Keeping the magic alive: Australia and eBooks

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When you ask Australian science fiction and fantasy author Kim Falconer what she thinks of electronic books, or eBooks, you get a pretty straight answer.

“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 1,500 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.

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.”

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 30,000, 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.

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.

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!”

Image credits: Amazon, HarperCollins Voyager, office of Kim Carr

26 COMMENTS

  1. Some of us have been reading ebooks for years – I read Microsoft Reader (.lit) format books on my laptop. I refused to have a kindle, though MIGHT buy an iPad one day.

    Recently, ebook retailers have been enforcing “geographical restrictions” and making my life hell: they won’t allow me to buy from them because I’m in Australia, but NO ONE IN AUSTRALIA OFFERS THESE EBOOKS. I am, in effect, barred from owning these ebooks because of where I live.

    I’m almost used to this happening to me with new releases – sure, we live in a backwater, I can wait a few months. NO. I’m also blocked from buying back catalogue titles.

    If the Australian publishing industry can’t get its act together on this issue, then what’s the point of supporting Australian content? I buy both kinds of books – e and paper – I’m a dedicated consumer of books. They’re making me really angry, and soon I’ll just give up and ask a friend in the US to buy me all these “geographically restricted” titles.

    Nice one, Aus publishing. Dolts.

    • Hey, thanks for reading Renai!

      I think it’s more the parallel importation restrictions, taken to dog in the manger levels by Aus publishers. They won’t let o/s retailers sell to me (I’ve tried a VPN to look like a US customer – it all falls over at payment with my verified PayPal address in Aus) but they refuse to provide the content I want to buy.

      I know authors want their product out there, and ebooks have to be the easiest (and cheapest for producers) way to do it. Publishers, however, don’t want us buying anything that they aren’t selling to us, even if they don’t have the product to sell. Excellent way to make friends and gain support among the customer base, wouldn’t you say?

  2. I agree, Helen, it’s ridiculous. In this age of digital publishing, where it would cost almost nothing to offer all ebooks for sale in Australia, many publishers still leave Australia off the list for many ebooks.

    I can only surmise that the books are available in hard copy and still making a profit there, so publishers are unwilling to move into the new medium. The irony is that so far, most authors I have seen comment on the issue are all for ebooks, as they want to get their work to as many people as possible.

    • As more and more people take to electronic reading devices publishers will be forced to offer their books as eBooks. Like most things in Australia we seem to pay much more than people in other countries around the world. This has been quite a topical discussion recently in the SMH.

  3. The parallel import rules weren’t designed to enable lazy Australian publishers to block the importation of e-books from websites like Amazon when they can’t be bothered arranging their own edition. They were (unfairly in my opinion) designed to make me pay more for a local publisher’s version. Now they are used to restrict the format that I can read the book in. Time to go back and amend the legislation and give local publishers, say, 3 months to get their act together, create an e-book, or allow open importation. As this can all be done electronically, and assuming an ebook is already available in US , this should take a week to arrange, at most.

    An example of note: Hilary Martel’s best selling work of historical fiction “Wolf Hall”, published as a e-book in US by Macmillan, is unavailable to Australia subscribers from Amazon. In Australia it is published on paper by Harper Collins. This is a brick of a book and one that makes reading it on a Kindle less of a wrist-snapping option.

  4. What you suggest makes sense, Jim. I’m all for maintaining Australian jobs. But to what extent should that come at the price of restricting knowledge, particularly in the form of acclaimed books such as you mention?

    Give the local publishers a fair chance … but also the local readers. There are, after all, more of us ;)

  5. It’s worth keeping in mind that new technologies have often been seen as a challenge to the status quo in publishing. See, for example, the 1946 Tariff Board Inquiry into Australian Publishing: “… it has been brought to our notice that for the first time in the history of Australian book publishing, the NSW Bookstall Company has published a book from America under license by means of the photo-lithographic process … [We] feel that this is a matter that should be brought under the notice of the Tariff Board, in view of the threat which such a process — universally adopted — may mean to the Australian publishing industry. We feel that, while this process might admittedly ‘lower the cost of production’, it could only lead to the ultimate destruction of the publishing industry … If the hundreds of titles now being reprinted under license in Australia were to be produced by this process, the blow to the printing industry might be so severe that the printing of Australian books might be seriously jeopardised”. Curiously, in the same report, there was also a push to ban the importation of second-hand books because they represented a health risk as apparent carriers of germs.

    • Hi Renai,

      Great article. I’m interested at the comments too. Stories trigger emotions, so it’s no wonder that books as a delivery mechanism for stories are so close to people’s hearts. Hence such an emotive topic. (I see interesting parallels in the music industry too).

      Some thoughts re Helen’s comments. You emphatically stated you were against the Kindle, having read ebooks in the .lit format for years. I’m intrigued as to why? I’d recommend trying the Kindle, (if you can find someone to let their’s go) borrow one for a week. If you still prefer reading on your screen, compared to all the paper benefits (bedside reading, sunlight reading, battery life, no distractions, no eyestrain) go back to that.

      If it’s because of zoned formats, I agree, it’s frustrating. We’ve seen this in DVD’s, movies, computer games, music and pretty much any industry transitioning to digital delivery. It’s wrong. It’s certainly infuriating. But my experience is change is more achievable by people on the inside, than those on the outside. Publishers are far more likely to licence digital copies if there’s a growing market for them.

      Also Justin. You make great points about the UI. Do I think it needs an overhaul? Yes. Do I think it’s that bad? No. Do I think that the UI seems worse for the computer literate? Yes.

      Anecdotally, there isn’t one person I’ve let play with my Kindle who hasn’t gone “I’d read that.” Design is always a compromise. Personally I’d give up capacitive touch for battery life. Do I want to charge my Kindle everyday like my phone, or every 6 hours like my laptop, no way!! 3 week charging intervals are great, thanks! Like I mentioned in my blogpost http://bit.ly/bPSbnC the chances are there’ll be a growing proportion of people who don’t have a computer, or a dedicated computer, who do have a Kindle.

      Much like the original Palm Pilot PDA, 30% of owners didn’t have a computer. They just used it to replace their paper diary. I still know more people that don’t have their own computer than those that do. They share one at home perhaps, use one at work. For them, a device like the Kindle makes total sense.

      Love this article, and the conversation. Thanks Renai.

  6. I LOVE the concept of e-publishing and e-books, but the industry has a long way to go before it settles into itself. I know others might find this frustration, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing. Taking the time to think through what works best for everyone in the mix – especially authors and readers – can only be to everyone’s benefit in the long run.

    As a reader, I want to know that the author of a book I buy is being properly compensated for the incredible amount of work they put in. And I’m not sure e-retailers such as Amazon have the same agenda. In fact, I’m pretty sure they don’t! Selling books for less than the wholesale price, in order to move huge volumes of hardware with a single-format business model, doesn’t seem all that friendly to either authors or readers.

    I recently wanted to buy TimeSplash, the debut novel for Australian author Graham Storrs, which was published by New York e-publishers Lyrical Press, and would only be available as an e-book. It had not been picked up by an Australian publisher.

    I had the choice of buying the book directly from the publishers’ online bookstore, or from Amazon. The price was around the same, but were two big differences. If I bought from the publishers I got a zip file with SEVEN different formats to choose from, so I could read it on my PC, my iPhone, etc. Even more importantly – to me – had I bought from Amazon, the author would have received ONE QUARTER the royalties he got when I bought via the publisher.

    It was an easy choice to make! Given the hard work that goes into the writing of each and every book, I’m not going to buy when I know that the author is getting a very tiny slice of a very small price. It doesn’t matter whether I buy print or electronic, the amount of work that goes into the creating of story is identical. E-books don’t have the same costs of materials, printing and transport – but they have exactly the same cost of thought, sweat, tears and person-hours as their hard copy cousins.

  7. When airing my geolimitation frustrations in comments on other articles, I forgot to mention that not only can I no longer get titles from the same series or author: I can’t get previously-purchased Australian authors either! How is that helping the Australian book industry?

    As an example, Keri Arthur writes a range of fiction books, some based specifically in Australian cities. She is an Australian author. I used to be able to buy her books on Fictionwise, and bought the earlier books in five separate series of hers. After the sudden imposition of “geographic limitations”, I can’t buy any more books in those series.

    I wonder what Ms. Arthur thinks about this.

    Like Helen, I’m a keen reader who has had the door slammed in her face by booksellers, simply for being Australian. How is this is a good commercial decision? As I’ve said in a previous comment, I can’t read hard-copy books anyway. So I’m not going to buy them, regardless of the availability of ebooks.

  8. I must admit I’m a bit slow to all this, but the release of the Kobo this week made me sit up. I used to buy a paperback or two a week, all sorts. But I haven’t bought a book in years. Part of that was having to move and space… so Lifeline got hundreds of books for their sale and I got rid of a dozen boxes full.

    I’ve been looking at the options over the last few days and I’m not impressed. I can buy a kindle or Kobo or whatever but they have restrictions. I can get a Bebook, which seems better for file options, but then my content is still restricted. I can get an iphone and keep one device on hand and live with the deficiencies but I’m still restricted on content. I was actually getting a little grumpy. I fancied a B’Day pressie for myself.

    So I poked about some and searched a lot… multiple sites for a particular author to see what and where, still pretty depressing. Some but not all and not earlier or latest (which seems odd) and the price is not all that good either.

    Then one of my Googles turned up an alternate way…. I had a peek at bittorrent, what was involved how to… and the risks, albeit minor. Not an option I especially like, but….I can get almost anything, especially recent release titles. For example the author I looked for, the entire list (a dozen books in one download with the latest to be added shortly). Naughty? Yes, not really me at all. But I am like Helen not at all impressed by the practices of the industry so I may go black and search the dark side and thumb my nose at these fools that think they can sit back and it will all go away. Get it together quickly people or you will be steamrollered. If I can go to Amazon and buy a CD or mp3 at appropriate price differences I expect to do the same with books. Learn from that guys or scramble as your business slides even more quickly than it is now. Film went from dominant to almost non existent in about 5 years.

    I for one would not go to Amazon or whoever if there was an alternative here. I like being Australian, I like living here, but sometimes I want to throw things against the wall in frustration. Don’t make me smash my Rosenthal cat.

    Kristina

  9. I too have been reading ebooks for many years and purchasing from a US website as they appeared to have to best range. Having purchased hundreds of books from them over the past 6 years, I now find I can’t complete the series that I started due to “geographic restrictions”.

    I, like Kristina, have contemplated doing the illegal downloading option. I would much rather pay an Australian based company a fair price for a book.

    Like Janette I appreciate that the work an author puts in to a book doesn’t change regardless of the format. So, why should the author’s cut get changed??

    Surely some Aussie companies can get serious and start providing ebooks by Australian & overseas authors at reasonable prices? And not this 100 or 200 books – there should be tens of thousands of books for me to choose from – after all, if they’re available elsewhere in the world why not here?

    By the way – what’ are your thoughts about what is a “fair” price for a book?

    Julie

  10. I think authors should get a larger share of ebook profits, because the production/handling costs are so much smaller. Also, with the ease of use, availability and possibilities for extra features, I believe ebooks will become even more widespread than hard-copy books, enabling the retailers to reduce prices since they sell more titles. The publishers’ current ebook prices are often extortionate, given the tiny cost involved with handling the text.

    I envisage a model where authors employ an agent who then subcontracts editing, marketing, retailing and any other required support services, but the author sets the price of the book through the agent and receives the entire amount minus the cost of those services and the agent’s commission. I think this likely future is why publishers are so afraid of ebooks. Self-publication is already possible online.

    Fictionwise (before being bought and strangled by B&N) had successfully offered ebook titles for very low prices, with a significant membership discount and weekly specials. Re-issue of older titles should be possible at a very low price. Encourage people to buy backlist titles, by discounting them heavily. Get more value out of your older titles this way, as people become interested in those authors and buy more of your backlist. As for new books, Fictionwise offered all NYT best-sellers at $9.99, which I think was a good marketing strategy. There’s no reason for ebooks to be anything like the price of hard-copy books. The price of hard-copy books reflects many people’s efforts between the author and the reader, plus transport costs, storage and display costs, and enormous wastage in unsold titles. Ebooks are an opportunity for publishers to offer books at really affordable prices, following the example of the music industry. I look at my older music CDs and shudder at how much I paid for each of them, but I can get a whole album now for less than half that price, and that’s not even factoring in inflation. This has worked for the music industry, because the online platform has increased the market. Publishers need to follow this model. They can also add value (embedded media, interactive media, subscriptions etc.) to an ebook.

    Currently, I’ll pay $9.99 if the title is something I absolutely must have, but otherwise I’m looking for titles at $5 or less. There’s less work for the publisher, more risk for me (formats losing support, inconsistent authentication systems, the need to backup and manage the file) and it’s certainly worked for book retailers online.

    BTW, while we’re talking about the technological burden of being Australian, how about Amazon’s Whispernet charges? Even though I don’t have a Kindle, so I’m downloading purchased books through my own Internet account to the Kindle app on my laptop or iPhone, I get charged the Whispernet fee for the Kindle’s “free” wireless delivery system. This fee is not shown in the book price. If you live outside the U.S. (like most of the world), you pay $2-3 per title.

  11. Hey: thanks for getting the time of writing up this advice. I always make an effort to more my understanding of items. Whether I concur or disagree, I love details. I consider the previous times if the only source of information and facts was the library or the newspaper. They both equally seem so old fashion. Please Pardon my bad writing : )

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