Frankfurt Book Fair 2012: Self-publishing, cell phones and startups

This was my first year at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the annual trade show that brings over 200,000 publishing professionals to Germany, so I can’t say whether the event had more of a digital focus than in years past — but I assume that it did, because there was plenty of news about ebooks and digital publishing coming out of the fair. Here’s my roundup of the biggest digital trends.

Self-publishing on a larger stage

Not surprisingly, bestselling erotic trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, which started out as Twilight fan fiction, got a lot of attention at Frankfurt as a self-publishing success that became even more successful once it was picked up by Random House. The trilogy is rumored to have sold over 50 million copies, but James couldn’t have done that on her own, writes Publishing Perspectives editor-in-chief Ed Nawotka: “It took Random House and Bertelsmann’s global network–and editorial, production, distribution and sales expertise–to make that happen.” He cites 50 Shades as a prime example of how self-pubbed authors and traditional publishers can work together: “Amid the continuing economic recession, the publishing industry needed 50 Shades of Grey. James didn’t need a publisher as such, but once she turned to the pros, her relatively modest success was turned into a maelstrom of money.”

At Frankfurt, publishers were on the lookout for more self-published titles to snap up. Penguin bought the UK rights to crime novel Natural Causes by James Oswald, which sold hundreds of thousands of copies as a self-published book, in a six-figure deal; German publisher Goldman Verlag also made a six-figure deal for the title, and offers were in from Brazil and Italy.

Amazon (s AMZN) continued its promotion of its self-publishing platform KDP. The company held daily sessions about the benefits of using self-publishing through KDP, and also announced that it is expanding the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library — which lets Amazon Prime members who own Kindle devices borrow one ebook a month from a library of over 200,000 titles, most of them self-published — to the UK, Germany and France.

In order to offer their books in the KOLL, self-published authors must make them available exclusively through the Kindle store.This is “dangerous…for the ebook rivals who have yet to open their doors to self-published content,” Eoin Purcell writes. “In reality, only Kobo has a fully functional platform for self-publishing authors beyond the USA (Apple does too, but only to the extent that those who have a nice Mac can access their iBookstore, but not everyone has a Mac). Nook’s [self-publishing platform PubIt!] is US only, though the talk is that this will change soon. The longer B&N and Microsoft exclude non-U.S. citizens from the service, the longer Amazon has to lock in exclusive content for three months at a time.”

Speaking of Kobo, the company announced a few more initiatives to compete on the self-publishing front through its self-publishing platform Writing Life. It acquired French digital software company Aquafadas and will make iBooks Author-like tools available to users. Writing Life is available in new languages — German, French, Italian, Portuguese and Dutch — and the company said authors from 82 countries are now using it.

Three bookselling startups to watch

Three of the most-talked-about startups at the Frankfurt Book Fair focus at least in part on new ways of selling books. Ganxy lets authors and publishers create “showcases” to sell books and control marketing and promotions. They can ssell books directly through the showcase or simply provide links to retailers. The entire showcase can then be tweeted, embedded in a blog, website or Facebook page, or can stand alone as a website.”

BookShout! lets users import ebooks they’ve purchased from Barnes & Noble and Amazon into its app. Once BookShout! has verified the purchases, users can access a DRM-protected version of the file uploaded by the publisher.

BookShout! is already working with Random House, HarperCollins, Macmillan and Wiley, but the practice of providing a third-party site with your Amazon user name and password is causing controversy: As Baldar Bjarnason writes at FutureBook, “We don’t know nearly enough for us to decide whether we can trust Bookshout. If they use their own servers as a proxy for the process, then those machines become a prime target for hackers. Compromising them would give them instant access to a host of Amazon accounts and their associated credit cards.”

BookShout! founder Jacob Illian addressed some of the concerns in a comment on paidContent’s story, writing, “At BookShout, we do not store your Amazon or B&N password when you import your books. In fact, if you import your books, buy another book from Amazon and then want to import the new one, you have to enter it all over again.”

ZolaBooks, founded by former literary agent Joe Regal, will begin selling ebooks by the end of this month, Regal said at the Tools of Change Frankfurt conference. “We intend to have every book from every publisher,” Regal said. Most books sold on Zola are protected with the company’s “proprietary” DRM — that was a requirement of the big-six publishers Zola is working with — which Regal claims is “unbreakable.” And, he said, “our answer to competing with Amazon is not to compete with Amazon…Our value system is so completely different from theirs.” He claimed “they’re not fundamentally editorially driven. [Amazon, which is publishing its own print and ebooks, might disagree.] They are pure commerce…Their value is price.”

Going global, thinking mobile

As digital reading expands globally, it won’t look the way it has in the West. In particular, mobile phones could be key in less wealthy countries, but many of those opportunities are so far untapped. “I’ve been perplexed by the relative lack of interest for books on mobile,” Andrew Bud of the Mobile Entertainment Forum told Publishing Perspectives. “Yes, it’s a harder sale, but as the traditional products that do well on mobile–ringtones, for example–are fading, there is an opportunity for publishers to become a stronger part of this morphing market.”

Ebooks are already selling well on mobile phones in China. At the International Rights Directors Meeting on Tuesday, Gary Tan, owner of the Grayhawk Agency in Taipei, offered a brief overview of China’s mobile ebook market. China has over one billion cell phone users and 300 million smartphone users as of March 2012 and China Mobile, one of two major telecom providers in China, is the country’s largest ebook platform. Publishers may be reluctant to sell foreign rights to China Mobile, as it takes a huge cut of sales — at least 50 percent and sometimes as much as 70 percent — and sells the ebooks at a 90 percent discount from the print price. “These terms sound really bad,” Tan said, but China Mobile has such a large user base that if a book becomes a bestseller on the platform, “we might be talking about six-figure U.S. revenue.”

A panel on potential for ebooks in sub-Saharan Africa also focused on mobile. Ben Williams, a South African bookseller and founder of Avusa Digital Books, a platform for African ebooks, mentioned mobile payments company M-PESA as “one of the most sophisticated banking services you can have in Africa” and said digital bookstores could be built on top of it. He also cited initiatives like Paperight, which rely on photocopying machines in “the copy shops that are all over Africa” to print out copies of ebooks. (There’s advertising on the paper’s margins.” “The copy shop is now like a library or bookstore,” Williams said. Nevertheless, Togo’s Yasmîn Zahra Issaka-Coubageat, publisher of Graines de Pensées, noted that only “thirty percent of the population has a mobile phone in Togo,” and so for many countries even a mobile phone revolution could be a few years away.

Globe, bookshelf photos courtesy of the Frankfurt Book Fair