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Outside US, e-books have a lot of catching up to do

Eric Pfanner  |  Paris 

When Bertelsmann, the German media giant, boasted of a financial resurgence last week, one of the strongest growth stories came from one of its most traditional businesses: the book publisher Random House.

Random House said sales of digital books had more than tripled last year, lifting overall revenue 6 percent. E-books, Random House said, accounted for 10 percent of US sales.

So much for the good news. Outside the US, however, the digital book business is still in its infancy.

In Berlin, Markus Dohle, chief executive of Random House, predicted that Europe would catch up with the US in two to five years. For that to happen, some issues need to be solved. Too few e-reading devices have found their way into European consumers’ hands, and too few titles are available to them in digital form.

While booksellers like FNAC in France and Thalia in Germany have introduced e-book readers, the Amazon Kindle is conspicuously absent from much of Europe. The company has introduced a global version of the device, but outside Britain, where Amazon recently opened a Kindle Store, there are no local-language books available for European Kindle users.

Some European publishers have balked at licensing their works for digital sale via Amazon, fearing cannibalisation of physical sales, as well as its reputation for hardball negotiations over pricing.

Other devices that allow book reading, like the Apple iPad, are more widely distributed in Europe. But few European publishers have licensed their works for sale on Apple’s digital store.

Meanwhile, European legislative and regulatory developments are further clouding the picture.

Last week, the French Senate approved a measure under which publishers could set the retail price of e-books, so that a title would cost the same whether it was sold by, say, Apple or a French-owned e-book store. The proposal would extend into the digital realm a pricing system that governs the sale of ink-on-paper books in France and several other European countries, preventing booksellers from offering discounts.

Publishers say single-price rules support independent booksellers and encourage them to stock a diverse range of titles, rather than filling their shelves with cut-price bestsellers. These systems are deep-rooted, and regulators have generally tolerated them, despite frowning on price-fixing in other forms.

Working out these contradictions could take years. Meanwhile, the European e-book market may continue to lag behind.

©2011 The New York
Times News Service

First Published: Tue, April 05 2011. 00:31 IST