Book publishing is the ‘oldest’ of the media and content industries, as it can be traced back to the 1st century AD when the modern book format was introduced. The codex, a book made of a number of sheets of paper, gradually replaced traditional scrolls, which could only be accessed linearly. This new format allowed random access and is therefore considered the most important technological development before Gutenberg invented printing in 1440.
In recent years, readers around the world have been testing yet another new book format, the e-book. Beyond questions over the fate of the print book industry, the advent of e-books and digital readers has prompted activists to question the environmental impact of such a transition. The argument in favour of e-books makes intuitive sense. However, while digital books have the potential to reduce the impact of harvesting trees on forest conservation, that does not guarantee that they are a better choice from an environmental standpoint.
Although publishing’s decline has repeatedly been predicted, the industry continued to progress at a steady pace through wars and depressions for most of the past century. In the next five years, however, the fate of books will vary significantly according to the country. In Germany, for example, e-books are set to remain a niche player in the near future, whereas in the USA and United Kingdom (UK), e-books are forecast to surpass print by 2018.
In this respect, experts argue that the digital revolution may well be just another phase in the industry’s natural evolution. Others assert that decreasing sales in physical books do not mean that the industry is dead. To the contrary, they claim this new business model can provide untapped opportunities for an industry using an outdated technology.
The term e-book can either refer to the physical object itself or its content. It therefore encompasses the media (electronic format), device (hardware), delivery (internet) and content (literature).
With an estimated value of US$151 billion, book publishing gradually evolved into a truly global business early in the 21st century. As yet, however, e-books are nevertheless significant only in a relatively small number of markets. These are led by the United States (13% of the book market) and the United Kingdom (11.5%), with Germany (5%) developing more recently. The e-book market in the EU has taken off only in recent years, and in 2014 it still represented only 1.6% of the total book market in the leading EU markets.
The advent of e-books transformed the usual linear supply chain into a global network, with competing distribution channels and retail outlets, pushing publishers and booksellers to establish a digital strategy. Indeed, e-books face specific challenges with regard to protection from piracy, lending, and copyright issues. More importantly, multinational digital companies choose to set up European headquarters in specific Member States due to their favourable tax regimes and/or lower value added tax (VAT) rates. To partly offset this phenomenon, the EU introduced new rules from 1 January 2015, according to which VAT on electronic services is levied where the customer is based, rather than where the supplier is located.
In contrast to print books, e-books cannot enjoy reduced VAT rates, since they are classified as ‘electronically supplied services’. While the average VAT rate for print books across the EU is 7.6%, the corresponding rate for e-books stands at 19.9%, thus placing them at a disadvantage. The European Commission has already begun a reflection on the VAT regime, including considering the application of reduced VAT rates and is to announce its conclusions by the end of 2016.
Source: E-Books: Evolving markets and new challenges, © European Union, 2016.