eBooks: It’s about reading and access, not gadgets

At the Frankfurt Book fair, I was amazed that a pretty much technical panel debate could draw a crowd of some 100 people for almost an hour.

I had the pleasure to host the talk with UK consultant Mark Bide, Piero Atanasio of the Italian Association of Publishers, and Simon Juden of the British Publishers’ Association about some pretty dry outlooks into the digital future. Everyone agreed on 2 things:

1. There is a lot of change ahead (not a surprise)

2. Things may be much less controversial than expected, because much of the hassle could be sorted out by technical innovations, instead of lawyers and litigation.

Today, various news wires bring the confirmation that the legal showdown between Google and the US publishers’ and authors organizations has been avoided and replaced by an out of court settlement (here is the release of AAP), opening doors, libraries and screens for tons of digital books online, and certainly encouraging Google to push even stronger in its digitization strategy.

A few days ago, I read – as it had been expected since one year – that Random House has signed an agreement with Google book search for all their  English language books.

In the meantime, all the hype about gadgets seems to cool off quite a bit as no release date for Amazon’s Kindle in Europe has been given in Frankfurt. No relevant Kindle 2.0 announcement has been made. Sony Reader is not available in many places in time for Christmas.

So I feel pretty much confirmed in my expectation that digital change is ahead, yet it is about access and reading, and it is much less about little plastic boxes of any kind.

Was the Frankfurt Book Fair only about “Waffeleisen” – odd stories about e-Book neverland

So what was the news at Frankfurt?

Funny question. No clear answer.

Someone at the show told me that there were “no  great books”. But this is the refrain almost every year – and has little to say about the after effects of the show. Someone entirely unconnected to the trade mentioned this “scandal about a Czech or Slovakian writer” – the revelation that Czech émigré Milan Kundera had betrayed someone to the secret police at his early career. Which says a lot about how every book related story still gravitates around Frankfurt – including many more other stories that one could mention, including a lot of alleged “Frankfurt related” subsidiary rights deals which, in reality, have already happened, independently of the show, weeks and even months earlier.

Personally, I was a bit disappointed about the reporting on e-Books. The usually well informed “Die Zeit” of Hamburg ran a simply dull and lukewarm story about the subject, and the most notable thing about it (not according to me, but to a school friend who is not in publishing, but in banking!) is the use of the word “Waffeleisen” in the article.

I have to get technical here: “Waffeleisen” is the term for the iron mould to properly bake a Belgium “gaufre”(or waffle, for real cooking afficionados). In the Die Zeit piece, that related to the not really sexy Kindle design of Amazon’s e-reader.

Well, granted. But if all that was exploding left and right of our ears and noses over the past 8 months or so is about some awkward design, sorry, some of the media just did not get it.

  • Here are the good questions:

When will the Kindle be available in Germany, and other European countries, and how will they solve the deadlock about those possible downloads of books by one or the other phone networks? Amazon already postponed the UK release. I did not have time to google for the rest of Europe. But hey, what is e-Books, if you just can’t buy and use them? Would have been a good question for European reporters, right?

Entering “kindle” as a query at Amazon’s German site produces only a list topped by a Kindle charger (at 22.95 Euros, or 30$), while on Amazon’s US site, of course, we get an offer for the reading device at $ 359)

  • Question 01: Why wouldn’t European journalists ask the simple question: If the e-Book is imminent, when can we buy it?

I happened to moderate a panel with a few eminent European experts on the matter, Piero Atanasio of the Italian Publishers Association, Mark Bide of Rightscom, and Simon Juden of the British Publishers Association, and we were all clear about a few issues: E-Books are really taking off with considerable power (not due to some gadgets, but the concept of reading on screens, and hence distributing onto screens),  this will be a changing moment for the (publishing and bookselling) industry, yet we modestly acknowledged that predictions are pretty hard to make on how this will occur, and at what intervals (the audience was pretty packed and even stayed for one hour);

  • Question 02:  Why did hardly any professional journalist bother to research any of this?

The “financial crisis” – or “fc” as one may be induced to call it by now – was of course a side topic in all conversations at Frankfurt. But not one soul addressed the issue of how much cost can be saved by eliminating (a) printing and (b) distribution from a book’s cost sheet or a publishing company’s business model. Calibrate this with the inconveniences of reading on a screen and you know why at least some people are really curious about e-things.

But this also reveals what is short: This new e-something is NOT driven by the wish to innovate!

  • Question 03: Why did that not be prevalent in, at least, the conversations at the floor (not at the parties) – or have I talked  to the wrong people in Frankfurt?

Here is some hidden intelligence: The financial officers tend not to be at book fairs. But they usually compare their notes from reading the clippings of the press with their spreadsheets.

Conclusion: Frankfurt as always was superb. But keep reading between the lines, and be careful of who you are listening.

e-Books – beyond the hype of the e-reader

I have argued already on various occasions that I don’t believe that e-readers (like the Kindle or the Sony eReader) are the critical driving force for digital books (even as the current hype, notably around the Frankfurt Book Fair, produces an amazing number for media coverage on this topic).

It will be much more about

  • Reader’s already changing habits, as they move online without often really noticing it;
  • The book that merges (or, more drastically: dillutes) in the world wide web of information and linked knowledge; and
  • Changing business models as, I think, we will more and more move from paying (or selling) by the book , that is per item, to charging for access, so that subscription models, and flat fees for accessing platforms of content (and, of course, also piracy), will generate a shift that will require to re-define the publishing industry, and retail as well.

I tried to bring those thoughts together in an essay (in German, though), in time for Frankfurt, at Perlentaucher, the Berlin based notorious digital evangelizing hub for the German culture audience – here.

Student’s research on e-Books, on translation and on literature and migration

I am time and again amazed to see what – even undergraduate – students can achieve when they are allaowed (and a bit encouraged) to do research on sometimes tricky subjects.

So I am proud to point to 3 essays which each summarize a topic where otherwise little consistent information can be found (alas, you need to read German for getting the best out of it):

e-Books: If you want an overview of e-Books in a historic context, and a decent overview of the major current trends, go here.

Literature and migration: A key topic with regard too cultural diversity, and yet hardly researched, at least for German speaking countries – here.

Translation and the Austrian book market, a nice summary here.

And an overview of more student’s research here.

French Nobel Le Clézio – the financial crisis – e-Books: Weird reflections on a puzzling day

These are pretty weird days, and I have some difficulty in finding some coherent thoughts about what that means in a perspective of books.

The Nobel prize was given to the French writer Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio. This was a surprise, for sure, but I thought at first: “Hein, c’est interessant”. I had read “Le désert” many years ago, a novel in praise of the clarity of desert life and the virtues of Tuareg nomads, perhaps a bit too thick in descriptions of that sound of nothingness, but not only did I like it and, decades later, still have the flavor of the book, and a few images. It was obvious – and even none of those nasty instant critics of the past 2 days contested this point -: Le Clézio knows what he is talking about. He talks about many countries, many people, many flavors, and this is, I suppose, something important and valuable which writers can bring us, provided their language is up to the job – and this is the other quality that hardly anyone questions. And yet, in Germany at least, several of the “grands pontifs”, or the big wigs of literary criticism, instantly threw at Le Clézio: The fact that they had never read one of his books. How weird! Critics who blame their ignorance on the writer whom they did not bother to read.

Earlier today, I also read a few quotes from European publishing executives about how the global financial crisis might affect books. And I learned a cute thing: It won’t affect books a lot, someone remarked, because people will eventually re-consider buying a new TV set, or a car, but not a trade paperback for 5 Euros. However, this does not mean that publishing *companies* would not be affected. And even very much so they are already, I learned from today’s Publishers’ Lunch newsletter where Michael Cader posted the losses of various US publishers’ and retailers’ losses (including some 31 percent for Amazon since September 19 – details for subscribers only).

Two thoughts slowly emerged in my mind, and I write them down at the risk of being wrong once again, in the short term: For e-Books, this crisis is a huge opportunity, because in the end, they offer publishers (and writers) possibilities to cut down on their costs, in terms of production and distribution, but even more so in communication with the readers. That can open doors, specifically in difficult (and in soul searching) times. And it can do so for very specific writers, who, like Le Clézio, at the same time, are both main stream (in their rather traditional approach to story telling and to humanity and their generic values) and marginal, or peripheral (in the choice of their topics, and their following), but who can find great significance by exactly their stubborn ways.

Since reading “Le désert”, I had, time and again, said to myself that I should read a few more books of this writer. I never did – nor did I ever meet him, despite of a certain, if unspecific desire to try.

Over time, I had been friends with two other writers who, as unexpectedly as Le Clézio, had ended up winning the Nobel: Gao Xingjian, the first Chinese, yet naturalized French, and Elfriede Jelinek, my Austrian compatriot. Each has a very strong sense of telling an unwanted story which, even later on, as the topic itself at some point becomes wildly welcome and prized, remains, in their specific telling, too violent, or too personal, or too awkward, or all of this, to make the writers really popular. Gao turned the catastrophic Cultural Revolution in China into a personal tale of such subtlety that, despite of all the cruelties mirrored, remained so private, that most of the critics turned it down. Jelinek does the reverse thing as she turns violence against normal, middle class girls and women and, probably more importantly, men’s fantasies into such public nightmares that they remain utterly indigestible, or unconsumeable, even against all of today’s movie and game fantasies.

Le Clézio, in my memories, has much milder things to say; perhaps he could be blamed for being the backpacker’s ultimate poet and soul mate. But this does not only explain why he is hated by capital literary honoraries – who always dislike those stray dogs who just drop their borrowed and torn paperbacks for the next traveling peer, instead of accumulating their private little library fortress in a middle class home. In fact, this stray dog’s writing can, perhaps, be very much what we may want to read now, after all those capital fund dogs got rid of much of our savings, plus our future tax payments, and that of our kids as well.

Buy a car (with a book), and other funny thoughts

This weeks edition of The Economist runs an insightful piece about the music industry’s experience of change over the past decade. I hadn’t thought of it either, but Apple’s iPod launch coincided exactly with the recession that had followed the Internet bubble burst and 9/11 less than a decade ago:

“Many observers thought the company had gone mad. Apple was launching an expensive new product (the first iPod cost $399) in the depths of the worst downturn the technology industry had ever seen. It was venturing outside its familiar market, for personal computers, into the fiercely competitive field of consumer electronics. And it was taking on Sony, the giant of the industry. The iPod’s name, sceptics declared, stood for ‘idiots price our devices’.”

The Economist also notes how, after the crash (of music pricing and music revenues from CD sales) the record companies had started to understand how much more convenient a subscription model was against selling music by the album. Now the next step is to “hiding the cost of a music subscription inside something else.” You buy a Nokia phone and get a year’s load of music for instance. Or you buy a car, and it sings for one year – or a car’s life time perhaps.

And just as iPods and downloadable music have strongly increased the relevance of live acts, especially for independent bands, so will e-Books do for literature and writers – says Irish writer and e-Book evangelist Julian Gough in an article of the Irish Times, because readings and literary festivals will become much bigger “as books dematerialise”.

New entrants to e-Book perspectives: iPhone more popular e-Book reader than Amazon’s Kindle

I was always surprised about ow much attention is focused on reading devices for e-Books instead on new user habits, new channels or new business models that emerge from or drive the new digital reading environment. It just seems unlikely, in my view, that books will stay the same once we start to consume them online.

It makes no sense to expect that we continue to see the book as an isolated item, pay for it per item, or exchange it with friends and peers only when allowed to do so by some complicated DRM scheme. It also is pretty unlikely that it will be the big old book companies, from major publishing behemoths to major online sellers like Amazon who have the strongest ideas when it comes to energetically explore the new possibilities and new usages. I would rather expect both a bunch of new consumer habits and a few new entrants on the technology and on the distribution side to come in.

Now I read in the Bookseller and then in Forbes that Apple’s iPhone has become more popular as an e-Book reader than Amazone’s Kindle. So perhaps my scepticism about “e-Books will be just more of the same” was just a correct guess.

eBooks like the Kindle will change publishing’s business modell

In an essay for the Vienna daily Der Standard (in German here) I tried to make sense of the new generation of electronic reading devices such as Amazon’s Kindle, Sopny’s eReader or the iLiad.

I am convinced that they will push the cause of online publishing and reading on screens substantially, but which is more interesting still is what side effects online publishing may cause.

I assume that little may change for the bestselling segment, at least in the medium term, because large print runs and big marketing dollars or Euros still have the best and most effective model in printed books and on the current retail structure (which, of course, includes already a lot of powerful change driven by digital elements, starting with Amazon and how it deeply affects book selling – see the recent piece in New York Magazine).

But for all those many – and ever growing – numbers of titles  that make up the cultural diversity of books, and by that the Long Tail, everything may change with considerable punch and speed.

And with this, we may face a changing business model for electronic books rather sooner than later. As already with music, internet acces or scientific journals, paying for access in the form of some subscription or flat rate may prove to be the model of choice, against paying per item which we usually do when we purchased a book in the past.

This, of course, would trigger enormous chain reactions across the book industry and book culture. (More on this soon here).

Where do Chinese publishers want to go today?

With all the ambition and enthusiasm and curiosity I met among Chinese publishers, the answer to this question may remain ambivalent – yet it also requires more in depth research.

When I discussed the list of publishers who prepare to go public with Hong OuYang, the energetic and very well informed editor-in-chief of China Publishing Today, probably the most relevant independent source of insight into the industry right now, she insisted that one must be cautious. A great deal of the energy at this point goes to the domestic market. For many decision makers in the industry just as well as in the government, it seems safer and more reasonable to look at developments in the home market first – while overseas is considered more risky and more difficult (as you need to travel, to speak or at least understand foreign languages and cultures, and hardly can predict success with both the professional and the consumer audiences abroad).

I must say, as a European, this reminds me pretty much of the US approach in many respects.

The money raised at the stock exchange, Mrs. Ou insisted, will be spent primarily to get things going within China. That recalled manifold details that I had come across over the past week or so in China publishing – as well a story in the New Yorker from the end of July about young Chinese often hesitant against too much impact from things and ideas coming from the “West”.

Chinese are very keen to ‘localise’ – or culturally adapt – the content they buy, to the point of sending Mickey Mouse, with permission from Disney, to a journey across China, thereby adapting they cultural focus on “education” and values against a Western crave for pure entertainment. So why go for the trouble of a more complex ‘dialogue’ with the other?

A second thing is the many things to be done domestically. Mrs. Liu Yuan of the large “Higher Education Press” gave a few impressions of her company’s vast projects in merging and customizing and making interactive all the educational material between print and online, including large scale experiments with flexible business models where a lot is free, but more in depth interaction is charged for. Here, capital raised at the stock exchange can be used for very appropriately for quite some time.

A third field of expansion within is distribution. I have mentioned that the distribution division of the state held Xinhua agency is considering going public. With the consistently growing presence of English books available to Chinese readers – and many major US and UK groups – like Pearson – starting to produce low priced local English editions for Chinese readers, and distribution within China controlled by very few key companies, like Xinhua, the domestic online retailer Dong Dong and the Chinese branch of Amazon.com, Joyo, there is only limited need for broad and, to use the dirty word again, ‘complex’ interaction on many various levels.

A last issue is, as I have been told in more private conversations, that many of the ‘Presidents’ – or CEOs – of the major Chinese publishers who, I must remind us, are all owned by the government, are very much more focused on their home turf than the international. But again, this is exactly where perhaps change and opening up sets in.

“Going out” has been declared the official slogan not only, but also for publishing. And with the recently encouraged ambition to not only buy foreign rights, but quite a few success stories of Chinese books making it abroad. This is of course, once again, “Wolf Totem”, but also the highly popular kids’ series “Naughty Boy” by Yang Hongyin, launched by Harper Collins as “Mo’s Mischief” in the UK and US, and by Les Editions Piquier as “Les Affreux Jojos” in France. (By the way, allow me to add a funny footnote on those translations: The graphics that come with the texts have been taken as they were for the English translation, even more so as the kids are portrayed very much in an American style, with baseball caps and all, while for the French edition, new illustrations have been made, giving the kids a somewhat Asian allure!)

In Chinese fiction for kids, Yang Hongyin has only one rival, and that is the Austrian Thomas Brezina who with his “Knickerbocker Gangs” sold almost as many million books as she did. Next month, a panel is prepared at the Frankfurt Book Fair with both Yang and Brezina who together allegedly sold some 25 million books in China alone.

Before heading back to Europe, I had been given the wonderful opportunity to talk to young editors of China Youth International Press, or CYPI. They had chosen an even more direct approach to “go out” by opening an office in London a year ago to find a market for their top quality illustrated books.

With less than one day between the invitation and the time for delivery, I had prepared a really improvised presentation, thinking of a conversation of perhaps 60 minutes. On arrival, I was shown the international division’s classy new offices, with a conference room as you would expect to find it rather in a PR agency in Hamburg, Germany, than at a Chinese publishing company. Then I was introduced to some 40 hungry minds, all young editors, most in their late twenties who instantly produced an atmosphere of highest attention and curiosity.

So we started, with some overview on international trends that I tried to explore at the beginning, and then I was shown a long list of ongoing book projects. I was amazed by the wide range of topics, by the quality of the work, and by the unpretentious way of how those projects were discussed.

At one point, I looked out of the windows noticing with surprise that it was getting dark. Nevertheless the Q&A went on for another 15 minutes, and in the end, we had a really highly compact workshop that lasted for three full hours, without even a break.

While saying good bye, a little bit exhausted, I must confess, I realized with what ease these young professionals had for all this time moved back and forth between their visibly tightly woven group patterns, and the individualistic curiosity of similar folks in any creative company anywhere in the world.

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