By Daniel Kalder
In the mid-1990s, Staislav Mamonov, a Russian immigrant to the United States, was looking for Russian classics and found the phone number for a Russian bookstore in Brooklyn. The store had a catalogue of 35,000 titles — an astounding number, considering at the time a typical bookstore in Russia carried no more than a few thousand titles. A biologist and computer scientist, Mamonov saw an opportunity and offered to help take the bookstore online, thus 1998 was born Kniga.com, the first online Russian-language bookstore in the US. A distribution partnership with Russian e-bookseller Litres.ru — effectively the first “legal” online bookseller added another 14,000 titles to the store.
“Then in 2010, with the introduction of the Nook and iPad it was clear that the US e-book market was going to make a major leap forward,” says Mamonov. “I spoke with Litres about the opportunities for Russian e-books worldwide — but my plan was not to build a business based exclusively on distributing digitized Russian books in America — which, given that the Kindle does not yet support Cyrillic is not the easiest of tasks. Instead, I wanted to establish an effective, efficient global e-book conversion and distribution system — this we’ve called MintRight.”
The MintRight platform adapts the content according to the specifications of different e-readers and formats it for distribution to the selected sellers, ranging from Apple to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Sony and beyond. As the books are sold, the platform aggregates financial reports and payments, providing publishers with a single point of access for all sales reports.
By 2010, the US market was already saturated with conversion and distribution companies, so with his European-backing, Mamonov started looking outside the US and found himself at the 2010 Frankfurt Book Fair; he started with 25 appointments, but ended up doing 70 presentations over just three days.
Europe’s E-book Reluctance Requires Patience
In Frankfurt he found that for all the excitement over digitization and distribution in Europe, there remained a reticence in the market, both on the publisher and consumer side of the equation.
The foremost reason he cites for European publishers’ reluctance to jump into digitization and e-book distribution are France and Germany’s fixed book price laws, which give the publisher ultimate control over the price of a book. In Germany, for instance many booksellers choose not to discount titles at all, which until the recent introduction of the Kindle, was the leading e-book channel in Germany. “This causes a problem for making books available via Apple for instance, as the Apple contract stipulates that a 50% discount must be made for new titles in the US, and a 25% discount in the EU for front list trade books. Confronted with the Apple contract, many European publishers simply choose not to sell their books that way.”
Adds Mamonov: “Given the issues with availability and the lack of a price advantage -– there is less of a reason for consumers to switch to e-books which in turn makes the issue of transitioning to digital less pressing for publishers. Publishers are also very much concerned about jeopardizing relationships with physical book sellers and therefore approach e-books very cautiously: print book sales account for more than 99% of total sales in most EU countries and we understand the importance of the existing relationships in our partnerships with publishers.”
Mamonov’s patient attitude towards the European e-book market is steadily bearing fruit. MintRight works with 80 retailers in 20 countries and currently the firm has 18,000 books on contract with German publishers, 3,000 of which have already been converted. Here MintRight’s international sales focus is especially helpful. “Outside Germany, the US accounts for 50 % of German language book sales, with the other 50% shared across world.”
Why Brazil is the Next Big Thing
MintRight has also just brought 1,500 Spanish classics online with more coming, and will soon release a range of Romanian books. Beyond Europe, Mamonov has set his sights on Brazil as a particularly enticing future market.
“I was in Sao Paolo three months ago, and saw that on the street, people hide their valuables. But once they are in a safe spot, say a bookstore or an airport, people get their expensive electronics out, and start reading books on the iPad. While I was there, the Brazilian president had just returned from China where she had announced a plan for a partnership with Foxconn to open an iPad factory in Brazil. The iPads cost $500 in the US and $1,000 in Brazil, but you still see them — every tenth person in the airport had an iPad. With a price reduction, the adoption would accelerate. A year ago Brazilian publishers were just starting to get their heads around the issue of e-books. But things are moving forward and I will be at the Rio International Book Fair in September where I expect to announce partnerships with several top Brazilian publishers.”
Working with Agencies, As Well As Publishers
Yet another promising development for MintRight is a recent partnering with the Folio Literary Management to bring backlist titles of some of its clients online, such as Karen Dionne’s Freezing Point, John Schlimm’s Twang, and John Cunningham’s Red Right Return. “This is very different from some of the other agency ventures into digital publishing. When an agent such as Scott Waxman establishes his own digital imprint that creates a conflict of interest -– the agent cannot represent both sides –- the author and the digital imprint – at the same time.
How can the author be sure that being published by her agent is in her best interests? We do not have that conflict — the contract is between the author and MintRight, to digitally distribute books for which the author has the digital rights. The author is free to look to evaluate all publishing/distribution alternatives and the agent can help select the best option. MintRight provides a comprehensive e-book production and distribution solution specifically designed for agents and their clients.”
From his position at the cutting edge of e-book distribution, Mamonov does not think the traditional publisher is doomed, but he does not believe many are fully engaged with the radical changes underway. “There’s no question the future is digital. The transition will reshape publishing in a number of ways, so it’s good to be in the game early, to facilitate adoption of e-books across countries, and improve the availability of titles in the US.
“But there’s more to it than that for me — I like to have a social cause, a meaning or purpose to the businesses I run, and this one is simple and easy to explain — I am making books more easily available across the globe.”
For appointments with MintRight at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair contact Guido Lang.