The following article was published in the No. 1, 2011 edition of News on Bookselling, the official journal of the Australian Booksellers Association. Since it was written (mid February), another ebookstore with plans to offer its system to Aussie booksellers has launched. I’ve added a footnote to the original story.
By Martin Taylor
Booksellers want to sell eBooks. Forty-three per cent plan to start their ebook sales this year with most looking to kick off in the next few months, according to a pre-Christmas survey of Australian booksellers conducted by Bookseller+Publisher.
While no surprise to booksellers, this will surprise many in the wider community because booksellers’ tardiness getting into the ebookselling game has often been seen as a Luddite position: defending paper, bricks and mortar against the digital onslaught. But this is clearly wrong. The real reason is that it is a big, complex and expensive project that even large, well-resourced companies balk at.
The main driver of booksellers’ 2011 plans is probably Google Ebooks. Launched in the US just before Christmas, after several delays, it’s rumoured for a mid 2011 release in Australia with online bookseller Booktopia being the first publicly-announced local partner.
Google’s allure is its plan to democratise the selling of ebooks, bringing it to the websites of booksellers (and ultimately many other online operators). But making this as easy and inexpensive to do as most booksellers require is an ambitious goal on Google’s part. It’s doing a lot of work with its early US partners before it opens up this service widely. Depending on how this progresses, it might lead to further frustrating delays for smaller booksellers anxious to get started.
One local bookseller who isn’t waiting is Mark Rubbo of Melbourne’s Readings Books and Music. Rubbo and his technology partner Inventive Labs, also of Melbourne, launched the homegrown Booki.sh ebook service in January. At its heart is a clever piece of technology gaining international interest, that shares many of the features of Google’s offering.
- Booki.sh and Google ebooks can both be read online in an ordinary web browser so users don’t need a special reading device.
- Both systems use a feature of most modern web browsers called ‘offline caching’ which stores a temporary copy so users can still read their ebooks when there’s no internet connection.
- Both systems store your ebooks in a personal library ‘in the cloud’ so you don’t need to download them, and you can access them from any internet connection.
- Booki.sh, like Google, plans to offer its service to independent booksellers, enabling them to add an ebookstore to their own website.
The two systems differ in other respects, mostly with regard to whether users have the option to download their ebooks. The idea that your ebooks are only available ‘in the cloud’ is a bit radical for many people who are still getting used to a digital file in place of a physical book. For Booki.sh users, it’s the only option. But Google lets you download your purchase in the industry standard ePub format, with most commercial ebooks also encrypted using Adobe’s ACS4 digital rights management (DRM).
To read these, you’ll need special software, or a gadget such as the Sony or Kobo eReader. Computers can use the free Adobe Digital Editions software. For iPhones, iPads and other smartphone and tablet devices, Google provides special eReading apps, another point of difference from the Booki.sh system.
The other big point of difference with Booki.sh is the size of the list available for sale. Google’s catalogue already includes several hundred thousand commercial eBooks from its 35,000 publisher partners. The Booki.sh service launched with just hundreds, mostly Aussie titles from its association with SPUNC, the Small Press Network.
Rubbo and Inventive Labs’ head Joseph Pearson are now doing the rounds of the major publishers to get broader title support for Booki.sh. Hopefully, they’ll also work on publishers to offer a short term rental option, giving them a further point of difference and, at the same time, turning what for many early users is a negative — that you can’t download the ebooks you ‘own’ – into a positive: that you don’t need to own or download them because you’ve just rented them.
This David vs Goliath battle will add an interesting dimension to the ANZ ebookselling landscape in 2011. Rubbo and Pearson are realists and they’re operating on a typical small start-up budget. But their technology is smart and they’ve got the determination to make sure it’s given a fair shot.
As far as bringing in other booksellers, they plan to do this in Australia and perhaps New Zealand “in a few months’ time” once the system is bedded in. Pearson says it can be added easily to an existing online print bookstore and he expects the integration to be done at a “very, very low cost”. He believes the Booki.sh system will be much less complex to integrate than Google’s service.
He might be right, certainly in the short term. Google is being tight-lipped with technical details on its Ebooks product, particularly with regard to reseller integration. It seems that it’s still at an early stage with installations needing quite a bit of technical input from Google. It’s unlikely that it will be rolled out extensively to smaller players until the process is more automated, or until Google has established a network of agents (so-called value added resellers) who can do the technical integration at a local level.
If so, this might give Booki.sh the breathing space it needs to get a decent foothold. Rubbo himself doesn’t see this as an either/or battle. He’s had discussions with Google and believes “the two can co-exist”.
Either way, it looks like most booksellers might have to wait a while longer, at least until the latter part of the year. But this isn’t going to be a bad thing for many. The key to succeeding with Booki.sh or Google EBooks will be having an outstanding web presence and web marketing capability. This can start now, with booksellers preparing the ground for their move to eBooks by strengthening their web operations.
UPDATE. Last month, another Aussie ebookstore launched with plans to offer its platform to other booksellers as a low cost, low complexity alternative to Google’s service for getting online.
Booku.com (that’s ‘book-oo‘) is from Adelaide-based online bookseller Boomerang Books. The site uses technology from US firm OverDrive, and sells OverDrive’s collection of ebooks with Australian or global rights. That’s about 130,000 titles at launch, mostly international, but Booku.com CEO Clayton Wehrner says his company will be putting a lot of effort into boosting the Australian-published component of OverDrive’s catalogue.
Right now, the Booku.com site is just operating as a standalone ebook retailer but once it’s bedded in, Wehrner hopes he’ll be able to offer the technology to other booksellers with their own branding. Unlike the Booki.sh system, Booku doesn’t operate ‘in the cloud’. It lets users download their purchases to their own eReader, including PCs, e-Ink devices like the Sony or Kobo, and smartphones or tablets like Apple’s iPhone and iPad.