Epublishing in Europe: Vive la Difference

Any survey of the epublishing scene in Europe should of course highlight the headline success stories that showcase innovation, risk taking, and deep-level customer engagement across a range of market sectors. Among the winners is the Financial Times, which achieved 1 million registrants for its native web app just 5 months after launch; it is also reported to get 20% of page views and 15% of new subscriptions from mobile and tablet devices.

In the STM sector, Elsevier B.V. won praise for its SciVerse platform, which works to integrate content into research by bringing together a range of Elsevier services and enabling integrated searches across ScienceDirect, Scopus, and web content. Crucially, SciVerse includes a marketplace for scientific apps that allows developers to create apps and discovery tools tailored specifically to the scientific community's needs and, according to Elsevier, will facilitate collaboration between researchers, librarians, and developers.

The mass market too has seen notable risk taking from European publishers. Pottermore, the new web venture of Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling, was launched in beta in July 2011 and contains unpublished material, games, digital audiobooks, and plenty of interaction for Potter fans. Notably, digital editions of the Harry Potter books will only be available from Pottermore. Rowling is the first to acknowledge that she is unusually placed in having the resources to go it alone and has lured Charlie Redmayne, former executive vice president and chief digital officer at HarperCollins, to become CEO. It's a bold move that will be watched with interest by other mass-market publishers keen to capitalize on digital opportunities.

The opportunities are certainly there. In the U.K., at least, the headline outlook for mass-market ebooks looks rosy despite the fact that Amazon did not launch the original Kindle internationally until October 2009.

More than 1 million e-readers and more than half a million tablets were sold in the U.K. over the Christmas sales season, with one in every 40 adults in the U.K. receiving an e-reader as a Christmas present, according to a YouGov, PLC survey. Of the 1.33 million e-readers that were given, 92% were Kindles and 72% were iPads. And there was an equivalent boost in the sales of ebooks themselves-both HarperCollins and Hachette Book Group have reported that they each sold more than 100,000 ebook downloads in the U.K. on Christmas Day alone. The publishing industry will be hoping this uplift continues, since physical book sales in the U.K. slumped by £100 million (about $157.8) during 2011, according to Nielsen BookScan.

The European market as a whole is complicated by marked national differences in terms of e-reader availability and device uptake. Despite Kindle's dominance, devices proliferate. U.K. high-street bookseller WHSmith has put its weight behind the Kobo ebook reader, with heavy in-store promotion, while Barnes & Noble is expected to be launching the NOOK internationally at some point during 2012. French retailer Fnac started to sell Kobo readers during 2011 and easily met sales targets, according to CEO Alexandre Bompard. German bookseller Thalia has recently launched a new reader, the TouchMe, which retails at €60 (about $77). At the same time, some U.K. consumers have reported frustration that the Kindle Fire and Touch devices were not available for Christmas 2011 (at the time of writing this article, they have still not been launched).

The European ebook market is further complicated by tax, legislative, and pricing issues. In the U.K., while no VAT (sales tax) is charged on printed books, ebooks attract the full rate of 20%. There are similarly wide differentials in other countries, such as Germany. There is currently debate about whether various national governments can, or should, control ebook prices, as many do for printed books. Luxembourg, home to Amazon's European HQ, has recently announced a reduction to its own rate of sales tax on ebooks, which gives a huge price advantage to Amazon.

So it's a complicated picture, and marked national differences across Europe in attitudes to, and uptake of, ebooks mean that the market across the continent is not homogeneous. For all of that, it would be hard to find a senior publishing executive in Europe who isn't looking to ebooks and other digital formats to bolster their financial performance. At the same time, increased revenue from these formats will not necessarily translate into an uplift in profits, no matter how innovative the content or service. It will be fascinating to see how the market develops through 2012. 

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Social media, tablets, and eReaders have not only changed the publishing model, they have given authors and publishers a whole new avenue to engage readers beyond books. Now, with the launch of interactive websites that accompany these books, such as J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter experience, Pottermore, and the continued growth and acceptance of mobile apps, the list of digital possibilities is getting longer.