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German Readers Finally Embracing Ebooks, Self-Publishing

By Amanda DeMarco

“Demonization of the ebook and self-publishing is dying out in Germany.”

You could feel it in the air at the Leipzig Book Fair late last month. The 168,000 people who streamed through the vaulted steel-and-glass entry hall over the course of four days broke the previous attendance record, and they also brought with them a new set of attitudes toward all things digital. Leipzig is a “Publikumsmesse.” That means it’s oriented toward readers, not toward publishing professionals (like Frankfurt) or writers (like AWP, though this is a hazier distinction these days). It also means that the perspectives and discussions you encounter at Leipzig are more representative than those encountered elsewhere — it’s a perfect place to observe what interests readers.

Ebooks No Longer a Dirty Word

The Logo of the Leipzig Book Fair

As television moderator Michael Hametner noted in a segment on the book fair, “Demonization of the ebook is dying out.” (Its more justified, if equally manichean counterpart, demonization of Amazon, is alive and well.) For years, German publishers have kept ebooks marginalized by pricing them so high that there was no incentive to buy them. So while there was much talk about digitization, ebooks were, well just not important in reality, for readers. That moment has passed, with a spate of recent articles to the tune of “no really, we mean it, this time the digital shift is really here,” as confirmation.

The percentage of German book sales that ebooks accounted for doubled from 2011 to 2012 — albeit from just one percent to two percent. Perhaps more telling is a survey conducted in mid-August carried out by BITKOM, the Federal Association for Information Technology, Telecommunications and New Media in Germany. They asked 2,000 internet users about their attitudes toward ebooks. While 55% said they read paper books and had no plans to switch, and only 14% actually read ebooks, 24% said they read print books, but planned to read ebooks. That’s an awfully big market segment open to change, and six months later, that segment was very visible at the fair.

New Book Prize for Indie Authors

Silver Moonlight by Marah Woolf took the new Indie fiction prize.

At the ceremony for the Leipzig Book Fair Prize, the head of the jury joked about “the e-word” — before news of the selection of the new pope caused a distraction as everyone pulled out their smartphones to find out about the new Pontiff. While some bloggers complained that mobile networks were too overloaded to tweet, the hashtag #lbm13 was well-represented — and widely-abused by self-published authors sending spam tweets to promote their books. And that’s nothing. As new e-only publishers and imprints crop up, the question of how to promote a digital text at a live event is now relevant here, too. For freshly minted Mikrotext, devices weren’t a distraction, but the main event, as they read their texts from their smartphones. Leipzig, you have arrived.

But back to self-publishers — they got a new prize at the fair this year: the autoren@Leipzig Award, sponsored by Neobooks and the Leipzig Book Fair. This year, the honors went to a fantasy novel set in Scotland and a non-fiction book on cross-country races. Winners got €3,000 each and their next books will be professionally edited by Droemer Knaur. For those not lucky enough to pick up the prize, epubli hosted a number of events to educate self-publishers on topics like marketing and crowd-funding.

A €1 million Promotion for Bookstores

You can also measure the size of the shift by the anxiety that it generates. At the fair, the German Publishers & Booksellers Association launched an image campaign to promote the importance of bricks-and-mortar bookstores. A million euros per year for the next three years will go into various ad spots. In the main hall you could have your photograph taken literally wrapped up in an enormous novel, with the slogan “Caution: Book.”

Dave Eggers was the headliner of the book fair. He spoke on a panel about the future of the book, representing a moderate opinion (“We all really want the same thing.”) on a spectrum that ranged from “book and text are body and soul” to “books are so last-millenium.” It may not have been the most nuanced discussion, but it certainly made clear that a diversity of opinions on the subject are competing and thriving.

Diversity might be the next concern that the organizers of the Leipzig Book Fair will have on their minds. Newspapers widely bemoaned the intellectual quality of the programming at Leipzig, which they claim increasingly emphasizes quantity over quality. Readings are heavily weighted toward genre literature, and those self-publishing and digitization discussions don’t raise awareness of great German literature. I, for one, found plenty of high-quality events to attend — I just had to scan through a few dozen murder-mystery event listings to find them. For the moment, the cultural gatekeepers seem to be a bit hypersensitive, but if it continues, a trend of decreasing attention and resources allocated to more difficult literature could be dangerous. Would the readers let that happen?

DISCUSS: What Does Germany’s Adoption of Digital Augur for Europe?

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