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The European Market for eBooks

Two weeks ago I was fortunate to be asked to speak at the Associazione Italiana Editori’s EdiTech conference in Milan. I gave my usual StartwithXML spiel (“ROI” is the same in English and Italian), but I was really struck by the presentations of the other participants – from Italy, yes, but also France, Switzerland, Germany, and the UK. All together, they gave a great picture of ebook publishing in Europe.

In the US, we rail against competing formats, the necessity of assigning ISBNs, the difficulties of DRM, agency pricing, and re-engineering publishing companies to accommodate all these changes as we move towards a digital model.

Yeah, they’re not there yet in Europe.

OI was in Milan for three and a half days. And while, granted, I spent some of that time sleeping off the jet lag, for much of the rest of the time I was walking around the city. It was warm – plenty of people were out at cafes and bars, sitting on the steps of the art museum, hanging in store doorways watching the World Cup, waiting for trams and trains. Not a single e-reader among them. Loads of cell phones – all being used largely for passionate conversations about Team Italia’s failure, and not at all for reading. I saw plenty of paper books – Milan is, after all, where Italian publishing happens.

Obviously this is purely anecdotal and can’t be used to extrapolate anything. But it’s nevertheless an observation. So different from San Francisco or New York, where you see a smattering of e-readers on the train or in nail salons (oh, how we love our e-reader while waiting for our nails to dry!) or in coffeeshops.

I wasn’t putting too much weight on my observation until I attended the actual conference. Presenter after presenter gave ebook market penetration statistics for their country – and not one went over 1% of the total book market.

So what I was seeing (or not seeing) was a reflection of reality. Here in the US, our ebook-to-total-book market penetration is roughly 5%, depending on how you count things (in some areas, it’s more).

We’re so down in the weeds of actually forming this market – that is a very real market and not a passing fad – that we don’t often look up from our work and observe the rest of the world.

At this conference, attendees and presenters alike were very excited about the iPad, which had just debuted the month before and promptly sold out. The fact that the European market is just not dealing with e-ink screens at all speaks volumes about what those readers will and won’t put up with in a reading experience. During the breaks, we milled about in a room with various e-ink readers on display, but few attendees seemed interested in them.

It’s not that Europe is not adopting ebooks – every presenter seemed to feel that this was a market that is here to stay – but readers there do not seem to be adopting e-ink at anywhere close to the same rate that they are here. It will be interesting to see what comes out of Europe now that they’ve got the iPad.

The presentations can be found here. Many are in Italian – we were fortunate enough to have simultaneous translation at the time, but I don’t think the translations were recorded for later use. Nevertheless, it’s great content and worth running through Google Translate.

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