German digital publishing – the Berlin way

Will the ebook transition span an entire generation?

My favorite number at the first TOC buchreport in Berlin on April 23rd was 20, as in 20% of the 2.4 million ebook buyers in Germany in 2012 had not bought any books in the previous twelve months, according to GfK, as quoted by Carel Weltbild, CEO of Weltbild, the second largest book chain and online platform for books in the country.

It was a long day, packed with panel debates and keynotes, with discussion topics ranging from ebook strategies in large- and medium-sized houses as well as newly-launched ventures, to author/publisher relationships to big data analysis in publishing, to lessons learned from the music industry. Yet in every detail the focus was (for once) not on some English language case studies but on the local German market.

The result was a thorough, and often controversial, portrait of the now strongly expanding ebook market in Germany as it had not been painted anywhere else so far or in so much depth. While Aufbau’s Tom Erben proudly acknowledged they “earn really good money on ebooks now”, on some products representing up to 50 percent of a title’s revenues, and around 15 percent on average for new releases, he nevertheless believes strongly that in its core the culture of publishing, the work with authors and content will hardly change.

Joerg Pfuhl, former CEO of Random House, and now a board member of Edel publishing and a consultant, completely disagreed as he spoke on how widely digital is about to change everything in the industry, echoing Kobo’s Michael Tamblyn, who in his keynote address underlined that the transition of ebooks was just beginning and will take the time-span of a generation.

The conference also brought together top executives from the traditional publishing industry with a fair number of new innovators, like Nikola Richter, an author of both nonfiction and poetry. After having done a few book with “old” publishing houses, Richter is about to launch her own publishing company, Mikrotext, in cooperation with Holtzbrink’s epubli self-publishing portal. Richter is busy producing her first titles, including an essay on digital by German media and literature legend Rolf Hochhuth, alongside new pieces of short fiction by young authors, while marketing, promoting, blogging, and engaging in social media; despite all those activities she is still finding time to create a new collection of poems, printed simply on paper.

More detailed numbers from the event can be found here and in a few days a selection of  the presentations will be available at the conference website here. Although most of the documents are in German any of the popular online free translation sites can convert them to your native language.

The conference was a joint initiative by the German trade magazine buchreport with Tools of Change, and in partnership with the German Publishers Forum. The program was curated jointly with the TOC team and moderated by Ruediger Wischenbart.

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