The book market Caught between euphoria and despair

The book is dead; long live the book, which has survived every swan song so far.
The book is dead; long live the book, which has survived every swan song so far. | Photo (detail): © picture alliance/dpa/Jens Kalaene

Ebooks, smartphone apps and online reading platforms: The digital publishing world is vibrant and colourful, but remains a niche.

In an interview at the end of summer of 2018, Florian Illies, the ingoing head of the Rowohlt publishing house and bestselling author of books like Generation Gold and 1913, said “the book is indestructible.” An oddly defensive statement that leads one to wonder what inspired it, and what kind of serious threat the printed book might be facing.

The same conversation takes place at the Frankfurt Book Fair every year without fail: is there still a future for the book, or are people now just watching films and staring at their mobile phones? Many have predicted the book industry’s imminent demise. These dire prognoses have grown more frequent in the new century, where the invention of the smartphone and tablet has many anticipating the end of the traditional book and literary culture. 

But drawing a sharp distinction between printed books and digital content makes no sense; and the euphoric claims of digital innovators are just as outlandish as the doomsday predictions of paper lovers. In recent years, many who set out to conquer new markets and new target groups with great zeal have withdrawn from their highly touted digital projects. The “SoBooks” ereading platform, for example, and the “PaperC” specialist book platform for students have both disappeared. One of the industry’s flagship projects, Bastei-Lübbe publishing house’s “oolipo” story platform was shut down, and ebook and audiobook online retailer Legimi took over the “readfy” smartphone reading platform after it floundered into financial difficulties. These and similar projects simply did not bring in the money they needed to stay afloat, and the list of failed projects is much longer than we have space for here.

Love of reading declines as optimism fades

The failure of these platforms was mainly due to the fact that they did not offer enough attractive content users were willing to pay for. Media platforms from other branches have demonstrated how to attract users: Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Spotify have shown how digital content can be delivered directly to the listener or viewer via a smartphone or tablet. This phenomenon is called “extending reach” and all those who have tried to sell digital book content in recent years have ultimately failed because their reach didn’t extend far enough.

How to monetise digital products, and whether they can be good earners, is a highly controversial topic among publishers. At any rate, the turn-of-the-century spirit of optimism has thoroughly evaporated, and significant sales growth rates are a thing of the past. While the share of ebook sales in the German book market rose from 0.5 percent to 3.9 percent between 2010 and 2013, it has since stagnated at 4.5 percent of 9.1 billion euros in total book sales.
Industry insiders suspect that despite improved ereading devices such as Tolino, Amazon Fire and tablets, a degree of saturation has been reached and only minimal growth will occur in the coming years. Another fundamental problem is fanning the flames: overall a love of reading is dwindling regardless of medium. The industry has lost as many as 6 million book buyers in the last ten years, and it seems unlikely they can be won back via digital channels.

New niches springing up on the internet

But in the infinite world of the internet, numerous niches have developed that function independently of the traditional public publishing houses. Of course, great writers still can’t do without institutions like Suhrkamp, Hanser, Rowohlt, Fischer and many others. But the slews of would-be authors hoping against hope to be published have finally found their readership through Amazon’s leading self-publishing company, a colourful and lively market. Some have already made money with exclusively digital content, and the legends surrounding 50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James, originally published as an ebook that became a bestseller in Europe, have many hoping to replicate its success. The somewhat more profane reality is that there are now thousands and thousands of titles, creepily sultry erotic tomes, historical novels, esotericism and memoirs, all competing for attention. There are always special offers, ebooks for 99 cents or free for few days, in order to attract at least a few downloads and clicks.

The specialist book is the only one showing notable growth in digital publishing, and digital forms of medical, legal and other scientific publications have long since outstripped print versions, in part because they are easier to update regularly. In a nutshell: many readers use book content in digital form at work, but prefer the classic print product in their free time. Florian Illies was quite right in pointing out that reports of the classic book’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.