Kindle Frustrations: Why European Book Publishers Are Slowly Committing Suicide

Image credit: © Inge Loots, all rights reserved

I love books. At one point I owned over 700 books that sat on shelves lining the wall of my living room. Moving to a new house was quite the ordeal, because most of the moving boxes would be full of books. When Amazon announced the Kindle, I knew I wanted one. I could store an entire library of books in the cloud and everything would fit on one little device. I loved it, until I got very frustrated with this afternoon. Geographical restrictions locked me out of the UK Amazon store.

Amazon Kindle Store Shuffle

Last year, I got the Kindle Paperwhite, as a birthday gift. Since I buy most of my things from the United Kingdom Amazon store, I hooked up the Kindle to the UK store as well. This worked fine until this Fall. Suddenly I would get notifications asking me if I did recently move to a new country or whether I was traveling outside my country. I wasn’t.

I had to connect my Kindle to another store. The only European options where I could pay in Euro, according to their help section, were The Netherlands and Germany. I wasn’t keen on doing so because of the major difference in pricing. Books here are up to 50% more expensive because of protectionist laws. I ended up moving to the United States store. Books are much cheaper there, even with dollar and euro being almost at parity.

European Fixed Book Price Agreement Laws

Why are books so insanely expensive in Germany and The Netherlands? What is this legislation, this fixed book price agreement, about? How is publishers and book stores pricing all books €20 a good idea? Their reasoning for doing so is that this will ensure that ‘small circulation books’ of unknown authors and poems can be made and published. These small circulation books are special in their eyes. They represent ‘culture’.

The following European countries have a fixed book price agreement (law) in place, according to Wikipedia: Germany, Austria, Denmark, Spain, France, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, The Netherlands, Portugal and Slovenia. For people who travel abroad, the same book can be up to 50% cheaper in countries that don’t have the fixed prices. When people aren’t that mobile and don’t travel a lot, I can see how publishers and book stores got away with selling overpriced books. Customers don’t have much of a choice.

The Game Changes

In the late nineties the world changed forever when Internet became more widely available. At the turn of the century a lot of Europeans had access to broadband internet. Amazon was founded during this time. At first with an American store only, that sold cheap books to Dutch standards. However, the steep shipping costs and the 21% duty that needed to be paid over any order over €20 stopped people to shop online.

This changed in 1998 when the Amazon UK store was opened. Since the UK was inside the EU, the Freedom of Trade Act applied: no duty and VAT had been already paid for in the UK, so you would pay for what you got. Also, the shipping costs were a fraction of what they would be from the United States. In my case, 99% of the books I read are in English. If you wonder why I was buying everything that hasn’t an electric cord attached to it in the UK, here’s your answer. I’ve never bought a physical book in a Dutch book store during my adult life.

When Amazon announced the Kindle in 2007, I knew this would be a major game changer for me: the books I purchased in the United Kingdom would become even cheaper than they already were, because of the elimination of shipping costs.

European Book Publishers in Dire Straits

In 2015, the Dutch fixed book price was reprieved for another four years.  There is only one caveat: Publishers have to show that the fixed book price really helps small circulation books. Currently, it’s not entirely clear if and how the premium on books flows back to these authors.

Around this time, the Dutch publishing industry was in dire straits: large book chains like second hand De Slegte and high end reseller Selecxyz were struggling. They merged and created the new book chain Polare. It resembled the process around U.S. chain Borders. Within a year after the merger, Polare filed for bankruptcy.

Publishers fear Piracy

Despite the fact that the game has changed and customers buy their books online at much lower prices abroad, book stores and publishers act like it is still 1985. They fiercely defend the protectionist book price agreements, lobby for an extension and are reluctant to offer e-books. They are afraid their books will get pirated and use Adobe DRM in many cases, making it hard for users to download them to their e-reader of choice.

It’s not hard to remove the DRM, so e-book piracy is rampant in this country. According to the publishers it is because people don’t want to pay a fair price for books, but I think it is because people want to read books on their e-reader without having to jump through so many hoops. DRM-free books save a lot of hassle.

DRM is Evil

All e-books are DRM’ed, whereas regular books have no copy protection whatsoever. I know I have photocopied academic books as a student, because I couldn’t afford them at the book store. This worked well because paper books do not have a photocopy protection, like for instance watermarking the pages. I think publishers and book stores display the same reaction to e-books as the music industry had towards mp3 downloads: they fear the digital market and cling to their business model that has been around for at least one hundred years. Times are changing, and they are changing fast. If you don’t adapt, you lose.

Revoking Protectionist Laws and Removing DRM will boost sales

When you have to pony up 20 euros for a book, it better be worth it. What kind of books do people buy when the price is so high? Popular books from well-known authors. Of course! Small circulation books will perhaps benefit from the proceeds of the best selling authors, but I struggle to see the real benefit for them.

What use is spending months, if not years writing a book when nobody reads your work? Usually the money isn’t the main purpose. Were it for the pay only, they probably would have chosen a different career. It’s not only common sense that tells us this, according to one study, the protectionist mindset hampers book sales.

Book publishers and their resellers are committing suicide

People won’t start pirating books that are only a couple of bucks. People only pirate stuff because the legal way is too cumbersome, the developments in the music industry show us this. In the same way that I don’t feel the need to download music illegally because of my Spotify subscription, I don’t feel the need to pirate e-books because of my Kindle Unlimited.

Why are publishers so keen on putting their head in a noose? I really don’t understand. Do you?