Last year at the Frankfurt Book Fair everyone was talking about digital rights. Same as the year before. With the e-book market exploding in the U.S., the fair is devoting more and more space to topics ranging from metadata to transmedia. But with the European market lagging two to three years behind the U.S., the talk of digital is still about the future. While foreign book publishers are all acquiring e-book rights, digital readers remain scarce in Europe.
Although experts note there are numerous potential big players on the digital book scene in Europe—Google, Apple, and Kobo—the company everyone is keeping an eye on is Amazon. Last week the e-tailer opened a Kindle storefront in France and announced a French-language device. Amazon now offers three iterations of its digital readers internationally, although no Touch models are available outside the States nor is the forthcoming tablet, the Kindle Fire.
In terms of e-book retailing, Amazon, with the launch of its French Kindle store, has three Kindle storefronts outside the U.S.; it launched a Kindle storefront in the U.K. in 2010 and one in Germany earlier this year. In the U.K., according to a recent report from the British Publishers Association, e-books accounted for 11% of sales in the country in 2010. In Germany, which a number of American foreign rights directors interviewed by PW called the second-largest market for e-books in Europe, less hard data is available on the size of the e-book market; estimates put it between 1% and 2%. Estimates about the market in France are also largely anecdotal, but some sources say it is as small as 0.5%. As for Amazon’s French Kindle store, it went live with 35,000 French-language titles, as well 4,000 free classics in French. The French-language Kindle, which starts retailing on October 14, will sell for 99 euros.
A spokesperson for Amazon said the company is selling Kindles in more than 100 countries. Customers with no local Kindle storefront, purchase e-books through Amazon’s U.S. store, Amazon.com, where, as the spokesperson noted, “each customer has a catalogue associated with their region or country, and we display the appropriate catalogue for each customer.” Although the lion’s share of the content those outside the U.S. can access on Amazon.com is in English, some foreign-language content is available, ranging from e-books in Spanish (and other languages), to French newspapers like Le Monde and Les Echos. There are rumors that Kindle stores will open in Italy in late 2011, and in Spain in early 2012, but both countries currently have negligible e-book markets.
Many say the European market’s slower adoption of e-books is linked to the scarcity of e-readers. One foreign rights director said there are “not many devices available” and what is available is “very expensive.” The same source said e-books will face other hurdles in Europe: “There is also the question of fixed prices in Germany, and France, so that could affect sales. These two countries say they want to hold fast to the prices—I believe they are saying e-books will sell for 20% off the list price of the edition.”
Tangential to the Amazon conversation are various questions about how e-books will be sold in Europe. Concerns now range from mistakes in metadata (indicating where e-books can be sold) to overall confusion about the “system” for maintaining appropriate territorial rights. Already there have been instances of metadata mistakes leading to titles being available in countries where a publisher did not have the right to sell those titles, but it’s difficult to parse how big a concern this is among foreign houses. Some American agents and foreign rights directors say this is a major concern, but others note that mistakes happen infrequently and that Amazon is quick to respond.
And then there’s the growing concern and confusion over e-books and the open market. Under the reigning territorial model, the open market right allows publishers to sell English-language books in European countries outside the U.K. Whether the open market can, or should, be preserved in the digital world is a recurring question. A recent court ruling, outside the book world, may also be a topic of conversation in Frankfurt. In Football Association Premier League Ltd. et al. v. QC Leisure et al., an E.U. court just ruled that a British pub owner was not legally allowed to use a decoder to air Greek soccer games in her bar; without the decoder she would have had to pay a licensing fee to Sky Sport. The ruling had to do with the fact that Sky Sport had negotiated an exclusive licensing fee with the Premier League to air its games in the U.K., and, although the decoders are legal, they cannot be used to show the games to a group. Attorney C.E. Petit, who blogs about publishing and the law at Scrivener’s Error, picked up on the case and noted that the judgment might have implications in the book world. Since Europe is now under a more unified copyright law, with the establishment of the E.U., there could be a case about multiple English-language editions being sold in Europe. In other words, there could now be legal ground for stamping out the open market in publishing.