Third Day – The Digital “East” and “West” by Laszlo Szabolcs

As announced, two main discussions at the European Literature Days were dedicated to the topic of literary trends and innovative developments in the digital field. They focused mostly on how new digital developments are affecting authors and publishers, what impact they have on the non-profit sector (like libraries), and of course, the situation of the e-book market in various countries. We heard fascinating accounts about exemplary emerging best practices from Renata Zamida from Ljubljana, and Beat Mazenauer from Lucerne, and also a detailed presentation on the current state of the e-book world in Germany from Dirk Rumberg (Munich). All in all, the electronic dimension of the literary world seems to be stabilizing in the first important wave of the overall and inevitable digital transformation.

Yet, again and again, discussions of the commercial aspects of literature in the digital realm somehow always require an explanation of why Eastern Europe is a different case, why are similar tendencies missing and why is the e-book market still in its early, budding stage. The familiar, and mostly implicit assumption is that the participant easterner (in this case, your humble blogger) should attempt to explain the local deviation from the European, “normal” way of things—as if the background and the premise of the story were the same, and yet somehow Eastern Europe arrived at worst results.

If one sticks to the comparative approach that focuses on the isolated cases of, for example, the e-book market in the present, the discussion can easily lead into a blind alley that is reminiscent of the “backwardness” debates of historians and economists, or the condescending presumptions originating from the “convergence thesis” espoused by political scientists. These, however, do not hold because Eastern European countries provide many examples of cutting edge innovations in the software and digital field: the well-known online platforms of Prezi and Ustream came out of Hungary; while Bitdefender, a leading security software, was created in Romania, the country with the 5th fastest internet speed on the planet.

The striking weakness and “underdevelopment” seen in the funding of culture and the state of publishing in Eastern Europe has overarching structural causes originating in the long-term legacy of the state social regime, and the aggressive, radical changes of the transition period. It has little to do with an unwillingness to engage in the entrepreneurial aspects of the culture industry, and even less with fears alleging that the disposition towards publishing, writing, or reading have declined—and everything to do with the violent privatization process of the past 25 years that pulled out the rug from under (formerly state-owned) publishing houses, (formerly state-financed) authors, and (formerly economically stable) readers.

The result: book publishing in Eastern Europe is still highly dependent on the financial crumbs falling off the table of increasingly reluctant states, and makes profit only from the better and better looking popular literature editions or celebrity best sellers. In the meanwhile (as I described in two previous blog entries) most literary journals are floating in the limbo of subsidized, anachronistic existence and poetry has become a particular subculture of text and performance.
Similarly, in order to understand the underwhelming state of the e-book market or of other digital developments pertaining to literary production and commerce in Eastern Europe, one has to have a comprehensive approach. Obviously, it is determined by the significantly less money available both on the production and consumption sides. And obviously, it is more complicated than that. Firstly, e-book buying and reading is not just simply that: it also requires internet access, electronic bank services, the ownership of a device, and sufficient techno-savvy to manage all of this and the various digital formats. Only then can one begin to actually read. The transcontinental ubiquity of smartphones notwithstanding, neither internet penetration, or electronic services and IT-knowledge are as extended in Eastern Europe as they are in Western countries, and this restricts the market by default.

Secondly, the unfair EU tax legislation which deems e-books as “electronically supplied services,” and keeps their tax rates of VAT at 27%, effect Eastern countries disproportionately. This bureaucratic categorization maintains the average price of e-books at 7-10 Euros or more, representing 70-75% of the original price of the print edition. This is very close to the 8-10 Euro prices of Germany and Austria—a correlation which does not stand between the 2100 Euro average salaries in these countries, and the 500 and 400 Euros of Hungary and Romania. Given such a monetary context, there is most likely a psychological breakage for Eastern European salary earners to spend 10 Euros through “just a click” on an immaterial product.

Especially, when there is such a great temptation and widespread expectation to get it for free. Which brings us to the pervasive culture of internet piracy in Eastern Europe, most probably the main factor crippling the emerging e-book market. Although admittedly illegal, damaging, and condemnable, it is important not to see it only as a phenomenon of criminality, but also as the result of the structural conditions detailed above which have framed how internet accessibility and content is perceived. As far as the unlawful consumption of e-books is concerned we see the unfortunate, yet logical concatenation of several features: the young social strata (20-35) which is most interested in reading electronically, on the one hand, happens to be the generation which—thanks to its detailed knowledge of technology and internet—engages most in illegal downloading, and on the other, still does not have a high enough income to comfortably spend on e-books according to its cultural-literary hunger. Since the illegal access to music and video content has become a daily, uncontroversial practice, it is very difficult now to effectively point out: ripping off giant record companies and TV or film studios is not the same as stealing the intellectual property of writers who do not have other means of recovering the financial loss.

As such, the European Literature Days in Spitz provided a significant and also friendly forum to raise these important questions, to discuss the problems and challenges we have to face in facilitating the digital transformation and the emergence of an e-book market alongside the conventional print market. Moreover, it proved to be a good occasion to learn from each other’s experiences and to understand the small or large-scale differences between the various contexts. I am confident that by next year, we will have even more valuable information and success stories to share.

By Laszlo Szabolcs

This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe‘s website on 26 October 2015.

Category: ELit Literature House Europe Observatory


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