books, followed by 28% who spend less time reading, and 27% who refer to the cost of books on paper. As 92% admit to getting ebooks from the Internet “for free”, the report also highlights the impact from endemic piracy on the (legal) Russian book market.
The report dismisses the early growth projections around e-books “to be more of a fancy of marketeers, than a reality”, but rightly adds that “an industry level, the transformation goes much deeper than what the few percent of e-book revenues might symbolise”. It points to the growth of self-publishing, mobile, the proliferation of global and local e-book players, piracy, the actions of governments, and the evolution of new models (such as subscriptions) that will continue to inform how the global e-book markets develop—and perhaps also the rate of change.
The emphasis here though is on the plural: "markets". In the 1990s the late Bookseller columnist Herb Lottman, advised that “thriving book markets are sustained by diversity of formats, pricing and trading policies, clashes of laws and conventions . . . “ The digital book may have changed much: but it doesn’t seem to have changed that. That feels like a good thing, right?
The full report is available from www.global-ebook.com priced at €15.