Will US Publishers Risk Dealing with a Russian Ebook Service?

In Global Trade Talk by Edward Nawotka

By Edward Nawotka, reporting by Dennis Abrams


During my visit to the Lviv Book Forum in the Ukraine this past September, I stood on the veranda of a Soviet-era hotel chatting with my new acquaintances over a glass of brandy. The topic of ebooks and piracy came up, and my Embassy-assigned minder and translator looked at me and said bluntly: “I have a computer at home. I turn it on and there’s a giant red button that gives me everything I want for free. I already pay for the internet. Why would I pay for ebooks?”

I heard this repeated time and time again by a wide variety of readers while I was in the Ukraine. And while I know that the Ukraine is not Russia (as I was reminded repeatedly), I’m going to take a leap of faith that the attitude in Russia toward ebooks is not entirely dissimilar from that in the Ukraine (where legal Ukranian language ebooks do indeed remain pricey and hard to acquire).

As we’ve reported and NPR recently noted, that while the Russian government has taken steps to reduce piracy in TV shows and movies, legislators have failed to include ebooks in their new laws, even though “Russia’s largest publishing house says that up to 95% of all ebook downloads are pirated.” (As reported here on Publishing Perspectives…thanks NPR for noticing!)

Enter Dream Industries’ Bookmate, which we’ve covered since 2011. Initially, Bookmate was a service to allow Russians to upload scans or files of their own books, which they can then access for ten roubles. Now, several years later, the service has grown from 65,000 titles to more than 225,000 and includes both English and Russian.

The company now has hopes of partnering with publishers from the US and UK, to expand into new rising markets, and to add more English-language titles. As of now, the only English-language books available are public domain titles.

Why would they want to do that? Well, as James Appell, head of global development at Bookmate, points out, “Across six countries — Russia, Turkey, Nigeria, Pakistan, India and the Philippines — there are more native English speakers than in the U.S., UK and Canada combined, but at the moment we don’t believe these readers are being served through traditional sales channels.”

It’s taking the cliché that “piracy is just unmet demand” quite literally and, well, trying to meet that demand.

With Bookmark, he added, publishers will have the ability to reach “readers who previously either read pirated copies of these books or who didn’t read them at all because they were unaffordable.”

Writing for NPR, James Glynn noted that “the business model works because Bookmate brings in a new revenue source: Publishers for the first time are able to gain income from markets that historically weren’t willing to pay.”

Maybe, but that may be up for some debate.

But for this to work on any level Bookmate is going to need to cut deals with traditional publishers, a la Oyster and Scribd, to get current titles into the hands of these far flung readers. As many publishers, save for Holtzbrinck and HarperCollins and a coterie of small-to-mid-sized publishers have proven wary of subscription models, it’s going to be a tough sell in the first place. The fact that they are based in Russia, a country rife with piracy, likely makes it even less likely publishers will be willing to hand over their files.

Seen from the outside the region, book piracy in Russia and countries of the former Soviet Union remains an enormous problem. Sites running on the fringes of the EU and out of their jurisdiction freely pirate entire catalogs of publishers. For example, just one site running out Moldova is offering virtually every publication of the Spanish-language publisher Planeta.

No, Russia is not Moldova and Bookmate is not a Bittorrent site. Bookmate may be doing its best to function as a legitimate outlet for licensed materials. but when it comes to risk averse English-language publishers, the potential rewards are just too slim to take a chance.

Agree? Disagree Let us know what you think in the comments.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.