European Self-Publishing Providers Need to Look Beyond Localisation

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Publishing Perspectives this morning reports that German self-publishing platform, epubli, has expanded into the UK and English-speaking market. Epubli was originally founded in 2008 and is owned by the giant Holtzbrinck Publishing Group. The self-publishing platform allows works on a similar model to Lulu, Blurb and CreateSpace, only taking a share in author profits when a book is sold. There is nothing groundbreaking about this model of self-publishing, which has been around for nearly ten years, but what is noteworthy is that it is the first significant move by a European-based non-English language publisher into the self-publishing arena.

Admittedly, the article in Publishing Perspectives is written by Sharmaine Lovegrove and Barbara Thiele, both holding senior positions within epubli, and it does read like something of a guest promotion piece for the launch of the company’s services in the UK, but it raises questions about the challenges facing digitally-driven self-publishing services operating in mainland Europe. Last October TIPM featured this article, Wakey-Wakey Time For Some Publishing Service Providers as Kobo Fire Up Euro Language Engines, about Kobo’s entry into the European language market for self-publishing services.

From that article:
“The Kobo publishing engine and tools have always been accessible for authors and publishers in non-English speaking countries in Europe, but until now, never in their native languages. That’s the game-changer, and it has the potential to be another real challenge for many owners and operators of self-publishing services in France, Germany, Spain and Italy, already contending with the roll-out of Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing. Dutch publishing service providers like Pumbo and Mijn Bestseller have had something of a recent charmed existence without the presence of KDP, but the arrival of Kobo and a planned still under wraps – all that may be about to change. Publishing providers on the continent have had something of a one-language, fixed territory approach to their businesses, and while it may work for US and UK publishing providers trading on a far larger geographical language base, it may spell the end for localized providers in Europe.”

Author Solutions (ASI), the self-publishing service giant and the company everyone in the self-publishing community is queuing up to hate like some badge of honour or affiliation to the self-publishing global cause, recognised the untapped potential of self-publishing in Spanish-speaking territories three years ago when it launched Palibrio. While I don’t believe for a minute ASI had the promotion of Spanish literature in Latin America or Europe as its number one reason to launch Palibrio, it demonstrates (along with Kobo’s European expansion) that our friends in mainland Europe can expect many more new neighbours moving in to a house near them.

In 2012 TIPM featured an article on self-publishing services and independent publishers in the Netherlands, an area I’m familiar with having lived there for the last year – Publishing Horizons: An Overview of Independent Publishing in the Netherlands. The migration of many self-published authors to ebooks and digital-only platforms has meant that the correlation and growth of self-publishing is now intricately aligned to digital publishing. While I’m always wary of not blurring the lines between self-publishing, per se, and online digital publishing with services like Amazon KDP and Smashwords, the slower growth of ebooks and the investment many big publishers on the European continent are placing in it must remain a serious concern. So much so that Neelie Kroes, Vice President of the European Commission and responsible for the Digital Agenda in Europe, has uttered something of a battle cry to publishers and digital content providers ‘to get down with authors and make its nations a damn fine place to do ebook business.’ eBook sales in Europe, and in many territories, are less than two percent of the market share.

NOG Brussel: Neelie Kroes
NOG Brussel: Neelie Kroes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“I know some see the advent of digital as a threat to the sector. But for me the biggest risk is that we fail to take advantage of new possibilities. Unless we embrace the future, the sector will for sure fall behind, overtaken by more forward-looking and dynamic parts of the world; overtaken by those who can look ahead and grasp the future. Then we will let down our economy, our people, and our cultural heritage.”
Kroes has suggested a three-point plan.
“I know that tax can make a difference. In Europe we continue, for the most part, to charge the higher rate of VAT for ebooks; even when paper books enjoy a reduced rate. The VAT system is changing. From January 2015, it has already been agreed that the rule will be the ‘country of destination’ principle. That is highly relevant for ebooks; and we will work with booksellers next year to develop guidance on this.”
Kroes also wants to see more out of print books in digital print as soon as is possible and  a willingness to support interoperability.
“EPub is just one example. Most readers expect to be able to access their books in whichever country they are, and on whatever device they choose. If European publishers can’t meet those expectations, consumers will vote with their wallets; or go to the big American companies who can offer that kind of scale.”
Ironically, the ePub format is Kobo’s choice of ‘interoperability’ as it develops into the European market. However, Kroes battle cry is intended to see the march forward in the opposite direction and primarily addressed at big publishers. Digital development is a far greater challenge in the European market than it is for the US and UK market with the challenge of language barriers and an inbuilt unwillingness to break out of a single-language culture and the added complexity of different VAT structures.
My biggest concern for self-publishing services based in mainland Europe is that large US retailers and service providers will fill the space ceded by native companies. I can only speak in any real detail about self-publishing providers in the Netherlands – companies like Pumbo and Mijn Bestseller. I suspect the landscape is the same for many providers in different countries. With an sure to be rolled out soon (more so if it quickly followed with its own KDP), I think many independent Dutch authors will prefer to work directly with this platform than a native service provider with limited distribution. While European self-published authors might initially publish a native version of their books, many are now seeing the potential for an English version and I’m unconvinced that local service providers are best placed to do this.
A couple of weeks ago, at a plenary session of the Self-Publishing Conference in Leicester, England, I stated that I believed the next big challenge and disruption in the publishing industry (traditional and self-publishing) will be translation. Right now, self-publishing providers across Europe need to move beyond what is happening under their noses and escape the self-imposed limitations of their businesses.
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