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By Zoran Velagić and Franjo Pehar

Not much has been written about e-books in Croatia, another European small language market which shares some common traits with other similar milieus, but proves some distinctions as well. Regarding common traits, we can only repeat the words by Elena Maceviciute from “Publishing and the small languages” posted earlier on this blog: “the publishers catering for small languages seem to be looking for the possibilities to delay the process as much as possible. The smaller the language, the greater the eagerness of publishers to apply the brakes“. In this post, we would like to sketch a very brief outline about e-book business in Croatia, focusing on basic features which shaped the context of its appearance, first projects, and current state.

The context

The fact is that Croatian e-book business has been developed with a negligible participation of publishers, and that some of the biggest among them still refuse to sell their books in e-form. The small language alone would suffice to explain their reluctance in starting the risky investments only if no one else would dare to do the same. But e-book business, although small in scale, has been developed. We believe that, regarding Croatia, the roots of publishers reluctance, among others, could be find in the beginnings of 1990s, when Croatia came through the war for independence and profound political and social changes, together with dissolution of publishing industry built on the safe socialistic economy for more than 40 years. Big, market-shaping companies such as Mladost disappeared. Other ones, such as Školska knjiga, successfully changed management structure and continued business prioritizing highly profitable products, like school textbooks. New players, such as Algoritam, formed by experienced professionals from devastated old companies and focused on trade publishing, also appeared. Although it is impossible to cover the diversity of publishers’ efforts in this period and to list all the factors that shaped publishing context in Croatia at the turn of the centuries, three aspects seem the most important. Before the war, Croatian publishers operated at the entire Yugoslav market, while Croatian market alone was for 80% smaller – such reduced market was insufficient to boost up a critical mass of regular book buyers. Secondly, publishers themselves failed to adopt their business to new circumstances. Instead of exploring suitable business operations for a smaller market, they buried themselves into the self-image of gatekeepers, insisting on their cultural mission (the lack of strong market component in the book business sticks out as the residue of earlier subsidized economy models) and starving for the budget money, which they, through the several programs of Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Science, Education and Sport, often receive. Combination of subsidized business operations and the small market was great obstacle for necessary risk-taking and the development of new business models. Instead, the biggest Croatian publishers were making profit on school textbooks, self-helps, translations of bestsellers and – by selling books. Namely, all of the bigger companies have operated, and they still do, both as the publishers and retailers, often with harmful terms for medium and small sized companies which are forced to use their bookstores. Wholesalers have never ever existed in Croatian history, and independent bookstores were forced out of business. In such a blend of small market, sponsored publishing and monopolistic bookselling any novelty was conceived as potentially dangerous: publishers-booksellers regularly labeled book selling through competitive distribution channels such us newsstands or general retail stores either as disloyal or, even more, as humiliation of culture. At least at the beginnings, e-book retailing was, for part of them, just another hazardous novelty.

First projects

Under such circumstances, the development of Croatian e-book business was in the hands of new players which, in the main, did have some experience in publishing. From 1995 onward they were forming partnership with established publishers or used copyright free materials. They changed the content’s container and offered compact discs instead of printed books. After that, it was only the question of technology. By offering broadband internet, telecom operators paved the way for web based e-book distribution which started – as open access movement. In 2001 The Society for Promotion of Literature on New Media (DPKM) launched electronic-books site, where they offered some of the popular Croatian and foreign authors – for free. Very small in scope, today they offer 133 titles, they managed to get 20.000 downloads for some books, and almost 70.000 for the Croatian translation of Noam Chomsky’s works on media, propaganda and systems. These initial efforts did not give a stronger impulse to development of the e-book publishing. New significant, and again non-commercial project eLektire, aimed at providing the obligatory school reading in e-form, with free access to all Croatian pupils, students, and teachers, appeared eight years later, in 2009. It was the joined effort of Croatian Ministry of Science, Education and Sport (which provided the list of titles and – readers), Croatian Academic and Research Network (which provided the platform) and one of the young publishers, at that time already well experienced in multimedia publishing, Bulaja naklada (which provided the content). Bulaja naklada, by all means the pioneer of e-publishing in Croatia, started as family business in 1998. In ten years they have been publishing award-winning products, among others the CD-ROM’s compilation of copyright free obligatory school reading (three volumes named “Classics of Croatian Literature”). Thus, Bulaja was a natural choice to join the project, which they manage up to now. Impero Digital Books is another non-commercial e-book platform launched in 2009 by a group of book lovers who’s principal intention was to “digitize and rescue Croatian literal heritage from oblivion and decay and to make them more accessible to the users of Internet”. Impero also acts as a kind of (self)publishing platform that offers expertise and solutions built to help authors in reaching their target audiences.

In 2010, Croatian e-book market gained the first commercial project. With no intentions to deal with publishing, a company Lamaro digital built a platform for e-book distribution named TookBook, but they stuffed their list with English language titles – today they host more than 16.000 of them. Focused on global market, company in the first year had only casual effects on Croatian e-book publishing, offering only a few dozens of Croatian titles. At the same period, two Croatian telecom operators decided to enter the e-book business, finally turning it to a wider scale private enterprise at a national level. Croatian Telecom followed the example of its parent company, Deutsche Telecom and it’s PagePlace, and launched on-line bookstore Planet9. Another operator, Vip (part of Vodafone group), in chorus opened another bookstore Vip eKnjžara, but this one is simply taking content from TookBook, and is completely developed and powered by Lamaro digital. What makes difference between them is payment model – Vip charges customers directly, at one bill, together with other services (internet, mobile, TV and so on). Thus, this e-book store is for now convenient only for users of Vip network. TookBook and Planet9 on the contrary aim to cover entire Croatian market, but significantly, all three companies are offering titles both in Croatian and English. Dvostruka Duga, another e-publisher, launched in 2012 a new distribution platform eLibrika with its own free application for reading e-books on computers (Windows, Mac and Linux). eLibrika’s goal is to provide distribution services based on their own platform particularly for various Croatian small and medium-sized publishing houses.

Current state of the Croatian e-book market

For the purpose of this post, at the beginning of February 2013 we have conducted a small-scale research by scraping web catalogs of seven mayor Croatian e-book players (Figure 1). At the moment four main commercial distributors (Planet9, Vip eBookstore, TookBook and eLibrika) offer ca. 1.830 e-books in Croatian language. After removing duplicate catalog entries, by applying a simple exact string matching algorithm based on the values in the title field, a list of ca. 760 unique e-book titles, with DRM and with a set retail price, was extracted. After applying the same data cleansing procedure, we have spotted that 580 e-book titles in Croatia are freely available as part of three major non-commercial platforms (eLektire, Impero Digital Books and The Society for Promotion of Literature on New Media – DPKM). According to the results it could be estimated that the total number of e-books available in Croatian language, scattered across seven distribution platforms, is about 1.200 titles.

Figure 1. Croatian E-book Market
Croatian E-book Market

Commercial platforms prefer ePub and PDF with Adobe DRM protection over other e-book formats (67%). Only two platforms, eLibrika and Impero Digital Books, offer self-developed e-book applications for reading on computers, tablets and/or smartphones (15%). Two major non-commercial platforms, eLektire and DPKM’s e-book site, prefer the combination of non-protected PDF and/or HTML file formats (17%).

So far, Croatian publishers have been very cautious with regard to investing in digital distribution. Figure 2 shows a list of eleven publishers with ≥ 20 e-book titles made available through one of the seven platforms. Noticeably, the head is occupied by non-commercial, while commercial publishers adding up to the tail of the figure. What is even more instructive, non-commercials do not publish their own content – their either participate as a key partners in a larger scale projects (Bulaja naklada and eLektire) or aim to freely distribute copyright free materials (Impero digitalne knjige, DPKM).

Figure 2. Major Croatian E-book Publishers
Major Croatian E-book Publishers

The average retail price of €5,44 per e-book title is stable across four commercial distribution platforms and very close to the average price of US best-selling e-books (Table 1). If we take into account the relatively low number of available titles, the average e-book priced at €5,44 is still too high.

Table 1: Average Price of E-books in Croatia

Distribution platform Average price (kn) Average price (€)
eLibrika 40,03 kn € 5,34
Planet9 41,34 kn € 5,51
TookBook 38,69 kn € 5,16
VIP eKnjižara 42,25 kn € 5,63
  40,81 kn € 5,44

Conclusion

This short and limited overview offers an insight into various features of e-book publishing in Croatia based on the best information available. The e-book business, although small in scale, has been shaped during the last decade in Croatia. A number of elements indicate the key role of non-commercial publishing in developing the Croatian e-book scene. Namely, early projects and initiatives started mainly with the objective of digitizing Croatian culture and by making works of literature and required school readings available in electronic format for free. This is still the case today as three non-commercial publishers – Bulaja naklada, The Society for Promotion of Literature on New Media (DPKM) and Impero Digital Books – are representing almost half (602) of the Croatian language e-books. The emergence of commercial e-book market dates in 2010 and launching of telecom platforms – Planet9 and TookBook. These platforms, together with eLibrika, have signed agreements with ca. 30 domestic publishers; today they are representing approximately half of the Croatian e-book market. In this environment, we have to conclude that e-books in Croatian publishing industry are still a new niche segment that has to be considered more of a perspective for future developments than a present reality. Dominant page to pixel model and publishers’ reluctance in developing e-books as new, print-independent products seems to be the main obstacle in building the competitive e-book enterprise at national level.

Zoran Velagić
Department of Information Sciences, University J. J. Strossmayer in Osijek, Faculty of Philosophy
Croatia

Franjo Pehar
University of Zadar, Department of Information Sciences
Croatia

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