Wednesday, October 24, 2007

E-books in the Netherlands: here we go again

Yesterday the Dutch daily financial FD (registered access) sported an article on e-books. Basic message was that the bookshop chain BGN will start to distribute e-books through its Selexyz consumer channel. The motive: “We have to.”, according to Matthijs van der Lely, the managing director, “ As Selexyz we need to be in the front. Look at what happened to the CD, with the downloading of music, with iTunes. You need to go with the flow as bookshop, even if you put an axe in the roots of your own business”.

His offer: “The e-reader which Selexyz will sell is dear: it will cost 650 euro. The customer can only download English language titles for now., in total 25.000 titles through the website of Selexyz. Some titles are free, others can be read against payment. Dutch titles are not available yet. They still have to be digitised..”

I looked at the article and could not believe my eyes. The man spoke like a stranger in Jerusalem. I wondered whether he took the decision after the saleman of iRex Technologies had dropped in with his blue eyes or having read a proper marketing report. I personally think that the iRex salesmen passed by and won him over.

E-book in the Netherlands: here we go again, now for the third time. In 1993 Sony tried to swamp the European and Dutch market with its EB player. It cost 1200 Dutch guilders (roughly 600 euro now). This e-reader (see my mini-series on retro gadgets), an adapted Data-discman playing a minidisc, was the first incorporation of an electronic book: the device was the hard cover and the minidisc could contain 200Mb in text, images and sound (which was an innovation for books after the sound books by Bertelsmann). In 1995 Sony stopped the sale of the EB reader in the Netherlands with no more than 1.000 units sold and roughly 6 Dutch titles produced. .

By 1997 in the upswing of internet, a new ground swell came up with e-readers from Softbooks and Rocket e-book. It looked like it would work. But by 2000 no e-book tsunami had passed. The bookshops of Barnes & Nobles threw the e-books out of their assortment. Some specialised companies stayed with the e-books, but the owners did not become millionaires from it.

In both waves many success and failure characteristics had played their part. Of course it was interesting to read electronic books, having them in one device. But the weight, the screen, the battery life and the price contained technical failure elements and the perception that everything is free on the internet, including e-book, as well as the offer of e-books were a marketing failure characteristic.

By 2006 the third wave came up in the Netherlands. iRex Technologies introduced the iLiad, an e-reader with a screen based on the e-Ink technology; a very readable screen with a smart power consumption system. The iLiad was also positioned as an e-book reader, but also as an electronic newspaper reader, an electronic manual reader and a device which could be used in schools and hospitals. It is an open system so it takes for example the Mobipocket format, which can be read on Windows, Palm and Pocket PCs. In the meantime the e-book business had grown slowly in the Netherlands and offers e-books in various languages, including at least 140 Dutch language copyrighted books.

Will the Selexyz wave bring on the e-book tsunami? Did the situation really change? Technically there have been major improvements in the weight, digital paper screen and power management. But for the rest not much has changed. The perception that everything is free on the internet has changed a little bit, given the success of iTunes. But so far nothing has changed in price and the offer of copyrighted books in Dutch.

One conclusion can be drawn from history: do not start at the distribution end, but start at the producing end. Before Mr Van der Lely should have talked to the financial newspaper, he should have organised a production pipeline with publishes for e-books and audio books and then he should have started a publicity campaign with the publishers, producers and the distribution channels. He should have made sure that the 1 kilogram book of Geert Mak In Europa should be available in electronic form or the 1032 page book about Pierre Vinken, the former CEO of Reed Elsevier; these would prove the advantages of e-book. Now he is left with an expensive offer of an e-reader for which hardly any Dutch language books are available. In short Selexyz has create a guarantee for failure in the e-book distribution.

Blog Posting Number: 904

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