The State of the Spanish Ebook Market for Authors and Publishers

By Joana Costa-Knufinke, Fulbright Scholar, New York University and the University of Barcelona

Yesterday, Spanish newspaper El Pais published a report saying that may launch within the next week, but will not be selling Kindle ebooks just yet. As major online retailers begin to eye the book market in Spain, authors on the other side of the Atlantic need to make decisions concerning their electronic rights, and they need to be prepared for a primarily digital future. In this article we will examine the main players in the Spanish digital publishing industry, and the opportunities for authors and publishers with Spanish language texts to see their titles published in ebook form.

As in the United States, the process of making books available in digital formats is different for backlist and for frontlist titles. Thus far, Spanish publishers have been slow to convert their backlists into electronic formats. The main reasons behind this are the economic and human investment necessary for the process, which publishers are reluctant to make in the face of the economic crisis affecting the country, coupled with the narrow profit margins that already characterize the book industry. The result is that even if many writers would love to see their backlist titles published in e, they have to wait until the publisher is ready to invest in digitization. For example, classic titles such as Gabriel García Márquez’s Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude) cannot be found in digital format in the Spanish language. Similarly, only a couple of books by Nobel Prize-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa can be read in electronic format in Spanish, while more than ten of his books are available in English.

More attention to the frontlist

Another reason behind publishers’ lack of attention to their backlists is that, as explained by Arantza Larrauri, CEO of Libranda, (the major Spanish-based eBook distribution platform), “frontlist are the books that sell better in electronic format.” We can assume that the marketing support of the paper version of the book positively impacts the sales of the electronic formats. Furthermore, publishers actually own the electronic rights to their frontlist because, as in the United States, authors now tend to license the electronic rights of their new books to the publisher when they sign the original agreement.

Francesc Miralles, best-selling Spanish author of more than twenty books published in more than ten different publishing houses only in Spain, confirmed that publishers now always ask for the electronic rights, and said that he always transfers those rights. Publishers usually offer the author the 25% of the net income they receive for a book. However, sales expectations are quite low; Miralles commented, “In my last royalty statements, I did not receive more than 10 euros for the sales of each book in digital format. I have been told that Paul Auster [who usually hits the print best-seller list every time he publishes a new book] sells less than 50 electronic books of each of his new titles.”

First e-tailers in Spain

Back in 2009, when the press in Spain was beginning to discuss the arrival of electronic formats and publishers were still figuring out how to embrace the digital transition, the most important (and sometimes controversial) literary agent in Spain, Carme Balcells, decided to transfer some of the electronic rights of some of her most famous authors to the platform Leer-E to create a line of electronic books called Palabras Mayores. There are minor literary texts from Camilo José Cela, Miguel Delibes and Rosa Montero, among other well-known authors. The performance of this electronic publisher, who tried to follow a model similar to the “Open Road” one in America, has so far had very little impact in the market.

The leading Spanish-based distribution platform

Shortly after that, the three major publishing groups in Spain, Planeta, Random House Mondadori and Santillana, along with four other large publishers, founded Libranda (mentioned above). This platform is, as stated in their web page, a B2B eBook distribution platform: “Our suppliers are the publishers and our customers online stores.” Libranda has closed agreements with more than 110 associated imprints, and currently distributes to more than 60 on-line stores in Europe, Latin America and the United States. In Spain, they distribute to the digital shops of major brick and mortar retailers such as El Corte Inglés, La Casa del Libro, Abacus, Laie and La Central, and to other exclusively digital e-tailers such as Leqtor and Amabook.

Only an emerging market

Even if there are more platforms for readers to acquire digital books in Spanish daily, and more possibilities for authors to see their books being sold, the truth is that the digital market is only now emerging. According to Ontsi´ 2010 annual report on digital content published by the Spanish Ministry of Industry, Tourism and Commerce, 1.7% of the of the nearly 78 million euros generated by the book industry in Spain corresponded to electronic formats.

However, even if sales are low, the potential for growth, with 500 million Spanish speakers in the world, is immense. Google, Amazon and Apple, the three “new” giant players of the publishing industry, are aware of this potential and have already announced their   impending entry into Spain’s digital market before the end of this year.  And it is rather ironic that Barnes and Noble, based in the United States, carries more books in Spanish – over 25,000 –  than any e-tailer based in Spain.

The e-reader factor, and more…

There is another important reason behind the low development of the Spanish digital market for books: the distribution of specialized reading devices is still very limited. Again, the economic crisis, as well as the lack of a major e-tailer such as Amazon, is certainly a factor contributing to this lack of distribution. According to data released by Wolder electronics, a company that distributes its own e-readers in Spain, during the past year 260,000 units of e-ink readers were sold in Spain (the country’s population is 48 million people). The most popular ones were models such as the Papyre and the Sony reader. These are ePub-compatible reading devices not bound to any specific e-tailer.

Spanish publishers often complain about the fact that the VAT for electronic books is 16%, while the same tax for print books is only 4%. The impact on the final retail price also has a negative impact on electronic book sales.

The last chance

Self-publishing is also an option for Spanish authors. However, consumers do not perceive the same quality in books published in these platforms, and it still seems to be more a solution for unpublished authors than an alternative for established authors. Currently, the most popular self-publication platforms in Spain are Lulu and Bubok, which has created its own online bookseller: Ibubok. Also, the newly established Yudu offers self-publication services to authors and publishers.

Time will tell…

All in all, the Spanish language and its 500 million speakers around the world are a growing market in the publishing industry, very attractive for national and foreign publishers, new players and, ultimately, writers. There is a cultural and economic opportunity to promote electronic books in the digital space. Only time will tell who will rule it, and from where.

Joana Costa Knufinke was born in Barcelona, Spain. Before coming to the United States, she pursued a publishing career first as an intern at a film and literary agency, later in a rights department of RBA Libros, and afterwards as an editor of children’s and young adult books at the same publishing house. She is currently a Fulbright Scholar at the Masters in Publishing Program at NYU and also is a PhD candidate at The Literature Program of the University of Barcelona.

3 thoughts on “The State of the Spanish Ebook Market for Authors and Publishers

  1. Rod Younger

    Sorry Joanna, but with all due respect, as an Anglo-Spaniard (born in UK of Spanish parents and living in Spain for over 10 years), published author and creator of the soon to be launched Books4Spain, I find little in your article that is
    evealing or new – much of what is written is applicable to France, Italy or most major continental European markets (and I am not talking about the fact that VAT on ebooks is the full local rate in ALL EU countries – and which is 18% not 16% in Spain, or that it is has been common practice, in English speaking markets at least, for electronic rights to be included in the majority of contracts since 1984, or even before, or that the take up of ereaders is usually directly proportional to the % of book reading population – Spain has the lowest in western Europe).

    The main problems with Spanish, French, Italian etc. publishers and the continental European book market are more deep rooted and start with the fact that price fixing, as used to be the case in the UK with the Net Book Agreement, makes books expensive and inaccessible to the majority of the public, creates a nice cosy monopoly between publishers and retailers and limits sales, regardless of the format. It really does go back to the elite restricting the masses from having access to books which may enhance their knowledge.

    In fact, Book publishers and retailers in most of continental Europe are so far behind the curve its incredible that they survive, their distribution channels/supply chain systems are generally non-existent versus UK and USA while their operating and commercial practices are all about protecting their position and not about expanding the market or competing.

    Spanish publishers were dragged kicking and screaming into the digital world – trust me I know – perhaps the only positive thing Zapetero has done in 8 years of government but not one he will be remembered for. They did not see it as an opportunity but as a threat, Libranda, by general consensus has been a disaster and the only thing in Spain’s favour is the overall size of the Spanish speaking market – but then it took Patricia Arancibia, an Argentinian, based in New York, to develop a Spanish language ebook retail platform for the US market for Barnes & Noble.

    Of course, this protective position is natural for products for which there is limited demand/restricted market size – English language books command by far the biggest market share around the world, but, given the size of the Spanish language market, Spanish publishers do (or perhaps did?) have an opportunity to develop a dynamic publishing and retailing model Unfortunately, so far they haven’t taken it and I hope, sincerely that it is too late for them as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, et al hover in the background with their skills and experience in book retailing and the impact they can have on publishing. The ultimate winner will be the consumer and also society as a whole as more people read books which are easily accessible and sensibly priced – which is still not the case in Spain, France or Italy even today.

  2. Allison P.

    I agree with Rob. Plus, there must be a mistake in this information: I doubt Paul Auster has sold ONLY 50 ebooks! Maybe you should have double-checked that fact before citing it! (I’m a journalist, BTW).
    Nothing new in this piece….but I do have news in case you haven’t heard: Amazon is opening in Spain (only for print books, not ebooks) on Sept.15. When they start selling ebooks, that will probably end up putting Libranda out of business ( sooner or later). BTW, The fact that Frances Miralles lets go of his electronic rights when he signs each book, without any additional payment, sounds quite ingenue, IMHO.

  3. Josep Martín Brown

    In Spain there are very few opportunities for new writers. I have discovered the possibilities of and I have given to them. Moreover, I believe that there is a greater potential market for electronic books in Spanish in the U.S. than in Spain itself.



Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *