In 2010, Neelie Kroes became the Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda for Europe. She has been a staunch advocate of eBooks and their accessibility for all citizens. She gave a talk in Salon du Livre, yesterday on the future of publishing in Europe.
Publishing in Europe has a long and storied history, for hundreds of years many companies have been in business producing some of the great literary works. Modern companies are facing a crisis because they are failing to adapt to the digital landscape that is starting to catch on in a big way. She mentioned “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. And as it stands we are not sufficiently taking advantage. We are not taking enough risks. In the US, eBooks are about one quarter of book sales; in only one European country does that figure go above 2%.”
Europe currently has a number of avenues for the general public to access eBooks via Europeana. This is Europe’s online cultural gateway, people can access over 26 million exhibits, including books, from over 2,000 institutions like libraries and archives. The Orphan Works Directive also provides a god framework for getting more content online
Neelie thinks that publishers have to think bigger then they are.”When competing with the American giants, piecemeal national initiatives won’t cut it. We need to think European to compete globally. Specifications and standards can help: for example, by supporting interoperability and portable eBooks. 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.”
European licensing remains a murky issue, for hundreds of years publishers have been printing books in their own countries and seldom exporting. Most scenes in France, Spain and Germany don’t translate that well to other countries and seldom do they see localization for your average title. Being able to market your books and gain the necessary permissions of the publishers to sell digital content to any country in Europe is something the industry has to strongly consider to develop a cohesive solution. There is also many different variations of VAT.
Neelie elaborated on the role that VAT tax in Europe plays a role in the current state of publishing and what it means going forward. “Globally, according to one study, the number of countries providing a VAT exemption or reduced rate to eBooks rose significantly, around 50%, over just three years. But not in Europe. Because 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 EU Commission is obliged to enforce EU law. But that does not mean we all agree with it, or think it needs to stay as it is.”
She went on to say “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 e-Books; and we will work with booksellers next year to develop guidance on this. Even more importantly, the intention is for the subsequent system to align VAT rates applied to print books and eBooks. But – as with all tax decisions – member states will need agree, unanimously. I think such a change would be good for our publishing sector; good for an education system increasingly trying to go digital; and good to remove artificial market distortions. After all, it is common sense that the same rules should apply to same products. I support such a consistent, non-discriminatory tax regime for paper and e-publications; and so does the OECD”
The London Book Fair is right around the corner and it will be interesting to see the continued presence of digital this year and how companies are going to take advantage of a virgin landscape. There is a ton of business models that are available, that no one is doing. Such as informing a user in France when an eBook from Germany just came out. Unless you belong to that specific German eBook site, you will never know.