To anyone familiar with Francophone literary culture, it was a watershed moment: On August 31 a consortium of digital publishers and e-publishing media outlets launched the electronic answer to the rentrée littéraire—the French publishing season running from August to November that sees the country’s biggest new titles hyped and contenders positioned for the year’s book awards. The website for the new initiative, dubbed Une autre rentrée littéraire (“another literary season”), offers articles, excerpts, and interviews showcasing over a hundred books released solely in digital form. According to Julien Simon, CEO of the design studio behind the site, actualitte.com /blog/uneautrerentreelitteraire, the project was conceived as a way of promoting “bibliodiversity,” in response to the observation that in France, “we still treat print and digital editions as if they were enemies.” One front in that conflict saw a rapprochement of sorts just two weeks into the season, when news came that a cohort of the country’s major publishers had dropped copyright-infringement charges against a certain book-scanning search giant. Add to that growing media speculation that Amazon will add a Kindle store to its French site this fall, and it’s easy to see why many believe that over the course of a few short months the once Amazon-shunning, Google-averse French have turned over a new digital leaf.
The same is true throughout western Europe, where the market for e-books—despite amounting to less than 1 percent of consumer book buying—grew by 400 percent in 2010, according to British consulting firm Futuresource. The Kindle made its German debut last April, entering the world’s second-largest book market six months after the Oyo, sold by the massive Thalia chain, became the first e-reader linked to a German-language bookstore. In September Amazon set up shop in Spain, with a Kindle store expected to be added to the site by the end of the year, although the $100 billion retailer is facing competition on the continent from Toronto-based Kobo, as well as from Sony, which is rolling out multilingual versions of its five-year-old Reader Store. Across the English Channel, U.K. book chain Waterstones is readying an e-reader of its own—reportedly modeled after the hugely successful Barnes & Noble Nook—to take on the Kindle and the iPad.
Surprisingly underdeveloped by comparison—at least in terms of the stand-alone e-reader market—is Japan, where a sizable segment of readers have taken to scanning their own books into digital devices (a practice common enough to have acquired its own name: jisui). The boom in so-called cell phone novels, which has rocketed amateur—and sometimes teenage—authors to the top of best-seller lists, has meant that in Japan electronic books frequently beget printed ones, as publishers issue paperback editions of works originally composed to suit the cramped real estate of a cell phone screen. Books formatted for mobile phones account for an incredible seven-eighths of the Japanese e-book market, now edging toward one billion dollars in sales.
But it’s emerging economies that have lately been catching the attention of farsighted publishing innovators. Addressing the second annual International Digital Book Conference in São Paulo, Brazil, this past July, multimedia pioneer Bob Stein argued that the overly conservative approach to digitization in the United States could offer a lesson for his hosts. While the last two years have seen e-books become widely available through Brazilian retailers, the price of internationally manufactured e-readers such as the iPad keeps them beyond the reach of many readers, and the selection of Portuguese-language titles remains minuscule—a situation the government is hoping to change with its promise to begin bulk purchases of digital content for the country’s schools by 2014. Meanwhile, in India, which is home to fifteen thousand publishers and potentially the world’s largest English-language book market, imported devices have begun to face competition from locally developed e-readers, including the Infibeam Pi and the Wink, capable of supporting the subcontinent’s various scripts.
Even the notoriously insular U.S. book market is opening its digital borders. Looking to reach more of the world’s 500 million Spanish speakers, most of whom live in the Americas, Barcelona-based e-book distributor Libranda has struck deals with more than sixty retailers on both sides of the Atlantic. One of those partners is Barnes & Noble, which, though without any international expansion plans of its own, has spent over a year importing content for NOOKbooks en español, the first dedicated Spanish-language e-book service in the United States.
While U.S. publishers and corporations may still be spearheading the digital transition, industry professionals here are increasingly cognizant of the reminder Australian-born Geraldine Brooks offers in her introduction to Best American Short Stories 2011 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt): “Foreign countries exist.”
Adrian Versteegh is a Henry MacCracken fellow at New York University.