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?

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§ 15 Responses to On the Pleasures of (Not) E-Reading in Europe

  • joy says:

    KLM need passengers to Liverpool from Amsterdam and it’s not too expensive. Look them up, a day return would give you time to download all the books you want. I’m just peeping, and apologise if you’ve thought of that already.

    • Charlotte says:

      Not a bad suggestion. Taking a flight just to download ebooks would be no less expensive, but I do go back to visit family from time to time and I can indeed download plenty then. This is fine as a stop-gap; the problem is more a long-term one. It’s a sadly cumbersome way of buying digital books when there’s no need or logic behind segregating book buyers by country. And I definitely want to be able to download books when I want them – having to wait for the next family visit would quickly become intolerable!

  • Smashwords. If I am not mistaken, this site is totally international and unbiased. http://www.smashwords.com

  • Iris says:

    The Sony e-reader is available in the Netherlands, but I think most shops are trying to introduce ‘their own’ e-readers with limited success and large chains like Mediamarkt have almost all gotten rid of their stock of Sony readers when the old models were exchanged for new ones. I think most people order their Sony reader from the Dutch online store Bol.com. That is, at once, the big set back to getting a Sony over here, you are automatically directed to Bol.com (with, again, very expensive prizes compared to foreign book sites, even on ebooks) and Sony makes it hard for you to order from other sites (though it is better than the Kindle).

    As for book prizes, I am very very glad to see a British person remark on the vast difference in prizes here and in the UK. For me, to shop for books cheap is to shop through amazon or the BookDepository. I also sometimes visit the bookshop in Amsterdam in the Kalverstraat (I think?) Not the Waterstones, but the one that is farther away from the Dam Square. They sell paper backs for 5 euros or so, which is CHEAP over here.

    • Iris says:

      I mean, better than the kindle in offering access to sites other than amazon. But I think prizes for ebooks through amazon are still better than through bol.com

    • Charlotte says:

      Hi Iris, thanks for the info about the Sony reader. I’ve heard of Bol.com though I haven’t used it; on the one hand, it’s good to hear that you CAN order a Sony reader in the Netherlands, but how typical that it’s more expensive across the board. I didn’t personally like the Sony reader that much when I sampled one, and I don’t think it’s satisfactory as the sole available option in this country. Then again, having only one choice is never good.

      As for the book shop, that sounds like the brilliant ABC to me. Is that the one? I love it. I have got some good bargains there, though it’s luck of the draw which books you can get at any time. Even so, it’s a lifeline.

      • Iris says:

        I’m not sure what the name of the bookshop is, I only know where to find it. I only visit Amsterdam every few months for concerts and then visit the store to see if they have anything good. You’re right, it is all about lucky finds and no option if you are looking for a book in particular.

  • DarcKnyt says:

    I found this site, but can’t speak to your problem directly, not being in your specific circumstance:

    http://pda.bookland.net

    Of course, there’s also http://www.ebooks.com/, but I’ve never used that one either.

    Google may have a “buy anywhere/read anywhere” book store in December. Can you hold out and make it that long?

    You already mentioned Kobo, but KoboBooks.com is the ebook library if you’d like to peruse and see what’s what out there.

    I’m really sorry to hear this. I had no idea Europe would fall under the technically disadvantaged label. I hope this works out for you somehow.

    On an unrelated note, will you please give me your email address again? I’ll send you a link to my books on Smashwords with a coupon (good to 14-Aug-11) which will let you download them free of charge. Please accept them as a housewarming gift of sorts and to help you get through your dry reading spell. I hope you’ll enjoy them, but if you don’t you can always delete them.

    Or do you already have them? I can’t recall now…

    But, I still need your email address so I can send you the code for a style sheet to go inside your manuscripts to assist with paragraph formatting.

    Good luck, Charlotte! I really hope something works out soon.

    • Charlotte says:

      Darc, thank you. Those are some great suggestions. Very interesting about the Google bookshop, I hadn’t heard about it before. December isn’t that far away!

      My email is chaelenglishATgmailDOTcom. Thank you for that kind offer! I recently bought ‘A Moonlit Stroll’, and I’d be glad to read the other. I’ll leave reviews in all the usual places when I’m done, naturally. Happy weekend to you (what’s left of it), thanks as always for the visit and helpful input 🙂

  • Lissa says:

    A great post, Charlotte. it seems the US holds the monopoly on a lot of literature. That’s really sad, but what can we non-US English speaking people do? Struggle on and find gems like Smashwords where can, I suppose.
    I hope you find a decent e-reader and that in the future Amazon reverses that stupid ‘pay extra money for a digital book because you’re not in the US.’
    Bah.

    • Charlotte says:

      Thanks, Lissa. I’m hoping that the US monopoly on e-reading won’t continue much longer. The rumblings of expansion from Kobo and Amazon (albeit on a lesser scale) are encouraging. Let’s hope it continues. And yes – please, Amazon, drop that policy. I gather some countries have been declared exempt from it – roll on the rest!

  • DarcsFalcon says:

    Segregated by country? On the Internet? That almost sounds like blasphemy! So much for the global community!

    I’m so sorry you’re having to deal with this. I would have that you’d be able to purchase Amazon books from any Amazon site and have them delivered to you – just like it sounds Smashwords does.

    Hopefully it’ll get resolved soon in some satisfactory way and I hope in the meantime you’ll be able to find things to read.

    Would a tablet with an e-reader app work better? On a whim I just checked the Android market – they have apps for Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and gbook. Didn’t see one for Smashwords but with a tablet perhaps you wouldn’t need one? I was just thinking a tablet might give you a bit more flexibility than a dedicated ereader device. 🙂

    Good luck! I’m glad to hear you’re settling in well. 🙂

    • Charlotte says:

      A tablet with an e-reader! Heavens, why that hasn’t occurred to me sooner I have no idea. That is mildly embarrassing. But thank you for the suggestion! I believe I would still be unable to buy books from Amazon stores that aren’t based in my home country, but it would certainly solve the problem of the device. I’d better look into it!

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