Cuspide, Buenos Aires (c) ehlingmedia 2010

Cuspide, Buenos Aires (c) ehlingmedia 2010

Publishing is a tough old game, which is possibly not news to you, especially if you struggle on as a small independent publisher. But even the deepest pockets don’t make it much easier, as recent news from Seattle showed. Amazon is scaling back its publishing operations, letting people go and severing ties with its publishing chief  Larry Kirshbaum, who will go back to agenting in 2014. Can we thank the US bookselling community for this? After all, the likes of Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million and many indies stubbornly refused to stock Amazon titles. If that is so, Amazon may have tasted a bit of its own brew of ruthlessness, which has served it so well over the years.

I liked a piece by literary agent Ernst Piper in which he commented on the future of ebooks, writing and reading in a very clear-headed way. He predicts a wide array of forms and formats, of traditional, linear reading experiences as well as new ways of interaction between readers and authors. It’s a relief to read a piece like this, which is neither driven by technophobia nor electronic euphoria, but by a genuine understanding of, and love for, literature. And it comes without that dreadful half-baked marketing slang that has become a mainstay of the topic.

Talking about ebooks, we tend to overlook the fact that the majority of the world’s population is NOT English speaking. Given that 650 million people worldwide speak Spanish, it is always interesting to look at what’s happening in this language market, which has been very difficult for the digital behemoths in the past. I found this piece from “El Confidencial”  on ebooks in the Spanish speaking world very interesting, especially its suggestion that the current high prices for ebooks will inevitably lead customers to look for pirated copies. I find it hard to disagree, especially with the argument that where prices for entertainment goods, be it music or movies, are in line with customer expectations and where there are simple ways of accessing these contents and paying for them, piracy goes down. Recent sudies on the impact of Spotify on music piracy in Norway and the Netherlands show that this may indeed be the case.

In Germany, the “Tolino” alliance formed by Weltbild, Hugendubel, Thalia, BertelsmannClub and Deutsche Telekom, claims to have secured a 35 per cent share of the ebook market, second only to Amazon’s estimated 50 per cent. One will have to see whether this coalition of companies which, with their individual offers, have all been unable to compete with Amazon, will be able to sustain the challenge. This week, negotiations with the German book industry association, the “Börsenverein”, which had been going on since April, broke down. The idea had been to establish Tolino as the overall platform for the German book trade. The whole thing looked a little far fetched from the beginning – after all, why would the dominant bookselling chains allow all these little indies to play with this precious new toy? And I could not find a single indie bookseller who was looking forward to playing with the big boys, who, through their aggressive expansion over the last couple of years have made life very difficult. According to Börsenverein, the Tolino founders asked for a cool million Euros as an entrance fee for the newcomers, and insisted that all content be sourced through the Pubbles platform. So, these talks are over for now. Does this mean that indie booksellers are throwing in the towel when it comes to competing with Amazon? Well, as they haven’t even picked up a towel in the past, don’t expect too much of an effort in the future.

In the USA, ebook sales are slowing down. Ed Nawotka takes an exasperated look at the way publishers and platforms are going about their business and finds them out of sync with the consumers’ needs and interest. Quoting the most recent Book Industry Study Group’s survey of “Consumer Attitudes Towards Ebook Reading” he points out that:

  • Consumers are very interested in “bundling” print and digital versions of a book, with 48% of survey respondents willing to pay more for bundles.
  • Just over half of survey respondents would pay more for an e-book if it could be given away or re-sold.
  • Consumers do not distinguish between e-books published by traditional houses and independently published options when making buying decisions.
  • While the numbers are relatively small, there is an increase in the number of people who buy print and digital versions interchangeably with a slow decline in the number of people who exclusively buy e-books.

Yup, that’s what we, the readers want. And Ed is right when he asks whether things would be different if the players in the market would be willing to put their “greed” to the side, at least for a short while.

The good old book shops are having a tough old time all over the world. In the UK, the battle against extortionate rents, Amazon and the supermarkets seems to have been lost some time ago. A recent study of survival techniques for independent retailers makes interesting reading, especially for those people in the publishing industry who still maintain that a bookseller’s USP has to be competent advice. Book buyers don’t really need that, they know pretty well what they want. Where does this leave booksellers? I don’t know. Some time ago, at a conference in Germany, a bookseller asked the publishers in the room “What do you need us for in the future?”. The answer was: “We don’t need you. But we like you very much”.

In Egypt, intellectuals find it harder and harder to position themselves in the political structures. Almost all of them had supported the revolution that ousted the Mubarak regime, almost all of them supported the counter-revolution that swept away the Islamist government of President Mursi. Writer Muhammad Aladdin explains his dilemma in an interview with “Arabic Literature (in English)” and urges the government to assist publishers by establishing sustainable structures for book distribution.

In a nation of 90 million, it is quite impossible to say that only 1,000-5,000 people read; it is only because of a lack of distribution. (Muhammad Aladdin)

Meanwhile, Mohamed Hashem (recipient of the German PEN’s “Hermann Kesten Preis” for human rights in 2011), founder of Merit Publishing House, which played a talismanic role in the struggle against Mubarak, has announced that he is planning to leave the country – one more example of intellectuals finding themselves between a rock and hard place in today’s Egypt.

If this does not alert one to the problems of publishing in the Arab World, a report by Chiara Comito on the Tunis International Book Fair, which closes on 3 November, certainly will. According to her, the 190 Tunisian publishers have only managed to publish 100 books between them this year. There seems to be a tremendous backlog of writings on the causes and experiences of the Arab revolutions, which started in this country. Given that there are no more than 20 bookshops worth their name in the whole of Tunisia, book distribution – once again – seems to be the bottleneck that prohibits books coming to the market and to the readers. She also points out the tendency of writers in the Maghreb to seek their luck with French publishers, which, with the overall situation described by her and in a recent piece in the Huffington Post Maghreb on book production, I can fully understand.

(c) ehlingmedia 2010

(c) ehlingmedia 2010

Finally, here is what’s recently come out of my personal sweatshop [in German].

Keep the comments coming,