A panel consisting of the chairperson of the Swedish Publishers Association Kristina Ahlinder, chairperson of the Swedish Writers Assotiation Gunnar Ardelius, President of the Swedish Library Association Niclas Lindberg and the representative of the Literaturbanken (an organiation promoting Swedish literature) Mats Malm has debated the situation of the e-books on Swedish book market. The discussion was moderated by Skans Kersti Nilsson – a senior researcher in our group, which has initiated this seminar.
The participants discussed the issue of whether Swedish society needs e-books and what they are good for. Kristina Ahlinder suggested that the e-book is only a format and what matters is the investment in its content made by authors and publishers. This investment has to be equaled by the demand for this format. Gunnar Ardelius noted that literature, writing and reading have been changing since their inception and the authors have to understand what is happening in this area right now to stay important for the context. Niclas Lindberg emphasized access to the texts and the potential of promoting and spreading reading that is possible because of e-books. And, despite the fact that we do not see a very big demand for them right now, we cannot forsee when the change will happen. Mats Malm pointed out that e-books enable us to revive older material and provide it through open access in various formats. This is an issue of democratisation. Norway has already understood it and supported digitisation of the large part of Norwegian books.
The fact that e-book sales, loans through libraries and readership are quite small in comparison to the print books and e-books in other countries raised the question, What are the barriers to its spread? There were different explanations. Publishers see the problem in the investment that is needed to market and raise the demand for the new format. Very few publishers can afford this investment and many small ones cannot. Libraries should not be the only channel to e-book distribution and it should be balanced with commercial sales, so that the readers do not get into the habit of reading books for free. Besides the difference in VAT and the piracy inhibits active e-book publishing. The librarian´s position is that e-book readers are just readers and we need to promote reading to get more readers who also spend more time reading. The authors noted that there is a digital change, but it is not yet exploited in the same way as the newspapers and music industry has done. There is no such powerful actor on the Swedish stage as Amazon is on the English language market with its promotion of new reading equipment and e-books. The authors views on VAT are very different as many of them think that the state can support culture in other ways than just lowering the tax.
The question on the role of the libraries in dissemination of e-books raises tension between publishers and librarians. This could be noted in the debate as well. Kristina Ahlinder thinks that the role of libraries in promoting reading and digital reading is positive. But their budget is limited and they have to make choices. When the demand for e-books increases their budgets cannot cope with that demand. Therefore, the economy of loans through libraries is not attractive to publishers. Niclas Lindberg suggested that this is the issue for cultural policy as library budgets are allocated by different levels of the government. And it is very important that the negotiations with publishers were taken over by the Swedish Association of the Local and Regional Authorities who are impartial in this dispute. For libraries it is better to buy a paper book, because the cost per loan diminishes with every loan, while with e-books it is entirely the opposite – they become more expensive with each loan. Kristina Ahlinder pointed out that the National Library has calculated that each issue of a paper book costs around 50-60 SEK, while e-books do not have these administration costs. Niclas was agreeing to it, but librarians in the audience pointed out that the costs of servicing e-books are not lower than these of servicing paper books. Quite on the contrary, they demand more technical support for the readers, more sophisticated marketing and infrustructural support.
Mats Malm considered the e-book’s role in the enlightenment and education. The most important worry of the Literaturbanken is that there is not enough access to the older classical literature and that leads to higher demand for simpler leisure literature. The appreciation for the quality literature has to be developed from school, thus the text should be moved to the digital space first and then the serious work should begin. The Literaturbanken works with teachers who have developed a Website for schools. He was supported by Niclas Lindberg who has pointed out that librarians role always involved building bridges between what a reader wants and the high quality texts that require more efforts to read. Libraries work for this with schools and many other partners as a library is not books, but librarians who are building these bridges.
The question on who should take the responsibility for the cultural policy related to e-books has been also answered in different ways. Mats Malm returned to the example of the Norwegian government, which invested heavily in digitisation of Norwegian books. The investment is needed into highlighting what is marginalised in literature and should be put in focus more. This is the work in progress in Sweden. Gunnar Ardelius suggested that the work of an author has to be accessible through all possible channels and in all formats. One should remember that books are not only commercial products but also cultural value. Kristina Ahlinder does not approve of the state´s involvement in publishing policy, instead it should be involved in reading promotion. But, according to an interesting shift in logic, publishers should get economic support when they are publishing serious literature, which may not sell well. Niclas Lindberg suggested that the role of the cultural policy should take care of different interests of many actors involved with e-books. A publisher may want to sell his product for 120SEK, but if the buyer is willing to pay for it only 12SEK or nothing at all, then publisher is in trouble. The balance of the interests for the greatest public good should be the focus of the cultural policy.