The Story Behind Germany's Scant E-Book Sales

In Germany, a nation of bibliophiles, e-books account for only 1 percent of books sold

The Story Behind Germany's Scant E-Book Sales
The International Book Fair in Frankfurt, Germany
Photograph by Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

As any New York City subway passenger has noticed, the number of people ditching paperbacks in favor of a Kindle or iPad is exploding. E-books last year accounted for 20.2 percent of all books sold in the U.S., up from 7.3 percent in 2010, according to Bowker Market Research. But that mass adoption of the digital word is still far off in one of Europe’s most-literate nations, Germany, where e-books account for only 1 percent of all book sales, according to a report published last month by the market research firm GdK.

Spiegel International last week took a closer look at Germany’s slow warm to digital reading and found that the causes are twofold. The primary factor is that physical books are deeply ingrained in the German way of life. “I think it’s first and foremost a cultural issue,” Jürgen Harth of the German Publishers & Booksellers Association told Spiegel. “On just about every corner there’s a bookshop. That’s the big difference between Germany and the U.S.”

Dominique Pleimling, a researcher at the Institute of Book Studies at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, echoes Harth’s sentiment. “Germans have an emotional connection to books,” he says, noting that the printing press was invented in Germany and publishers to this day take great pride in producing top-quality books there. “If you look at American hardcovers and German hardcovers, or even paperbacks, you see clear differences in how they’re made—American books often use woody paper that’s not especially pleasant. German books have a certain elegance, and beauty.” Threats to quality have never been welcome, Pleimling adds, pointing out that Germans took nearly a decade to warm to paperbacks when they were introduced in the 1950s.

Perhaps because of their deep attachment to the printed word, many Germans believe they simply cannot read as well on digital devices, despite proof to the contrary. A 2011 Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz study found virtually no difference in reading speed or retention when test subjects read from paper vs. digital screens. Nevertheless, the German test subjects insisted that they were better at reading from paper.

Beyond German bibliophilia, e-book sales also suffer from economic barriers. According to Pleimling, the German market is set up to protect the book, but not necessarily the e-book. While U.S. book prices are determined by booksellers, German book prices are set by publishers. The country’s fixed-price system, intended in part to protect small booksellers, means that books cost the same no matter where you buy them. German publishers also set e-book prices and tend to not to discount them too much, so as not to undercut print sales. E-books, according to Pleimling, can cost as much as €19 ($25).

Another economic factor is that printed books are exempt from Germany’s usual 19 percent value added tax. Instead they are taxed at 7 percent, the special tax rate for items the government deems essential. That discount doesn’t apply to e-books, which are subject to the 19 percent VAT. Germany’s Boersenverein, a lobby group that represents publishers, is currently fighting to have the e-book tax reduced.

The VAT difference can’t be given too much significance, though. In the U.K., e-books constituted roughly 11 percent of all book sales in 2011 despite the fact that they’re subject to a 20 percent VAT that doesn’t apply to printed books.

Germany isn’t alone in showing disinterest in digital books. The same is likely true in the rest of Europe (except the U.K.), where the rate of e-book sales tends to hover around just 1 percent, if that, according to a Global eBook Market report (PDF) compiled for the 2011 Frankfurt Book Fair. The report notes cultural barriers in France, where e-book sales are estimated to be about 1.8 percent: “Defending a diversified cultural infrastructure—notably, a tightly knit network of bookstores—resonates in various and continuous media reports and political activism aiming at curtailing a supposed negative impact from both online sales of books and the emergence of e-books, which is seen as an imminent threat to smaller libraries [bookstores],” reads the report.

It’s likely things will change with time. “In Germany we’re still at 1 percent, but that’s already an increase of 77 percent from the previous year,” says Pleimling. “If the growth rate continues like this, we’ll have similar rates as the U.S. in a few years. You can buy the Kindle here, the iPad is very successful in Germany, iPhones are very successful, and now Barnes & Noble is coming to Germany, too. If these devices keep getting cheaper, more and more people will buy them, and everything may change very quickly.”

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