This week has seen the launch of two new eBook options for Australian readers. While it must seem daunting for booksellers to take on the Amazonian behemoth it is encouraging as a reader to see it happening, especially on multiple fronts. I am a firm believer in the notion that consumers never fare well when there is only one dominant player in any market so I welcome the competition and new options.
The new players are Google’s eBook store (yes I realise that’s just a different behemoth) which has officially opened in Oz and a new service called ReadCloud. The most encouraging thing about both of them from my point of view is that local booksellers can affiliate themselves with the services (i.e. hook into their infrastructure) while tailoring them to their own customers and specialities. Local sellers can, in effect, open their own electronic ‘branch’ of either ‘store’ and offer their own branding and associated services (loyalty programs, book club discounts, reviews by local readers, promotions of books by local authors etc). For innovative sellers this does offer genuine opportunities to compete with Amazon in a positive way.
Australia’s most well-known online store, Booktopia, and one of our few remaining bricks and mortar chains, Dymocks, have both affiliated themselves with the Google store while independent stores seem to be drawn to the ReadCloud service. I couldn’t find a store in my city which has signed up to the service so to check out the offering I headed virtually to Pages & Pages bookstore in Sydney (because its proprietor is also head of the Australian Independent Booksellers Association and he tweets informatively about the local industry @PnPBookseller).
Both stores offer cross-platform access to content (generally in ePub format though there is some other variety in the Google store) via free apps for PCs, iOS and Android devices and for download to major eReaders like the various Sony models. In addition, Pages & Pages (and I assume the other sellers who are signed up to ReadCloud) is also selling an eReader called the Cumulus which looks to have similar functionality and specifications to Amazon’s new Kindle Fire. It is a full-colour, touch screen device using an Android operating system and allows internet surfing and movie watching in addition to reading. As the Fire doesn’t look like being available in Australia before the end of the year this could be a genuine competitor to the kindle for the coming festive season (if I didn’t already have an iPad this would be on my Birthday/Christmas wishlist but even I who loves gadgets for all their gadgety goodness can’t justify another one) (yet).
Having had only a quick peek at both services (and buying a single book from each in the interests of fairness and research) I can’t easily differentiate the services yet. Both were very easy to purchase from and both purchases synched easily to my existing devices. Both stores had a decent offering of titles too and though not as big as the Amazon market place that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I can honestly say I didn’t mind browsing an eBook store that wasn’t stuffed full of self-published dreck and books with an unnatural number of 5 star reviews. Personally I am probably a little more inclined towards the Google service because of its multi-device synchronisation and centralised account. However the opportunity for bricks & mortar stores like Pages & Pages to link in-store and online services and customer relationship management cannot be overlooked.
Sadly there is one enormous problem facing these new services that the sellers themselves will not be able to overcome on their own. The uncompetitive pricing on books in Australia (when compared the US, UK and Canada) continues unabated. I haven’t had an opportunity to carry out any extensive comparisons yet but a quick check of Garry Disher’s Wyatt demonstrates the problem. It was first released nearly 2 years ago now and is $14.37 in the kindle store, $17.95 in Booktopioa’s version of the Google store and $23.95 in Pages & Pages’ version of the ReadCloud store. In reality even if every recommendation of Book Industry Strategy Group’s final report (released today, more discussion to come) is adopted it won’t save the local publishing industry unless something is done about price. Aside from recommending the 10% GST (sales tax) be removed from books the report jauntily ignores the pricing issue entirely and it does so at the industry’s peril. There is simply no reason (other than charity) for me to pay $9.58 more for an electronic file simply because it is being sold by an Australian-based website and the sooner Australian publishers wake up to this the higher their chances of surviving and thriving.
For now anyway I’m choosing to be optimistic about these new opportunities for local sellers and readers despite the price factor. I think there’s scope for genuine competition with Amazon in services that a big American giant cannot offer including the promotion of local talent, forging links the education sector and specialist publishers and offering highly personalised recommendation services. There are opportunities too for books by Australian authors to be more widely read overseas (one of the biggest complaints I get at my other blog is that the Australian books we rave about there are often totally inaccessible to the blog’s US and UK audience). In the end I believe that competition will serve me, as a reader, better than everyone capitulating to Amazon and I look forward to participating in the fightback.