June 17, 2014

You can’t buy a Norwegian book with Google Play, even if you’re in Norway


Badass Norwegian via Shutterstock.

Badass Norwegian via Shutterstock.

Google Play Books launched in Norway about two weeks ago. There’s just one problem: uh, no Norwegian titles are currently available in the Google Play store.

That’s because the biggest publishers in Norway, Aschehoug, Gyldendal and Cappelen Damm, aren’t interested in working with Google.

These major publishers not interested in selling at a steep discount, even if it costs them a potential retail outlet. In case you were curious, Norwegian ebooks are sold for roughly 93 kroner, about $15.50 U.S. or € 11.45, which is about 20-25% cheaper than the physical book.

Afterposten reports that Google planned to take more than half the profit of all ebook sales. Harald Ofstad Foughner, the editorial director of Gyldendal, said the business model just didn’t seem beneficial to publishers. Imagine!

Hey, man, we should give this country some credit. The Norwegians fought the Kindle in 2009. Last year, Norwegian publishers were accused of working to keep their books out of convenience stores because the prices were too low. (This is still under investigation.)

The Swedish are baffled by the Google Play debacle. “This is incomprehensible,” said Bonnier digital chief Magnus Nytell in an interview with Jan Gunnar Furuly of Afterposten. “To survive in the publishing industry… you must simply be present in all sales channels available.”

But Norwegian publishers disagree. As we’ve mentioned before, Norway has a very different approach to book publishing than, say, the U.S. or the UK. The government buys 1,000-1,5000 copies of every book that is published, subsidizes all members of the Authors’ Union (to the tune of $19K a year), and even exempts books from sales tax. The Association of Bookstores is allowed to have a monopoly, but it cannot engage in price competition, and all Norwegian books must stay in stock for two years.

While Google may not be selling any Norwegian titles, nearly every title will soon be available from the National Library of Norway. As my colleague Sal Robinson wrote, the library is making everything in its collection available digitally “on the sound but still mind-boggling principle that this is simply an extension of their responsibilities as a legal deposit institution.”

Norwegian publishers stopped GooglePlay when it seemed to be on a roll, adding thirteen new countries at the end of last year. Beyond Norway, the company expanded to Luxembourg, Paraguay, Bolivia, Uruguay, Colombia, Honduras, Panama, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. (Brief and bizarre aside: two weeks ago, Google announced the launch of the Chromebook in many of these same countries by posting a rhyming poem on its blog.)

As Nate Hoffelder of The Digital Reader points out, it’s weird that Google has been quiet for six months:

Last year Google was launching ebookstores left and right. Every month to 6 weeks Google would quietly add anywhere from five to a dozen local ebookstores to Google Play Books at a single go, but that ended in December 2013 with a push into Latin America.

They were up to 44 countries when their expansion stalled in December, making Norway the 45th country to have a local Google Play Books.  I can’t tell you why Google stopped, but this was an issue which I was watching carefully and I was planning to comment on the stoppage at some point.

It’s hard not to read this in light of the HachetteAmazon battle. We don’t have the government support that Norwegian publishers do, but would publishers have any chance of surviving if they refused to list their titles with certain online retailers? Could U.S. and UK publishers walk away from a bad deal, and would that make Google Play (or some other online retailer) reconsider its business model?


Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.