In Europe E-books are Approached with “Concern, Not Hysteria,” says Italy’s Mussinelli

In Europe by Daniel Kalder

By Daniel Kalder

MILAN: “The problem in Italy and in Europe in general, is that data on e-books is scarce, says Cristina Mussinelli, a digital publishing consultant for the Italian Publishers Association and European member of the IDPF board. “There is no central entity collecting information in an organized way, and the ways in which different countries collect data may not be comparable. So it is gathered unofficially, from people working in the market. Because of my position at the Italian Publisher’s Association and IDPF I have a quite wide network of contacts, and so I actively seek this information — but it is desk research, not statistically based.”

In fact, adds Mussinelli, until summer 2010 there was not even an e-book publishing market in either Italy or Spain to track.

Distribution issues and high prices slowed e-book adoption rates in Europe, but new platforms and product launches across the Continent are spurring sales.

“The first platform was launched in both countries in June. It wasn’t the Kindle. In Europe, publishers have developed their own platforms — this is perhaps the major difference between Europe and the US, where Google, Amazon and Apple provide the major E book platforms.

In Italy Rizzoli, Feltrinelli and Gruppo Gems developed the E-digita platform; in France a group comprised of Gallimard, Flammarion and others brought out Eden Livres. Most publishers use ePUB to make their books available digitally. Some use PDF format — but in the fiction and non-fiction segment they are a minority.

“Actually, the Kindle is not available in Europe except in the UK, where the E- book market is a little more advanced. Of course, people in Europe do buy Kindles, but they have to import them from”

Concern, Not Hysteria

Mussinelli believes that the digital book market is only really getting underway in continental Europe now, in 2011. “In some countries the e- book share of the market is still only 1% — like it was in the beginning in the US. However some estimates are that Europe will follow a similar pattern to the US and soon grow to become the third biggest market for e-books, after the US and Japan.”

Even if Europe is at the dawn of the e-book era however, many publishers are prepared:

“Because the publishers and bookstores, or the corporations that own them have developed their own platforms, there are e-books available in the different national languages from within their own catalogs. In Italy I’d say there are maybe 7,000 titles currently available as e-books.  In Germany there are no official figures, but it’s probably somewhere in the area of 30,000 or 40,000. In France it’s something like 50 or 60,000.”

Of course, the advent of e-books has caused widespread unease in the American book trade, and battles have been waged over everything from pricing to rights or DRM. Indeed, the fights are still ongoing. In Europe, says Mussinelli, says publishers have been watching the US closely and the attitude among publishers is one of concern, but not hysteria.

“European publishers saw what happened to profits in the music industry when digital downloads became available. And so to avoid that fate, publishers started to make legal downloads of their books available. In Italy, all the large publishers have produced some kind of catalog, focused both on new titles and bestsellers and on their backlists. The smaller publishers too have tried to make some books available in a digital format.

“There is a lot of discussion, there are rumors, ideas about the potential of the digital market — but it is still at a very early stage.”

Distribution, Fixed Price Laws, Taxation Make the Difference

Perhaps one reason European publishers are slightly less concerned about the impact of e-books on their profits than their American counterparts is due to their stronger position in the distribution marketplace.

“In Europe, the distribution channels are different. There are more of them, and some are owned by the publishing companies as part of a larger publishing group

“The pricing situation is also very different. In many European countries book pricing is regulated by so-called ‘fixed price’ laws. It’s not possible to have different prices in different chains, except for a limited period around a book’s release — and that period and level of discount varies from country to country. Thus unlike in the US, the price of a book is decided by the publisher, not the wholesaler.

The difference between pricing for e books and paper books is also smaller in much of Europe, adds Mussinelli:

“VAT is actually lower for paper books in Europe than it is for e-books. For example in Italy, VAT on a paper book is 4%, whereas for digital books it’s 20%. In Germany it’s 7% for paper versus 19% for digital. In some countries they are trying to align print VAT with digital VAT, but this is a matter decided upon by the European Commission, and then applied at the national level. For example Spain recently tried to harmonize the two VATs, but the Commission did not accept their law.

“So while E- books are less expensive than paper books, the difference is not so great. For example, in the UK, where there is no law setting the rules for the price of books, an e-book might cost the equivalent of 3 euro and 60 cents, while the paper book is 10.99. In France however the same book might retail for 13.52 in digital form and 15.99 in paper. The difference is roughly 30% between digital and paper. But again, these are just single examples, as detailed statistics for all Europe are not available.”

So does 2011 herald the beginning of an E-book revolution in Europe?

“Well, I mainly speak for the fiction market and I’d say that 2011 will at least be one very interesting year to understand and consolidate what has happened. In Italy, for example, there was a great growth in sales of e-books over the Christmas period. This is because e-ink readers and iPads were given as gifts, so people quickly downloaded some titles. However in Italy the trade doesn’t provide specific official numbers, only figures for growth. And in that period sales jumped by 400%. But before that the numbers were very low, so exactly what 400% means is hard to say

“It will be interesting  to watch and see if this continues over the next two or three months. Will this new buying trend continue? Maybe growth will not be 400%, but perhaps 200%? We will see.”

DISCUSS: Is 2011 the Tipping Point for E-books in Europe?

Cristina Mussinelli will be interviewed by Mike Shatzkin tomorrow morning at 10:50 a.m. during the Digital Book World Conference in New York. Publishing Perspectives is a media sponsor of the conference and you can follow our coverage of the event here throughout the week.

About the Author

Daniel Kalder

Daniel Kalder is an author and journalist originally from Scotland, currently based in Texas after a ten year stint spent living in the former USSR where he (more or less) picked up Russian. He has written two books about Russian life and culture and contributes features, reviews and travel pieces to publications around the world.