In the United States, e-books are relatively mature now. There’s a huge Kindle-owning audience, and even a lot of people who don’t have anything to do with Kindles will read e-books from other sources. But over on Europe, things are still less settled.
Rüdiger Wischenbart, Director of Publishers Forum Berlin, has posted an essay to his blog complaining about all the uncertainty going around the European e-book scene. (He knows whereof he speaks—his company, Rüdiger Wischenbart Content & Consulting, is responsible for the Global eBook market trends report, which we’ve mentioned a time or two over the last few years.)
Wischenbart notes that e-books have had a strong impact on English-language and genre fiction and helped propel self-publishing—but beyond that, and especially in the non-English-language markets, they have effectively stalled.
He blames this stall on the publishers, for the twin evils of keeping prices high (although he doesn’t explicitly mention this, price protection laws in many parts of Europe prevent bookstores from discounting books or e-books the way they had been able to do in the US—so once a publisher sets a price, the e-book stores there have to toe the line) and using restrictive DRM (though he does note that some publishers, such as Bonnier and Holtzbrinck, have begun abandoning it).
Because Wischenbart does not like Amazon’s walled-garden ecosystem, he doesn’t buy e-books there—but his description of trying to buy e-books from other stores seems very similar to complaints US consumers have had when they try to go elsewhere—having to deal with complicated, obfuscated e-commerce systems that make it much harder than it should be to find and buy the e-book.
Wischenbart is concerned that many would-be e-book buyers are hitting the wall of difficulty and ricocheting off to end up at one of the e-book pirate sites. But he can’t really be sure, because another big problem is that solid statistics about the European e-book market are hard to come by. But if he can’t be sure about how piracy is directly affecting sales, he can at least be sure that piracy sure is growing more and more popular.
What I could see in fact, through our research, is a pretty staggering increase in page visits at major piracy sites across European markets, and both their usability as well as the mounting emphasis from these sites (they pretend, seriously, to foster ‘reading culture’) which are obviously well echoed by readers. Not by nerds or hackers, but by the most serious, ambitious page devouring folks!)
Wischenbart thinks that e-books are training consumers to comparison-shop for books in ways they hadn’t before—which means that if they hit e-book stores and bounce off, they might turn to the piracy sites next. He also sees the threat from Amazon a little differently than US publishers might:
Amazon’s main threat comes probably from their offer of being “the other“ – who claims to re-invent the future of books and reading, and of all other digital media content anyway. Which is also arguably Amazon’s softest spot: Imagine from how many sides and angles new challengers can – and will! – come in. Amazon’s future is all but secured.
I’m not entirely sure I understand what he’s getting at here, but if he thinks new challengers can seriously compete with Amazon, he’s certainly got a different viewpoint from the American companies who thought they needed to hobble Amazon through anti-trust violations in order to give competitors a chance.
On the LinkedIn page where I first saw this article discussed, Marion Gropen points out that there is an economy-of-scale factor involved. The US e-book market is simply so much bigger than all the little European markets that it has had the chance to work more efficiently, “UNLESS the country involved allows a US company to expand its fixed cost investments to include their market, too.”
But a number of European countries are unwilling to do so, for a variety of reasons. Some are nationalistic. Some are intended to protect the quality of their cultural lives, from the relentless consumerism/vulgarity of US commercial media. Some are trying to avoid the US problems with companies that have a monopsony or near monopsony. (For example, Ingram has a near-monopsony on print wholesale transactions, and Amazon has one for e-book retail transactions.)
I imagine that the VAT MOSS situation doesn’t exactly help matters either. Large bookstores don’t have a problem, but as Diane Duane said in our interview the other day, it could be an insurmountable obstacle for a lot of smaller e-book businesses.
In some ways, the European e-book market may be in a similar position to where the US e-book market was before Amazon stepped in—a whole bunch of smaller operators still trying to compete. It will be interesting to see where that goes.