Czech e-book revolution yet to be kindled

Martin Lipert, photo: David Vaughan

If you live in the United States or many parts of Western Europe, you will almost certainly have come across e-books. Downloading books electronically has become a major part of the business of publishing and selling books, and e-book readers like Amazon’s “Kindle” are selling in their millions. But how does the situation compare in the Czech Republic? David Vaughan finds out more in this week’s Czech Books.

Martin Lipert, photo: David Vaughan
The simple answer is that there is no comparison. Most people in the Czech Republic will never have come across an electronic book and e-readers are few and far between. But given rising living standards and Czechs’ love for new gadgets, could we be on the brink of an e-book revolution even here? One person who certainly hopes so is Martin Lipert. Last autumn he set up “eReading”, the Czech Republic’s first electronic bookstore, which offers several hundred books for downloading. Martin, an enthusiastic economics graduate, looks the part: full of youthful energy and confident that his business plan can work even in the small Czech market. We met at his bright new offices in Prague.

“We are starting the business and we are probably the first who are doing it. So, we are really enthusiastic and looking forward to good business.”

Many people in the “dot-com” world have come up with exciting ideas and have discovered that things haven’t quite worked out in practice. Is there a danger of that in your business, in the world of Czech e-books?

“Yes, I would also say it is different from the dot-com world. I would say ‘dot-cz’, which is absolutely different from dot-com! So, we are a little bit scared, but times move on and people are richer and can afford lots of new things. We provide really good stuff with good pricing, usually our e-books are 50% of the price of a usual one.”

And just to make it clear what an e-book is, you’ve got a little device here in front of you…

“…yes, it has a 6-inch display, which is the most popular size. Lots of producers do their main business in this area. If you’ve got a larger reader, you can’t put it in your pocket. If you’ve got a smaller one, it’s complicated to read anything on it.”

These e-readers are selling pretty well in the United States and Western Europe. How are they catching on here in the Czech Republic? I haven’t seen many around. You don’t see people sitting in the metro with their e-reader instead of an old-fashioned book or magazine in front of them.

“Yes, that’s the story, but it changed this Christmas. We were selling lots of devices in the last couple of weeks before Christmas. It’s not that usual to find someone, but now it’s changing. The boom of – for example – Kindle in the US has happened in a completely different market. There are 300 million people living there, we are 10 million. So lots of details are different. Generally we say that we are five years behind the US market.”

Just to make it clear: how many e-readers have been sold in the United States and how many in the Czech Republic?

“In the US the estimate is about 6 million in the next year, but in the Czech Republic we are counting just thousands – not much. But it’s changing. People get used to it, they look at other people around and then they start to like it. And of course there’s no marketing in the Czech Republic because, until September last year, there was no legal source to download e-books.”

I wanted to ask about that. It’s all very well to have the product, but if there’s nothing to read, then that’s obviously going to be a problem.

“Exactly. I can’t describe how difficult it was to get 400 e-books, which is the current number of e-books provided in our store! We are the largest e-bookstore in the Czech Republic and we have 400 e-books, which is nothing, I would say!”

I’m quite surprised, because I would imagine that both writers and publishers would be potentially very interested.

“Yes. That’s how it doesn’t work in the Czech Republic.”

Is it a kind of technophobia?

“Yes, definitely, and this is a very specific area. People are old-fashioned and all of the publishers are very scared of e-books, so it’s changing a bit more slowly than in the US.”

I remember a time 20 years ago when books in this country were extremely cheap. But now, when you go into a bookshop, it’s astonishing how expensive books are. I should imagine that this isn’t sustainable in the long run.

“I would say that the main problem seems to be in distribution, which takes 50% of the price, but maybe e-books and e-publishing could change this, because the way from the writer to the customer is definitely shorter than the normal way.”

You mentioned that there are 400 books so far available through your bookshop. Who is there? Is it mostly contemporary fiction?

“I would say it is a complete mix of literature. It depends on the publisher. Each publisher has got some ideas, but there is also a problem that writers are not interested in e-publishing that much. We try to persuade them it’s a good idea, we try to persuade them to launch e-books because it’s an opportunity for them, but, you know, this area is not as fast as maybe the automotive sector or banking and so on.”

Martin Lipert, photo: David Vaughan
I’m surprised, because Czechs don’t strike me as a technophobe nation, people are into gadgets. I only have to think of my own children and the mobile phones that some of their friends already have, even at the age of ten or eleven. So the problem must be somewhere else.

“Young people usually don’t read that much! This could be the problem.”

So the young market just isn’t there generally – even for traditional books?

“Exactly, but on the other hand we are a nation which really reads a lot. Our target market is people around 30 years old, and for those readers the device has really nice options. You can just use the USB cable, plug it into your reader, upload your document, and you can just read ordinary documents from your business and if you get bored you just turn the page and you can read your book and so on. There are so many interesting things in this area, but people have to find out those options and start to like them.”

I should imagine that one potential advantage of the e-book would be that books could be published just as e-books. One of the main costs of producing a book is the physical process of putting it together. Is there any sign that there is going to be a market for books just in electronic form?

“We’ve got a serious problem in the Czech Republic – we say that in this country there are more writers than readers, and if you open this way there’s going to be a huge amount of literature of a certain quality – I won’t say what quality it would be!”

But we already have blogs, for example, which include very interesting writing with considerable literary quality at the same time as a lot of blogs which no one would probably ever want to read apart from the person who wrote them. But it isn’t an argument for not doing it.

“No, definitely not. The main argument is about the cost. It’s not that easy to write a text in some programme on your computer and say: ‘Hurray! I’ve got a book,’ and then launch it on the market. No, there are lots of activities you have to do to launch a high quality book. I don’t want to mention all of them, but it’s a process which costs something. These costs are fixed, and you have to sell a certain number of books – and you don’t sell them in the e-book way. You have to launch the normal paper book and this book could cover all these fixed costs.”

And there’s no possibility of e-books that will be cheap, but with sponsorship or advertising?

People in the Czech Republic are a little bit allergic to advertising. What could happen, if the market grows up and we are selling more than a thousand books per one title or whatever, then you can afford all those investments – the fixed cost – to launch a good quality book. But not before the market grows up.”

Another important factor is for the devices to be available on the market, for it to be possible to go into any electronic goods store and buy these e-readers. Is that already the case in the Czech Republic? Can you go into a shop and choose between various e-readers?


And what sort of price-range?

“That’s the main obstacle. They are really expensive. The cheapest one goes from 4,000 crowns, which is 200 dollars, and it goes up to 400 dollars. So this is the range, but it has to come down. People are not willing to pay so much for this kind of one-function device, so I would say that this market will accelerate once this device costs 100 dollars.”

Are you optimistic that e-reading is going to catch on on a big scale in the next couple of years?

“It’s hard to say. I’m the owner of one e-bookstore, so I would say yes, but I could have made a mistake about this and I try to avoid giving any strict data about this. I really don’t know how well it will work – if this will turn into a multi-million business or an illegal business. I don’t know, but I would say that our website grows each month by 30%, so people trying to find good literature are satisfied.”

You mention illegal downloading. Is that potentially going to be a crippling problem for you?

“That main problem is that we didn’t have any legal possibility for customers to download e-books before September 2010. So here in the Czech Republic a small group of people got together and they were downloading and stealing – though I wouldn’t say stealing. If you don’t have the opportunity to buy those books legally, I wouldn’t say that it’s really illegal. But that’s only my opinion. But now, those people are fantastic, because they’ve got some websites, they store their illegal copies, and I haven’t found a single one from our shop there. I’m really amazed. That’s very generous of them!”

And are any publishers in the process of suing them, as far as you know?

“Yes, there are a couple, but it’s completely useless. You know that!”