An overview of e-book market in Croatia

The e-books research project ~ funded by Vetenskapsrådet - the Swedish Research Council

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.

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