German publishers seek to get up to speed with e-books

Article  by  Mathilde RIMAUD  •  Published 13.05.2013  •  Updated 13.05.2013
[NEWS] Currently only representing 1% of book sales across the Rhine, the German e-book market seems to have the jitters. Traditional publishing players are starting to realize the scope of the challenge. Is this a reflection of the situation in France?
According to a 2012 International Publishers Association study, Germany is the third-biggest book market worldwide, while France holds the fifth position. However, e-books are having a hard time gaining ground: from hardly 1% of publishing revenues in 2011, they have now risen to 5.4% of revenues for publishers selling e-books. Over four years in the United States, in contrast, the e-book market share has risen from 1% to 23%. In Germany, as in France (where e-books don’t even hold 1% of the market), the reasons cited to understand this slow penetration are numerous, and first and foremost cultural: strong reader attachment to the paper format (in 2011, 79% of Germans stated that they didn’t want to read on a screen), quality of book craftsmanship (Anglo-style hardcovers are much more common than in France), and the strong presence of bookshops (3,800 traditional bookshops are indexed by the inter-professional federation Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels, without counting the numerous other book sales points). Economic reasons were also cited: the establishment of a single selling price by publishers for print and digital versions has not persuaded them to sacrifice one for the other, and the average selling price for digital books remains too high to attract the public at large. The difference in VAT (reduced for print books while the full rate is applied to e-books) could partially explain these high prices, although in France, where VAT is the same for print and digital books (which has it facing proceedings from Brussels), prices have nevertheless not been revised downward.
 
Outside analysts think that publishing players (German and French alike, in fact) are more concerned with defending their market than participating in the new digital dynamic, in a sort of quarrel of the ancients and the moderns. The deeply held consensus on the cultural value of books seems to have delayed the emergence of a significant e-book offer for now[+] NoteA search conducted on April 18, 2013 found 74,145 e-books in German available on Libreka!, but this figure contradicts the one announced on this site containing 707,000 e-books (all languages combined) for sale; and some 174,000 on Amazon.de, versus more than 1.77 million e-books available in English on the same platform. X [1], and the (costly) communication campaign launched in March 2013 by the sector’s union may be analyzed as a sign of this defensive position.
 
  "I was a midget" poster from the  "Vorsicht Buch" campaign
(Watch out, books change your life)

 
 
This pessimistic vision is countered by a number of signs that seem to indicate that things are moving forward. The profession has mobilized against Amazon, which represents 41% of e-book market share, and furthermore didn’t wait for the American giant’s arrival (2011) to launch Libreka! (2005), a sales platform offering books in all formats. But the launch of Tolino Shine in March 2013 provided the industry with a competitive tool in the form of a state-of-the-art e-reader for 99 euros, offering a library of over 300,000 titles available via the sites of partner bookstores, including the Thalia chain. Initiated by Weltbild, Hugendubel, Bertelsmann Club and Deutsche Telekom, according to goodereader.com, the project aims above all to gather information on e-book readers, data that “Amazon and Apple don’t share with publishers”. Another German e-reader is attempting to elbow its way in: the Txtr Beagle, launched in October 2012, was supposed to cost less than 10 euros, but ultimately, this price doesn’t seem realistic. Such hardware-based industrial positioning will doubtlessly be difficult to sustain in the long term, given the strength of competitors such as Barnes & Noble, which is said to be looking to launch its Nook in Germany by June 2013. Lastly, among the other German initiatives, the Ceeboo platform is noteworthy, as an intermediary overseeing digital book transactions between publishers and retailers, driven by the marketing group Media Control (connected with GFK). The platform provides access to a system of eBookCards developed by Epidu (an Aachen-based company) offering gift certificates for digital books, among other innovative projects.
 
The e-book market is thus indubitably in the process of being structured in Germany, and against the odds, publishers are also starting to seize digital content and media, as seen with the example of young online-only publishing house Mikrotext, which offers new short texts for discovery on mobile devices every three months. Der Spiegel has also reported on the changes in mentality of certain publishers when it comes to digital technologies: “Companies like Cologne-based publisher Kiepenheuer & Witsch have all of the sudden started using Twitter to allow readers to vote on book cover designs. The Piper publishing house in Munich is proud of its blogging authors and is using social media in an attempt to establish contact between authors and readers at all levels.” And the inter-professional federation is closely watching the market’s evolution, as seen by the GFK study E-Books Studie, published in June 2012, which announces that publishers are expecting digital books to represent 17% of their sales by 2015.

Ultimately, Germany is following in France’s footsteps: initial prudence and reservations of traditional publishers, innovation undertaken by smaller bodies, market domination by American giants, followed by the organization of distribution channels by local players… For now, the traditional market is surviving the digital storm, protected above all by a legal framework and faithful consumers. It’s now up to publishers to dare set off on the adventure with enthusiasm.
 
Translated from French by Sara Heft
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Photo Credit:
-Screenshot from demonstration video for the Tolino Shine e-reader (lesenpunktnet -YouTube)
-Screenshot from the "Vorsicht Buch" campaign website

  • 1. A search conducted on April 18, 2013 found 74,145 e-books in German available on Libreka!, but this figure contradicts the one announced on this site containing 707,000 e-books (all languages combined) for sale; and some 174,000 on Amazon.de, versus more than 1.77 million e-books available in English on the same platform.
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