Transcript: Europe’s E-books Challenge

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Interview with Rüdiger Wischenbart

For podcast release Monday, October 12, 2015

KENNEALLY: Let’s face it, says Rüdiger Wischenbart, not one prediction about the future direction of eBooks has been proven right, no matter where you look around the world. According to the Vienna-based publishing consultant and author of the annual Global eBook Report, the frustration over eBooks is felt not only in editorial meetings, but also by readers.

Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. I’m Christopher Kenneally for Beyond the Book. In Europe, Wischenbart sees the national laws that fix pricing for books, whether digital or print, as a strong brake on eBook growth. Fears over piracy may also have played a part in restricting eBook availability in legitimate forms. But Wischenbart says that when publishers hold back on digital releases, this may have the effect of driving readers to piracy sites where usability levels have risen dramatically. Rüdiger Wischenbart joins me now from Vienna. Welcome back to Beyond the Book, Rüdiger.

WISCHENBART: Hi, Chris. So many thanks for having me back again on the show.

KENNEALLY: We’re looking forward to speaking with you. A frequent guest over the years on Beyond the Book, Rüdiger Wischenbart is the founder of Content & Consulting, based in Vienna, which specializes in surveying international culture and publishing markets. He is editor and publisher of the Global eBook Report, the global ranking of the publishing industry, updated annually since 2007. At BookExpo America, he serves as director for international affairs and coordinates its Global Market Forum. Rüdiger Wischenbart is also director of the annual Publishers’ Forum in Berlin sponsored by Klopotek.

That makes you very much a world traveler. Recently back from the Beijing Book Fair, you’ll be at the Frankfurt Book Fair, as well. We look forward to seeing you there and talking with you about the Global eBook Report. But what caught our eye was a blog post you wrote this summer, which was admittedly a summer rant, as you called it. What you were confronting was some of the contradictory indicators in the eBook marketplace, particularly in Europe.

What you start with is to point out is it’s not that eBooks are going away anytime soon or they haven’t fulfilled their promise. And it’s not that they’re going to replace print books, because as we’ve seen, print books are experiencing something of a revival. But what we are seeing is fits and starts, highs and lows in this marketplace. What particularly catches your eye?

WISCHENBART: It was really and truly a summer rant, because I tried to do some shopping for my summer reading, and it occurred that I wanted to read a few books in English, in German, in French, and so I had to shop in three different language markets at three different sites. I wanted to have those books as EPUB editions and not as Kindle, because I for some reason prefer to read on my Android device rather than any Kindle.

Suddenly, I was really, as any normal consumer, hitting the wall time and again by having to confront digital rights management, different markets’ territorial rights, very strange and contradictory pricing policies for each of those items, and thought to myself, that is certainly one of the main reasons why the growth of eBook market share outside the English language markets has stalled in the recent 12-15 months at a very, very low level.

That reminded me, for instance, when I was in Spain earlier this year, publishers both from the big houses and from independent local publishers told me that they are very scared for Spain, having seen first a really interesting growth rate for eBooks, which was very critical in Spain, because the market overall had been hit dramatically by the economic crisis, and then eBook prices are relatively low in Spain, and suddenly nothing grew anymore. They said to me, everything hints that piracy has become so popular.

On the other hand, right when I had been involved in my summer shopping, I realized that even the very big groups in Germany had started to dramatically reconsider their policy on DRM by abandoning. That had started with some independent publishers already in the past two to three years, then suddenly earlier this year, the Holtzbrinck Group started to say we want to get rid of that obstacle to our consumers. Then, even Random House Germany decided to get rid of that barrier of entry for consumers.

Bringing all these pieces together, I thought, oh, we are now at the very important point in the history and the evolution of eBooks, because two things happened to coincide. On the one hand, people are a little bit concerned, or more than just a little bit concerned, why eBooks are not growing anymore here in Germany, in France, and certainly in Spain. Number two, they realize that they have to rethink, reconceptualize their approach to eBooks basically from scratch if they want to do good business.

KENNEALLY: It’s a fascinating use case, Rüdiger Wischenbart, because you are really experiencing that frustration at the reader level. So often in the work that you do, you’re speaking with publishers and their expectations and their hopes for these marketplace, all of which is something that they experience in a PowerPoint presentation, in an editorial meeting, or somewhere within the office. But what you saw in that experience is what it’s like down at the ground level, down at the consumer level. That’s fascinating. How would you expect publishers to begin to respond to all of these contradictory indicators in the marketplace? Are there some moves that certain publishers are making, or that certain distributors are making, to try to add some more life to this market?

WISCHENBART: I had one very fundamental feedback coming in after that summer rant, and that was from several sides, people coming up and say many in the eBook arena, or in the consumer publishing arena across Europe – particularly across Europe – have thought that the real disruption had already been over now, because eBooks are around. Some people started to read on a screen. Fine – publishers got used to release one additional or two additional formats for their new title catalog, and that was that.

Now we realize, no, that’s not the case at all. It’s going to get much deeper in the transformation of the business, because publishers not only have to provide two new formats for the Kindle and for EPUB devices of their new title catalog, particularly in fiction titles, but they really have to go into their whole value chain, go into their processes, and figure out how to make that work – how to streamline these processes, how to reconsider pricing strategies.

We have, in markets like Germany or France, really an almost 100% consensus on the benefits of fixed book price, because people argue, particularly for the maintenance of independent small bookstores in every small town, that is one beneficial result of the fixed book price. But now they see at the same time, when eBooks come in at the wrong pricing point, that’s a real problem. Because that’s not only confusing readers of eBooks, it’s also confusing everybody else who are checking out the title on Amazon or any other big website, sees there are different editions at totally different price points. There are totally different approaches from different publishers how to manage this.

Very recently, we saw even a very important independent book publisher in Germany coming up and say we think we have to raise the prices for some print editions to a level beyond 20 euros for a hardcover edition, which is beyond $22 US for a hardcover. We have a very, very interesting, but very confusing situation, which in my view – that’s, if you wish, a little bit confrontational part of my piece, is to say, OK, that’s interesting. That’s remarkable. Because people start to get into a second level in their dealings with eBooks. They start to go back to ground zero and say we have this now in place, and now we need to give it a second look from the standpoint of what’s really going on about eBooks and how the consumers feel about this and why they appreciate it or not.

KENNEALLY: Right. What’s interesting about the point you’re making, Rüdiger, I think, is not only the way that it’s transforming the business, but eBooks have an important impact on consumers. It changes their buying habits. It changes their reading habits. Of course, often they are coming to the eBook marketplace on a device where the bookstore, if you will, sits side by side with the video store, with the YouTube channel, and all the rest of competing media. That is having an impact, as well. I wonder how well publishers are ready to respond to that.

WISCHENBART: I think that’s a very, very important point. To make things worse, it’s very paradoxical. On the one hand, as you pointed out, eBooks travel across the distribution channels side by side with movies to videos to music to whatever other content that can travel across digital pipes. At the same time, we see a kind of segregation or fragmentation in the consumer book market, because people look for, for instance, self-published books for genre fiction in a different way, at different points of access, than they would go for new quality fiction or nonfiction. For some things, they would go for eBooks, and for other things, they would go for printed titles.

So it’s getting also more complicated for the consumer, because it’s not that one kind of book that they pick up on the internet, but several kinds of books. You have, therefore, at the same time new choices within the books world and more choices with books being side by side with other content formats. I think that’s really adding a lot of new competitions and a lot of new complexity for publishers.

KENNEALLY: What’s remarkable about it is, according to some of the numbers you have in your post, the eBook share of the book market can range from 2-4%, I suppose depending on the genre, depending on the national marketplace. Yet that relatively small portion of the market is having an outsized effect on everything else in it.

WISCHENBART: Yes. After writing that piece, I found another very fascinating piece of statistics in the report by McKinsey, the international consultancy, who compared the growth or decline of several content channels side by side over the past five years. That’s not predictions, but that’s a real thorough, hardcore analysis of what happened over the past five years. They saw that those forms of content that really are delivered easily and seamlessly through digital, like home entertainment, cinema, movies, music, they are growing. Those formats of content that are really resistant strongly against digital transformation, like newspapers or consumer magazines, have significantly and continuously lost market share and turnover over the past five years.

Book publishing is sitting right at the middle, with consumer book publishing having had plus/minus zero growth over this half-decade and educational publishing had minimal growth of 0.2%. Books are kind of on the tipping point in deciding either way that they would want to go for the years ahead – if they would stick to the printed world predominantly, and therefore had all those risks of declining markets, or if they can find meaningful ways to further expand into the digital distribution and eventually be part of the growth arena.

KENNEALLY: Right. And you make a point that this is why piracy should be of a really much higher level of concern than it even has been in the past – not because of the pirated files, but because the user experience on these piracy sites has improved so much that if you are a consumer, it’s just too irresistible.

WISCHENBART: It was one of the really key discoveries for me in the year so far to see the real change in convenience – and I would use really that term – in the quality of curation of book content in many of the European top piracy sites. I’m not promoting these sites. Don’t misunderstand me. But it was fascinating to see that there is a totally new generation of piracy sites now that are not rough and dirty, but that go after exactly the middle class, the strong readers that are at the core of the traditional reading audience that publishers are working with. That, in my understanding, presents really a strong, key, and mainstream competition to the offer of legal publishers, and we should really pay more attention to what’s going on in that sphere.

KENNEALLY: It’s a remarkable point, and one that’s, of course, of interest to everyone at Copyright Clearance Center and to our publishers, and we appreciate you making it, as well as sharing with us your thoughts on these contradictory indicators in the eBook marketplace, particularly there in Europe.

Joining us from Vienna today, we’ve been speaking with Rüdiger Wischenbart. Thanks so much for joining us on Beyond the Book.

WISCHENBART: Thank you for having me again here. It was a real pleasure.

KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights-broker for the world’s most sought-after materials, including millions of books and eBooks, journals, newspapers, magazines, and blogs, as well as images, movies, and television shows. You can follow Beyond the Book on Twitter, find us on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes or at our website,

Our engineer and co-producer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.

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