Monday, April 16, 2012

Cultural Differences: German E-Book Market Struggles

     Popular American book-selling company Barnes & Noble took a great leap last month by venturing into the German book market.  While the company had already stated that it had no interest in opening stores outside the United States (where its' book stores are suffering), it has taken great interest in becoming a leader in the German E-book market where its' competitors are less established.  At first glance, this looks like a smart move, and it probably will be in the long run for a company whose hopes are tied to how it can handle the transition from paper books to digital ones.  After all, Germany has seen sales of E-books rise 77% in the past year.  However, these numbers are a bit misleading because the E-book market in German is virtually non-existent.  German disinterest in reading electronically is somewhat surprising, because although it is a country often viewed as similar in taste in consumer technology to the United States, the American market is booming. This not only reveals a difference in how the two cultures currently prefer to read, but possibly about how they view and accept new technology.

Despite the fact that many Americans still scoff at the idea of reading E-books, the facts don't lie.  Last year, E-book sales passed paper book sales for the first time and continue to grow.  It is estimated that roughly one-fifth of Americans read E-books on a daily basis, proving that the new method of reading is cementing its place in the United States.  In Germany, despite that 77% rise in sales, E-books only account for 1% of total book sales.  It is safe to say that the distress over E-book pricing and suspected industry collusion that made headlines in the United States will go decidedly unnoticed in Germany, but why?

It is first important to note that there is an economic difference here in terms of how books are priced in the two countries.  In the United States book prices are set by the seller, resulting in E-book prices that are usually cheaper than print versions.  In Germany, the pricing system is built to favor local book stores and it is the publisher who sets the price of books.  This means that stores cannot offer steep discounts for purchasing E-books, as the publishers do not want to undercut their many local retailers. 

However, industry researchers claim that it is mostly a cultural issue that separates the United States from their German counterparts.  One major difference is that Germany is a country renowned for its love of reading, and local bookstores literally exist on every corner.  Easy access to books has made the convenience of E-books less appealing, whereas in the United States there are cities that don't even have book stores.  As any American can attest, the sight of chains such as Barnes & Noble is an increasingly rare sight, much less locally owned stores.  The need for  convenience has been the fuel behind the American market boom.  However, much of the difference also seems to be derived from perception of the technology, which differs starkly in Germany.  Germans insist that they read better on paper (although eye-tracking data tells a different story) and feel no desire to read off of a screen.  Clearly the perception in the United States is at least beginning to shift in the other direction.

Although subjective, these realities may also reveal a difference in how Germans and Americans react to new technology.  The American consumer market has long been known to crave new gizmos and gadgets, with eager buyers jumping on new devices simply for the fact that they are new.  Gimmicks are often not a hard sell in the United States, as features such as 3D television (viewed by many as a needless excuse to increase TV prices) take off with relative success.  In Germany however, it could be said that the public is a little more critical and slow to accept new technologies.  Similar to how they view E-books, Germans usually wait to see the true utility of a product before latching onto it, as expressed in several blogs written by American ex-pats.  This difference is something that Barnes & Noble, as well as other American technology companies looking to gain a hold on a German market, should consider.           



Gerald W. Whittle said...

I've also already noticed this difference. You really make a strong point, not only looking at the economic but also at the cultural issues. I personally really enjoy visiting my favorite local bookshops, looking what they've got new in stock and having a chat with the salesperson. Not only can they give you some tips you wouldn't have come up with yourself, it also is a nice social space. What some small bookshops have started doing in Germany is converting part of their store to a coffee shop, so you can not only browse books but also meet friends and get some coffee. Amazon might be cheaper, but having good local bookshops is actually one of the things I dearly miss.

Jenn said...

Very interesting. I agree that the use of e-books is aligned with American values. Personally, I think that the spread of e-books has to do with a desire for instant gratification. If someone decides they want a book, they can download it in a minute. That's a lot less trouble than walking to the local bookstore and browsing the shelves. With the short attention span America seems to have, of course e-books are popular. While there are a few benefits that I will concede to - e-books are fantastic for constant travelers and for getting new releases for cheaper - I can't help but feel that e-books are perverse to the very nature of reading. At least for me, reading is an active, escapist practice. It's a time to look away from the technology that surrounds us and delve into something that can't help but engage you mind, body and soul. Like Gerald, browsing local and used bookshops is something I hold in high regard. The idea of having a local bookstore on every corner like Germany enthralls me. Unfortunately, with bookstore giants like Borders having to shut its doors, the American consumers just doesn't seem to have the engagement with reading to allow bookstores, let alone the quaint local bookstores that still remain open, to thrive. It seems counterintuitive to me that Barnes and Noble began selling Nook e-readers because people were shopping at their bookstores less and less. Are e-books just going to perpetuate the American short attention span for reading?

Aisha Hicks said...

Adam, I find your article quite interesting especially the point you make in the cultural differences. I am one of the Americans you hates the idea of an eBook. Personally, I not only love reading paper books but I love collecting them when I am finished reading them. I find that when friends and family come over, my two 5ft’ bookshelves spark great conversation and are an easy icebreaker. My friends love my book collection so much that I implemented a checking-out system for my home. Because my friends travel a great deal and always need something to do on long plane and car rides, I let them come over and sign out what book they have and when they “plan” to bring it back. It is quite rewarding that they use me as a resource first when they need something to do and I love sharing some of pop culture finest books and bestsellers. With an eBook, it would be inconvenient for my friends if all of my books were on a kindle. Not only will it be a disfavor, but I would have to kiss those interesting conversations I have with family and guest goodbye. I understand technology is supposed to make our lives easier, but all technology is not exactly good technology.