Germany’s First Half of 2021: Ebook Dynamics, and Libraries

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

German publishers say that robust ebook performance last year and this year could be impacted by state-subsidized e-lending.

In Freiburg’s Münsterplatz on September 4. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Endrik Baublies

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

See also: Copyright: Germany’s Börsenverein Warns Textbook Market Is ‘Shrinking Drastically’

Skipis: ‘An Existential Problem for Authors and Publishers’
While we’re well accustomed now to the “digital acceleration” narrative about world publishing in the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, new information from the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels, Germany’s publishers and booksellers association, looks at an interesting point about ebook sales in that markey.

Analysts bringing it to light say that library e-lending may be a factor. And the news comes with a warning about state subsidies as potentially damaging interventions in competition.

First, there’s this interesting point: By comparison to the first half of 2020, people who were already active in the ebook market in 2021 bought significantly more ebooks, according to this report provided Monday (September 6) to Publishing Perspectives.

At the same time, the number of ebook buyers seemed to decrease a bit in this year’s first half.

As it turns out, the number of ebooks an average ebook buyer purchased increased by almost 10 percent, to some 7.6 copies per person. And the average spend-per-person went up some 11 percent, to €49.18 (US$58.26).

Image: Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels

In the first half of 2021, around 2.7 million people bought ebooks, according to the Börsenverein’s report. That’s roughly 33,000 fewer than in the first half of 2020. This means that the share of ebook purchasers as a proportion of the population fell very slightly to 4.0 percent.

But demand increased. Sales of ebooks on the consumer market rose by 9.6 percent from January to June 2021 over January to June 2020. Those ebook unit sales this year moved up 8.3 percent, from 18.8 million to 20.3 million copies sold.

The growth occurred almost entirely in the first quarter. The early part of this year was, of course, challenging in many markets in terms of the coronavirus and its outbreaks and responses. More people were confined than would be later in the year, and patterns of digital buying and reading could be expected to reflect that.

“From January to March,” the Börsenverein says, “sales in 2021 increased by 20.9 percent compared to 2020, when there was a 15.5-percent increase. In the second quarter—in which the shutdown ended in the remaining federal states in 2021 and which had already experienced a significant boost in 2020 due to the pandemic—growth stagnated.”

The bottom line, the publishers are reporting, is that the sales-share of ebooks in the consumer book market rose from 7.5 percent in the first half of 2020 to 7.9 percent in the first six months of 2021.

Image: Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels

Skipis: ‘Ebook Lending in Libraries’

Alexander Skipis, the Börsenverein’s general manager, in a prepared statement says, “After the ebook market grew temporarily in 2020 because of the pandemic, buyers bought more ebooks again during the month-long shutdown in spring 2021.”

Alexander Skipis

It’s worth remembering, however, that ebook sales have always been a limited part of the German market, normally seen as representing about 5 percent of the trade. And as Skipis now points out, a key element of the equation is ebook library loans.

“Whether the ebook generally remains a growth market,” Skipis says, “will largely depend on how ebook lending in libraries and the conditions for publishers and authors develop. Online loans already cover around 40 percent of ebook consumption.”

In the past year, Skipis’ staff at the Börsenverein is reporting, the growth rate of the users of digital library services was six times as high as the growth rate of ebook sales. It’s becoming apparent, the association says, that the demand will remain high in 2021. And—in an observation that many in the library world might prefer not to hear—surveys show, according to the Börsenverein, that many users of of library ebook loans “have bought fewer or no books at all since they’ve borrowed ebooks from their library.”

All of this comes down to a pressure point for the German publishing community, articulated by Skipis this way: “This is an existential problem for authors and publishers, because the remuneration they receive for ebooks on loan is minimal.

“Here, the libraries intervene in the competition with state support and to the detriment of the publishers. And there are plans to expand these interventions.

“It’s imperative that adequate license agreements remain the basis for e-book lending in libraries,” he says. “Otherwise, the production of high-quality ebook offers for authors and publishers will be an unreasonable subsidy business.”

The data used in the report is from the GfK consumer panel media program, which uses a 20,000-person sample representative of the resident German population aged 10 and older. Ebook purchases of €0.49 or more are recorded.

More from Publishing Perspectives on the German market is here, more on the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels is here, more on ebooks is here, and more on industry statistics is here.

More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

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.