Spain’s E-book Business Stuck in Beta

In Feature Articles by Emily Williams

By Emily Williams

Feria del Libro Digital

MADRID: Last week, the inaugural Feria del Libro Digital—Spain’s first e-book fair—took a few toddling steps into the future.  Described by its organizers as “Version 0.0,” the fair’s two days of panels, exhibits and workshops elicited decidedly mixed reviews. While many were pleased that it provided a showcase for the digital companies that had been shut out of Madrid’s traditional book fair, Liber, held earlier this year, others complained of disorganization, limited offerings and round tables with too many speakers and too much product placement in lieu of real discussion and debate.

The crowd skews young and tech-savvy, and was sprinkled with bloggers, journalists, students and hopeful would-be authors looking for non-traditional publishing opportunities.  Spain’s traditional print and conglomerate publishers were largely absent (though their resident tech experts were on hand) and independent publishers were few and far between.

Ricar Trikar, a blogger and e-book fan, attended with a special mission in mind: to find someone to sell him books to read on his new international Kindle.  He did not succeed, but nonetheless came away impressed with the companies on display, ones he hopes will bring a surge of content and new products to the Spanish market.

“Next year, I hope the publishers will be there and more companies will be selling e-readers,” he told Publishing Perspectives. “Everyone agrees that for many years the publishers didn’t want to have anything to do with e-books or e-readers, but now they’re starting to move.”

Trikar pointed out that, fortunately, upstart companies have risen to fill this void:  “Grammata is hoping to sell a lot of their reader Papyre this holiday season—they’re the only ones who offer free e-books,” he said. “Others hope to digitize books and then sell them through big retailers like El Corte Inglés or Casa de Libro, which have very little in the way of e-books to offer at the moment.” But, he added, “A lot of these companies are new projects and I can’t tell whether they’ll succeed.”

Despite the promise of numerous new e-reading devices hitting the market in the next few months, there remains a dearth of legitimate sources of Spanish e-books. “And if there are no new releases for sale [through legitimate channels] readers will go elsewhere,” noted Trikar.

Digital piracy dominated much of the discussion at the fair, in fact, as it has in all the public debate surrounding e-books in Spain. Like much of Europe, Spain has supported arguments in favor of copyright protection over those seeking universal access. The country has a particularly complex relationship to piracy—one widely cited statistic says the country has the second highest rate of digital piracy in the world—and fear of piracy has, say some observers, paralyzed the industry.

Jorge Portland, a publishing and tech consultant, expressed disappointment that so much of the inaugural fair was devoted to talk of piracy. “It’s true Spain is one of the European countries with the highest rates of digital piracy…when it comes to music,” he said. “But I’m not convinced that will carry over into e-books.  We can’t put all of the focus on the evils of piracy. We need to look for a new way to do business and make money in a digital world.”

He asserted that Spanish publishers have yet to fully understand how the digital publishing model works:  “Inside of [Spanish] publishing there’s a tendency to see the digital phenomenon as just so much gadgetry.  They see that in the US there are all these e-readers and they’re projected to sell well over the next year, but they don’t see that behind them there is a major content offering and sales model.  One of the big questions in Spain is which publishers are preparing to launch e-books.  Which companies are even buying digital rights to their books?  Nobody’s talking in public, there’s a veil of secrecy.”

Still, Portland was encouraged by some signs, such as the participation of Spanish telecommunications giant Telefónica in a panel on digital publishing, as well as the news that e-book distributor 36L plans to open for business in time for the holidays and has signed up a handful of publishers (and hopes to attract more), as well as announcing their intention to launch their own branded e-reader.

Portland sees potential for e-books to open up new market opportunities for Spanish publishers.  “In Spain the biggest book buyers, people who buy 25 or 30 books per year, are in the 25-45 age range, and are urbanites with a university education,” he said. “I see more potential in the people who read very little, maybe two or three books a year and more popular fiction. They’re not as attached to books as objects, they read for entertainment, often while on their way from one place to another.  The convenience of e-books is a big plus for them, provided we can facilitate access to the books they like.”

The “long tail economics” that e-books facilitate can only be a help to Spanish publishers, many of whom have relied in recent years on “super bestsellers” to reach profitability. “Selling a few paper copies a year of a book won’t earn a profit, but selling a few digital copies might,” said Portland. “It’s a way of stretching out the profits so publishers aren’t under pressure to earn all their money off the first printings like they are now.”

All said, it appears the Spanish e-book industry is still stuck in Beta. The pivotal and innovative collaborative e-book distribution program announced earlier this year by Spain’s Big Three—Random House Mondadori, Planeta and Santillana—is now scheduled to ramp up for spring 2010.  Meanwhile, Spain’s Ministry of Culture is expected to issue a government report concerning e-book policy in mid-January.

Readers like Ricar Trikar who are eager for e-books to load onto their new International Kindles and other devices can only hope that 2010 will finally be the year when Spain’s book establishment moves beyond theory and, finally, begins to take action.

WATCH: panels and presentations from the fair in English or Spanish

READ: About Trikar’s quest for Kindle ebooks in Spanish

VISIT: the official website for the fair

BONUS: Is Spain’s Piracy Complex Legit?

About the Author

Emily Williams

Emily Williams as Manager of International Digital Content at Barnes & Before that, she worked as digital content producer for Publishers Marketplace, contributor to Digital Book World and Publishing Perspectives, and also held a senior scout position with Maria B. Campbell & Associates.