By Edward Nawotka
“I believe there is significant potential for English language e-books on the international markets,” David Steinberger, president and publisher of Perseus Book Group, told us last month during an interview at the Digital Book World publishing conference. “What you have to understand is there has always been demand, even in non-English speaking countries. The publishers have tried to deal with this demand to get those books into the markets physically –- the ship them there, get them into bookstores, and to try and get customers into bookstores to buy them.”
He added that, in the case of countries like Germany and Italy, getting books onto physical shelves is difficult. “The demand is hard to reach and the distribution mechanism is very cumbersome: its hard to get shelf space, hard to resupply if a book is taking off, it’s hard to get books released simultaneously in different markets as publicity is taking place — because now, since it is often originating in the United States, it happens around the world at the same time. E-books solve a lot of that.”
Steinberger asserted that as English language e-books become more readily available around the world, you’ll see significant pent up demand.
Still, the frictionless nature of e-books raises significant rights issues. “It will lead more and more to rights not being split up as much they are, that’s the natural evolution of where the business is going,” said Steinberger. “As the world becomes more and more a global marketplace, there will be fewer barriers to exploiting rights around the world. That’s an evolution rather than a revolution. From our stand point, Constellation, a digital service offering we have for in-house publishers, we’ve begun to negotiate international distribution deals for e-books. Whether it’s Kobo, Apple or Kindle, we’ve begun to negotiate into our base contract the ability to go global as those markets are ready. We’ve already begun to see that happen.”
That said, not everyone at Digital Book World, agreed. A number of publishers from Spain and Latin America (who requested to remain anonymous) suggested that it was another form of North American arrogance merely to assume that everyone who could read the English e-book would want to read it. Each of them suggested that, among their readers, the preference was to read in their native Spanish, and that the lackluster sales of English language e-books in the Spanish-speaking world where they are available in significant numbers validated that point of view.
Of course it is important to note that, in the case of Spanish, it is the third most widely spoken language in the world and English as a second language is not as prevalent as it might be in countries where there is a smaller population and their own language is less-widely known.
“I think readers will only turn to English language titles in the instance when there are not the same books available in their own language,” said Kaisa Uusipaikka, senior non-fiction editor for Finnish publisher WSOY, “but of course if a book is popular enough, it is likely that we’ll do our best to fund a translation to make it more widely available.” This sentiment was echoed by several Dutch publishers surveyed on the topic, including Martien de Vletter, publisher of Uitgeverij SUN, who noted, “the Dutch will read English, but their preference is to read in Dutch.”
In the case of SUN, which publishes architectural titles, the challenges of translating these into a digital format goes well beyond language.
The fact is that for many complex titles — be they in the trade or in in the scientific, technical and medial communities — the only option for quite a long time may be the English-language titles. In this case, English is the stopgap language, the language of first-and-last resort for readers who urgently need the information. And, ultimately, aren’t those the readers every publisher wants the most?
Peter Collingridge of Enhanced Editions in the UK noted that though the demand might not be that great in the long-term, there’s no good reason for English-language publishers not to distribute their e-books as widely as possible. Doing so can, after all, offer some interesting surprises.
“For example we saw sales in Norway for Nick Cave’s The Death of Bunny Munro that outstripped Canadian sales — where Nick went on a book tour and enjoyed a lot of PR coverage,” said Collingridge. “We did some investigation and found that a number of factors were at play: the PR coverage in Dagbladet of the app; the fact that e-books are both expensive and price-maintained (and our app was cheaper); and of course the high rates of English spoken.”
He added, “I think that given that English is generally seen as an open market in Europe and beyond, it makes a huge amount of sense for publishers to distribute digital editions into these territories — after all, in many cases, all that is required to distribute in iTunes is the checking or unchecking of a box. With such low barriers, what’s not to like?”