At the Readmagine Conference Online: The Pandemic’s ‘Acceleration of Trends’

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

The effects of the coronavirus COVID-19 may serve as an accelerant to trends already spotted before the outbreaks, says Rüdiger Wischenbart in his Readmagine presentation today.

A look at increased sales of downloaded ebooks during the period of the pandemic lockdowns and early reopenings in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Image: Digital Consumer Book Barometer

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Pricing of Ebooks: Trending Downward
In our schedule in Monday’s story, we included today’s presentation at the ‘Digital Publishing Summit / Readmagine 2020 program online from Vienna-based consultant Rüdiger Wischenbart.

Today (June 2), Wischenbart has given a Presentation of the Digital Consumer Book Barometer in the first of the day’s two sessions. A man of several brands, Wischenbart produces, among them, the Digital Consumer Book Barometer as one of his projects. Others are the Global Ebook Report and the Global 50 Ranking of the Publishing Industry, along with Frankfurter Buchmesse’s CEO Talks series.

Today’s conference session was hosted by the Fundación Germán Sánchez Ruipérez director general Luis González and  José Manuel Anta, managing director of Spain’s Federation of Distributors’ Associations (FANDE) and International Publishing Distribution Association.

The “barometer” looks at developments relative to ebooks and audiobooks primarily in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland—the German-language core markets, in other words—with additional input from Italy, Spain, Brazil, and Mexico.

And in the case of this year’s report, it’s important to note that Wischenbart’s observations take us to the time just before the world pandemic of the coronavirus COVID-19 began to lock down the hardest-hit markets on which the report focuses. In that sense, then, the research can be seen as a kind of baseline before the damage—in some cases wreckage—would begin to upend publishing in the Worldometer system tracks as 213 countries and territories.

At this writing, Wischenbart’s target markets for his report are, as it has turned out, all within the top 14 nations most seriously impacted, as yet, by the pathogen. Brazil has become second only to the United States, in a terrible roar up the charts to 526,447 cases and 29,475 deaths, according to the 3:32 a.m. ET update (0732 GMT) of the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. Spain remains ranked by caseload at No. 5 in the world, Italy at No. 4, Germany at No. 9, and Mexico at No. 14.

‘Significant Developments and Challenges’

Rüdiger Wischenbart speaks online to the Readmagine ‘Digital Publishing Summit’ conference, June 1. Image: Readmagine

Wischenbart tells Publishing Perspectives in an exchange prior to his presentation online today, that the status quo before the COVID-19 crises was already characterized by “some significant developments and challenges.” He lists:

  • A growing pressure on prices in the digital offer
  • Consumers who naturally switch between digital and analog formats
  • Consumers who similarly switch between reading and listening—or may be gradually changing their primary mode
  • Purchase vs. subscription
  • Streaming capabilities and library lending
  • Steady growth in downloaded audiobook sales, although the format’s sector remains a small percentage of most markets—in the audio-friendly US market, for example, 8.9 percent in March, per the Association of American Publishers’ StatShot

“These trends and patterns shaped the year 2019,” Wischenbart says. “It’s to be expected that these deep shifts will have an even greater impact on publishers and retailers in 2020″—and that would have been the case even had a novel coronavirus not imposed historic barriers to sales and production worldwide.

Another interesting, associated effect of the pandemic was the UK government’s sudden decision to drop its VAT on digital reading seven months before it had been planned, to help locked down readers find safe digital reading material while being asked to stay home. That was a case of a long-overdue correction to an anomaly in a market that long had charged zero VAT for print, but 20 percent for digital products.

But in terms of what his compilation of research shows Wischenbart about the period shortly pre-COVID-19, “The price of ebooks was being increasingly set in direct competition to trade paperbacks,” he says, “and yet in many markets, ebooks as a format were flat at best, and so at a low level.”

Image: Digital Consumer Book Barometer

“Consumers willingly paid just under €5 (US$5.58) and just under €10 (US$11.16) for ebooks.

“For downloaded audiobooks, they paid up to just under €13 (US$14.51).

“Publishers certainly earn money with higher-priced offers with comparatively low sales,” Wischenbart says, “up to €15 euros for an ebook and more than €20 euros per download for the audiobook. But the price trend was clearly pointing downward.”

Wischenbart says he sees a hardening of the price ceiling in Spain and Italy, he says, where before the pandemic hit, €10 had become the most that consumers would pay to download an ebook. And overall, he says, the trend was universal toward “the cheapest offers” in the digital markets he was studying.

Bestsellers and Digital Sales

The importance of bestsellers, Wischenbart says, has generally been seen to increase in ebooks much more than in audiobooks. In audio, in the markets he’s looking at, he says he sees romance, children’s and YA books, the midlist and backlist being more prominent than bestsellers.

Here, Wischenbart takes a turn to look at French-language Canada, where—thanks to data from DeMarque, which is the sponsor of this conference—a jump in popularity for bestsellers has been evident in the first quarter of 2020 during the pandemic period.

Image: Digital Consumer Book Barometer

Questions Ahead

Overall, he says he does see “noticeable dynamism” in the middle-price area for children’s and YA books, meaning between €10 and €15. And in his Latin American markets (Mexico and Brazil), he saw before the pandemic a broader educational digital book offering than was the case in Europe.

Like most specialists, Wischenbart says he sees an upturn in digital reading consumption during the pandemic. This is something stressed by Xu Hai of China’s vast Phoenix Publishing & Media in his interview with us for our Coronavirus Worklife series.

Wischenbart agrees, though, of course, that it’s yet to be seen how lasting the virus-driven changes in consumer behavior may be.

And as he looks forward to what may be effects in play from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, he lists:

  • The question (as raised by Xu Hai in China) of hybrid users: are consumers who may have been print-bound, so to speak, now more open to digital–and even more attracted to digital?
  • Ever greater competition between various media, formats, and the battle for consumers’ attention and time—what Rakuten Kobo’s Michael Tamblyn (who speaks on Thursday for Readmagine) has called “the attention economy” in which all publishers must “fight for time,” the limited time of consumers
  • More competition between established “core actors” in the publishing space and newcomers, new entrants into the markets

In sum, and as Wischenbart says to Christopher Kenneally in his interview about the report for Copyright Clearance Center’s Beyond the Book podcast, what may be happening—we’re not sure yet, of course—is that the overriding impact of the pandemic on digital publishing might be as an accelerant. The advent of the inconveniences and impositions of the locked down experience may have caused existing trends such as more segmentation between consumer sectors to speed up.

If indeed the pandemic has collapsed time in speeding up consumer adoption of one form of reading or to speed up consumer transfer from, say, reading to more film and television consumption, then the most watchful and agile publishers are the ones who’ll be ready to respond as these effects become more evident.

Such a publisher will “pay attention,” Wischenbart says, “and then reflect, ‘What do I want?’ and ‘What do I need to do in order to achieve what I want?’

“Acceleration of trends we were seeing before the crisis will have a lasting impact. Not just in books. There will be a lasting impact around everything online.”

In Vienna, April 4. Image – iStockphoto: Stefan Rotter

More from Publishing Perspectives on digital publishing is here, and more from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here and at the CORONAVIRUS tab at the top of each page of our site.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.