Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Where English is Spoken

According to Wikipedia, the countries with the most English speakers are
  1. United States, 251 million English speakers
  2. India, 232 million English speakers
  3. Nigeria, 79 million English speakers
  4. United Kingdom, 60 million English speakers
  5. Philippines, 50 million English speakers
The US and UK, of course, are wealthy countries with strong publishing industries, but it would be a big mistake for English language publishers to ignore the possibilities for growth in the other three. India in particular already supports a billion dollar publishing industry.

The coming transition from print to digital books will cause significant upheaval for distribution of books from the US and UK in countries like India. This is because India and other developing countries are "price-sensitive". The idea of selling a popular western novel for $30 or so is seen as outrageous price-gouging from the Indian point of view. The book industry has historically worked around this issue by carving up rights to books into regional pieces. An Indian publisher can thus bring out an inexpensively manufactured edition of the book and sell it at a 20% of the price it fetches in its home market. The regionality of the selling rights protects products being sold in the developed market from competition with products priced for sale in developing countries.

With digital products, this practice becomes complicated. The DVD industry for example, uses region coding to prevent DVDs sold in one region of the world from being played on players sold in another region of the world. They have managed to do this by building a type of DRM into almost every DVD player sold.

This promises to be much harder to do for digital books; that's not to say that the book publishing industry isn't trying to do it. [Insert here your favorite argument against applying DRM to books]

Nonetheless, certain aspects of ebooks seem ideal for developing countries with large populations. The cost of creating an additional copy of an ebook is almost zero; and the cost of reader devices, which has finally cracked the $100 barrier in the US, continues to fall. It's not far fetched to think of generating significant revenue by selling millions of copies of popular ebooks for 10-25¢ a copy. Libraries could play an important role in helping to enable this sort of distribution securely.

One possible stumbling block to realization of this fantasy is ebook piracy. While no reproducible research has been able to show that ebook piracy is a significant issue in the US and UK markets, all the available data indicate that demand for pirated material is quite strong in developing markets. Publishers that ignore these markets because of their small economic value today are throwing away huge potential future markets by training consumers that if they want to obtain ebooks they need to avoid legitimate markets.

Bounty markets for ebooks could play an important role in monetizing large numbers of people who can only pay small amounts for ebooks. Because bounties are posted for open access release of ebooks, it doesn't work unless all global rights holders agree and get a share of the money. A credible market of this type would thus have to start out with a truly global presence. That's one reason I've just arrived in snowy London for a short visit and also a reason I'll be heading to balmy India this weekend.

Wish me luck.
Enhanced by Zemanta

1 comment: