On February took place Vilnius Book Fair which hosted two debates in the framework of the Aldus project. First was a panel discussion on “The Bestseller: Books Race in the World and Lithuania”, dedicated to the presentation and commentary of research results on the recent evolution of the bestseller phenomenon. Aida V. Dobkevičiūtė, Director of the Lithuanian Publishers Association, moderated the session; she acknowledged that a book fair in February was unusual, especially in cold climates, but on the other hand she explained it greatly increased the chances of getting media coverage, and she introduced the speakers, all representing the publishing sector in small countries and small language areas, with little cross-border linguistic spillovers.
Miha Kovač, publishing professor and Head of Digital Development of Slovenian publishing house Mladinska Knyga, presented the results of the research he conducted (with consultant Rüdiger Wischenbart) called ‘Bestsellers in Europe 2008-2015’; he explained that the idea for the study had come as an attempt to check whether European book markets were indeed dominated by bestsellers from the US and the UK, as many experts seemed to think – and that they had actually found it was not really so.
Dr Kovač outlined some trends in global book markets: as globally between 1960 and 2009 the number of titles published increased by 1,000%, a slower growth in markets meant turnover per title in Europe and the US halved; to maintain a certain level of income, publishers needed more titles (ending up working more for less), though a decrease in costs meant that overall revenue was not affected as badly. Meanwhile, book markets have become more bestseller-dependent: in European book markets, average print runs are becoming equally low; what makes the difference are bestseller sales (meaning a few million in the UK, a few thousand in smaller markets like Slovenia, Croatia, Lithuania or Latvia). In addition, many smaller markets suffer because of English bestsellers being sold in the original language.
According to Dr Kovač, marketing and chance play the main role in making a book a bestseller; it’s a very complex process. Moreover, data show that the number of bestsellers is shrinking. Looking more in depth into data on bestselling authors in the years from 2010, data reveal that 36% of them are English speakers, 24% are Nordic and the rest write in other languages, and that English is in slight decline, while the Nordics are rising; however, it appears that almost all non-English authors are deeply embedded in the Anglo-Saxon book culture, which seems then to have an influence even on local language bestsellers.
In the same period, a new bestselling ecosystem has emerged: e-books; these, according to Dr Kovač, form their own ecosystems that are sometimes out of reach of traditional publishers – but won’t really threaten print books. The main characteristics of e-book markets as highlighted by the study are: the growth of self-publishing (most bestsellers are now self-published); the setting of radically lower prices (which causes problems to print publishers as readers’ perception about the value of books changes); the emergence of a new kind of publishers (smaller, more specialised, experts in Search Engine Optimisation, who look for authors among fan fiction writers); the strong prevalence of three categories: romance, fantasy and mystery (which explains why they don’t represent so big a threat, as these are not the core of traditional retail circuits); the dominance of the English language; and the very small share of e-book sales in smaller markets (usually below 1%).
The digital transition, however, has also made possible new of finding a bestseller (though not yet fully explored): the analysis of reading data (something basically impossible with print and – with more of a stretch – the content analysis of bestsellers (for example through tagging emotions associated with words in books and charting emotional flows, as some maintain there is a pattern to be discerned).
Finally, the analysis highlighted an East/West divide with regard to bestsellers in Europe: there are no systematic charts of sales in Eastern European countries, and seemingly no Eastern European bestsellers travel to the West.
Mrs Dobkevičiūtė then introduced the other speakers, bringing the focus on their small markets – including hers, Lithuania – which are just as big as their own countries. She said it was fortunate that sometimes foreign publishers looked also at Lithuanian books for translations, and quoted a recent research showing that while some two thirds of books published in Lithuania were from local authors, translated books had higher print runs (on average some 2,000 copies vs. some 1,000).
Renate Punka, President of the Latvian Publishers Association, explained that the situation was changing recently in Latvia and other similar markets: whether it’s politics (a sort of literary patriotism) or common values, the proportion of local bestsellers is growing fast. There is also at the moment a cultural strategy to focus on local authors in view of the upcoming anniversary of independence of the Baltic States, argued Mrs Punka. All in all, there is a chance now for local authors to compete with foreign bestsellers; at the same time, the number of copies needed to become a bestseller is decreasing, unfortunately (for example 10 to 15,000 copies sold per year in Latvia make for a significant bestseller). In Latvia some 2/3 of titles published are from local authors, and print runs not so different from those of translations (but data might not capture reprints, and sales of translations are usually higher). Some local authors now write directly in English.
Mihai Mitrica, Director of the Romanian Publishers Association, explained that with such a small proportion of readers compared to the total population as in Romania – some 3.4 million out of 20 – a book that sold a few thousand copies was a bestseller. He added that also in Romania translations sell more, but currently the number of translations is below 50% among bestsellers, as also there local literature is recapturing the audience; still, the small reading population remains the main feature of the market, regrettably.
Asked how their local authors could become more successful abroad, Mrs Punka indicated “clever marketing and luck” as the main drivers. She added that also in Latvia most recently less than half of bestsellers were translations and – quite surprisingly – none from English, a phenomenon she saw as a sign of markets opening up to new areas (as had happened, in time, in the case of Scandinavian mystery books). Dr Kovač argued that writing in a simpler way could possibly facilitate translations, but still bestsellers very often seem to be surprises; by the same token, you often need a writer who goes all over the place to promote the books, but then again there are plenty of examples in which this was not necessary.
The following debate was called “Book Piracy: Theft or Free Advertising?”, and was also opened by Mrs Dobkevičiūtė, who introduced the topic by posing questions about the nature of piracy, whether it really hurts or rather constitutes free advertising and what publishers and authors think of it. After providing some data on Lithuanian publishing in the last 10 years, Mrs Dobkevičiūtė presented and commented the results of the Global Piracy Report by content protection and tracking MUSO, as well as those of a survey carried out in 2016 by Clear Digital World, a Lithuanian anti-piracy coalition. According to the reports, Lithuania ranks third in Europe as to the proportion of interest users accessing illegal websites (24.5%); it is one of top countries for piracy, due to high internet penetration and availability, and people’s habits: for example, 93% of residents always or almost always access books for free.
Mrs Dobkevičiūtė made the example of three Lithuanian publishers currently suing a website where many scanned books were available for download at small price, explaining that some users did not even know it was an illegal site; the publishers so far had obtained to close the domain, registered in the US. She continued quoting recent studies with regard to an analysis of the incentives for piracy and the factors to decrease it: the former include easy accessibility of pirated content and the possibility of saving money (which seems to contradict other research showing that pirates earn more on average), the high perceived cost or lack of legal alternatives; the latter (incentives to access content legally) comprise larger income and finding more comfortable ways of legal purchase.
Against a scenario in which most rightholders denounce the damage of piracy and the fact that their efforts to provide legal offers often seem to produce little results, Mrs Dobkevičiūtė asked the panelists to comment on the fact that some people say piracy is actually free advertising.
Audronė Urbonaitė, author and journalist, mentioned a survey of authors on the topic, which led to results that she found surprising, as she thought she could only be unhappy if her books were accessed digitally without any revenue for her. Some authors, however, had found ways to take advantage of it, or held somewhat differing views (though not necessarily meaning they found piracy useful altogether): one had published a book online in installments using feedback from readers; another one, making e-books available for free, got 5,000 downloads in a short time, then went to a publisher and signed a contract for print book, which sold well – the same author now would not give his book for free in digital, though; and yet another one, who writes essays, which don’t allow making a living anyway, said that all books were available for free online somehow and that the fight was hopeless.
All in all, Mrs Urbonaitėreported that many stunning opinions had come out of the survey: several authors denounced that the technical staff of some publishing houses would email to friends a pdf copy of books, for example. She acknowledged that one sure thing was that piracy was quite common; and that publishing houses usually had the means to protect only a few successful authors.
Mr Mitrica explained that Romania ranked among the first countries regarding piracy – adding that possibly certain figures on accessing content illegally were underestimated (because some people lie in surveys). He stated clearly that he viewed piracy as theft, lamenting that in addition many people downloaded books rather to just have them than to actually read them, thus destroying profits without increasing readership. He said that his members’ books were for 80% available illegally for download and explained some dynamics and difficulties with tracking illegal content websites and blogs. He added as a point in case that some pirates in Romania sold USB sticks with thousands of books, films, etc. at a very low price (going as far as to advertise on newspapers) just for the sake of it; the Publishers Association tried suing some of them, but the case is still with the police after a long time, not having yet reached public prosecutor.
Mrs Dobkevičiūtė argued that when people pirate they rob themselves, as this reduces investment in new titles and in authors, not just the publishers’ profit. Mrs Punka, expressing some pessimism as to finding a solution to the problem, recommended speaking more about copyright and its importance in the 21st century; she denounced the aim of internet players to get content for free on their platforms, calling for educating society to understand that copyright means it’s up to the authors to choose whether to give away their creations for free. Mrs Dobkevičiūtė wondered ironically whether publishers were really the “bad ones” that did not want to allow access, as certain advocates wanted to present them – instead of simply seeking a return on their investment – and whether piracy could be seen as a reading promotion tool (another argument used in certain quarters). Dr Kovač rejected the idea, explaining that if Slovenia did not appear very high in the piracy charts was because people pirated mostly books in English, and this in turn as Slovenian content was not stolen because it’s already freely and easily available in libraries (Slovenian publishers sell some 3 books per person per year and loan some 12 via libraries). He said that Byblos, the e-lending system active already for 10 years in the country, including the payment of Public Lending Rights, had resulted in a situation in which without loans publishers would certainly sell more, but also experience more piracy – so that in a way libraries could help curb piracy, but at a cost. Mrs Urbonaitė expressed support for having books in libraries and Mrs Dobkevičiūtė concluded that the ideal would be to educate readers to respect copyright and have well stocked and well-funded libraries.