Using Text to “Enhance” E-books and Other Insights from the 2011 Leipzig Book Fair

In Europe by Siobhan O'Leary

Germany’s second biggest book fair offers a barometer of what’s obsessing the world’s third largest publishing industry

By Siobhan O’Leary

Leipzig Book Fair

LEIPZIG: Students from the HTWK Leipzig [Hochschule für Technik, Wirtschaft und Kultur] emerged before a standing room only crowd at an event titled “rethinking the book” at the Leipzig Book Fair on Thursday afternoon, well-prepared to present the fruits of their labor on a project to transform book content into innovative, intuitive apps for the iPhone.

For four months, the students analyzed the market and potential customers, along with the latest and greatest technology at their disposal and, in doing so, got a feel for the dynamics of the market and for what readers might expect in terms of added value. The 21 apps that resulted included a travel guide featuring fun accelerometer-based recipes for local dishes; a children’s book with built-in games and recording options (and a handy volume control for parents!); an illustrated anatomy guide with interactive quizzes for students; and a do-it-yourself manual for crafters featuring tutorial downloads and multimedia elements, along with links for purchasing materials.

Germany’s Second Biggest Book Fair (After Frankfurt)

crowd at Leipzig Book Fair

This and thousands of other events in and around the 2011 Leipzig Book Fair lured 2,150 exhibitors from 36 countries for the four day event. The “Leipzig liest” [Leipzig reads] event series celebrated its 20th anniversary with a program of 2,000 readings at 300 locations throughout the city. In all, the Fair usually attracts well in excess of 100,000 people.

The focus of the Leipzig Book Fair is decidedly on putting the German reading public directly in contact with authors and publishers and, because of this, it serves as a pretty good barometer of what lies ahead for the German book trade in any given year.

Fair director Martin Buhl-Wagner was upbeat about the results of the second-largest book fair in Germany (behind Frankfurt) and about the health of the German publishing industry in general, pointing to the “well-attended readings, the long lines leading to autograph tables and to the cash registers at the fair bookstore” as signs of just how beloved books are and will continue to be.

Leipzig Book Fair Prize Winners

Several hundreds of attendees lined the main atrium on Thursday afternoon in eager anticipation of the announcement of the three winners of the 2011 Preis der Leipziger Buchmesse in the categories of fiction, non-fiction and translation. The prestigious award went to Clemens J. Setz for Die Liebe zur Zeit des Mahlstädter Kindes (Suhrkamp), Henning Ritter for Notizhefte (Berlin Verlag), and Barbara Conrad for her new German translation of War and Peace (Hanser).

Cost of Tablets Prohibitive for Comics Readers

comics at Leipzig Book Fair

Amidst the hordes of elaborately costumed Cosplay kids in Hall 2, Martin Jurgeit, who publishes the magazine Comixene and the Comic-Handbuch, spoke with Volker Oppmann of textunes and Stefan Pannor of Eidalon Verlag about the challenges of publishing comics in digital format. According to an as-yet released survey conducted of 1,000 comic book readers by the HTWK Leipzig, the vast majority of German digital comic readers still prefer to read on PCs, rather than on mobile devices and tablets. The speakers attributed this to two factors: display size and the purchasing power of the typical comic book reader.

In 2011, the focus at the Leipzig Book Fair was on all things digital — from apps and enhancements, to devices and DRM

According to Pannor, it is not enough for a comic book reader to see individual panels from a comic book page in slideshow format. Though the iPad has a large enough display for an entire comic page (and, in fact, provides color and resolution that is often lost in the printing process), it will only play a more interesting role once the cost of tablets is more in line with the purchasing power of comic readers, added Oppmann.

Low Digital Prices, DRM Could be Detrimental to Publishing

Oppmann also expressed concern that decisions made about issues like pricing and DRM could be detrimental to the publishing industry down the road. Pricing, he said, is about mindset. A hardcover doesn’t cost that much more than a paperback to produce, yet readers are conditioned to pay more, sometimes significantly more, for them. He added that rock bottom prices will not support the technical infrastructure that is required to build a digital program, regardless of how much is saved on printing costs.

When discussing DRM, Oppmann pulled no punches, stating that it makes a customer feel like he or she is borrowing a book rather than purchasing it. He suggested instead that the focus be on creating a sort of image campaign for intellectual property rights. “People buy content if it is sold -– really sold,” he said (i.e. if they have quick, seamless access to safe, high-quality content).

Both speakers urged publishers not to forget that we are making books and that digital publishing doesn’t have to be all about bells and whistles and “Schnickschnack” or 50,000 EUR animations. “Let a comic simply be a comic,” said Pannor in closing.

Choose-Your-Own Adventure Enhanced E-Book Thriller

Aufbau’s Marcus Thie relayed a similar message in his presentation of the publisher’s semi-interactive e-book thriller Glanz by Karl Olsberg. In it, a boy falls into a coma while playing a video game and his mother must travel through the dream world in which he is trapped to save him. For the e-book version, Olsberg contributed an additional 200 pages of text to provide readers with a sort of “choose your own adventure” experience in the dream sequence chapters. Though this is a relatively no-frills form of interactivity, Thie added that it is built on the idea that the added value is in the text, rather than multimedia enhancements, and in the fact that the book can be read on more or less every e-reader currently on the market.

While a good deal of the digital talk in Leipzig this year focused on devices, Dr. Julia von dem Knesebeck and Sibylle Bauschinger of Bilandia walked a couple of dozen trade visitors through the ins and outs of social media marketing using as an example a fictional guide to going hiking without sacrificing fashion. From QR codes to microsites and live events, the audience was asked to pick and choose the most practical elements for creating an entertaining, convincing and cost-effective social media campaign by holding up “Like” cards (à la Facebook).

Finally, as most book fair addicts know, the after-show can often be just as insightful and intriguing as the show itself. While the buzzword of the fair, at least from a trade perspective, was “Mehrwert” or “added value” (in all its shapes and sizes), there was something quite different happening in a softly lit, smoky room at Waldfried-Connewitz just a few miles away. That’s where roughbooks publisher Urs Engeler and his band of mellifluous poets gathered with loyal fans for an evening of music, verse and even yoga-esque gesticulation (the company opted to forgo using ISBNs last year and go direct to consumer — which we covered here last year). It was storytelling in its purest form, without so much as an ISBN in sight.

During the fair, poet Elke Erb, whose book Meins was published by roughbooks last fall, was awarded the Preis der Literaturhäuser, which has been bestowed annually by Germany’s network of literature houses since 2002.

DISCUSS: Are Cheaper E-book Enhancements Better than Expensive Options?

About the Author

Siobhan O'Leary

Siobhan O’Leary is a literary agent, translator and writer based in Berlin. She previously worked in the Foreign Rights department of the Crown Publishing Group (Random House) and at the publishing consulting firm Market Partners International.