Germans call their country the land of poets and thinkers. It’s the birthplace of Gutenberg and the Printing Revolution. They are so serious about reading, in fact, that Condor airline offers passengers an extra kilo of luggage in summer to haul their vacation reading.
Although the German book market’s growth has been wobbly in the past few years, 2016 saw a 1 percent uptick in sales, and a new study shows Germans spend the most on books per capita in the world. Industry analyst Rüdiger Wischenbart sums it up nicely: German speakers are “a well-integrated and wealthy market of 100 million people with high education and lots of leisure time.”
The German book market is the third-largest globally, after the perennially top-ranking United States and the fast-growing upstart China. The sector’s size and energy will be on show at Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest, which opens Tuesday and runs through the end of the week. It draws more than 7,000 exhibitors from more than 100 countries, with nearly 300,000 attendees expected to descend on central Germany.
The industry is in moderately good health: The German Publishers and Booksellers Association reports the domestic book industry grew by 1 percent in 2016, with €9.3 billion in sales, after two years of decline. Overall, book sales in Germany have been on a downward trend since 2010, the year the iPad was released.
Some place their hopes in digital, though electronic book sales remain strongest in English-speaking markets, said Mr. Wischenbart. He worked on a recently released study by BookMap.org which estimates the world book market at €122 billion. Overall, e-books account for 4.6 percent of book sales in Germany; in North America and the United Kingdom, digital books account for 15 to 25 percent of sales. The only consistently strong growth globally is found in China. The task of measuring book sales globally is not an easy one: No single organization tracks book sales internationally, so BookMap cobbles the data together from many sources.
According to the booksellers’ association, German consumers bought a total of 28.1 million e-books in 2016, up 4.1 percent from 2015. Older consumers are also getting into e-books: in 2016, 21 percent of e-book buyers were over 60, compared to just 10 percent in 2011.
Germany’s book market is distinct in several ways: Unlike the English-language book market, where five publishers, Amazon and one giant chain dominate, smaller companies still a lot of influence in Germany, as do small bookstores and regional retail chains. Mr. Wischenbart explained that there is real stability in the German market, despite the recession and the digital revolution. There’s also a law to set the price of books to prevent anyone — not to name names, but Amazon — from undercutting prices.
That only helps so far. At the Frankfurt book fair, Mr. Wischenbart said, “We’ll hear people talking about how the book industry is doing great. But the basic rules have changed.” Amazon is challenging traditional book retailers; readers are still getting accustomed to e-books. Some people will say e-books were overrated, but while the proportion of sales is small, they are very important and have higher profit margins, he said.
Nonetheless, real numbers are falling: While sales have slightly grown in the past 10 years, after accounting for inflation, there has been a decline of 12 to 15 percent. Moreover, consumer spending may remain constant, but the number of titles being published annually continues to grow, or explode if you include self-published and independent books.
And while there were fewer shoppers in physical stores in Germany, they bought more books, according to the booksellers’ association: 12.2 books per buyer in 2016, for €134.29, compared to 11.5 books in 2015, for €122.78. (BookMap estimates German per capita spending at €117.) Wealth is vital for book culture to thrive: For comparison, the 261 million people in Indonesia, with GDP per capita of $3,895, collectively spent less on books than the 8.8 million residents of Austria, with GDP per capita of $44,561.
E-books are making only a gradual arrival: Of the 22 million book titles in stock in Europe, only 4 million are available digitally, or 18 percent, according to the Federation of European Publishers.
German publishers continue to drag their feet when it comes to digital publishing. “The physical book is much more beautiful and uplifting than a few bits of data,” says Felicitas von Lovenberg, head of Munich-based Piper Verlag, a publishing house owned by Swedish media group Bonnier with 100 employees and €50 million in annual sales.
Amazon is both a villain and a hero for the book industry. Publishers in Germany can attribute about 20 percent of their business to Amazon, she estimates.
Ms. von Lovenberg said while many publishers had invested vast amounts of money in their digital business, they would probably never see that money again. “This realization brings us to the point where we realize buyers and readers aren’t disappearing at a frightening rate. So it’s not so much for us about the question of what channels the people want to read in. We serve all of them. It’s much more about protecting the culture of reading from dying out.”
Anja Müller and Thomas Tuma contributed to this report. Grace Dobush is an editor with Handelsblatt Global, based in Berlin. To contact the author: email@example.com