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E-book blues

June 8, 2011

While online bookseller Amazon now sells more e-books than paper ones in the US, in Germany e-books are still a niche product. There are both cultural and business reasons behind the low popularity rating, experts say.

Amazon's Kindle e-reader came out in Germany in April 2011Image: AP

The e-book has had more difficulty gaining widespread acceptance in Germany than in some other countries, particularly the US, experts say. While the market is growing, according to recent studies, traditional German attitudes toward the printed word and business decisions by publishers have kept the e-book market's growth rate modest until now.

Amazon.com, the American online bookseller, reported that as of April 1 of this year it had sold 105 digital books for every 100 paper ones in its US store. In Germany, on the other hand, there is perhaps one e-book sold for every 100 paper versions.

In 2010, according to a study by the GfK market research company, e-books made up only 0.5 percent of overall book sales in 2010. E-books make up just five percent of the 417 million euros in sales in the growing German download market, which is made up of digital purchases of music, audio and e-books, software, games and videos.

E-books at the Frankfurt Book Fair
E-books have featured prominently at the Frankfurt's Book FairImage: AP

But experts and industry insiders think the German e-book market will grow, despite lagging far behind the US market, as people's awareness of e-books grows, the selection of titles available in digital format expands, and e-book readers such as Amazon's Kindle or Apple's iPad tablet computer gain traction and more widespread use.

Not enough titles

E-book readers first hit the German market at the end of 2009 and Amazon only released the Kindle in Germany in April. The company claimed it waited so long because there weren't enough digital books in German available on the market. Amazon now has 25,000 digital German titles in its store, compared to around 650,000 in its US store. The number is growing, but is still relatively low.

girl reading book
Most Germans say they prefer paper and inkImage: Fotolia/Hallgerd

According to consulting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC), which released a study on the e-book market, the online retailer buecher.de carries some 100,000 titles in e-book format, that corresponds to just eight percent of the current 1.2 million German books available in other formats.

"For a long time, many people who would buy a e-book reader couldn't get what they wanted, and that didn't exactly encourage them to buy," Christina Müller, an analyst with PWC who helped author an e-book study, told Deutsche Welle.

Cost concerns

Cost has also been a consideration, especially for the bargain-loving Germans. In the United States, e-books are appreciably less expensive than their printed counterparts. But in Germany, the price difference is low or non-existent. According to publisher Rowolt, most of its e-books are no more than 20 percent cheaper than physical ones. For those under 10 euros, the price is the same.

"People think an e-book should be cheaper since there's no physical object, but that calculation doesn't correspond to the industry reality," Georg Buss, project manager for digital books at Rowolt, told Deutsche Welle.

He said the additional costs for layout, technical checks, investments in personnel and new technology, were substantial. For many publishers, the e-book sector has not yet been profitable, which has made them reluctant in the past to push e-books hard through large advertising campaigns.

Of the company's 4,000 titles, 600 are currently available as e-books.

Kindle Lesegerät für elektronische Bücher NO-FLASH
Image: picture alliance/dpa

Love of the written word

But there is another hurdle to e-book acceptance that could be even harder to clear – a cultural one.

Germans have a different relationship to the book, according to book analyst Müller, than those in some other countries. In the land of renowned and beloved writers like Goethe and Schiller, not to mention the father of the printing revolution, Johannes Gutenberg, words on paper still have strong cultural currency.

"If you go to a bookstore on a Saturday, it will be full of people who want to browse, to touch and leaf through books, hold them in their hand," she said. "And we have a strong tradition of giving books as gifts. People aren't going to go to a party and bring a memory stick with them."

A new study by the German Booksellers Association found there is still a powerful connection to the written word, even as digital devices become increasingly prevalent. In 2011, 78 percent of Germans said they did not want to read from a screen, down five percent from 2009.

But in a reversal of the trend towards greater acceptance of e-books, the study found on 2011 that 82 percent of Germans read primarily or exclusively printed books, one percentage point higher than in 2010. Only seven percent reported in both 2010 and this year that they bought both printed and digital books.

While in the US people might have to travel fairly long distances to reach the next bookstore, in Germany the retail network is denser. If a local store doesn't have a certain book in stock, it can easily be ordered and arrive as early as the next day.

"There's a book retailer in nearly every German village," said Müller. "That means the need for online stores and e-books is simply not as great."

Outlook positive

Still, most say that despite the slow start, the outlook for the e-book sector is good and what is now a niche product should expand as Germans get used to the idea of buying books at the click of a mouse and as tablet computers gain popularity.

tablet computers
As tablet computing takes hold, e-books could gain market shareImage: AP

Publishers are getting on board in larger numbers and with more titles. Among the larger houses, 67 percent offer titles as e-books. Some, like Rowolt, now create digital versions of all their new titles along with the paper book.

"These newer developments, like Apple's e-books at iTunes and the German Kindle store up and running, are going to put new life into the e-book market in Germany," Rowolt's digital books manager Bus said.

He added that German publishers face a challenge with the arrival of e-books and are still learning how to maneuver new territory. On the one hand, it is an exciting time with new markets, new reading habits and new formats to explore.

On the other hand, it has been frustrating because publishers have had to make substantial investments without seeing much return.

"But overall, there's a spirit of optimism," he said. "Most of us aren't afraid the book will disappear. It will be a peaceful coexistence."

Author: Kyle James
Editor: Stuart Tiffen