On the move: E-books are a common sight on the Moscow Metro Photo: Itar-Tass
4:37PM GMT 24 Feb 2011
Sales of electronic books and digital readers are soaring as manufacturers exploit the poor reach of traditional publishing across Russia
With classic writers such as Alexander Pushkin still firm favourites beside detective potboilers, electronic publishing is in hot pursuit of Russia’s avid and largely untapped readership.
“Russia has very little physical distribution of books. There are no nationwide chains like Barnes & Noble or Waterstone’s,” said Simon Dunlop, founder of the digital download company Bookmate.ru.
A total of 80pc of books are sold in Moscow and St Petersburg, with only 20pc in the regions, according to the booksellers Bookmate and Ozon.ru. But digital distribution may overcome the challenges of selling books across this vast territory.
“With digital media there are no border controls, no customs and no transport costs,”said Mr Dunlop. With nine time zones, no other market in the world was as well-suited to e-books.
The former Soviet Union was a “nation of readers”, and Russia remains a society with literacy on a par with or higher than Western Europe. But internet piracy has held back the development of the publishing industry, with illegal downloads robbing publishers of revenues needed to back new authors.
E-books are thought to be the leading legally downloaded product on the Russian internet by industry experts; Mr Dunlop says the number of downloads from Bookmate grew exponentially in the past year.
The rising popularity of e-books is easy to see; it seems that every carriage on the Moscow Metro has at least one or two people clutching an e-book reader. And rising demand for affordable e-readers has already been met with a popular, cheap and effective Ukrainian-produced reader. Oleg Naumenko, 29, the Ukrainian entrepreneur who launched the best-selling Pocketbook e-reader, realised that a product designed for the Russian-language market could profit from the huge number of free (pirated) files on the internet without infringing copyright laws.
Before the Pocketbook, the drawback of such files was the inconvenience of reading from printouts or LED displays. Mr Naumenko’s Pocketbook e-reader range does not come cheap at around £190, but users recoup their investment quickly if they use it as a substitute for buying hard copies of books.
The crisis year of 2009 was a breakthrough for Pocketbook; it sold 142,000 devices, earning £23m. Around 60pc of the devices were sold in Russia and most of the rest in Ukraine.
According to SmartMarketing, Pocketbook captured 43pc of the Russian market, with Sony a distant second with 24pc. Pocketbook’s success was expected to continue in 2010, with earnings estimated at around £94m. Mr Naumenko has also established an e-book where licensed files cost a fraction of hard copy.
With a Russian population of 142 million, a total of 110 million people in the CIS online and double-digit growth in the spread of internet capability, the market has huge growth potential. “As long as people have an internet connection you can start to use the power of technology to crack open new markets,” Mr Dunlop said.