On the Pleasures of (Not) E-Reading in Europe
July 30, 2011 § 15 Comments
It’s almost the end of July, which means my first month in the Netherlands has come to an end. So far I have seen a lot of windmills, a lot of water (both the flowing variety and the falling variety) and quite a lot of cat hair all over my new (pale-coloured) furniture. I’ve eaten a lot of good Dutch cheese, learned to love stroopwafels and heard far more Dutch than I can possibly process in a year, let alone four weeks. It’s been interesting.
What I haven’t seen – or heard so much as a peep about – is an e-reader. That’s not an idle observation. Seeing as we have a new house to stock, we’ve been doing an awful lot of shopping. It’s reached the sorts of painful levels that I don’t even want to think about. But while there are gadgets and gizmos galore in every conceivable shop, I haven’t even seen a Sony reader anywhere.
Let’s go back a step or two. I talked recently about book-hunting in the wilds of Amsterdam, which was moderately successful. To qualify that, I ought to explain that my definition of ‘moderately successful’ still means ‘quite a lot more expensive than buying books back in the UK’. Having subsequently tracked down that huge expat-owned second-hand bookshop I mentioned, that definition still stands. I’m lucky if I can find even a second-hand book that I’m interested in for much less than five euros so far, and that’s a matter of pot luck. This is quite painful.
Digital reading ought to be the ultimate answer to this problem. Digital books do not have to be physically shipped from country to country. They have no import costs. A customer can download an e-book from the US or from France and the essential costs of that download ought to be the same. I ought to be able to get most of my English-language reading for e-reader without difficulty, right? The first problem, though, would be getting an e-reader upon which to read e-books.
Let’s start with the current biggest manufacturer and distributor of e-readers and e-books, the mighty Amazon. They may be a huge corporation but I’ve been a fan for a long time, for many reasons which I won’t go into here. The disappointing thing about Amazon is the lack of Kindle coverage in most of Europe. You can purchase a Kindle from the US if you absolutely must, but Amazon’s attitude to Kindle users outside of their dedicated Kindle countries (the US, the UK and Germany so far, did I miss any?) is oddly grudging. You can only get your Kindle from the US, even if the UK is considerably closer and more convenient for you, and that means you can only purchase books from amazon.com, not .uk or .de. Furthermore, I hear worrying reports of $2 surcharges on each purchase made by a user outside of the US. Nobody knows why this happens, but it essentially means buying English language digital books as an expat isn’t much better than buying print. You’re still being penalised for being outside an English-speaking country, but for no discernible reason. Lamentable stuff.
Setting aside the surcharge issue, even, why are the amazon kindle bookstores so rigidly compartmentalised? I’m no expert on these matters so I may be missing something. But I can’t see why one’s geographical location ought to matter so much. If a person wants to use some of their money buying English language digital books, why shouldn’t they spend that money in whichever Kindle bookshop can supply the need? If one cannot do that without complications and rip-offs, one goes looking for an alternative.
So what are the alternatives? I’m told that the Sony reader is available in the Netherlands, but I haven’t seen any evidence of it. Where do I go to purchase such an exotic beast? No idea. Next. Nook? No luck there either. For some reason Barnes and Noble would rather not have non-US customers, leaving everyone else to spend their money elsewhere. Then I suppose I will have to rely on….
Kobo? Hrm. Kobo is the most promising of the bunch, in that I hear – through the Glorious Grapevine – that there is a Dutch-language Kobo store planned for the Netherlands ‘sometime soon’, whatever that means. Great. In theory, then, the Kobo reader will be available for purchase in this country. What of their ebookstore? Not that I’m inclined to be critical of Dutch-language options – bravo and the more language options available in digital books, the better – but this won’t resolve my particular problem. Will there be English books available in this store as well? If not then English-speaking expatriate kind is back to square one.
How many English-speaking expats are there around the world? And how many people are there who prefer to read fiction in English – because waiting for books to be translated takes far too long? I don’t have any numbers, but a lot, right? A lot. And all of us have difficulty getting printed books in English for anything less than a small fortune because of import costs. And while this post is inevitably focused on English, the fact is that digital reading should make it possible for anybody to obtain books in any available language for a fair price. (Yes, different people will have different definitions of ‘fair prices’; my definition here is that those prices should not fluctuate up or down based on geographical location).
It’s true that we are in relatively early days for digital reading, but only relatively. Dedicated e-readers have been available for a few years now, but still much of the world is left out in the cold with few or no options available. I applaud sites like Smashwords; as far as I know there are no territory restrictions on either uploading or downloading books from that site, nor any price fluctuations. That’s fair. There are also sites like the Book View Cafe, where authors group together to sell their work digitally over a dedicated site. As far as I know (disclaimer: I might be wrong), those are also free of illogical restrictions. So supposing you can get a device on which to read e-books, there are options. But there aren’t enough.
At the moment I’m still shopping from the UK Kindle store, but I don’t know if that will last. It certainly won’t last past the point where I want (or need) to upgrade my e-reader. So, I’m going to be sitting tight waiting for Kobo to get a move on with the Netherlands shop. When it arrives, I’ll be crossing my fingers that purchasing a Kobo reader will come with access to Kobo stores other than the Dutch one (either that or a truly extensive range of English-language books in the Dutch store, which doesn’t seem likely). In the meantime, I need more options. Can anybody recommend any other sites for digital book purchases that won’t hinder me, block me or rip me off?