Turning the page
Though they still account for only a fraction of overall book sales, e-books are slowly but surely gaining ground in Flanders, as tablet computers with built-in e-reading devices become increasingly widespread and publishers adapt to the changing realities of book consumption.
The publishing industry in Flanders is adapting as e-books grow in popularity
There are no accurate numbers about e-book consumption in Flanders because Apple and Kobo, the two prime tablet and e-reader manufacturers here, do not distinguish between sales in Belgium and the Netherlands. “It's been very difficult to gauge the exact increase in e-book sales,” says Jef Maes, head of the knowledge centre at Boek.be, the Flemish book publishers’ trade association. “But following estimates we’ve made with market research company GfK, we expect sales to double by the end of the year.”
In a recent poll among 1,600 Belgian consumers by Bookboon, itself an e-book publisher, a little over one in four people said they expected to buy their first e-book this year. If they follow through, that would mean a 330% increase in digital book sales compared to last year.
About 22,000 Flemish book titles are currently available in e-format, and they can be bought through a host of online retailers and bricks-and-mortar stores like bol.com, Standaard Boekhandel and Fnac. Almost by default, digital versions of new titles by Flemish and Dutch writers are being released alongside their physical editions. Having trailed behind other Western countries – where e-books have long been mainstream – it looks like Flanders has bridged the digital divide. Contrasting the state of play here with that in other European countries, Thomas Buus Madsen from Bookboon says: “I think Belgium is in the upper part of the class.”
Tablet 1, e-reader 0
So what changed? The tablet computer came, saw and conquered. According to the most recent figures, one in four Flemish households owns a tablet. And those full-featured tablets seem to be succeeding at something e-readers never could: convincing non-techie users to give e-books a try. The 2011 Digimeter, a yearly poll about digital consumption trends in Flanders, revealed that 75% of tablet owners used their device to read e-books. In other words, few people buy tablets specifically to read e-books, but once they have one, digital reading is just an app away.
While e-readers offer a superior reading experience to tablets, Flemish consumers have shown no interest in them over the past years. In fact, e-reader sales plummeted before they ever really took off. “For the person who reads a lot, an e-reader is a fantastic invention,” explains Madsen. “For the rest, paying €150 for an e-reader is a lot for something you don’t know how you would use.” Just two years after e-readers were introduced on the Flemish market, Digimeter stopped asking about e-readers because it no longer seemed relevant, with ownership in Flemish households stagnating at 2%.
In an equally important development, the prices of e-books have dropped significantly. In the past 12 months, the average price of an e-book has dropped from €13 to €10. Flemish publishers initially had a hard time estimating e-book revenue, explains Maes. Rather than suffer losses in an already depressed economy, they tended to overprice the e-books.
Another factor in e-books’ increasing popularity is that the industry itself is finally catching up with consumers. In the past two years, several industry-led and government-funded initiatives have been working to help the publishing industry make the digital transition. In think tanks and pilot projects they have been trying to answer questions that publishers have struggled with since e-books first popped up.
What will the return on investment be? How can they come up with a sustainable business model? Which technology companies can they partner with? “There’s been a growing realisation in both the publishing industry and the Flemish administration that the Flemish book industry would totally be eaten up by the big international players if we didn’t come up with larger-scale initiatives,” says Maes. For a long time, Flemish publishers stuck to proven print recipes.
Annemie Speybrouck co-ordinates the Uitgeverij van de Toekomst (Publisher of the Future), an industry-led, government-subsidised project to help publishers with the transition to online reading. She says that because the Flemish market was so small, e-publishing required costly investments. The return on investment was so unclear, publishers dragged their feet.
“That has been such a turnaround,” she says, pointing out that publishers were reluctant to get involved at first. “I think a lot of publishers now realise they need to think ahead. At the time same time, they’re also really concerned with: How will we stay afloat today and how can we keep our print products alive?”
Do it yourself
And more is to come. Funded by the government of Flanders, the Flemish E-book Platform – which wants to function as an online marketplace for consumers to rent, borrow and sell Dutch-language e-books – should be ready for take-off this year. And with the first Flemish self-publishing e-book platform launched last month, we might soon see even more e-books being offered and sold. From as little as €99, BoekBoek allows aspiring authors to independently publish their own novels in a production process that takes just a few days.
Despite the many advances, the electronic book industry is still in its infancy in Flanders, and digital sales account only for a fraction of overall revenue. The future will not be all digital, all the time, says Karel Vanrietvelde, a digital consultant who has been giving IT workshops at libraries, social profit organisations and small businesses across Flanders for more than 10 years. “Print will continue to exist but in a new relationship; it will no longer be the exclusive medium for communication,” he says. “Not everything will shift to digital, and where the new balance will lie is still unclear.”
The five bestselling e-books in Flanders last year according to market research company GfK
Fifty Shades of Grey, EL James
Fifty Shades Darker, EL James
Fifty Shades Freed, EL James
Ongezien (Unseen), Karin Slaughter
Doorn in mijn vlees (Thorn in my Flesh), Karin Slaughter