Australia joins the eBook war

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.

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17 Responses to Australia joins the eBook war

  1. Andrew Nette says:

    Great post, thanks Bernadette. I think the debate over e-book pricing is a really interesting one. I agree that it is ridiculous that local e-books are so expensive, only marginally less so in some cases than the real deal. In Britain and the UK they seem to have gone in the opposite direction – rock bottom prices. We’ll see who is right. By the way, have checked out this mob https://reactionstoreading.com/2011/11/09/australia-joins-the-ebook-war/? They are a new digital crime/sci-fi inprint, I think based in Scotland. The guy who runs it, Allan Guthrie, has researched e-book pricing extensively and has gone for the much cheaper option.
    Andrew
    http://www.pulpcurry.com

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    • I suspect pricing needs to find a happy medium somewhere Andrew.Dirt cheap is probably just as unsustainable as the over-inflated prices we’re expected to pay here in Oz. Several brand new releases of Australian books I’ve looked at buying in eBook format this year have been offered at the exact same price as their physical counterparts – $32.95 in two cases and $24.95 in another. I aint gonna pay it (and I didn’t, I went to Amazon instead and paid less than $9 for all of them). I have been following Allan Guthrie’s experiments with pricing with interest though and will be curious to see how this plays out over the long term.

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  2. Cliff Bott says:

    Thanks, Bernadette. A very informative and thought-provoking post.

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  3. Bernadette – I’m glad, too, that there are some new e-book options. Like you, I tend to think the consumer is best served when there’s competition. It’s good to hear that there isn’t only one player in the game, so to speak.

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  4. Maxine says:

    Good post Bernadette. Funny, though, in the earlier days of Amazon (pre-ebooks admittedly) they did something similar to what you describe in the Google books initiative. Waterstone’s (UK’s main high street chain) internet presence for some years was their branded Amazon store, for example. It took them a long time to break away and set up their own website (which is nice to use but does not compete with Amazon on stock or pricing, though the price differentials between it and Amazon are much smaller than those you describe between Australia and UK/US). Waterstones also uses the loyalty card system – you accumulate points whether you buy in store or online, and can redeem in either venue. Amazon does not do this, in favour of simply being cheap. (for popular books, not so much on textbooks or most non-fiction eg history books, etc).

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  5. Hi Bernadette, Thanks for great post and food for thought! I didn’t realise e-books were so expensive in Oz. Here in the UK, and the US, as others have said, they are definitely way cheaper, and as a consequence there are lots of changes afoot with author contracts – while between 5% and 15% royalties may be fine for a paperback book, it’s not as attractive on e-book sold at a quarter of the price of the paperback, especially given Amazon offers a higher % return on Kindle books sales (if you see what I mean!).
    New more savvy, e-publishers seem to be starting to set up here in Scotland: Blasted Heath (as already mentioned) is one, another is Cargo Crate. Whether they can compete with the giants, who knows? I hope so. As a reader, and a writer, I think choice is very healthy.

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  6. Maxine says:

    ebooks are not necessarily cheaper in the UK- often they are more expensive than the printed book (HB or PB), partly because ebooks are not exempt from VAT unlike print books. Certainly there are lots of special promotions of ebooks by publishers, so it is possible to read very cheap or free ebooks (esp if you don;t mind self-published), but if you want the latest Michael Connelly or Val McDermid you will have to pay more for the e version than the HB.

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  7. Marg says:

    It will be interesting to see how these new players shake up the market. I am glad to see that these two services aren’t like Book.ish in that you can’t download to your device. I might look at them at one point because of this.

    Price is such an important point, but I had a bit of a revelation the other day. Books are not the only are in our life where Australians pay so much more than elsewhere. For example, we pay a huge amount for our passports compared to other countries or for other paperwork. One of the things that was discussed in the aftermath of the Qantas debacle is that if Australians want to keep a national carrier then we have to be prepared to pay more and not buy the cheapest flights. Another example is the decimation of the manufacturing industry here.

    Maybe it is that the high wages that we pay mean that we have to pay high prices for Australian goods, including books. Who knows.

    All of that isn’t going to stop me from buying elsewhere, and doesn’t stop me from wanting the book prices here from lowering to more reasonable prices, but it is something that I have been thinking about recently in the above context.

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    • You are right Marg and I too have been giving these things a lot of thought over the past 12 months. The manufacturing industry is a very good example and it is very worrying. I’ve been trying to be a local shopper for large items for the home for a few years but it is very hard – virtually impossible to get electrical appliances manufactured here and not easy to buy locally made furniture either. But I think I’m in the minority who was prepared to go without a kitchen table until I could save up for the locally made one rather than heading off to IKEA for the cheap import. I don’t blame people for doing that (I have done it myself in my less financially secure days) but it does have long term consequences for our economy and our workforce profile.

      I have actually changed my book-buying behaviour quite radically this year, almost giving up book depository all together (unless it’s a book I desperately want and I cannot get here). I buy my physical books in Oz (where they cost me double or more what I could be paying) and also try and buy my eBooks locally which is why I am excited by these two new stores as there’s really only been one up until now (Booku). But I think I am in the minority who will do this – or who can afford to pay the extra prices – and the industry at large needs to understand that most people will make their choices based on price and convenience (and Amazon wins hands down on both of these criteria). I’m really excited that I now have more options for buying my eBooks locally and I will definitely be making these a priority

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  8. shelleyrae @ Book'd Out says:

    I didn’t even bother to go and look when I received word the google ebookstore was finally available in Aust because I won’t pay the extortionate Australian prices for ebooks.
    I get your point above as well except I think differently in that it’s not about costs, its about profit. I think many Australian businesses both small and large including Qantas, have over inflated expectations of increasing profit and price rises aren’t about meeting costs but about getting more profit for shareholders. Banks are a great example of this – if they fail to improve their profit margin by a couple of billion every year above last years number, they cry poor even though underlying operation costs have not changed. Businesses may deserve to make a profit but when it is at the expense of reasonable costs for the product or service, eventually they are going to implode.

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    • Not all the books in the Google store are expensive, though new releases are, But I managed to find several titles on my wishlist that were comparably priced with Amazon pricing.

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  9. I wish I knew which one to buy. Been considering an ereader for awhile now but there are just so many to choose from!!

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    • I know what you mean Becky – I have to look into these things for my work but I can see it’s daunting from a consumer point of view. As you’re in Sydney perhaps you can take a trip down to Mosman and get the people from Pages and Pages to show you the new Cumulus – they have an in-store Kiosk and all their staff are apparently knowledgeable about the new device and happy to demonstrate (I’m not getting paid by them to say this but having been watching people say nice things about the store and the new kiosk on twitter). I always find it easier to make a decision when I can see and touch something like this.

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  10. I was chatting with Australian author Simon Haynes who was saying (IIRC) that the extra cost for books was distribution inefficiencies coupled within cost of transport within aus. Cheaper for him to buy copies of his own book and have them shipped to reviews from overseas than to buy locally and have them shipped. This shouldn’t apply to eBooks though.

    As for the google beachhead I think that Booktopia is in front on the implementation. Found Dymocks site terrible for browsing ebooks.

    I contacted RedCloud about either getting a Cumulus for a review/test run from both an Educational and run of the mill reader angle or being pointed towards a review. Didn’t even get an automated response.

    John from Pages & Pages has been far more helpful in that regard, pointing me to the specifications sheet (which I already had, but I appreciated the effort).

    I still get the inkling though that local companies/ booksellers haven’t got their head around what’s necessary to compete online. The Cumulus for example should have had a video demonstration done prior to launch – a competitor to the Kindle Fire? Not sure, I think RedCloud will have to lift their game.

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    • I too think the Booktopia version of the google store was better Sean, but not that surprising I guess given they are an online only outlet already and should therefore be better at it. Dymocks’ online presence overall is truly awful but in this particular post I was attempting to be more positive than my previous gloomy comments about the local industry have been because I would like the industry to survive for at least my lifetime. I understand from reliable sources that if you do it just right wishing can make it so 😉 Seriously though I will re-visit in a few months after the dust has settled and everyone has had a chance to shine. Or not.

      As I understand it the ReadCloud service was meant to have its iOS app and other things ready for this week but there was a technical snaffu – I’m sure Pages & Pages didn’t want to hold off their store launch as it had been quite heavily publicised. In general though you’re right – they should be better at the PR stuff and linking into to potential promoters of their products (at the very least responding to emails). It’s pretty astonishing that a company could be so backward in 2011, but they are not alone.

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