Digital publishing arrives in foreign markets

India’s answer to the Kindle, Wink is an eReader that comes equipped with 15 Indian languages. (Courtesy of www.thewinkstore.com)

My recent trips to The Netherlands and Brazil surprised me by revealing just how globalized (read: Americanized) the world is: most people listen to Top 40, read U.S. books in translation and covet pricey, imported digital technology. An iPad in Amsterdam is envied; a copy of “Twilight” in Rio de Janiero overshadows Clarice Lispector or even Paolo Coehlo. And yet, it would be naïve to presume that the publishing apparatus rooted in the capital of the world could or should translate to the entire world. This column marks the third installment on digitalization in the publishing industry, this one with a focus on foreign markets — what they’re about and what they can teach us.

EBooks have not been as successful in penetrating foreign markets as their U.S. counterparts — according to Publishing Perspectives, an online journal, market penetration of eBooks is almost 20% in the US compared to about 10% in non-English markets. This is because most of the world lacks three things: available digital content, affordable eReaders and digital providers. Some countries have weak or unconventional publishing systems to build on; for example, 17% of Brazil’s books are sold through door-to-door sales primarily via, I kid you not, the international cosmetics company Avon. In a country where there are only three thousand bookstores (the U.S. has over 30,000), and those largely centered in urban areas, significant measures have to be taken to sell print books. We should not expect anything less of digital.

Argentinian Octavio Kulesz has teamed with Egyptian and South African consultants to form the Digital Minds Network, a program promoting digital publishing projects. He imagines that the developing world — which lacks extensive Internet access, much less an eBook publishing infrastructure — must skip the “Gutenberg Stage” and work hard to digitize with the technology available. While efforts are being made by Amazon, Barnes & Noble and others to expand to the developing world, digitization, I believe, won’t rely on iPhones or Kindles. The established eReader technology is too expensive, no matter how low the dollar likes to go.

It’s fortunate, then, that the developing world isn’t waiting for largely Western tech companies to swoop in. India has produced two low-cost eReaders, Pi and Wink; China is littered with faux Apple stores filled with not-too-shabby knockoff iPhones. Fairly basic cellphones, however, might be the perfect platform. Cellphones have long substituted for landlines in developing countries and are often the only means to access the internet across the developing world. These countries could look to Japan, which has pioneered “the cell phone novel,” as a model for eBooks. (Cell phone novels are like bite-size novellas — chapters run around 100 words and are perfect to read on the go!)

Although Japan has its own problems concerning eBooks — its major publishers don’t want anything to cut into their premium print sales — where there’s a buyer there’s a seller, and I expect Japan to find a way to do eBooks better within a few years. Weren’t they, after all, the ones with smartphones while we were in middle school being mystified by our Motorola Razrs and LG Chocolates?

In discussing foreign publishing markets, we’ve left out one important thing: language. Sales in English-language eBooks are up, but what is more intriguing is increased interest among international players such as Amazon, Google, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Yudu, among others “to enhance their platforms with content in Spanish from Spain and Latin America,” reports Publishing Perspectives. Spanish is the third most spoken language in the world; if publishers play their cards right, recognizing that Spanish-language books must be cognizant of the various cultural differences of the Spanish speaking world, then they can make some serious bank.

In a broader sense, it is significant that publishers are expanding outside the limitations of English-language books. In the U.S. there is an evident dearth of books in translation, with the inverse true outside the states. It has been routinely easy to get (unbanned) English or English-in-translation books outside the U.S. and difficult to obtain books in translation within American borders. People may know of Borges or Dostoevsky, but these are easy, archaic examples — where are the Chinese J.K. Rowlings, the Turkish Steven Kings or the Spanish Jonathan Franzens? I.e., what literature is being published now, and what does it have to say? My hope is that as international publishers begin to target foreign markets, they will have more familiar access to these titles, and will thus be more inclined to translate and advertise them in the U.S. The fact that these titles are being developed as eBooks is all the better for accessing them. eBook technology may be found wanting outside the U.S., but it’s found wanting inside the U.S. too, and I’m open to some new innovations. After all, publishing ain’t dead yet. Digitalization holds the promise for rebirth.

Susana is a sophomore. You can reach her at smedeir1@swarthmore.edu.

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