Interview: Piotr Kowalczyk of Ebook Friendly on the development of the e-book market in Central and Eastern Europe
June 10, 2013 | 10:30 am
Poland’s Piotr Kowalczyk is an “iPhone artist, digital storyteller and self-publisher” with a self-reported download count of 150,000 and rising for his “short stories for geeks”—picture stories created on an iPhone or short Twitter fictions. Kowalczyk is also the founder of Ebook Friendly and an occasional TeleRead contributor.
I spoke with him recently about the e-book and e-publishing situation in Central and Eastern Europe; what follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Kowalczyk: At the beginning, the e-book market was being developed just like in many other countries around the world: with EPUB as a leading file format, and Adobe Content Server 4 as a major DRM system. But since Eclicto, the first e-bookstore in Poland, launched in December 2009, a lot of things have changed.
The trend is to get ready for Amazon, and to get away from DRM. More and more e-bookstores use watermarks instead of Adobe DRM, and there are a growing number of sites that offer DRM-free e-books.
The leading device is Kindle. A year ago there were around 60,000 to 100,000 Kindles in Poland. They were the majority of dedicated e-reading devices. Such popularity of Amazon’s e-readers is due to their international availability, which dates back to October 2009. Kindles are also comparatively cheap, even with shipping costs and import duties.
The absence of Polish-language books for Kindle created a vacuum, which soon was filled by local e-book distributors. I think this is the way many medium-sized e-book markets respond to Amazon’s device-driven global domination.
The lack of books for Kindle has two reasons: There is a file format/protection difference (EPUB vs. mobi). The second reason is a lack of Polish-language books in the Kindle Store. Things are not going to change soon, as Polish is not on the list of languages supported in the Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing platform.
Now, here comes the most interesting part: In late 2011, Polish e-book distributors started to offer to publishers conversion not only to EPUB, but also to mobi format. The number of heavy e-book users who own Kindles was simply too big and too attractive to leave them alone.
Currently one of the biggest Polish e-bookstores, Virtualo, has on offer around 20,000 e-books in EPUB, and over 10,000 titles in mobi. These numbers very well reflect the size of the commercial e-book offering in our country. PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that the e-book market in Poland will be worth $86 million in 2015.
TeleRead: What are the characteristics of the e-book market in the region?
Kowalczyk: Our market is growing in the shadow of Amazon. To a certain extent it was to the benefit of Amazon, but it’s Polish customers and e-book vendors who benefit most—as Jeff Bezos’ empire is not interested in, and/or can’t deliver content to, smaller e-book markets.
E-book distributors have found really interesting ideas to attract the attention of Kindle users. I’d like to share two examples.
• Virtualo, as well as Nexto, the other large e-bookstore, doesn’t only offer books in mobi. The sites also offer a feature to send a purchased book to Kindle. The user sets a Kindle-specific email address in the settings, and since that time if she buys a book in mobi format, it will be automatically sent to a connected Kindle device.
• Woblink, an e-bookstore established by a group of Polish publishing houses, has moved one step further. They offer a special version of their store that is optimized for the Kindle Web browser. In other words, you can buy e-books on Woblink using Kindle’s built-in browser.
As you see, Amazon, without having established an official presence, is pushing our e-book market away from an EPUB-centric scheme.
What’s even more interesting is that you can connect market evolution with rumors of the Kindle Store coming to Poland. Mobi started to be offered by e-bookstores at the same time we’ve read articles in [the] media about Amazon being “in talks with Polish publishers;” a Kindle Store was rumored to launch in our country in April 2012.
But there are also other circumstances that are specific to non-English e-book countries. It’s language and price.
Let’s use an example of Dan Brown’s “Inferno.” A Polish translation is not available in an e-book version. A Kindle user can therefore:
• buy the e-book in English in the Kindle Store, and pay well over $20 for it (Amazon and/or the publisher charge extra money for a book downloaded from outside U.S.)
• buy the Polish edition in print (99 zł = U.S. $30)
• wait for the Polish-language e-book (it will most likely have a price similar to the print edition)
As you can see, these are not the factors which can speed up the development of a medium sized e-book market in Europe.
The characteristics of a reader who decides to start reading ebooks is the one who doesn’t necessarily want to save money on books, and who most probably speaks English.
TeleRead: Who are the dominant players and the leading platforms/devices?
Kowalczyk: The leading device is Kindle, but Amazon is not a leading platform. Quite frankly, I don’t think it will change when the Kindle Store finally opens in Poland. On the sellers’ side, the market is already advanced and mature. Some e-book platforms already disappeared from the landscape.
I’ve described the Polish market in detail before, but here is the outline:
I. The most important e-book distributors are Virtualo and Nexto. In April 2010, the majority of company’s shares were bought by Empik, the bookseller giant often compared to Barnes & Noble.
II. Now Virtualo doesn’t only power Empik’s own e-bookstore, but also is the engine for several other companies and online stores, including news portals and mobile phone operators.
III. Nexto is a strong alternative, with a comparably advanced ecosystem, including mobile apps for Android and iOS. The platform’s strong advantage is a large affiliate program, with more than 15,000 partners.
IV. Bezkartek offers something every e-book distributor should consider: a catalog that includes not only mother-tongue books but also titles in other languages. It increases the number of books on offer and addresses the issue of not having all publications in the local language.
One more platform worth mentioning is Publio, run by Agora, the publisher of a leading Polish daily, Gazeta Wyborcza. The platform was launched in May 2012, around the same time Gazeta Wyborcza was strongly covering Kindle and Amazon in Poland, giving an extra kick for readers to get interested in e-books.
TeleRead: Are e-books’ role in the region at all different from the role they have played in the U.S. and Western Europe?
Kowalczyk: E-books have the power to increase readership, as they are better suited to the world powered by the Internet and digital content. This is a common benefit, and it can give positive results everywhere.
Obviously, the results of digitization will have a different impact and speed in different countries.
In the Czech Republic, only 12 percent don’t read books. It’s different in Poland; we struggle with decreasing readership. The recent report from the National Library of Poland showed that as much as 60 percent have not read a book in 2012, up from 56 percent in 2011, and 44 percent in 2002. E-books are still a minor factor, but they may help stop that decreasing trend. Seven percent of respondents declared they have read an e-book. Most of them live in large cities, are young, and well educated.
Also, more and more libraries offer free Internet access, and this is the way to give access to digital books to those library visitors who can’t afford to buy a book.
TeleRead: What role, if any, are e-books playing in preserving and perpetuating the literatures and cultures of the region?
Kowalczyk: Every country has (or will have) its own Project Gutenberg—the site that not only digitizes works that have entered the public domain, but also promotes digital reading and makes these titles easily available for ordinary users.
In Poland we have Wolne Lektury. The site offers over 2,000 public domain titles free to use in five file formats, as well as for online reading. The site focuses on using the digital books in education, as many classic works of literature are included in the list of school reading.
The number of books, records, or museum objects digitized by several digital libraries associated with the Polish Digital Libraries Federation has increased to one million. They are available to users via Europeana, the site collecting the digitized cultural heritage of Europe.