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Battle for readers


Print is mightier than the e-reader – for now


By Jo Fahy



As e-books grow in popularity around the world and experts predict printed books will become close to obsolete in 20 years’ time, why has the Swiss e-book market been so slow on the uptake?

Downloading an e-book can be something of a technical exercise for the first-time user. A search around the web to find out which site will give you the best deal and the titles you want takes time.

After you finally find the book you want for the right price, it’s a matter of downloading it from a website and then working out if you have the right app to even open the file on your particular tablet or e-reader. And that’s after you have set up a new account, verified your email address and entered your payment details. Suddenly you have a number of e-reader apps on your tablet. Would it have been easier just to pick up a book?

Despite all of this, numerous newspaper columns and writers, such as Scottish author Ewan Williams, frequently quoted after an appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2011, say that print books will soon become obsolete. 

What is an e-book?

An e-book is an electronic version of a printed book. it can be downloaded via the internet to a computer, smartphone, tablet or e-reader and then read at any time with no internet connection needed.

 A number of hand-held devices can be used to read the e-books. E-readers such as the Kindle, made by Amazon, the Barnes & Noble Nook or the Kobo e-reader are made specifically for reading e-books.

 Tablet-computers, such as Apple’s iPad, the Google Nexus, the Kindle Fire or a Windows tablet can all be used to read e-books via apps, but they can also be used as portable, multimedia devices for surfing the internet and many other activities.

Accounting group PricewaterhouseCoopers predicted in a report at the start of June that the e-book market in Britain will almost triple over the next four years, outselling printed books by 2018.

Data for e-book sales in Switzerland however is very limited at the moment, as so few are bought. The Swiss Booksellers and Publishers Association estimates the market share of e-books in Switzerland came close to 5% in 2013.

“These figures are similar to Germany and Austria. We think that even fewer are sold in the French-speaking part of the country,” Dani Landolf, director of the association, told swissinfo.ch

Although this number has almost doubled compared with their estimate for the year before, it still lags far behind the sales of e-books seen in other countries. In the US for example, e-books have a 25% share of the book market.

“The Swiss are normally ahead in terms of technical developments and they have the money to buy gadgets, but with e-readers, it’s just taking much longer than we expected,” Landolf added.

“This summer we’re starting an e-books best-seller list to promote them, plus we encourage smaller book-sellers and publishers to use [the independent sellers website] ebookit.ch – once customers reach the virtual checkout, they choose which shop or publisher they want their sale to go through.”

Price difference

Cumbersome online steps and a limited range of titles available in Switzerland’s different languages and English could be part of the problem.

For some readers, choosing an e-book is also about the cost. “E-books in general have a very good price. For Switzerland, they’re quite cheap. It’s about the same as going to see a movie”, said Landolf.

But the price difference between languages can vary dramatically.

Mapuche by French writer, Caryl Férey, costs CHF9.60 in English, CHF10.00 in French and CHF16.20 in Italian, all on books.ch, the online shop for Swiss booksellers Orelli Füssli. On amazon.de the book is available in English only for €5.51 (CHF6.70), including a few cents added on for customers in Switzerland.

Landolf adds that in Switzerland, book-buyers all too easily feel the effect of being a small country surrounded by others.

“An Italian publishing house for example, calculates the cost differently from one in Germany or Switzerland,” Landolf told swissinfo.ch

Using a Swiss account on iBooks, the e-book reader app made by Apple, or on weltbild.ch, the Swiss arm of one of the biggest German book retailers, a number of books double in price from the English version to the German.

On thalia.ch, German-language e-books were similarly priced to other websites, but many English-language versions, even novels originally written in English, cost up to four-times as much as in German.

Thalia told swissinfo.ch that they use a pricing system known as the ‘agency’ model – where the publishers set the price and the booksellers get a fixed amount. Apple also use this setup.

The majority of e-book sales go through the German Amazon website however, which buys books in bulk for a discount.

How well are books selling?

As books are sold at the till and online in German-speaking Switzerland, the inventory control data goes straight to market research company, GfK.

 The Swiss Booksellers and Publishers Association then collects the data on turnover, genre and type of books sold.

 Sales of printed books in German-speaking Switzerland fell for five years in a row until 2013, where they picked up slightly, by 1.7%, compared to 2012. More than 20 million books were sold. The average price for a fiction book was CHF 18.

 E-books made up almost 5% of the market share according to estimates from the SBVV, almost double the figure of 2012, but still very low.

“Like most things in Switzerland, e-books are more expensive than abroad,” André Bähler, head of politics and economics at the Foundation for Consumer Protection, told swissinfo.ch.

 “This is particularly troubling, as the sale of e-books in Switzerland does not incur any higher costs, such as higher rent for a retail space. So e-books should not cost more from here than from foreign sellers.”

Paperback readers

 The feeling of physically browsing through shelves full of books and reading hand-written recommendations from the staff is something that fans of ‘real’ books often refer to.

 Independent booksellers have been focusing on this line of thinking to cultivate an experience as a way to set themselves apart from the ‘click-and-buy’ process of choosing an e-book online, according to Landolf.

 “Amazon is very big and it threatens the independent bookseller. But it’s not the end of the bookshop. There is a long tradition of paperback books, and well-made books with hard covers in Europe,” he adds.

 Stefan Friedli organises the Uncanny book club, “a group of people passionate about stories”. The group meets in Zurich and their website has 9-10,000 unique visitors per month.

 Around 60-80% of the book club members bring a physical, printed copy of the book along to meetings, which take place about once a month.

 “There is a sort of quality to physically owning a book; the way it feels, the weight of it, the smell of it. The whole book is a package, it’s not just about the words written in it.”

 While paper books are the reading method of choice for Friedli, he doesn’t think e-books should be dismissed either.

 “Many people who couldn’t be bothered to read otherwise, read books on their phones or on tablets – so from that perspective it’s not a bad development.”

By Jo Fahy, swissinfo.ch