Germany discovers Indie Publishing

First of all, readers in Belgium and Monaco can also purchase Pegasus Pulp (or any other) e-books via Amazon France without paying the 2 dollar Amazon surcharge.

None of this changes that the European e-book market is still very small. David Gaughran offers a nice overview of the European e-book market at Let’s Get Digital. Personally, I think he’s a bit too optimistic to believe that Germany is only two years or so behind the US in the development of the e-book market. Even though the Kindle is new, e-readers have been available in Germany for several years now, for example the bookselling chains Thalia and Weltbild both offer e-readers. The truth is that certain factors which enabled the rapid growth of e-books in the US and the rejection of print books (many American e-book advocates really seem to hate print books) simply don’t exist in Germany. And the fixed book price agreement is only one factor.

This time last year, e-books made up only 0.5 percent of all books sold in Germany. The figure will almost certainly have risen by now, considering that Amazon opened the German Kindle store earlier this year and that the bookseller chain Weltbild/Hugendubel is offering a colour e-reader for only 59.99 Euros now. The drawback is that the screen is LCD rather than e-ink.

With a comparatively small market, electronic self-publishing is also just getting started in Germany. Except for Amazon.de and XinXii (neither of which is purely German), all German e-publishing platforms and aggregators I have examined offer pretty bad conditions, demand start-up fees and sometimes also want to edit and approve your book (I believe that editing is important, but I don’t want to be force-edited by an e-publishing platform). At least one of those platforms is also run by a traditional publisher who is one of the much cited “big six”, i.e. there is a big conflict of interest there.

However, the various indie publishing success stories have also reached the German media by now. Indeed, my Mom told me that she had heard about Amanda Hocking on the radio.

There have also been a couple of articles in the media. Spiegel Online offers a nice overview of the indie publishing phenomenon with shout-outs to Amanda Hocking, Joe Konrath and Stephen Leather. There is also an interview with Amanda Hocking and a follow-up article with German self-publishing stories (not mine, alas). The Spiegel articles are generally positive, though there is some condescension towards the fact that most indie authors are writing genre fiction. And of course there is more condescension towards Amanda Hocking who writes paranormal romance and urban fantasy (the article author’s attempts to translated both terms, which have no German equivalent, is very amusing) than towards Joe Konrath or Stephen Leather who write in the more respectable thriller and crime fiction genres.

The staid public TV station ZDF (inofficial tagline: Programming for the demographic of 80 to 120-year-olds) naturally views the e-book and indie publishing phenomenon with a huge dose of skepticism and negativity. Take the following posts on the ZDF Hyperland blog, which focuses on internet topics (and is therefore as modern as the ZDF gets): Here is a skeptical post on quickie e-books on current subjects (Mind you, the Bin Laden e-book mentioned in the post was published by Random House, i.e. a traditional publisher) and here is a post entitled “The Great E-Book Con”.

The title says it all really, though there is useful information hidden behind the polemic title, namely a warning of scammers who charge hundreds of Euros for guides about how to make a quick buck with e-books. Most likely, those guides are about selling private label rights e-books, a sort of scam I can’t stand anyway. So Hyperland is doing a public service by warning of scammers.

However, they don’t stop there. Instead, they go on to state that e-books sell badly (well, in Germany they do) and that hardly anybody can make a living publishing e-books. As an example they offer Wolfgang Tischer who wrote a German language guide to Kindle e-publishing and blogged about his experiences. However, Tischer is actually doing well in the tiny German market, though not as well as John Locke or David Gaughran with their respective e-publishing guides.

Even worse is that Hyperland complains that Amazon “takes 30 percent of the author’s sales”. Do they have any idea how low the royalties for traditionally published authors are?

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9 Responses to Germany discovers Indie Publishing

  1. Hi Cora,

    Thanks for the mention, and for the extra detail on the German market.

    I could well be overly optimistic about the future rate of growth. However, I also remember that even the most optimistic of commentators lowballed growth levels in the US (and the UK).

    Here are some figures from the US publishing industry (not including self-publishers or many smaller prices which are exclusively digital):

    E-books share of the overall US book market:

    2007 – 0.6%
    2008 – 1.2%
    2009 – 3.2%
    2010 – 8.3%
    2011 – (first 6 months) over 20%.

    During those years of spectacular growth in the US, you should remember that we had lower quality e-readers that were much more expensive, more expensive e-books, and a more limited selection of them.

    I know there are other impediments to growth in Germany, but there are advantages that also exist now that didn’t during those years of growth in the US.

    If we peg the market right now at around US 2008 levels, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to think that Germany could be at US 2011 levels in two years, three tops.

    Maybe that is optimistic, time will tell.

    • Cora says:

      Thanks for the comment and the numbers, David.

      I am confident that the German e-book market will grow and the big bookseller chains seem to be confident as well, considering they are investing heavily in the e-book and online business. Just yesterday, I read an article that the annual revenue of the bookstore chain Thalia (i.e. the German equivalent of Barnes & Noble, Borders or Waterstones) had passed one billion euros for the first time, though their profits were down due to big investments into the online and e-book business (link is in German). Thalia has also been offering its own e-reader for a couple of years now.

      Frankfurt Book Fair starts today and it will be interesting to see what the e-book percentage is now and how much reporting there will be on e-books in general.

      However, I still believe that the growth will be slower than in the US because of a number of legal (fixed book pricing) and cultural factors. In Germany, readers are less worried about being seen reading an “unworthy” book (early e-book adopters in the US were romance and erotica readers, who often felt censured by their neighbours and families for reading book containing sex), there is less of a throwaway culture (the decluttering movement and the discrimination of so-called hoarders in the US), books are viewed more as cultural artifacts than as entertainment (even paperbacks were not really acceptable as little as 20 years ago), there is a lot of technophobia among older people who flock to e-readers in the US and UK (we are the country that considered Google Streetview a menace to public safety), etc…

      So while e-reading will grow, it will be a while yet until we see US levels.

  2. One final thing I omitted is that when Amazon enters the marketplace it spurs huge growth. The rate of acceleration increased dramatically with the launch of the first Kindle in 2007, and again with the introduction of each subsequent model.

    We saw the same effect in the UK marketplace. Amazon only entered there just over a year ago (officially). Growth has been huge since.

    It’s really too early to measure the effect on the German market, but we might have some interesting numbers next year.

    • Cora says:

      It will definitely be interesting to see next year’s numbers for Amazon Germany.

      Though I strongly suspect that Amazon is not the juggernaut in Germany that it is in the US and possibly UK. My own perceptions of Amazon’s importance are probably skewed, because I have been ordering most of my books from them for years now as have most of my friends. For those of us who read foreign language books or other niche books, Amazon has been a god-send because it gave us access to books that were very difficult to procure otherwise.

      However, for the regular reader who is satisfied with a selection of bestsellers and genre fiction Amazon doesn’t have that many advantages, since they cannot discount. Plus, there is also quite a bit of homegrown competition to Amazon, e.g. thalia.de, BOL, buecher.de, libri.de, etc… and they seem to be doing fine. They all sell e-books and e-readers, too, though none of them are indie friendly.

      Finally, brick and mortar buying is going strong, particularly since a lot of people seem to fear security issues when buying online. The Thalia superstores are always busy, the Bertelsmann and Weltbild book clubs are still in business and doing well (if you go into a used bookstore or to a fleamarket in Germany, every second book will be a Bertelsmann book club edition) and every department store and supermarket has a book selection that is at least decent. Many indie bookstores still seem to be healthy as well, particularly in smaller towns that don’t have a chain store. The town of Vechta, where I worked for a while, has 30 000 inhabitants and supports three very good indie bookstores plus several newsstands and supermarkets that sell books.

      • Hi Cora,

        That’s very interesting. Do those competing bookstores over a range of cheap books, or are they reasonably expensive? Do you think a large selection of books at EUR 2,99 will help Amazon gain market share or are German readers less motivated by price? Final question (I promise) do these competing stores have a larger selection of German language e-books?

        Thanks!

        Dave

        • Cora says:

          The prices are the same that Amazon offers – since the fixed book price agreement also applies to e-books (including indie published ones for that matter). Whether you buy at Amazon or a local competitor or a brick and mortar Thalia chain store or an indie store or your local supermarket, the book always costs the same everywhere.

          All sites offers free or 99 cent classics and at least two of the Amazon competitors also offer installments of serialized novels for 99 cents. All of those serialized novels seem to have been published by the same Swiss company, interestingly enough. I suspect they are trying to revive the good old form of the “Kolportageroman” from the 19th century. I also found a few erotica novellas for under 5 Euros. And you can purchase Perry Rhodan SF novelettes (approx. 30 000 words) for 1.49 EUR (lower than the print price, which is 1.60 EUR). I think the entire Perry Rhodan series is available in e-book form now, which isn’t bad for fifty years of weekly novelettes. Though e-book omnibus editions of early story cycles are very expensive. Still cheaper than scouring comic shops for the originals, though.

          Whether the competitor’s selection is larger than Amazon’s is difficult to say. Though I seem to recall that bol.de has ties to Bertelsmann, i.e. one of the big six publishers. And thalia.de is of course backed by a brick and mortar chain, which is in turn part of a high street retail conglomerate. Where Amazon has the edge is that Amazon.de offers plenty of cheap indie e-books that the others don’t have, because getting into the other German online stores is difficult for indies (and involves paying a distributor). And if you’re looking for cheap English language e-books, Amazon is the go-to place anyway. The competitors do offer English language books, both print and e-book (which they didn’t always do), but anybody who reads in English is probably a committed Amazon customer anyway.

          As for whether German readers are less motivated by price, Germans like a bargain as much as everyone. One of our two big electronics chains had the advertising slogan “Geiz ist geil” (Greed is great) for years. Nonetheless, I don’t see Germans complaining as much about the high costs of books as Americans do all the time. Indeed, the constant American complaints about expensive (print) books is strange to me, because mass market paperbacks aren’t expensive in the US. I still pay as much for an imported US mass market paperback these days as I did twenty years ago, when I first started buying them. For a while, after Amazon arrived, US mass market paperbacks were actually cheaper than they had been in the late 1980s.

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