Ebook readers are suddenly affordable, while the ebook market is gathering pace – even for previously poorly-served Australian readers. Read on as I turn the page on the future of literature.
Think back just over three years. Amazon in the USA had just announced a new ebook reader product called the Kindle, to much excitement – over there at least. Back in Australia at the time, ebook readers were not entirely unknown, but we were faced with limited options when it came to buying the ebooks themselves, along with eye-watering prices for relatively uninspiring readers.
Local enthusiasm was well summarised by a comment left below an online Lifehacker news piece about the iRex iLiad:
Captain Reality: “$900?! Ha ha ha! Whoo! Call me back when they drop below $300. Oh, and I’m a gadget nerd. Call the average person back when they drop below $150.”
Over three years on, Captain Reality will be glad to hear that the combination of a strong Australian dollar and fierce competition among manufacturers has brought ebook readers to Australian bookworms at affordable prices – yes, even down to $139 for the Amazon Kindle Wifi ($160 including shipping cost).
I write short articles as well as long feature “explainer” articles on topics including: Google Android Smartphones and Tablets, National Broadband Network (NBN), Space, Civil & Military Aviation, Ebooks and the Publishing Industry, Electric cars, Technology augmenting human capabilities etc for Geare Magazine. The editor of GEARE has kindly permitted me to post articles here after the magazine issue the article was printed in has passed its shelf life. I have added updates where new information is relevant.
How E Ink works…
E Ink is short for “electrophoretic ink”. Charged pigments are suspended in clear liquid micro-capsules, and respond when a voltage is applied, moving either black or white pigments to the screen’s foreground. They remain in place even if the voltage is removed, which is why E Ink displays use so little power; power only needs to be applied when the page is changed and the pigments rearranged.
No contest – E Ink vs Backlight Mobile Phone/Tablet Screens
Let me make one thing clear – E Ink is the only screen technology that a serious book reader should consider for ebook reading. Of course, anyone with a smartphone/tablet can buy and read Kindle, Kobo and iBookstore ebooks without needing to buy a separate E Ink ebook reader. And on the face of it, ebooks on a smartphone/tablet should look great – high-resolution colour photos, and touchscreen interfaces that do away with the need for buttons.
However, the experience of reading whole long books on a phone/tablet isn’t so much fun. Because the devices are backlit, they emit light which tires the eyes after fairly short periods. Some apps allow reversing out, giving white text on black, which is better, especially when reading in low light. But that solution still doesn’t overcome the main problem of LCD and ALOLED screens – they are difficult to read outdoors in bright light. As a reflective technology, E Ink is as easy to read outdoors as the printed page.
Battery life is another issue. A typical smartphone/tablet battery lasts for about a day in typical use. Getting a “low battery” warning in the middle of reading a gripping ebook on a smartphone isn’t an experience anyone enjoys. In sharp contrast, E Ink ebook reader batteries can last for weeks as E Ink requires power only when you turn the page. (active Wi-Fi/3G connections can affect this). Regardless of which E Ink ebook reader you buy, you’ll enjoy the ability to:
- store over a thousand books, which makes packing for holidays a great deal easier;
- get at least a week or two of battery life, potentially far more;
- be able to read the high-contrast E Ink screen with the same ease on the eyes as a paper book;
- you can read a book outside with no problems even in the harsh midday sun, without any of the reflected glare experienced when using smartphone/tablet screens outdoors;
- (from some ebook readers) buy a book directly via inbuilt Wi-Fi/3G and start reading it 60 seconds later.
Buying eBooks Is Almost Too Easy – Beware Impulse Buys Draining Your Credit Card
With a 3G or Wi-Fi connection you can browse Amazon’s ebooks and read a few sample pages of a potential purchase… then you can choose to purchase. With your Kindle already registered, it’s pretty much a one-click thing… and because ebooks are only small files, your selection loads from the US-based Amazon within seconds, ready to read.
The Kobo 2 has a similar in book purchase feature using WiFi only … but lacks the sample chapter technique Amazon uses to hook people into trying the first bit of a book and being compelled to buy the whole thing.
eBook Pricing and Geographic Availability is Frustrating
Australia has been poorly served in the opening years of ebook availability. We can access endless out-of-copyright ebooks, often for free. But new titles vary wildly in both price and availability.
Indeed pricing of ebooks can often surprise new purchasers of ebook readers. After receiving hundreds of free pre-installed or easily-obtained classics – your Dickens, Shakespeare et al – there can be angst when the discovery is made that newly released ebooks are often priced only slightly below the printed versions.
How can this be? An individual ebook sale costs the publisher almost nothing besides the small data transfer required. As with digital music distribution there are obvious savings in raw materials, printing and distribution.
But that is without considering the many people in the publishing food chain who earn a living from book sales – the author, their agent, the publisher, the distributor in each country, the retailer. And complex legal agreements exist between different players in this chain, often dating back before ebooks existed. As with new music models like subscription streaming, it can be hard to offer heavy discounts or even uniform pricing and availability across the world.
Prices vary widely for print books, of course. It’s not unusual for the exact same print book to be priced anywhere from a third of the publisher’s recommended retail price upwards – sometimes ending above the RRP once shipping costs are taken into account.
Sadly for Australian retailers, the high Aussie dollar leaves overseas websites often able to undercut local ones. It pays not only to compare prices on different sites, but also to check if there is a cheaper edition – even ‘local’ websites such as Borders Australia and Angus & Robertson offer full-price Australian editions but also source overseas editions, usually from the US or UK.
ebook prices also vary widely, but any new ebook by a well known author is likely to sell at a minimum of $15, most likely substantially more. Kobo Australia has a big catalogue of 2.1 million ebooks, 236,000 of which are for sale, the rest classics free to download. Our searches show that Kobo’s store definitely offers far more ebooks by Australian authors than Amazon.com.
Nevertheless Amazon.com says Kindle customers in Australia can purchase more than 470,000 books in the Kindle Store and can also download over a million free pre-1923 out-of-copyright books.
The best way to demonstrate pricing was for me to search and compare it for a newly-released book, one which may be familiar to you – ‘I Shall Wear Midnight’ by Terry Pratchett.
The results – the Australian hardback edition can set you back up to $50, but the US Book Depository can get the US edition to your door for $14.05, which just beats Amazon’s Kindle ebook version, the cheapest electronic version at $14.17. All prices were correct as we went to press.
The industry needs to get its publishing houses in order, and fast. Without a simpler, frictionless ‘iTunes-like’ solution for ebook sales that has a comprehensive catalouge, frustrated customers will inevitably turn to the growing availability of ebook torrents. The ebooks are tiny files, which makes them quick to buy, but equally quick to pirate.
When a user is told they are not allowed to buy ebooks by their favourite author because that author is ‘exclusive’ to a different ebook platform or not licensed for their country, what do publishers expect?
To find out how the ebook future might unfold, I chatted with popular children’s book author Graeme Base and his publisher Penguin Australia, plus Borders, Angus & Robertson, Amazon and an independent bookshop owner. How do they see the ebook market in Australia heading in relation to print-book sales now and in the future?
Graeme Base is an international award winning picture book creator, and the highest grossing author in Australia. He’s best known for Animalia, which rocketed him to international acclaim, with worldwide sales of three million copies, and a TV series. He recently launched an Animalia app for the iPad and iPhone which features every illustration of the classic picture book in beautiful, zoomable detail, and includes three separate games.
Unfortunately the fragmented ebook market means application development costs are high; the app would require reworking for Blackberry, Android, Kindle, etc, and it’s unlikely his picture books will be available outside the Apple store any time soon.
Graeme told me that he’s sure that the Kindle and other ebook readers will take off now they’re affordable, but they will seem like dinosaurs in the future when it’s possible we could be buying screens by the litre and painting them onto whatever surface suits us (I love this idea, make it so!).
In terms of his niche print picture books, he feels print offers a tactility that electronic books will need time to replicate or better. He’s certain that there will be beautiful technical solutions to electronic book reading in the future, and feels people in the book industry should embrace ebooks, not be afraid or scared – avid readers who love books will still be likely to buy printed paper copies of the books by authors they treasure the most, he feels.
I am not so sure. During the last year my reading habits have already shifted 50:50 to ebook and print books. Even those print books are mostly ones I’d already bought and on my to be read pile for a while. I don’t recall buying a print book for quite a few months. For context: I’m a qualified librarian and read a lot so if my habits are shifting this quickly are younger readers switching to ebooks even faster?
Bob Sessions is publishing director at Penguin Australia. He told me that the growth rate for sales of Penguin Australia ebooks is “very slow at this stage – but it is measurable. And we have no doubt it will increase as the market matures.”
While ebooks may be a niche area at the moment, Sessions told me that Penguin Australia expects “people to continue to choose the type of edition they buy and read, and as a result we would not be surprised to see a split of say 75/25” for print books versus ebooks within in a few years.
The split in the US market for print vs ebook sales is already close to 90/10, while Australia’s relative lack of devices and limited new titles means that ebook sales here remain far lower. While ready to grow, this could be affected by availability issues – Penguin Australia book titles can be found in the Kobo International and Australian ebook stores, but not yet for the Kindle, as Penguin is still negotiating a business model with Amazon.
Problems like this are faced by all ebook reader owners, because no single platform – Kindle, Kobo, Apple iBooks or otherwise – can claim it has the rights to sell you all available ebooks in the world, since publishers have made a mishmash of deals varying from country to country with each ebook platform.
As for pricing, I asked Sessions if there was a floor price below which Penguin Australia ebooks won’t be sold. He declined to say, but he doesn’t believe Penguin Australia has yet released an ebook below $19.95, their strategy at this stage being to price “ebooks in line with the cheapest paperback edition of that title in our catalogue”.
Retail Chain Perspective
UPDATE: 2 events have occurred since this was written: Malcolm Neil now works for Kobo Australia and as I wrote at iTnews.com.au Borders Australia and Angus & Robertson went into voluntary administration in mid-February 2011 after being loaded up by private equity owners with so much debt that it couldn’t be paid back.
The websites and remaining retail bookstore chain stores for Angus & Robertson and Borders Australia still sell the Kobo reader.
Kobo appears to have solid finances, raising $50 million more Canadian dollars investment in late April 2011 to fund further growth.
Malcolm Neil is the spokesperson for REDgroup Retail, which owns the Australian bookstore chains Angus & Robertson and Borders Australia. Both chains are making a significant investment in promoting ebooks and selling ebook readers in store, considering that hardware like the Kobo is now at prices low enough for customers to buy on a whim, rather than having to save up hundreds of dollars.
REDgroup Retail’s plan is to be vertically integrated to capture more of the ebook buying dollar. So a customer buys an ebook reader from them (currently the Kobo or Sony Reader) and then also buys ebooks from the Kobo ebook store, in which REDgroup Retail has a stake.
Neil told Geare that ebooks are currently roughly 1% of REDgroup Retail book sales – but it wouldn’t be outrageous to expect that to hit 5% within a year. The Kobo ebook store has already sold over 100,000 ebooks in Australia since launching in May 2010. At an average price of $10-$14, that’s over $1 million in sales.
Customers are quick to compare the price of ebooks against that of a print book from an overseas discount website overseas. Neil says it’s hard for REDgroup Retail to do much about that. The main issue is that they have to buy print books and the right to sell ebooks from the Australian arms of the major book publishers, who still sell in the same Australian dollar prices set before the Aussie dollar’s rise against the US dollar and British pound sterling.
Independent Book Store Perspective
Tony Horgan is co-owner of Shearers Bookshop, an award-winning independent bookstore located on a busy thoroughfare in the inner west Sydney suburb of Leichhardt also online. Before interviewing Tony we had a chance conversation with one of his customers, “a big fan of Shearers because it’s not just a bookshop”, she says.
Frequent evening talk events by authors combine with Shearers’ café and internet access to make the shop a “book lifestyle centre”. Is this the future for independent bookstores, experimenting in customer engagement to stay alive?
Tony Horgan estimates that ebooks will be 12-14% of the market within five years, consisting mostly of popular fiction titles and reference books like dictionaries and textbooks. Specialist areas like children’s books and illustrated books (in which Shearers specialises) are less able to be replicated electronically to give the same tactile quality – not to mention concerns over small children staring at glowing LCD screens while their eyes are still developing.
Expressing nostalgia for the traditional printed book, Horgan said that bookshelves were a key part of a home, and the types of books on them are a good way to judge a person’s interests. Replacing this with a plastic and metal ebook reader is just not the same, he suggests.
However Horgan is ready to embrace the future – he hopes that the bookseller industry, publishers and other parties like Google Books can reach an agreement in Australia so that independent bookstores like Shearers can also make ebooks available in store.
UPDATE: In late January 2011 Amazon announced that Amazon.com is now selling more Kindle books than paperback books. Since the beginning of the year, for every 100 paperback books Amazon has sold, the Company has sold 115 Kindle books. Additionally, during this same time period the Company has sold three times as many Kindle books as hardcover books. This is across Amazon.com’s entire U.S. book business and includes sales of books where there is no Kindle edition. Free Kindle books are excluded and if included would make the numbers even higher.
Amazon is the dark horse in the Australian print and ebook market, because it is run from the United States. Several Australian industry people we spoke with wished they knew how many print books, Kindle readers and Kindle ebooks Amazon had sold to Australians.
So I asked Amazon. Spokesperson Stephanie Mantello told me that they “don’t disclose sales figures by region, but Kindle book unit sales continue to overtake print on Amazon.com, even while print book sales continue to grow. Also, Amazon sold more than three times as many Kindle books in the first nine months of 2010 as in the first nine months of 2009.”
It’s clear that Amazon is the most optimistic book retailer when it comes to ebooks, believing that “within a short number of years the vast majority of books are going to be electronic”, and saying they’re “astonished that even while our hardback book sales continue to grow, Amazon.com customers now purchase more Kindle books than hardcover books.”
Which eBook Reader Should You Buy .. Kindle or Kobo?
Despite launching the Kindle Reader and bookstore only a bit over three years ago, Amazon is clearly the dominant player in the market, offering three E Ink ebook readers – the Kindle 6-inch WiFi, the 6-inch with 3G and WiFi, or the 9.7-inch DX model with 3G only.
Releasing new versions of the Kindle Reader at least once a year has allowed Amazon to improve the hardware specifications and software user experience, while dropping the price each time as well.
The company also pioneered the ability for ebook reader owners to download books straight to the device via builtin Wi-Fi or 3G – you can read a short sample of the first few pages, then buy, and the book is ready to read just seconds later.
Although the Kindle Readers support Kindle format ebooks as well as TXT, PDF, Audible, MP3, unprotected MOBI and PRC formats, the one big weakness is their lack of EPUB support. This stops you buying books from rival ebook stores or easily loading a whole lot of classic out of copyright books which are typically in EPUB format – presumably why Amazon doesn’t support it!
UPDATE: Luckily there is a solution to read EPUB books on the Amazon Kindle … install the free Calibre open source e-book library management application on your computer – it can convert many eBook formats to another format.
Since late October Amazon has allowed Australians to download free classic books from the Amazon Kindle bookstore over their Whispernet 3G service and on Wi-Fi-enabled Kindles. These books had previously cost $2 for Australians to download from the Kindle store, supposedly to cover the cost Amazon incurred in transferring the book data from overseas across a mobile 3G network. Amazon also has a Kindle app for all Android and Apple portable devices; this allows you to access the Kindle book library anywhere; it even syncs to the same page as your E Ink Kindle reader (if you have one).
With so many strengths and very competitive pricing (currently $160 including shipping for the 6″ Kindle WiFi), buying a Kindle from Amazon in the US is a perfectly sensible purchase; there may be less in the way of Australian author content but at this price (and with a high Aussie dollar) you could buy one almost on a whim.
BORDERS KOBO 2
UPDATE: While the Kobo 2 ereader hardware and ebook store are still functioning fine, Kobo’s decision to partner with the now struggling Borders in Australia means it must be selling fewer ebook readers here, giving even more market share to Amazon which is not good for customers in the long run.
If there’s one player to challenge Amazon’s Kindle ecosystem for ebook market dominance it’s Kobo, which partners with Borders and Angus & Robertson in Australia.
The initial 6-inch Kobo 1 E Ink ebook reader was a very solid option that significantly undercut the price at which Amazon was selling six-inch Kindle readers at the time and the Kobo 2 improved on this.
Another strength is the number of deals Kobo has made with Australian publishers – if you read a lot of books by Australian authors, then the Kobo is almost automatically the best ereader choice for you. The Kobo ereader also supports EPUB so you can connect it to your PC via a USB cable and add a huge number of EPUB format out of copyright ebook files with ease.
There are also almost two million free classic books in Kobo’s ebook store. As with Kindle, there’s a Kobo app for Android, Apple and BlackBerry, which allows people to access their Kobo book library anywhere. In theory it conveniently syncs to the same page as your E Ink Kobo reader (if you have one) but this doesn’t always work in our experiene.
The downsides of the current 6″ Kobo 2 WiFi are that it costs $20 shipped more than the 6″ Kindle WiFi and it’s built in eBook buying feature is frustrating to navigate. It’s easier to search the Kobo eBook store on a computer, buy an ebook and sync your ebook reader a few minutes later to download it. The four-way Dpad controller also polarises buyers; it removes the need for lots of buttons like the Kindle has, but some dislike the clicky sound it makes when pressed.
This article was originally published in GEARE Magazine issue #64. It is “digitally reprinted” here with permission from the editor. I have added updates where new information is relevant.