Barcelona (c) ehlingmedia 2012

Barcelona (c) ehlingmedia 2012

In the parallel world that is publishing, the week has been quite interesting, yet again. But sometimes reality creeps in. On Monday, the supreme cassation court in Doha rejected the appeal by Qatari poet Mohammed al-Ajami against a 15-year- prison sentence aginst himself – because he had written a poem praising the Arab revolutions and criticising the repressive governments in the Arab World. I have written about this on my blog this week, and I urge you to go to the PEN International website and join the pleas for clemency.

Self Publishing, which had been fêted at the Frankfurt Book Fair, may be still thwarting from the consequences of the WHSmith porn brouhaha, but this does not diminish its growing relevance for the industry as such. The German self publishing platform BoD has just published a report on the state of this part of the industry in Europe’s largest book market and beyond, and it makes for interesting reading. You can download it here, it’s free.

In the never-ending saga over Suhrkamp, this week saw the company change its legal structure from a limited liability company to a stockholding entity, as part of its regrouping efforts in the wake of its filing for insolvency protection under Germany’s untested new equivalent to the US Chapter 11.  It’s quite a whiffy story: Suhrkamp’s management has been found guilty of misappropriating company money, orderd to relinquish their positions and pay some 280,000 Euros in compensation. Amongst other nice things, they had paid 40,000 Euros for a grand piano for the brother of MD Ulla Unseld-Berkéwicz, had paid her private housekeepers, her private chauffeur and had rented parts of her private villa for representational purposes – without telling the 39-per cent owner of the company, Hans Barlach, about it. Of course they remained in office, pending an appeal. The same group of happy convicts went on to file for insolvency protection which, according to a court in Frankfurt, happened in a way that was abusing the new law to get rid of Barlach. According to the same court, the happy convicts assured Barlach in writing that everything was hunky-dory with the company the very night before filing for insolvency.  Even if (which is doubtful) Suhrkamp should have been in such dire straits, it sounds like the script for a very bad soap opera that our happy convicts should have been allowed to continue running the company (having run it against the wall in the first place) and be permitted to hand-pick the new board of non-executive directors, once again, of course, without allocating a seat to the representatives of the 39-per cent owner. I wonder what Suhrkamp’s rights buyers told agents and other publishers at the Frankfurt Book Fair. “Oh well, the company is kaputt, but we still want your top author”? Is this how publishing works? The mind boggles!
Former Aufbau publisher Bernd Lunkewitz is following the Suhrkamp proceedings and hosts a collection of court orders.

The ebook behemoths that are Amazon, Apple and Google my be looking at a mighty rival in the future: Microsoft has announced that it is working on its own shop system for books and other contents that will tie in with its Windows operating system. Given its recent performance, the once all-conquering Mircrosoft does not seem to be much of a threat to the nifty incumbents, but if Bill Gates’s henchmen get it right for once and provide a smooth experience for their customers, the dominance of windows in the PC world should lure quite a few of them to switch allegiances. Having said this, there is one big caveat: Microsoft has still not managed to garner a significant market share in the mobile OS market and whether it ever will be able to overcome Android is more than uncertain. Why is that important? Hardly anybody reads ebooks on a PC or laptop. And: the dominant device for digital reading all over the world is the smartphone.

Also in ebooks, I found a story on the Sunday Mail’s website intriguing, which announced that the European Union might come to their senses and allow VAT on ebooks to be brought in line with VAT on printed books. Even allowing for doubts that the EU should allow such a thing as sense to cloud their deliberations, this would be great news indeed. In Germany, VAT would come down from 19 per cent to 7 per cent, in the UK from 20 per cent to zero. And for national ebook platforms it would be easier to compete  with the likes of Amazon, Kobo or Barnes & Noble, who have set up their European headquarters in tax-friendly Luxemburg, where they operate with a 3 per cent VAT on both  printed and electronic books. The Commission has set up a working group on Taxing the Digital Economy, which is set to issue a first report in early 2014.

Staying with tax and the digital behemoths – they have won a small, but potentially decisive battle against online taxation. As Publishers Weekly reports, the Illinois supreme state court has thrown out legislation that allowed the state to collect sales tax from online retailers. The “Main Street Fairness Act”, which had been passed in March 2011, was set up to even the playing field between brick-and-mortar stores and online retailers. In many US states, online retailers pay zero sales tax, while Joe Bloggs who runs a a good old store selling books or other stuff in his community has to put an extra 10 or 15 per cent sales tax on top of his prices – which makes it somewhat difficult to compete in a time when more and more people use smartphones to compare prices. In the honoured tradition of the US courts siding with big business, the judge said that the online sales tax law “violates a federal decree that prevents ‘discriminatory taxes on electronic commerce.’ State law cannot trump federal law.” Why is this important? Because the US Federal Government is eagerly awaiting the passing of its own “Marketplace Fairness Act” which it introduced earlier this years. The act has been passed by the Senate, but is still in the House of Representatives’ inbox.

Macmillan Pacesetters (c) Macmillan

Macmillan Pacesetters (c) Macmillan

Further afield, I found a piece on the recent success of crime fiction in Africa fascinating reading. Given the long tradition of easy reading and genre fiction in these markets and the success that Onitsha Market Literature or the less unruly Macmillan Pacesetters or Longman Drumbeat series enjoyed, one should not be surprised. And with smart publishers such as  Weaver Press in Zimbabwe and  Cassava Republic in Nigeria going for both the print and ebook markets, these books could make much more of an impact and put African literatures on a new footing. If you are interested in what’s going on in African publishing, you could do worse than joining the “Publishing in Africa” group on Facebook which Roger Stringer and I started two years ago.

China is the translation El Dorado of our times, and writers such as J.K. Rowling or Dan Brown make millions from the sales of their books in that country. But, as we know from history, the quest for El Dorado comes with a lot of heartbreak, as a recent piece in the New York Times points out. More often than not, writers have to accept censorship and changes to their original texts, especially when they touch upon sensitive subjects such as sex and crime and politics.

Need deep information on publishing? Royal Society Publishing is offering its complete archive of some 72,000 papers free of charge. That goes back to January 1665 (!) – so if you always wanted to read a contemporary assessment of Isaac Newton’s writings or Darwin’s thoughts about man and his brothers, this is for you. Offer ends on 30 November.

(c) ehlingmedia 2010

(c) ehlingmedia 2010

Finally, and if you’re not entirely sick and tired of my musings, you may take a peek at what’s recently come out of my personal sweatshop [in German].

  • On on the the possibility of lower VAT on eBooks

Keep the comments coming,