SPECIAL FEATURE: eBooks — dead or alive in Australia?

“I’m right on board with the growing eBook movement in Australia” the author of the Quantum Enchantment series says. “Don’t get me wrong. I love ‘real’ books – the pages the ink the smell the touch – but I’m also a fan of electronic delivery and all it has to offer.”

Falconer says she is “thrilled” about the fact that her publisher HarperCollins Voyager has asked her to participate in the initial release of eBooks to Amazon’s Kindle store as it will allow her work to reach a wider audience while giving readers more choice in how to consume it.

You get a similarly enthusiastic message when you speak to Australians who have already bought eBook readers. Sean Carmody a Sydney-sider who works in the financial markets bought an Amazon Kindle when the popular eBook reader was first released in Australia late last year. He says he liked the look of the ‘e-ink’ screen that the Kindle uses and gets about two weeks of battery life out of it. But the Kindle also offers him a high convenience factor.

“I tend to have 3 4 or 5 books on the go at the once” he says. “You don’t want to be carrying around several books.”

Sydney consultant and developer Roger Lawrence agrees pointing out that his Kindle holds 1500 books. “For about half the price of a netbook the government could’ve given a device to every child in the country which would hold all of their textbooks (in mint new condition) for their entire K-12 and university career” he says.

For many authors and for many readers eBooks and the readers that allow access to them just make sense. But as with the adoption of all new technologies it’s not that simple. When you delve into the book publishing industry it’s clear that there are many competing interests and platforms that make the adoption of eBooks in Australia an ongoing debate and struggle.

[#PAGE-BREAK#A book in the hand …#]

Currently there are various options for Australians who want to stop reading bits of ink printed on dead trees and migrate their book consuming habits into the digital age. Many people consider Amazon’s Kindle which started shipping locally late in 2009 to be the marquee offering in the space. Although other eBook readers such Dymocks’ offerings or the BeBook Reader have been available in Australia for longer reviewers have praised Amazon’s design and integration with its online catalogue.

The first Kindle was released in the US in 2007 with an updated model making its way to the market in early 2009. And for the first time on December 25 2009 (Christmas Day) more Kindle books were sold than physical books according to Amazon.

Amazon didn’t respond to a request for comment on how the Kindle was going in Australia but in the US it has described the Kindle as the “most gifted item” in the company’s history. And anecdotally when you speak to early technology adopters in Australia many of them own a Kindle if they own an eBook reader at all.

Carmody says he bought the Kindle for the e-ink display it uses which unlike the rival LCD display used in laptops and Apple’s upcoming iPad works in direct sunlight and is easier on the eyes when reading for long stretches of time. The battery life is also good he says and he’s shopped with Amazon for a long time so he’s comfortable with the vendor and likes the fact that the Kindle offers access to content beyond books – newspapers and magazines for example.

The other main players in the Australian eBook reader market come from a handful of smaller companies. They are the ECO Reader the QuokkaPad and the BeBook as well as several offerings direct from the Dymocks chain such as the Hanlin eBook Reader and the ILiad eReader.

Richard Siegersma chief executive of wholesaler Central Book Services says the company launched the ECO Reader in Australia last year because at that point there just weren’t many other choices.

“We felt that we needed to do something that would give Australians an option” he said. “I thought Australia needed something and I thought we needed to avoid the lock-in from providers who were locked in to a particular provider of content.”

On the horizon loom several giants – Sony’s Reader line-up which isn’t available yet in Australia and Apple’s iPad slated to hit Australia before April. And there hasn’t been a hint of a rumour that Barnes and Noble’s Nook device – sold in the US – will ever be available locally.

One final hardware option for reading eBooks is one that you might already have – your smartphone. Many owners of Apple’s iPhone handset for example have long been taking advantage of applications such as Stanza to get their daily fix.

However both Lawrence and Carmody pointed to the single function nature of their Kindle e-readers as being important as opposed to being integrated with email mobile phone functions and so on. Lawrence said when reading he didn’t want to be “continually distracted by email instant message and other interruptions” and have to pay “continuous partial attention” to those communication platforms.

“When the Kindle was launched here people were saying: ‘Well you’ve got this device it should be able to do all these other things’” he said. “I quite like having it as a single purpose device. I’ve got the iPhone to do that other stuff anyway.”

[#PAGE-BREAK#Content is king#]

The key question for all sellers of eBook readers – and a situation that the makers of other entertainment platforms such computer game consoles have long faced – is the availability of content on their respective hardware devices. In general whether you can get a book in electronic form comes down to who owns the copyright on that book and what they want to allow – or disallow.

For example it’s relatively easy to get eBooks by authors that have passed away – Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. Such books are generally out of copyright which means anybody can sell or modify them in any form. Some e-readers such as the ECO Reader come with a number of these classic books pre-loaded.

And it’s easy to download more – Project Gutenberg has been collecting free eBooks since 1971 and currently has a store of more than 30000 available in the popular ePub and Mobipocket formats or even in HTML or text formats.

Harold Wiegers who is the local product manager for the BeBook line of readers for R&D Media Group says for some people these titles are all they need. “A lot of old people are happy to just read the classics which are out of copyright” he says.

But it’s when Australians venture beyond this safe haven and into the world of commercial books that they run into trouble often due to licensing hang-ups set by authors or publishers that stop the books being made electronically Down Under.

Carmody – who reads a mixture of fiction and non-fiction says he hasn’t been able to get some older books for the Kindle as they aren’t necessarily available in an electronic format at all. And he’s also run into the problem where some titles are available in the US but not locally.

“Just because someone has the rights in the US doesn’t mean they have the rights in Australia” he says. However he notes the amount of titles you can get on the Kindle seems to be increasing daily.

Lawrence has come across the situation where a book wasn’t available electronically just once. “Seth Godin’s latest book Linchpin is not available in Australia yet (neither in paperback)” he says. Lawrence reads about 50/50 fiction and non-fiction with the non-fiction tending to be business and professional development books.

Sony Australia’s technology communications manager Paul Colley says the vendor wants to ensure there is enough to keep readers satisfied on its Reader device. “As a high proportion of books sold and read in Australia are from local authors/publishers we want to ensure we have suitable eBook content available before launching the device [locally]” he says.

There is also a content question surrounding the Apple iPad with the vendor being unable to confirm as yet if the iBookstore feature which will allow US readers to buy books straight from the iPad will be available in Australia.

Wiegers says some people get around this problem by simply buying the books from US websites and reading them in Australia or even pirating popular books – such as Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol – through file-sharing platforms like BitTorrent. The practices are illegal but they do happen.

The executive and his colleagues have been trying to work with local publishers to make more eBooks available in Australia but he says many aren’t keen to sell electronic material and when they do sometimes they offer the eBooks at the same prices as normal books – which he says “is not very fair”.

Wiegers compares the situation to the music industry’s problem with digital products where publishers would prefer to sell physical music CDs and not MP3s or other digital files. “It’s quite a big war” he says but he notes Amazon particularly has done a good job of getting publishers on board.

However Wiegers says he thinks the issue will soon get out of the hands of the publishers. “I don’t think the government or publishers will dictate how this is going to play” he says. “And that’s what Amazon is realising and fighting the battle with the end users.”

Falconer says she’s not sure if there is a consensus yet among authors when it comes to electronic delivery of their works. “It’s early days and there are a lot of uncertainties such as author royalties pricing and availability” she says. The authors points to the recent struggle between Amazon and giant US publisher Macmillan on pricing as a closely watched fight in the industry with “everyone on the edge of their seats”.

“Questions authors ask are: ‘How long after a new release before the ebook appears?’ ‘How much will it cost compared to the physical book?’ ‘What about unauthorised downloads? ‘How do we safeguard the copyright?’” she says.

Even printers of physical books have been drawn into the debate. South Australian book printer Ben Jolly who oversees Griffin Press recently told AdelaideNow he believes there will always be a place for the printed word with electronic books being complementary. “We believe there is still going to be people out there who want the printed copy as opposed to some form of digital reader” he said although he noted some new readers could be attracted to start reading by the new eBook technology.

[#PAGE-BREAK#The ground beneath our feet#]

Many in the industry complain about large publishers’ attitude towards eBooks. But one thing is clear: The giants of the sector are aware of the digital revolution going on and are actively engaged in a dialogue about it.

Sometimes that dialogue is combative – such as the struggle between Macmillan and Amazon in the US. But much of the time – as it was in Australia just last week – it can also be constructive.

Last week the Australia Council for the Arts and the Australian Publisher’s Association hosted one day symposiums in Sydney and Melbourne that brought together over 400 members of the nation’s publishing industry – publishers editors booksellers literary agencies libraries and so on – to discuss the eBook revolution.

APA chief executive Maree McCaskill laid out the future for publishers in plain speak. “They’re basically going to have to be prepared and geared for a very fast transition in publishing over the next 12 months” she said.

However she also noted the future wasn’t as bleak as some might have believed. “With the recent release of a number of dedicated delivery services we can now see the outlines of a future business model that is digital all the way to the consumer” she said. “What this means for Australian publishers and Australian authors is being worked out right now.”

Publishers such as Faber and Faber Bloomsbury Publishing Allen & Unwin Macmillan and Spinifex Press spoke at the events. A good summary of the proceedings and the issues discussed can be found online at Bookseller and Publisher.

At the event the Government also accepted the need for change. “This industry – like every Australian industry – will only prosper in a cut-throat global marketplace if it is prepared to innovate” said Federal Minister for Innovation Industry Science and Research Kim Carr (pictured) at the event referring to the eBook phenomenon.

“In a situation like this there is no point circling the wagons. You have to go on the attack.That means becoming more competitive and more responsive.”

“Whether we like it or not the technology is changing.If we want the Australian book industry to survive we have to change with it.”

At the event Carr announced the Government would establish a book industry strategy group to tackle online sales and the eBook market. “I want to see book printers publishers distributors and retailers together in one room collaborating with each other and taking responsibility for transforming their industry in a way that ensures its future sustainability” he said.

[#PAGE-BREAK#The last word#]

At the end of the day the future of eBooks in Australia and the wider globe has not yet been decided although it is no doubt a revolutionary time for the industry. However one factor is constant: change and the demand for it.

Central Book Services’ Richard Siegersma says he’s seen increased demand for eBooks over the past few years and that there will be a tipping point in the industry when the right amount of eBooks are available widely. “Where there’s more eBooks around people aren’t going to invest in them” he says.

BeBook product manager Harold Wiegers says eBooks aren’t yet at the tipping point in Australia for really mass adoption but says the launch of the Kindle locally has “absolutely” heightened interest in the electronic format locally.

Perhaps it is appropriate to leave the last word on the subject (for now) to a writer.

“eBooks are a new adventure for publishers as well as readers” says Falconer. “There are some wrinkles to iron out but all in all it’s a very exciting advent for technology and for the written and spoken word!”