The big gorilla is firing up

The Kindle Fire.

Amazon looks set to give the Australian book market a mighty shake-up.

The Sydney Morning Herald has reported that Amazon is seeking warehouse space in Australia.

The Australian’s IT section has this week run a piece outlining rumours that the Kindle Fire’s arrival in Australia is imminent.

It seems the greatest of all the ebook industry gorillas (so-named by Scribe founder Henry Rosenbloom during a speech he gave at an Australian Publishers Association conference last November) is finally setting up shop in Australia.

The SMH says Amazon.com.au changed its name to Amazon Corporate Services last year, and “has appointed two vice presidents of the American parent – Michael Deal, associate general counsel, and Jason Bristow, the online retailer’s treasurer – to the local company’s board”.

It also reports that several marketing staff have been hired here.

If it’s true that Amazon is about to make a big push into this market, what will this mean for us readers and for the rest of the industry?

In my view, it will be very bad news for any ebook retailer that has not already established a niche for itself here – I’m thinking about the Copia-powered Australian Publishers Association/Bowker Titlepage Plus solution here, but also any of the independent booksellers yet to implement an ebook strategy, and those who will have to rethink existing strategies in coming months, like Booktopia and Dymocks, who learnt just before Easter that their supplier Google was pulling out of reselling.

Kobo’s Malcolm Neil reflected at a Copyright Agency Limited event earlier this year that while Kobo still has strong market share, this had fallen as new players including Apple and Google set up shop here. Kobo was a pioneer in the Australian market, selling local ebook titles via its own site and partner retailer RedGroup for some time (starting in May 2010) before entrants like Booku, Booki.sh, ReadCloud, Apple and Google joined the fray.

Amazon’s Australian ebook stocks were limited when Kobo launched, but they had the advantage of offering the Kindle device, locked into the Kindle store, to this market for seven months before the Kobo and iPad arrived.

With a dedicated, local marketing presence and the prospect of local multimedia content (music and video in particular) becoming available via the affordable and portable 7inch Kindle Fire colour tablet here, Amazon would have the power to shake up not just the book industry, but the television, film, music and gadget market too.

Given the outcome of international legal action on book pricing has gone in Amazon’s favour, a local push will likely see further drops in ebook prices here. This will benefit consumers in the short term but will hit publishers’ bottom lines hard and is unsustainable. The greatest risk it brings is that consumers’ expectations on price will be locked in at these unsustainable levels, impacting on the future viability of many of our beloved book publishers and booksellers.

Me? I’m anti-Amazon because of this pricing strategy, and because I like to be able to choose to buy my ebooks from whichever retailer I like, be that a gorilla, Kobo or (and this is always my first preference) a local indie like Booku and those who have partnered with Booki.sh and ReadCloud.

But I have to say I’m tempted by the Kindle Fire. After nearly two years of lugging my iPad around in my handbag, I have finally given up. It stays home. My Sony Reader comes out to play. A device that has been designed for reading and offers many of the benefits of the iPad in a smaller form has definite appeal – not as much allure as the mythical iPad mini (of which there are rumours again), but a little more than the Kobo Vox, which had plenty of pluses but didn’t quite nail it for me. The rumoured Google Nexus tablet would be worth a look too.

Meanwhile, Bookseller + Publisher has a couple of big ebookish stories this week.

The first wraps up the ongoing legal stoushes in the US and Europe over the agency pricing model used by Apple and major book publishers. B+P points readers to this piece in The Bookseller.

B+P also reports that Kobo is expanding into new international markets and is set to launch its global self-publishing program within months.

Non-Stop News November: Part II

Gleebooks’s ebooks site.

Google has announced that it will power ebook offerings from national retail chains The Co-op Bookshop (which sells primarily academic and trade books on-campus) and QBD The Bookshop (a clearing house and discount specialist) soon (in addition to those of launch partners Dymocks and Booktopia, whose Google eBooks-fed sites went live three weeks ago).

Like Amazon, Google has an affiliate program whereby booksellers, publishers, web site operators and bloggers can sign up to take a commission on books sold when they refer their users to Google eBooks.

It sounds tempting to a blogger like me until you consider the fact that you’re sending your readers’ money offshore, rather than supporting a local business like Booku or your local bricks and mortar indie, an thus potentially encouraging the contraction of the market. One of the main reasons I still buy the odd printed book is to make sure my local indie, and its equivalents in various holiday destinations, stay in business.

Hopefully the indies are looking at options for offering a similar set-up to like-minded bloggers and publishers.

Speaking of indies, other adventurous bricks and mortar bookshops (in addition to those working with ReadCloud as mentioned in the previous post here) that will face the search engine results challenge from Google are those in partnership with another cloud-based ereading start-up, Melbourne’s Booki.sh.

Booki.sh, which is based on a web browser rather than downloadable file model, partnered with Victorian indie chain Readings to launch a pilot store in January this year. In November, they helped Sydney favourite Gleebooks, Tasmania’s Fullers, Queensland’s Mary Ryan’s (also in Byron Bay), Melbourne’s Books for Cooks and Brisbane’s community minded Avid Reader to enter the ebook market.

All of the indies battle existing giants The Book Depository and its new owner Amazon as well as Apple and Kobo (which powers Collins Booksellers’ ebook offerings here as well as the now Pearson-owned Borders/Angus & Robertson online store and the standalone Kobo online store).

Speaking of giants, Pearson is the parent company of Penguin Books, and speaking of a big month in the book industry, Canadian-founded Kobo was bought out (for $US315 million) a few weeks back by Japanese ecommerce company Rakuten in a move expected to encourage its growth.

On Kobo, did you know that like Dymocks, it has recently followed in Amazon’s footsteps and announced plans to publish books as well as being a seller of them?

Are you keeping up with the nation’s most recent book news? It’s exhausting, isn’t it?

I haven’t even gotten to the Federal Government’s Book Industry Strategy Group, which handed down its final report on November 9 (the same day as the ReadCloud/Pages & Pages event and the day after Google eBooks arrived in Australia), or the planned Australian Publishers Association/Bowker Titlepage-based ebook retail platform (the final piece in the ebook retail puzzle in this country).

My take on those in the next post, Part III, coming soon to uBookish. Read Part I here.

The Not-so Silver Lining of Cloud Ebooks

I’ve talked about ebooks in the cloud on this blog before, but with the launch of Booki.sh (partnered with Readings) and the imminent arrival of Google eBooks, we have two very viable cloud ebook systems setting up shop in Australia. Despite very different backing and support, these two platforms share a similar philosophy – ownership of and access to a book is essentially the same thing.

Technically, if you buy an ebook these days, you’re not really buying the book itself. It’s a common complaint and criticism of ebooks – the ebooks that are for sale are crippled with unreadable and ignored user agreements and with DRM (copy protection software). You can’t resell an ebook and you can’t share it with a friend (with some notable and limited exceptions). You don’t actually own anything physical, just the bits and bites of ones and zeros inside your e-reader or computer.

The Booki.sh  and Google eBooks systems don’t really give you any fewer rights to your book than if you bought it via the Kindle or iBooks stores. The difference is that there is no file to download. Instead, you access your book directly from Google or Booki.sh’s servers using your e-reading device. Your computer may temporarily store (or cache) a copy of the book so that you can read it while you’re not connected to the internet, but you never actually download a file to your desktop that can be moved around, copied or accidentally deleted.

The functional difference between accessing your ebook through the cloud or by downloading a file is negligible, and the possibilities offered by cloud ebook systems (instantaneous bookmark/notes/social network syncing etc) are exciting. Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel that a book I buy through a cloud ebook store is not really mine.

I do understand the frustration of people like Joseph Pearson, one of the people over at Booki.sh, who spent some time this week defending the concept of ebook ownership in the cloud to readers on the company blog. As he says:

And this is the point: if you “own” the ebook file, locked up with DRM — that’s actually the most anemic definition of “ownership” I can think of. I don’t see how — short of hacking it — that file is any insurance of your continued access to the book if you’ve purchased it from any of the major ebook platforms.

And this may well be the rub. When I buy an ebook, I like to think that given some light Googling and a bit of an investment of time, I can probably strip the DRM off the sucker. That means I own that file no matter what happens to Amazon or Apple’s servers. I don’t, in reality, bother doing this very often – but I know I could if I had to. Relying on cloud-only access to my book makes it feel more like rental than ownership – even if the DRM on an ebook makes it functionally the same.

Having said that, I doubt most ebook buyers think about this at all. So I’m interested in what you think. Do you buy ebooks? If so, where from? Would you consider buying ebooks through a cloud service like Booki.sh or Google eBooks? If not, why not? Do you consider the ebooks you do buy and download to be yours, and is DRM a consideration when you purchase? Even if you’ve never bought an ebook in your life, let me know whether this is something you think matters or would affect your purchase (or even the price you’d be willing to pay). Sound off and let me know in the comments below.

Booki.sh: A Potential Australian Alternative

Widely reported in Australian book news over the past couple of days is the decision by Melbourne indie bookstore Readings to use a new Australian start-up’s web technology to launch an ebook initiative. This is big news for essentially everyone in the trade in Australia, not because the offering is especially mindblowing, but because of the relief we all felt on reading this that at least this particular piece of news had nothing to do with Amazon.

The new start-up is called Booki.sh and is a Google Editions-esque web-based ebook platform. Essentially what this means is that instead of using an app (like the iBooks or Kindle app on the iPad and iPhone), or a dedicated reading device (like the Kobo, Sony or Kindle reader), you access your books directly from your web browser. The service uses HTML5 technology, the newest implementation of the programming code that underpins the web.

A significant feature of HTML5 is that it allows websites to store files on your device. This means that when you first buy a book on Booki.sh through the website, your web browser downloads the book files in the background, so that even when you’re not connected to the internet, you can still read that book through your browser: on the iPad and iPhone, you can even add the book to your homescreen and access the book whenever you want to read it. The service even works with the Kindle 3; I tried the demo through the browser on my Kindle 3 and although it wasn’t quite as smooth as reading a native Kindle book, it was nothing like viewing a web page through the Kindle’s terrible browser – it even utilises the Kindle’s turn page buttons!

The demo service that Book.ish has made available is not without its kinks. Although it’s fairly slick, it’s not quite as slick as using an app or a dedicated reading device to read your ebooks. It’s also missing some pretty key features that I have started to rely on – like an in-built dictionary, annotation and highlighting. It’s also missing bookmark syncing, though you have to assume that when an account system is built in it will include this fairly obvious feature (ie if the book is already on the web, you may as well be able to sync bookmarks across every device that accesses it). It’s also not clear just yet whether readers will be able to use their own documents on Booki.sh, like the Kindle Personal Documents service.

Nonetheless, this is a very promising proof-of-concept that could become something quite interesting with the support of indie booksellers and a bit more development. Whether they’ll be able to compete with the likes of Google Editions, once Editions launches, is another thing entirely – but we have to hope that the little guys like this still have a chance. There’s also the concern I’ve raised in an earlier post about cloud-based services, and whether readers will be OK with not owning a ‘thing’ when it comes to reading – but rather access to a thing. Either way, this is one to watch.