What does the next chapter of the e-book look like in Sweden?

The bookshelf in her office at University of Borås is fully stocked. But Maceviciute says that she does most of her work-related reading on a computer screen or a tablet. In her free time, she reads fiction, both in paper form and as e-books.

‘But there’s something special about reading a book with printed pages. We have become used to paper books over the centuries. The paper book is difficult to replace with an e-book, which you really can’t hold in your hands in the same way. I consider e-books and paper books complements,’ she says.

More about the project:
The aim of the e-book research project is to explore the observed and potential effects of e-books on writing, publishing, distribution and use in Sweden.

Besides project director Elena Maceviciute, the research project consists of Skans Kersti Nilsson, Thomas Wilson and Birgitta Wallin, researchers from the University of Borås, and Lars Höglund and Annika Bergström, researchers from the University of Gothenburg. The project has been identified as particularly strategically important at University of Borås and has also received SEK 12 million in funding from the Swedish Research Council. The research has been carried out for four years, from January 2013 to January 2017. 

Read the project blog: projectebooks.wordpress.com

An e-book can be defined as an electronic version of a printed book. It can be read with a PC, tablet or smartphone. Maceviciute says that technology keeps moving forward and that e-book readers in the form of watches or soft bracelets may hit the market in a few years. The e-books also continue to evolve with links and multimedia extensions that may alter the way we read. She describes the e-book as a ‘dream product’.

‘An e-book could be read for free by everyone in the world at the same time. But the use of e-books continues to be restricted in various ways. Some players feel threatened, as is common when innovations enter the market.

Breakthrough in 2008

The idea to create e-books is not new. In fact, the first e-book first saw the light of day already in 1971 in the US.

‘Project Gutenberg was launched as the first digital library connected to a computer network, which later evolved into the internet. To this day, Project Gutenberg offers free downloads of e-books for which the copyright has expired.’

The big breakthrough for e-books, however, came in 2008 when US online retailer Amazon introduced Kindle, an e-reader with a built-in online bookshop. The device became a success, and Amazon has continued to drive the development of e-books. According to Maceviciute, a significantly larger share of people read e-books in large language areas, such as the English and the Spanish, than in Sweden.

‘E-book sales make up 25–30 per cent of the US and UK book markets. In Sweden, the share is two per cent. As a researcher, this catches my attention. I want to understand more about why e-books haven’t become equally popular in Sweden.’

Academic Cooperation

The research on the emergence of e-books in Sweden is carried out jointly by researchers from the Swedish School of Library and Information Science in Borås and colleagues from the SOM Institute and the Department of Journalism, Media and Communication at the University of Gothenburg. The research project examines how readers, writers, publishers, booksellers, online retailers and libraries in a small language area like Sweden are affected by e-books. Through surveys and personal interviews, the researchers explore people’s attitudes and opinions in relation to e-books and why they feel the way they do. People’s reading habits and use of e-books are also investigated.

‘This is important research because of the increasing number of e-books published, the increased popularity of tablets and the increased borrowing of e-books at Swedish libraries,’ says Maceviciute.

The study indicates that major Swedish publishers feel ambivalent about e-books. They are afraid of not getting paid enough for the product and they feel hesitant about investing in the necessary technology.

‘The big publishers invested a lot of money in developing technology for books on DVD and CD, but people’s interest in those types of books vanished quickly. Also, the price of an e-book is much higher in Sweden than in many other countries. Sometimes a Swedish e-book costs more than a paper book, which seems absurd considering that you only pay for a license.’

Maceviciute says that the researchers also have interviewed minor publishers and online retailers. The smaller operators express a stronger interest in the launching and sale of e-books. There are small publishers who have plans to completely replace paperbacks with e-books. Several small publishers and online booksellers are hoping that Amazon will get established in Sweden and add momentum to the e-book.

‘Sweden is a limited market with about 10 million people and a small language area. I therefore see it as unlikely that big international publishers will be interested in entering the Swedish book market. While the large Swedish book publishers are hesitant to publish e-books, there is room for other players to step up, such as unestablished authors who are not affiliated with the big publishers and who can publish e-books by themselves.’

Big Clash between Publishers and Libraries

While sales of e-books remain low, Swedish public libraries are facing a growing demand for e-books. However, the costs of lending e-books pose a serious threat to library budgets. Libraries pay per loan, making the costs hard to control. With paper books, the libraries can buy a copy and then lend it as many times as the library guests want them to.

‘When the biography about Swedish football great Zlatan Ibrahimovic was released, a major conflict broke out between publishers and libraries. In two weeks, the Stockholm public library lent the book 1 000 times – almost exclusively e-book loans. Publishers became scared and envisioned a scenario in which no one would buy e-books if they were available for free at the library. So the publishers decided to limit the availability of e-book titles for library use,’ says Maceviciute. ‘But at the same time, e-books have attracted a whole new group of people to the libraries, young men, who in many cases are accustomed to the technology used for reading e-books.’

Will e-books ever become a real threat to the paper book? Probably not, according to Maceviciute.

‘In our study, almost all interviewees, including the younger ones, said they prefer paper books.’

But there are groups of people who could benefit greatly from e-books, such as dyslexics and old people. E-books can be adapted to their needs; for example, the text can be magnified. However, the understanding of what e-books are and how they can be used remains limited among the older generation.

‘People who commute and travel a lot often appreciate e-books. If they for example finish an e-book on the train, they can immediately access a new one online.’

Believes the Interest in E-books Will Increase

When asked about the future, she does believe e-books are here to stay. But she predicts that the progress will be slow.
‘In a few years, I think we can have about the same figures as in English-speaking countries, where the sales of e-books account for about 20–30 percent of the book market. But because of our strong tradition and habit of reading paper books, they will never be outcompeted.’

She foresees a different development in developing countries.

‘People in those countries are not as accustomed to reading paper books as we are, so I think it will be easier for them to absorb the new e-book technology.’ 

Social science research tends to investigate what is happening in the present. Some of the research done today will not be up to date in a few years, says Maceviciute.

‘E-books don’t have a long history in the market and are still in their infancy. Maybe people’s interest in them will just die. Who knows? Right now, the conditions for the Swedish e-book market look a certain way, but that may soon change. In the autumn of 2016, an EU decision with a potentially big impact was made. The sales tax, which used to be 25 per cent for e-books, will be reduced to six per cent, which is the same rate as for paper books. The EU court also decided that libraries have the right to buy and lend e-books in the same way as paper books.’

Did you know that…
• … the share of Swedes who have read an e-book in the last year is 17 per cent?
• … about two per cent of all books sold in Sweden are e-books?
• … US online retailer Amazon offers over a million e-book titles? Swedish book publishers have published about 20 000 e-book titles?
• ... one per cent of Swedes ages 9−79 years read an e-book on any given day? For paper books, the corresponding figure is 31 per cent.

The SOM study, the Media Barometer and the Swedish Publishers’ Association’s publishing statistics. The information is for 2015.

‘These decisions may affect both sales and library lending of e-books. We still don’t know if it will, but all of this shows clearly how changing our research area is. In three years, maybe we’ll start a new study that we can’t even imagine today. That’s how fast things are changing. Yet it is still important that we document and create an understanding of what is happening here and now.’

Hoping That Research Will Yield New Perspectives

The research project will end in 2017. Maceviciute hopes that the actors in the book market will take part of the results and gain new perspectives on the development of e-books in Sweden. The researchers will also provide some recommendations.

‘For example, we will encourage libraries to ask themselves whether it’s reasonable to spend so much money on e-books, since the borrowing of e-books represents only two per cent of total loans. We also encourage libraries to start looking at alternative options, perhaps collaboration among libraries for the administration and lending of e-books.’

An urgent issue to study further is the use of e-books in education. She believes that policy makers must have more knowledge before they replace paper textbooks with e-books.

‘It is often assumed that young people prefer e-books to paper books, but that’s not what our research shows. It is important that we find out why e-books should be used. Do e-books provide educational or financial benefits?’

‘We need to learn more about the future of books,’ says Maceviciute

Written by: Kristina Karlberg
Photo: Suss Wilén
Illustration: Carin Sollenberg 
Translation: Debbie Axlid