Print Is Alive and Kicking at Book Fair Feting Digital

The book of the future could be crowdfunded, self-published or tied to a video game -- you might even have voted on a key plot twist. Still, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to read it on paper.

At this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, the publishing world’s largest gathering, an industry that has been upended by digitalization and the rise of Amazon.com Inc. went in search of new business models. As reading habits change and e-books take center stage, the appetite for good storytelling is stronger than ever.

Verlag Friedrich Oetinger GmbH, a children book’s publisher that sells the Hunger Games series in Germany, is a case in point. While investing heavily in digital products and even creating its own coding unit, managing director Till Weitendorf isn’t turning his back on print.

“It doesn’t matter if you have a book or an iPad in your hand,” he said in an interview at his company’s stand at the fair, which ran Oct. 8-12. “You must have a great story. This hasn’t changed, the world around it has changed.”

As the way people read evolves, so too does the way stories are told. In the U.S. and the U.K., 45 percent of readers have read at least part of an e-book on their mobile phone, according to a survey by Publishing Technology.

New technologies are only part of the picture. Kladde Buchverlag, a startup based in Freiburg, Germany, uses crowdfunding to finance the publication of its books, bringing high-quality design, luxury paper and professional editing to self-published authors.

Promising Projects

It pre-selects promising projects and Internet users decide which books will make it with their donations. Particularly generous donors may even get a say on key plot developments or the fate of a character, said Lea Nowak, one of the company’s funders.

Britta Friedrich, the director for events and programs at the Frankfurt fair, says that after years of running after the latest technological novelty -- from CDs to e-readers to tablets -- the industry is now focusing on how to exploit these innovations.

“Publishers see they don’t need to jump on every bandwagon,” Friedrich said. “Publishers need to think not only of new devices but also of new ways of storytelling.”

For the first time, she said, representatives from gaming companies such as Ubisoft Entertainment were present at the fair in search of partners. The trend is already taking off. “Endgame,” a book by American author James Frey, is being turned into an augmented-reality game by Google Inc.’s Niantic Labs.

E-Book Platform

As it publishes the German translation of “Endgame,” Oetinger is also trying to ease the passage from offline to online reading with Tigercreate, a platform to transform illustrated children books into animated, interactive e-books. The process used to require expensive programming for each new book and device, according to Weitendorf. Around 40 publishers have already signed up to use the platform, he says.

The next step is a subscription service through which children will be able to access books, Weitendorf says, as Oetinger tries to carve out a niche product in a market dominated by Amazon.

The U.S. online retailer, which helped create the e-book market with the introduction of its Kindle reader in 2007, introduced its e-book subscription service, Kindle Unlimited, in Germany a day before the Frankfurt Book Fair opened. In the U.S., it offers access to more than 700,000 titles for $9.99 a month.

Subscription Models

Amazon’s charge into the subscription market made it a lightning rod at this year’s fair as authors questioned the U.S. company’s power over releases and pricing while publishers took a more sanguine view.

News Corp.’s HarperCollins is among those that have made its backlist titles available via subscription.

“Around 80% of the publishers we spoke to were positive,” Len Vlahos, executive director of the Book Industry Study Group, said in a presentation of its latest research. “They said subscription models opened up new markets for them, gave them new ways to leverage their content and above all, gave them so much valuable data.”

Amazon’s dominance was demonstrated earlier this year when a dispute with Hachette Book Group over the pricing of e-books led to the U.S. company sanctioning books, blocking pre-orders, delaying shipping and reducing discounts. Writers in the U.S. and Germany wrote public letters protesting the move.

Amazon Risk

“There is a risk in this for Amazon as people start wondering ’What is my value as a customer?’,” said Michael K. Norris, an industry consultant. “This might open ample opportunity for competition.”

At the same time, the trend of granting Netflix-style access to hundreds of thousands of books for a flat rate goes hand in hand with the rise of self-publishing. Most of the titles available on services like Amazon Unlimited are genre fiction, from crime to science fiction and romantic novels.

While critics are skeptical of the thousands of new titles released online every day, self-published authors disagree.

Nika Lubitsch, whose crime novel “The 7th Day” bumped “50 Shades of Gray” off the top spot in the German Amazon best-seller chart, says selling online allowed her to earn more and connect better with her readers.

She sold 470,000 copies of her e-books since she started using Amazon’s online platform two years ago. The American company pays authors 35 percent to 70 percent of the selling price, considerably more than authors traditionally receive from publishers.

Still, not all authors might excel in the world of self-published books, she said.

“Books that now win literary prizes would find it hard to thrive there,” she said. “One has to be loud.”

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