The E-Book Market: How English is Displacing Smaller Languages by Renata Zamida

What do e-books mean in the context of preserving “lesser used languages”? Practically nothing. Whoever works in the book industry knows what the wider used languages are, and what they mean. This is especially true in the European context. Spanish, English, but also German, French, and Italian are those European languages that the global platform called Amazon has been supporting since the beginning. Newspapers and book publishers will never be able to establish an electronic platform comparable to those of Amazon, Netflix, Apple, or Google, which not only offer a global electronic marketplace but are also the owners of user devices, from readers, tablets and smartphones, to computers. Therefore, traditional providers of content will, at most, be able to be hosted on these platforms under conditions determined by their owners. In the case of e-books, one of the most painful limitations for lesser used languages is precisely the linguistic limitation or the globalisation of English that has been going on for many years. It has squeezed its way into all fields: let us only take a look at the academic field, where it is the norm that scientific papers are written in English and that all other languages are not only worthless but can even be a barrier. And not only the academic book but also literature in English is, through e-reading, taking over global primacy. The more demanding electronic reader is a user of e-books for a generally far longer period of time than, for example, there exists an online platform for the sale and/or lending of e-books in his own country and language. In the year 2009 or 2010 such a user considered and bought the then most hip and simple e-reading device, the Kindle. He is now married to the Amazon family. But if this user is Polish, Hungarian, Slovenian, Croatian, Russian – then he simply does not have access to literature in his mother tongue on this device. In the 21st century, based on available data, more than half of readers wish to read electronically as well. If they do not have access to e-books in their language, this does not mean that they will stop being e-readers, but that they will not be e-readers in their mother tongue – in Slovenian, Croatian, Hungarian, etc. In Slovenia, the number of frequent users of the biggest online platform that offers access to e-books in Slovenian (Biblos) numbers around 12,000. They have access to around 2,000 e-book titles in Slovenian. Yet this is still ten times too few e-books in Slovenian to turn Slovenian e-readers away from the increasingly wide reading (and buying) of e-books, in particular in English. This is also due to the fact that the most popular titles, bestsellers, are not available in e-book form in lesser used languages, since the rights for their release in e-form are priced so highly that they simply do not represent a viable investment for publishers in smaller book markets. It has become more than obvious that we are losing in this field. Amazon offers e-books in only a handful of world languages and many languages, above all Central and Eastern European as well as Asian (with the exception of Japanese) languages, will not be among them for a long time. The Kindle is in this way a victim of its own technological progress – if Amazon wishes that the confirmed languages work flawlessly on the oldest generations of its reader (the first of which were put on the market in the far-off year of 2007), the technical testing of each new language costs quite a lot and takes a long time. If, for example, Slovenian publishers wish to sell e-books on Amazon, then these cannot be in Slovenian. And the Slovenian e-reader slowly but surely takes on the habit of reading the new crime or romance novels or Nobel laureate in English – on his e-device.

By Renata Zamida

This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe on 3 September 2015.

Category: ELit Literature House Europe Observatory

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