At the opening press conference at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair (which ended October 18), Heinrich Riethmüller, the chairman of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association, told reporters about the German book industry’s battle to prevent Amazon from “monopolizing” the book business. In a sign of how that fight is going, Riethmüller said that the Tolino, an e-reader backed by a consortium of German booksellers and publishers, was outselling the Kindle in Germany. According to figures compiled by GFK Entertainment, the Tolino e-reader now holds a 45% market share in Germany, while the Kindle has a 39% share. PW caught up with Riethmüller to ask about the German book market—and the German book industry’s dealings with Amazon.
How are German publishers feeling about the state of the market, both for print and e-books?
German publishers and booksellers are feeling energetic and confident at this time. Even if sales have declined slightly in 2014 and in the first months of 2015, the market performance over the last years has generally been stable.
Can you tell us about the mix of print and digital books for German readers?
German readers still largely prefer print books, but the e-book has found its place in the market. The market share of consumer e-books in Germany is still relatively low compared to the U.S.—about 5.6% of sales as of July 2015—but e-book-purchases have been rising during the last years, both in volume and revenue, although the increase in turnover is not as large as it has been in previous years.
At the opening press conference in Frankfurt, you noted that the Tolino e-reader has managed to surpass the Kindle in Germany. Tell us a little about that.
Yes, the Tolino has outrun the Kindle in terms of sales in Germany. As the common e-reading ecosystem of the German book industry, it is a real success story. Tolino was launched in 2013 by the big bookselling companies in Germany: Thalia, Weltbild, Hugendubel, and Club Bertelsmann, in cooperation with Deutsche Telekom. In 2014 the wholesaler Libri joined the Tolino alliance, and as a consequence, about 1,000 independent bookstores have been brought into the system. And the Tolino alliance is still growing. This year, for example, two big regional chains, Osiander and Mayersche, have joined the alliance. Customers can buy e-books for the Tolino in over 1,800 bookstores at the moment, roughly one out of every three bookstores in Germany. After only two and a half years, the Tolino has firmly established itself in the German book market.
Can you talk about how the German publishing industry deals with Amazon?
The German book market is one of the world’s most dynamic, served by a network of booksellers, and with a highly diverse book supply. Amazon is a monopolistic company playing out their dominance and abusing their market strength in order to undermine market structures. The aim of Amazon is to eventually make booksellers and publishers disappear, in order to be the only intermediary between the author and the reader. Because we have a law implementing fixed book prices, Amazon cannot challenge bookstores in terms of price in Germany. And we carefully watch the behavior of Amazon and diligently enforce the fixed-price system against any infringer.
We also took action when, in 2014, Amazon was pressuring publishers for higher discounts on the sale of e-books. In our opinion, Amazon was clearly abusing its strength and position in the German market. We filed a complaint against Amazon with Germany’s federal antitrust authority. This year, Amazon’s subsidiary, Audible, started similarly extortionist activities towards audiobook companies that forced us to appeal to the German and European antitrust authorities once more. This has been successful, and as a result, the European Commission has launched an investigation of Amazon.