Borders is showing eBook leadership with Kobo

opinion I went to Borders’ launch of its new eBook reader on Wednesday expecting to be disappointed by yet another half-arsed effort by Australia’s publishing industry to convince readers it is serious about eBooks.

I came away inspired and hopeful for the future believing that the industry had turned a page in its eBook dialogue and was now on the right track.

Two things at the launch changed my mindset.

The first was Borders’ own announcement. As we’ve chronicled and Darryl has analysed the Kobo eReader is a quality little device at exactly the right impulse buy price point ($200) that it needs to be. It supports open standards like ePub and is backed by a substantial eBook eco-system that has the support of most of the large publishers.

As some critics have noted not all of that eco-system has yet made it into Australia. But we have no hesitation in saying that the Kobo initiative is a giant step forward. Borders’ launch was jammed full of publishers’ representatives all displaying support for the initiative.

But there was also one far more intangible aspect to the Border launch which caught our attention.

It’s not unusual for the publishing industry to be characterised as staid backwards and stuck in its ways. The stereotypical image of a book publisher might be an ageing gentleman sitting in his office poring over a manuscript raising his glasses to peer at a half-drunk cup of tea collecting dust amid stacks of books on his desk.

Not exactly the sort of person you’d want associated with a ground-breaking digital initiative like the growing eBook phenomenon.

However it wasn’t that sort of publisher who spoke at the Borders launch. Instead it was Michael Heyward the publisher of Text Publishing. Heyward spoke passionately and at length at the event on the potential for eBooks to bridge the gap between Australian writers and the global marketplace for their work.

Captivating the audience with his fervour for the Australian written word he pointed out that there were currently more Australian writers than there were publishers to support them.

“It’s really important that we as Australian publishers cater for Australian readers by finding the writers and bringing them to market” he said. “With the arrival of eBooks we have a wonderful opportunity because eBooks do something important straight away — making books instantly available.” Heyward’s thesis is that instead of destroying the book publishing industry eBooks will actually enable it and writers to better reach their readers.

Thank god I thought finally someone who understands!

I didn’t agree with everything Heyward said. For example his argument that distinct publishing “territories” around the globe need to be maintained to protect the publishing industry has already been rejected by audiences. The unwillingness of DVD player manufacturers to enforce film coalitions’ ridiculous DVD region coding is one example of this.

The internet doesn’t recognise “territories” and neither do readers. Electronic publishing should only recognise “valuable content” and “people”.

But in general listening to Heyward was like drinking a cool glass of clear water after a week marching through an endless desert under the baking sun with no food and harshly rationed water.

If you go into the publisher’s past (there’s a rather nice profile of him here at The Age) you’ll find his passion for books and reading has been a lifelong journey. This is an authentic Australian publisher who really believes in Australian writers.

It will be fascinating to see if Heyward and the good folks at Borders can lead Australia into the promised eBook land.