Business Musings: International Growth (Jumping The Digital Divide Part 4)

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Trying to wrap my brain around the possibilities for growth in the digital sphere hurts. Seriously. Because the markets are so big and the opportunities so vast that I’m not capable of grasping it all.

For a long time, the digital divide wasn’t just generational. It was also location-based. When the Kindle came into being and reader after reader discovered ebooks, the early focus was on the United States and Western Europe.

Part of that was because Amazon reached into those countries, although it didn’t entirely reach every part of Western Europe. It’s hard to remember that back then, Amazon’s Kindle e-reader was a game-changer and it took a few years for other companies to come up with something usable.

Now, most people don’t use ereaders. I don’t. I don’t even know where my last Kindle is. I use my tablet or my smart phone while reading online. Sometimes I use a Kindle app, and sometimes I don’t. I like having the options.

I’m sure you do too.

The changes were huge and they came so swiftly, it’s hard to remember that in 2012 and 2013, we were celebrating every time Amazon ventured into a new country. Back then, Smashwords became an essential service, because people who lived in non-Amazon countries wanted ebooks too. We sold a lot of books on Smashwords, before it became unable to keep up with the tech. We still have books on Smashwords, but that’s only because we developed an audience there who has become loyal.

A lot of our overseas publications, though, happen through non-Amazon sources, like Draft2Digital, iBooks, and Kobo. If there’s a new service, Draft2Digital researches them and then attempts to distribute to them.

I’m sure that two or three years from now, there will be another aggregator who will also bring in all the new markets.

I confess that I often don’t follow what new market has come online when simply because it overwhelms me. Dean and I started WMG Publishing at the beginning of this revolution, and were fortunate enough to hire Allyson Longueira to run it in 2012. She, in turn, hired an excellent staff. All of them (plus the contractors in other locations) follow the changes, and try to keep me or Dean informed.

Sometimes I send them a link about something I’ve read about or figure needs more research. Usually, I get one of three responses: We’ve been doing that for months/years now; We’re keeping an eye on it because we don’t know the pros/cons of it yet; or Oh, that’s new and we will check into it.

For that same overwhelmed reason, I don’t always read Mark Williams’ New Publishing Standard, which focuses on book publishing trends and events from around the world. In the beginning of the publication, I could keep up, but now, so very much is happening that I have trouble doing so.

If you don’t subscribe to the New Publishing Standard, you should. It’ll keep you from mouthing incorrect statistics like someone did in comments on my blog in June about the problems with being Amazon exclusive.

Once upon a time, in a land far far away, before we’d even suffered through a pandemic, not to mention a global economic meltdown (in 2008-9!) and wars and other such things, Amazon was the only real game in town. And back then, it worried me.

But like much that writers glom onto, the idea that Amazon is the only game in town or even the best game in town belongs to a previous era. As I’ve written numerous times, Amazon is no longer the only or the best player.

And it ignores the growing global market.

It takes a lot of work for Amazon to delve into new territory. A lot of behind-the-scenes effort that includes figuring out currencies, local taxation systems, regulations, and a whole bunch of things that Amazon thinks about so that its clients (read: writers using their platform) don’t have to think about.

Aggregators like Draft2Digital partner with existing companies, rather than plow through those regulatory and regional hurdles on their own. That’s a great way to go.

My theory is that the more markets your books are in, the better off you are—not just for day-to-day book sales, but also to attract licensing, from partnering with non-English language publishers and others for translation deals or for a non-American TV/movie deal or lots of other things.

Those of us in the United States in particular seem to believe that we are the only country that counts, that our innovations are better than anyone else’s, that we have better tech and more money and on and on and on.

My readers outside of the U.S. are laughing now. Because they know that American’s narrow-minded attitudes can sometimes be our downfall.

We’re isolated, as a country. We share our borders with only two countries—Canada and Mexico—and most of us live nowhere near those countries. This is very different from, say, Europe, where you can drive for a day and go through several different countries with different traditions and different languages.

Another problem that we Americans have is that English has become the global language of commerce. So when people come to us from outside the U.S., they usually speak our language or have someone nearby who can easily translate. Americans are not taught—in school or anywhere else—to think about communicating in more than one language because, as a country, we usually don’t have to.

That closes our mind to opportunities and I must admit that at times, for the sake of easiness or just because of myopia, I cave to those attitudes myself on this blog.

I’m generally writing for the English-language market, because I haven’t done the work of educating myself on the other markets. (I once dreamed of having a translation department at WMG Publishing, but I got way ahead of myself. I still dream of it, and a licensing department, and reinstating an audio department…but we simply don’t have enough time and resources…yet.)

So as I wrote the first piece in this series, talking about the way that people’s internet habits have changed during the pandemic, Mark published a piece about the future of worldwide publishing online.

I’m going to crib mightily from it, but I urge you to go read it. The statistics, which he got from Internet World Stats, are eye-opening. His interpretation is important, and I’m not going to delve into much of it. But let me say again: Read this. It’s important.

Much of the world is still in the grips of this pandemic. We have an uneven vaccine distribution. As I write this, some countries haven’t even received any doses of the vaccine. Others, which have vaccine, haven’t managed to vaccinate more than 1% of their population due to infrastructure issues as well as limited numbers of medical personnel and more.

While the United States is not-so-slowly climbing out of this pandemic (except for the regions of this very large country filled with the stubbornly unvaccinated), much of the world can’t keep up. So they’re facing another year of lockdowns and quarantines and sheer terror.

They don’t have 2020 redux. Their pandemic experience will last through 2021 and beyond.

Publishing has responded worldwide by going online. Which is all well and good for the countries with a good digital infrastructure, but many countries don’t have one.

Mark looked at all of this in his article, and then reminded his readers that this is no longer 2011. Things are a’changing, worldwide.

The change is in the headline: “The USA has just 6% of the world’s 5.2 billion internet users as Pandemic Y2 drives publishing online.”

I want you to read that again. The U.S. has only 6% of the world’s internet users. That 5.2 billion number—that’s 65.6% of the world’s population now uses the internet on some kind of device that, as Mark puts it,  can connect “to the internet using a device that could also be used to order print books for delivery, or to directly consume ebooks, audiobooks, podcasts and online narratives.”

Most of those users are not in the Western world. They’re in China, India, Indonesia, and Nigeria. (Those countries, along with the U.S., make up the top 5 internet users in the world.) As Mark points out, the world has added 3 billion internet users in the past 10 years.

So if you’re still conducting your business using 2011 information (you Amazon exclusive people), then you’re not looking at the market as it is.

Many of the markets that Mark looks at do not have access to Amazon’s platform. They use other platforms, other devices. Some countries are phone-exclusive for their internet usage. Some have developed whole new ways of reading, geared toward phone usage.

Others prefer streaming or book-sharing or other things that I haven’t even had the time to explore yet.

My initial article in this series was, technically, about market penetration. Even though more than 95% of people in the U.S. have access to the internet and/or have used it at least a few times, they weren’t internet savvy…until 2020 forced them into it.

The kind of growth we can experience here in the U.S. and in worldwide markets that have had a high digital presence for the past decade or more is deeper market penetration for books. People who hadn’t been comfortable shopping or reading online in the past are now, and that’s a huge internal growth market.

But Mark’s article talks about a huge external growth market.

If you sell your books in the U.S. only, you’re ignoring 94% of the people in the world who could buy your books. If, like traditional publishers, you only focus on the U.S. and the U.K, you’re still ignoring over 90% of the market.

(Take that, writers who think their traditional publishers have worldwide reach.)

Just like us in the U.S. and the U.K., the rest of the world suffered in this pandemic. Their publishing industries and their readers had to find a way to deliver books. Many of those industries built a hybrid model of the type that we already had in the U.S. and the U.K., combining print and online sales. The online sales, in many of these places, were new.

Now, readers in the rest of the world are accustomed to getting books online. And…here’s the thing: the U.S. has reached what is essentially full market penetration for internet use (anything over 90% is generally considered “full” in economic terms).

But most of these countries are still growing. India, with 755.8 million internet users, is only at 54.2% market penetration. In other words, only about half of their country has internet right now. That’s changing.

That 95% here in the U.S.? Well that comes out to 312.3 million internet users—or half of what India has. And India isn’t done growing.

Just by putting your books wide, your book sales will increase over the next five years, because as I mentioned above, English is the language of commerce, so a lot people in other countries read English. Many people are striving to learn English for that same reason, and they use English language fiction books to do so.

The growth here is staggering and, as with the U.S., the pandemic is accelerating this growth.

Opportunities abound, if you only allow yourself to access them.

If you put your books wide, in all of the available aggregators and marketplaces, will your book sales increase exponentially?

Nope. They will grow, slowly, but in ways that you won’t expect. When Kobo first started up, it had a map that I accessed regularly. I liked seeing where my books sold. I was always surprised by some of the sales in countries that were smaller than the state I lived in.

I haven’t looked at that map in years now, but I know from the letters I receive that I have readers in dozens of countries around the world. Those are just the ones who bother to contact me. I have no idea how many others I have, who came in through other methods.

Writers, you work in an international industry. Start looking at the markets outside of your home market. That’s doubly and triply true for writers inside of the U.S.

Yes, the U.S. is a big market, but it’s not as big as India where the official languages are Hindi and…you guessed it…English. And that’s just one other country. (Yes, I know, Amazon sells there. Finally. But poorly. There are better ways to sell books in India.) Look at the charts Mark gives you in his article, and think about all those readers.

Make your books available to them.

It’s always better to put your books where the readers are, rather than forcing your readers into one narrow channel.

So many of those readers won’t even be able to access that channel.

Think about it from a reader’s perspective. If you want to buy something, and it’s only available in a city halfway around the world from you in one store, would you go to that city and that store (or send a friend) to get that something?

Probably not. You’ll shrug and make a mental note not to even try to buy that product because you know it won’t be available to you, so why waste the time on it.

That is not the attitude you want to have in retail. And yes, folks, you’re in retail.

Make your product—your books—available worldwide. Watch the growth.

In the next few years, it will be amazing.


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“Business Musings: International Markets (Jumping the Digital Divide Part 4),” copyright © 2021 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / 4774344sean.

13 thoughts on “Business Musings: International Growth (Jumping The Digital Divide Part 4)

  1. Long time reader, first time poster, hello!

    I can speak and understand 5 + languages so I think on this a lot. I even remember talking to friends in South Korea about translation (long road before I get there) and some of my books reflect multi lingual characters.

    Now, speaking as an American, I really would like to stress that we’re not an English only country, we don’t even have an official language (rightly so), so English is just slotted as the “most common”/de facto language. There is also Spanish. There is Chinese (and its variations: Mandarin, Taiwanese, Cantonese, etc etc). There is Korean. There is French. These communities live already in America. That’s why, despite never have been outside the nation before (planes and passports are pricy!), I find it easy to think outside the US. My day is usually filled with non-English. I shop at a Korean market that sells goods in Korean, Chinese, Hindu & Spanish. Have a problem? Hopefully your Korean is half-decent. I shop also at Spanish markets and have spanish-speaking friends, I’m half Caribbean and half Black American (as much as I would like to say plain “American”, it’s pretty wacky some of the instant assumptions I get, not every American is Euro diaspora, oi), it’s where the familiar foods are. I may not know fluent Spanish but I know enough to not accidently be mean to my friends’ parents. My significant other is Taiwanese American, go to his home, you’re going to hear a healthy mix of Taiwanese, Mandarin and English. French when he is feeling silly (and because I know French & Chinese also). All in the USA.

    I think it is not just the international audience to think about. Because different language speakers also exist in the US and, no, they are not always fluent in English, that’s why some communities have two to three languages posted, even the street signs. I would love to see my book posted in the markets I shop in and my friends overseas tend to be my unfortunate testers for “can you see it on [popular online book store in their nation] yet? No. Ok, give me a sec. … And try it now. Anything yet?” So it make sense to be mindful of the world, and to be as wide as possible because a) Amazon isn’t everywhere and b ) even where it is, there are definitely communities & people that avoid them for a bevy of reasons.

    My two cents :3

    1. Great points all. I live in a multilingual city as well, and hear many languages every day. I want to translate my books into Spanish to give to a friend who speaks some English, but reads only in Spanish. So I understand exactly what you’re talking about. Thanks for your post!

  2. The to do list for savvy indie authors keeps getting longer – and I struggle to have enough brainpower to finish the actual writing, 7 years into the second book of my mainstream trilogy. Anyone doing the marketing you know well enough to recommend? There are SO many offering, and when I start digging into what they offer, it’s things like tweets. Or scammy review schemes. Or newsletter swaps but you provide the newsletter and take on strangers.

    I know better than to hire people who cost money and don’t know what they’re doing, but I cannot manufacture more of me to learn and do. And be healthy enough to.

    The writing I stand solidly behind. The rest, not yet.

  3. Kris, thank you for the link. I can confirm some data on Italy. I won’t be talking about myself here, since I’m nowhere near any form of success or sales in any marketplace and in either language (English or Italian). This year I helped a 95-year-old to put his first novel on Amazon. Not KU, mind you, but at the moment KDPprint is the cheapest POD option available in Italy. Lulu is much more expensive and doesn’t have Amazon’s reach. And the gentleman being 95, he wanted a paper book. So I helped his son to upload everything to KDP back in June under his name. The paperback went live first, then I added the ebook. I still have access to his dashboard, and he sold more in 3 months than me in 1 year! 34 paperbacks and 7 ebooks. With no marketing. An unknown author.
    Still, it shows that even if Italy went online (and there’s plenty of people on social media), readers still prefer physical books. They might have learned to order them from Amazon (if they’re not boycotting it) when bookshops closed during lockdown, but there’s still some resistance towards ebook (unless they’re very specific niches – I have most of my m/m stories in Italian in KU and get regular KENP, and even some sales). I don’t have any Italian audiobook, so I can’t speak for that market, but it’s definitely still mostly paperbacks on this side of the pond or at least in this language market.
    Writing in English to reach a wider audience was the main reason for me to drop my mother tongue. Yes, you Americans often forget that there’s plenty of foreigners who read English as second language – and plenty of ESL writers out here as well! 🙂 Thank you for the post and the link to the article – and remember me when you set up that Translation Dept at WMG! 😉

  4. Yes, this!

    Someone liked a novel I had on Wattpad and wanted to buy it, but the only ebook store available to them was the Google Play store. They told me this, so I started uploading my books there. I don’t sell much there, but as long as it’s another place for readers to find me, I’ll keep putting my books there.

  5. English may not be universal, but there are a lot of readers. UK expats in Spain used to be a massive section of the book market in Spain. (Covid and Brexit has messed with it hard.) Licensing translations in Scandinavia is very difficult, because if readers are interested in a book, they’ve already read it in English. The pool of remaining readers is too small to risk translation for all but the most popular books. It’s not as bad in South-East Asia/India, but the well educated will often just read the original in English.

  6. This is a great article and I completely agree with what you say. I only have about 3,000 people on my mailing list but they are all over the world. I regularly correspond with fans on France and Belgium who read my stuff which is kind of amazing! I’ve of my beta readers is French.

    Right now I’m trying to work out what people expect to pay for an e-book in other countries. I think it’s 30-120INR in India and I’ve listed the price for a lot of my books accordingly – it’s a work in progress. However after lowering the prices I sold a box set to India the other day. OK it was on Amazon but it was still a start.

  7. Very interesting post! But I wonder about three of the premises:

    U.S. has already reached 95% internet saturation. So what? I still haven’t reached most of those 312.3 million U.S. internet users. There’s still plenty of opportunity is that #3 sandbox.
    “If you sell your books in the U.S. only, you’re ignoring 94% of the people in the world who could buy your books.” Yes, but how am I going to efficiently reach all those people? Amazon does a good job of marketing for me.
    “My theory is that the more markets your books are in, the better off you are—not just for day-to-day book sales, but also to attract licensing, from partnering with non-English language publishers and others for translation deals or for a non-American TV/movie deal or lots of other things.”

    Now this has my interest. But now that I’m in the middle of negotiating my first TV/movie deal, I can’t imagine how much more complex it would be dealing with non-U.S./UK principals. It’s hard enough dealing with L.A. and NYC. To even think about adding Beijing or Mumbai to the mix is a trembling thought.

    Notwithstanding all the above, I’m mulling it all over. And signing up for TNPS. So thanks for presenting these ideas.

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