Changes for retailers as ebook revolution goes global

As international publishers and booksellers gather at the Frankfurt Book Fair this week, one big question is this: What will transition to digital reading look like outside the United States?

At the Publishers Launch conference here on Monday, retailers discussed what they are seeing so far…

Windows to new markets

Barnes & Noble (s BKS) is quickly expanding its library of global digital content. The company is being “very aggressive” about expanding its offerings and “shaking that content from the trees internationally”, VP of digital content Theresa Horner said.

And she said Barnes & Noble’s partnership with Microsoft (s MSFT), which spins off B&N’s Nook and college businesses into a separate company called Nook Media, gets ebooks to more international readers. “The Windows 8 partnership allows us to be in markets where we can’t get our own device there,” Horner said. “It removes hurdles to us setting up storefronts.”

Partnership choices

Michael Tamblyn, Kobo’s EVP of content sales and merchandising, described lessons learned as the company expands into more foreign countries…

Partnering with local bookstore chains has been key, he said, and is central to Kobo’s international strategy: “The infrastructure of selling ebooks is a global endeavor, but bookselling is fundamentally a local experience.” So far, Kobo has partnered with UK bookstore chain WH Smith, France’s FNAC, Canada’s Indigo, Australia’s Collins and New Zealand’s Whitcoulls. “It turns out that even though they are bricks-and-mortar retailers, they can do some of the most important parts of e-bookselling very well.”

Kobo had planned to expand to 12 new countries in 2012. It’s likely to reach that goal — Tamblyn said the company will announce new partnerships at the Frankfurt Book Fair this week. But, in some instances, that expansion was slower than the company had predicted. “Book retailers take the ebook partnership shockingly seriously,” Tamblyn said. “It’s the most important decision a bricks-and-mortar bookseller will make in the next five to 10 years.”

Tamblyn didn’t explicitly mention British bookstore chain Waterstones’ partnership with Amazon (s AMZN), which many in the industry have found baffling. But local retailers have to ask themselves, “‘Who am I willing to trust my customers to?'” Tamblyn said. “It’s a momentous decision.”

Matter of fact

As Kobo chose the countries it wanted to expand to, it looked at several factors, Tamblyn said: literacy, disposable income, reading market size, internet availability, WiFi availability, availability of digital content, and local partners.

While North American and many European countries fit those requirements, after that, markets become more fragmented and smaller. “The fiction-driven ebook market we’ve become very used to through North America and Europe is not going to remain the prominent theme for selling outside of those markets,” Tamblyn said. Rather, as digital reading expands to countries like Brazil, Russia, India and China, expect to see “more educational-instructional content” and a greater role for independent players.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock user Borys Shevchuk