eBooks in the EU

Looking around for book-related news this morning, I found this short piece in the New York Times (sigh—just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in) about how the ebook market in Europe hasn’t really taken off yet.

Frankly, I was a little surprised—not that I really thought all that much about European ebooks, but the whole ebook conversation often makes it seem like international borders are a thing of the past. Clearly, that’s not the case, especially since it sounds like the EU is where American publishers were a few years ago in terms of pricing models and how to deal with Amazon.

What’s more intriguing to me is that Europeans aren’t making eReaders available the way Amazon and Apple have pushed them on the American public. I just remember visiting Europe about 10 or 15 years ago, when cell phones weren’t yet ubiquitous in the States, and being shocked at how everyone seemed to have a phone to their ear—and how every advert seemed to be one pay-as-you-go plan or another. In that case, it took the US a few years to catch up on cell phone sales and usage. Yet now, it seems like we’re the ones ahead of the curve on eReaders.

Any thoughts as to the reasons for the discrepancy? Do you think it’s due to the scarcity of readers and titles as the Times reports (i.e., supply), or does it have more to do with European reading habits and tastes (demand)? I’d be particularly curious to hear from readers abroad about their experiences—surprisingly, the Times article avoids the selective anecdotes that usually inflate their publishing articles. Any stories to share?

11 Responses to eBooks in the EU

  1. Ciara says:

    See I live in Ireland and I am the only person I know who has an e-reader and I’m convinced that it’s because I read so many american publishing blogs that it seemed like I had to have one. Having said that I read one book on it and it now lies in a drawer, I couldn’t get into it.

    I can’t say anything about mainland Europe but I spend a lot of time in the uk and obviously in Ireland I just don’t know that many people who read, never mind buying an expensive bit of kit to read on!

    I always find out about books from american blogs, be it amateur reviewers or publishing blogs or what have you. I did a joint degree in english lit and theatre and still only know one person who reads a lot for pleasure. Obviously I’m not saying that no one in Europe reads but it does seem to me that reading for fun isn’t widespread here.

  2. Eric Christopherson says:

    I expect the pace of change to digital books will be different country by country, especially given the governments are getting involved. The UK market seems to be coming right along. My ebook sales in the UK this past month (about 850) were 37% of my USA sales without any marketing on my part over there.

    One thing I’ve noticed based on watching sales across the board is that the UK readers of ebooks are more price conscious than their American counterparts. So I think that when Amazon and others cut the cost of the ereader again (and some think Amazon will be giving Kindles away free in the not too distant future) that’ll really spark adoption in the UK when it becomes clear that the device will pay for itself in savings on books.

  3. Stephen Duncan says:

    Interesting question, John. It seems that, in most cases, technology trends drift westward from Japan. I’m not certain what the market state of proper e-readers is across the Pacific, but they were reading books from their mobile phones years before the US and Europe. Even now, their mobile networks are a generation ahead of ours. But then, so is much of Europe’s – something I also noticed after living in England. I think the implementation of mobile technology required to upgrade networks has a lot to do with the size of the land area of the country, which has been the ball and chain holding the US back. Hopefully, e-reader trends in Europe will follow that of television, blu-ray, etc., and eventually catch fire.

    A good indicator to the strength of the European trend would be to look at the publisher contracts and see if any houses still allow authors to reserve digital rights.

  4. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I had no idea ebooks were so popular over in the States, John. They’re certainly not widespread here in Ireland. People will buy e-books before they go on holidays (when space and weight are an issue), or for reading on a commute. I’ve also noticed a tendency to buy books that you’ve already read – my brother repurchased all the fantasy books he read as a teenager (he reads them from his mobile) while a work colleague got most of Stephen King’s back catalogue for his kindle, despite having read them all before. And an English journalist recently confessed to buying Agatha Christie novels on-line any time he had a few drinks, largely because he knew what he was getting and he enjoyed reading them while drunk – so I guess you could say people are just a tad more cautious (??).

  5. Lena says:

    Here in France, we don’t see very many e-readers at all. My personal belief is that it has something to do with a culture that values the scensory joy of reading a book beyond simply the commercial consumption of a story. Here, when people buy something, they consider the weight, appearance, texture and smell–not only with fruits and vegetables at the market, but ANYTHING they buy. This includes books–the shape and size of a book, the texture of its pages, the font, the ability to interact with the book in the process of underlining and making notes in the margins about what they read and how they feel about it, and the ability to revisit those impressions again and again–all of this is key. Even while space is at a premium here, Parisian apartments are often filled top-to-bottom with bookshelves upon bookshelves of books. I live in a part of town that is home to both the greatest number of senior citizens and bookstores – and I suspect that the older generation just won’t be clammoring for e-readers anytime soon.

  6. I have a somewhat different set of thoughts on this. Romance readers tend to be cutting edge, if not bleeding edge on technology for reading. (In 2002, a romance reader showed me the romance she was reading on her Palm Pilot.) Romance readers in Europe almost have to buy American because there are so few non-US/Canada publishers who are acquiring Romance (as it’s written in the US.) Harlequin is one exception. I think any Romance author can confirm the growing number of complaints they get from readers in the UK, Australia and New Zealand in particular who cannot buy the eBooks they want to read because of geo-restrictions. Readers elsewhere in the world face the same problem.

    If you’re a reader outside the US and you read a lot of books that originate in the US, geo-restrictions will prevent you from buying those books as eBooks. I’m quite sure that this is artificially suppressing demand for Readers. Price is another issue. Even print books are more expensive outside the US.

    Here’s some numbers to think about: I recently self-pubbed some backlist titles of mine for which I have had rights revert to me. I re-issued them with no-DRM and no geo-restrictions. On Amazon, about 30% of my sales are coming from outside the US/UK.

    From that, I extrapolate that geo-restrictions may well be costing publishers an additional 30% in sales. If there were more books available to these readers, a eReader might be a much more attractive purchase.

  7. Suze W says:

    Also, we in Europe do not seem to have had the epidemic of closing book stores that you’ve had in the US. There is a book store in pretty much every high street, either as a part of a newsagent or supermarket, or in it’s own right. Going to a book shop to buy your books is still very much a part of the culture of reading here :) Maybe if they started closing, we would be more inclined to buy ebooks for ease?

  8. John says:

    Interesting perspectives all round, folks–thanks for chiming in! Taking it all in, it seems like the balance here is tilted toward demand being the issue rather than supply, though I’d be curious to reevaluate once some of the coding barriers are lifted. One thing I will say, though, is that I’m not sure there’s a correlation between eBooks’ rise and store closings here in the US–I think the deep discounts from Amazon and B&N are more to blame, plus the ridiculous costs of commercial real estate in this country. But that’s probably fodder for another blog post… hey, maybe I have a topic for next week!

  9. I have been living in Stockholm for six months, and people love their gadgets, iPhones and iPads are a big hit. I haven’t seen one person with a dedicated e-reader. A journalist friend of mine in Warsaw has seen one Kindle in three years. And I never saw one when I was living in Ireland.

    E-readers are more expensive in Europe (both in real terms, and in relative terms), so maybe people are holding off for now, or buying a gadget with more functions.

    The price of e-books are higher too. This is partly to do with taxes, but even in Ireland, where there is no sales tax on books, there is a notable difference in prices, and because we are talking about e-books, they can’t blame it on shipping.

    On a related note, indie authors receive less commission on ex-U.S. royalties of Kindle book sales (they only receive standard commission rates in the $2.99 – $9.99 increased royalty range), so this might be a factor too.

    And for indie authors based outside the US, there are a few barriers to entry which might be affecting the self-publishing scene there. They have to jump through extra hoops with the IRS (which is time-consuming and a bit of hassle), they face reduced income because they can’t list with PubIt, and they must be paid by cheque instead of wire transfer (unless they have a US or UK bank account), which delays payment, and many European banks will charge to process a U.S. check. Throw in a little uncertainty with exchange rates, and this adds up to being a factor too.

    Finally, the café scene is very different in Europe. People are far more likely to read a paperback than a laptop. There is something about the olde worlde surrounding that make you feel gauche for going up to the dickie-bowed waiter and asking where you can plug in.

    But mostly I think it’s cost. If prices drop (and they will) we will see a boom.

  10. Melanie says:

    I live in the Netherlands and I see the same as David in Stockholm mentioned: people here love their iPhones and iPads. They’re everywhere. However, I don’t know how much they’re used for reading books–I suspect more internet browsing than book reading. I’ve never seen a Kindle (not sure they’re even sold here), and while other e-readers such as Sony’s are for sale in stores, I’ve never actually seen anyone using one.

    On a purely anecdotal note, I often receive paperback books as gifts from Dutch friends — books and flowers are popular gifts.

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