By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
‘A Jigsaw Puzzle of Ebook Markets’In today’s (May 15) release of the 2017 edition of his annual Global Ebook Report, Vienna-based industry consultant Rüdiger Wischenbart’s most important message may be that no message works for all markets.
Previewed during Berlin’s Publishers’ Forum conference, which Wischenbart directs, his high-level observations underscore one of the most vexing elements of the world’s ebook markets: we simply can’t accurately count what’s out there.
Significantly, Wischenbart opens this year’s report with a discussion of the frustrations that come with these problems, calling the question of what’s out there and who’s buying and selling it “a jigsaw puzzle of ebook markets.”
It’s worth quoting Wischenbart at some length, from his introductory commentary on this fundamental point:
“It’s true that most publishers by now release a majority of new fiction and nonfiction as ebooks, and distribute these to readers across the big new online platforms, especially those of Amazon, or Kobo, while the big chain bookstores and even a growing number of independent bookshops allow consumers to shop for ebooks in their virtual stores.
“But these regular digital editions of initially printed works account, in the example of Germany, for only around half of all ebook units sold.
“The other half is picked up by consumers at price points of less than €5 (US$5.40), which is well below the threshold that most publishers target with their product, particularly in a high-price book market like Germany. True, some merchandise in the bargain basement of publishing originates from traditional publishers, as promotional offers to draw consumers’ attention to the newest, higher priced installment in a thriller or romance series.”
“[Most of the] cheap ebooks however are self-published by authors, which by 2015 were estimated to account for 12 to 15 percent of all ebook euros spent in Germany” [according to estimates in journalist and author Matthias Matting’s Selfpublishers Bibel].
As evidenced by reactions to the Publishers Association’s report on the UK market earlier this month, the question of digital publishing’s progress in a formerly resolutely print industry can produce volatile debate.
Wischenbart adds that ebook subscription programs and digital library rental programs, with which, he says, US publishers have become relatively comfortable, while “in continental Europe, with few exceptions, the position of publishers seems to be much more restrained.” Further, piracy plays a role in the digital market, he writes, again at widely different levels in various markets.
Many Market Distinctions, Many Data Sources
To try to get at something coherent from many international markets, Wischenbart uses input from ebook distributors Bookwire and Readbox in Germany; eDigita in Italy; Madrigall in France; Biblos-Beletra in Slovenia; and Ingram Content “with sales trends for exports into non-English European territories.”
There also has been input, Wischenbart says, from the Netherlands’ Centraal Boekhuis and the Canada-based Kobo, as well as Spain’s Fande distribution association. Wischenbart says he also draws on Author Earnings, the US-based Amazon-sales-page estimation survey project, and Selfpublisher Bibel in Germany, all managed with assistance from Book2Look.
The result is, for obvious reasons, a piecemeal one, and it’s to Wischenbart’s credit that he doesn’t promise—because he can’t deliver—a coherent overview of how ebooks are faring in the world’s markets overall. Instead, he makes a point this year of what in Dr. Strangelove would be called “learning to love the bomb”: he embraces the segmented nature of this vast swath of publishing activity and presents it in a more region-by-region format.
And so more than ever, the report is best read for its inconsistently informed perspectives on various markets. A group of seven European markets get “a more granular analysis,” country by country, in Wischenbart’s report this year. And at the very highest levels, in a prepared statement for the press about the report, Wishcnbart gives us these quick overviews:
- “In North America and the United Kingdom, ebooks quickly took a share of between 15 and 25 percent of the largest publishers sales,” but that’s been sliding since the highs of 2013. “Even more radically,” Wischenbart writes, “self-published literature, particularly in the romance, fantasy, and science fiction genres, has reportedly overtaken sales of the Big Five traditional publishing groups.”
- “In Western Europe, in the context of flat, or even declining book markets after the economic crisis of 2008, ebooks account in most countries for well under 10 percent of trade publishing. Only in Germany and the Netherlands [can it be discerned that] a mainstream audience of mostly heavy readers and book buyers have embraced reading on a screen. Overall digital sales have plateaued at much lower levels than in the English language [markets], never up to the point of compensating for loss in print.”
- “Among large emerging economies, China has seen a unique and continuous rise in book sales, with consumers only recently willing to pay for ebooks on a significant scale—yet with a commercially thriving online reading market expanding now for well over a decade.”
- “In Brazil and Mexico, recent economic difficulties took away much of the dynamics seen for a few years, and government programs in support of digital educational innovation have been cut to the bone.”
‘No Umbrella Service’
Some of the more interesting elements of what Wischenbart can tell us about ebook markets in the UK, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, and Slovenia include a seasonal element with peaks for summer reading and the end of the year (when, one likes to assume that many ebook gift cards may come into play).
More themes Wischenbart picks out include flexible and fluid pricing capabilities in the digital arena, and growing capabilities for publishers to gain consumer-behavior insights “to better customize their marketing and sales strategies.”
In one of the most interesting in-country looks at the pricing questions in ebooks, Wischenbart has a chart comparing prices on a Top-10 ranking of titles in Germany, as covered by Amazon.de, Amazon.de’s Deal of the Month listings, Thalia.de, Thalia Schnäppchen, and listings from Spiegel/buchreport.
The challenge, as Wischenbart writes, “is how to find data, as no umbrella service for ebook sales is available—and even the few sources that exist don’t allow comparisons across markets and countries.”
The Global Ebook Report probably pulls together the most comprehensive set of detailed looks at a series of markets.
As Wischenbart is saying this year, however, don’t expect it all to come together. The development of ebooks in international markets remains a fractured work in progress.
The 2017 Global Ebook Report is available at a price of €20 here.
Rüdiger Wischenbart, in his role as director of international affairs, is progamming the upcoming BookExpo’s Market Forum in New York City. More from Publishing Perspectives on that is here.