Australian readers will have few reasons not to join the ebook revolution this Christmas as a host of offerings come on stream. The past year has seen major strides in the key areas of local availability, price, ease of use and ease of purchase.

“This Christmas will be a very important one for ebooks in Australia,” says Google’s eBook Partnerships Manager Mark Tanner. “Devices that are ebook ready will be a very popular gift item,” he says.

With barriers to ebook adoption coming down, this could be the Christmas that ebooks go mainstream in Australia. One thing that points in this direction is Amazon’s move in September to sell Kindles through Woolworths’ Big W and Dick Smith chains. Prior to that, the Kindle was only available online from Amazon’s US site though Amazon still managed to ship more than 370,000 units to Australia, according to a PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) estimate.

Price drops open up market for eReaders

A look at the Kindle’s pricing also shows how much more affordable eReaders have become. The cheapest model this Christmas is the Kindle WiFi which Big W is selling for A$139, a little more than half the price of the cheapest Kindle last Christmas. Competitors like Kobo have followed suit with its entry-level model matching the Kindle’s price.

Dedicated eReaders have been a key to the ebook market’s rapid growth. Amazon’s continuing success with its black & white Kindles in the face of competition from Apple’s iPad shows it remains an important option, especially since owners of dedicated eReaders spend more on ebooks than those who use smartphones, computers, or other general-purpose gadgets. PwC estimates that Amazon has 70% of this market in Australia, a position it achieved without the benefit of a local retail presence.

A hot new product category this Christmas is the colour ebook reader, led by the 7-inch Kindle Fire and Barnes and Noble’s second generation Nook Tablet. These won’t reach Australia until next year but rumours are that Amazon alone could ship 5 million units by Christmas. The Kindle Fire’s compact size and US$199 price point look set to make it a serious competitor to Apple’s hitherto-unchallenged iPad in the tablet market.

While Amazon is delaying the Fire’s Australian release, competitors aren’t waiting. Kobo’s new colour offering, the Kobo Vox, arrived in time for Christmas with Kobo partner Collins Booksellers selling it for A$299, about half the cost of the entry-level iPad. And local ‘social eReading’ start-up ReadCloud is selling the Cumulus, a 7-inch colour device preloaded with its reading app, through indie booksellers including Mosman’s Pages and Pages.

The entry of colour eReaders coincides with new generation ebook formats – EPUB3 and Amazon’s Kindle Format 8 – that will soon lead to richer, more colourful designs and content. Expect to see these ebooks appearing in 2012.

Google Ebooks opens for business in Australia

If you’re reading ebooks on a general purpose device or a non-Kindle dedicated eReader, good news arrived in early November with the long-anticipated launch of Google Ebooks in Australia. Almost a year after it launched in the US, Google opened its ebook doors to Australian readers through partnerships with Dymocks and online bookseller Booktopia. Partnerships with university bookseller The Co-op Bookshop and bookselling chain QBD will follow.

Google’s ebooks use the industry standard EPUB format. The company doesn’t offer a dedicated eReader like Amazon and Kobo. Instead its ebooks can be read over the internet using a standard web browser, or by using an eReading app that you install on your smartphone, tablet or PC. Google offers its own apps or you can use one like Bluefire, a free app for Apple’s iPhone and iPad that Dymocks recommends its customers use if they want to read Google Ebooks purchased from the Dymocks site. The bookseller also offers a Dymocks-branded app for Android devices.

Given how important branded devices have been to the success of ebookstores, it will be interesting to see if Google’s partners follow suit – or, indeed, whether Google itself releases a branded eReader to support its retail partners. In the US and Canada, Google promotes a third party eReader from niche player iriver but has so far avoided entering this market directly.

Google claims its Australian store will bring “hundreds of thousands” of ebooks to local customers. A search of the Dymocks site at launch showed 148,000 titles already in the catalogue, including many from Australia’s top publishers. Dymocks has integrated Google Ebooks into its Booklovers rewards programme so that ebook purchases earn credits that can be spent online or in-store on digital or printed books. It also sells ebook gift cards in-store and online.

Australia is the third international market that Google has entered since its original launch in the US in December 2010. In October this year, it entered the UK market through partnerships with academic bookseller Blackwell’s and book wholesaler Gardners whose Hive network supports independent booksellers. In early November, Google launched in Canada, choosing as partners the Campus Ebookstore and leading indie bookseller McNally Robinson.

Australia’s indie booksellers have been enthusiastic followers of Google’s ebook plans with many voicing hopes that they would enter the ebook market with Google-powered stores. But the absence of a shared technology platform among Australia’s independent booksellers would have made it difficult to offer full integration cost-effectively so Google launched without this facility. In the US, the American Booksellers Association has the IndieBound platform and in the UK Gardners has its Hive network, both of which simplify the ‘deep’ integration of Google Ebooks into bookseller websites.

Independents opt for local initiatives as they enter ebook fray

Aussie ebook start-ups Booki.sh and ReadCloud have jumped in to fill the vacuum created by Google – and by delays in the industry’s own platform, TitlePage, which was set to offer an ebook service. That now appears to be on hold as the industry lobbies government for a $5 million cash injection it says it needs to support independent booksellers with white label sites, and to compete in range and functionality with the large international players.

Melbourne-based Booki.sh launched its white label service in January, spearheaded by Readings and since joined by Fullers, Mary Ryans, Gleebooks, Avid Reader and Books for Cooks. ReadCloud is new on the scene. Its first site, Pages and Pages, launched in early November. ReadCloud could be the big beneficiary of Google’s absence from the indie market, claiming it’s signed up 200 bookstores to participate in its programme.

ReadCloud and Booki.sh are ‘cloud’ eReading systems meaning that your ebook library is stored on the web. Both systems allow ebooks to be read online or offline but they differ in how they do it. Booki.sh is the simplest. All you need to read its ebooks is a modern web browser so there’s no software to install. And it uses a feature of new browsers called ‘offline caching’ to store a local copy that you can read when there’s no internet connection. One advantage of the Booki.sh system is that you can even read its ebooks on some Kindle models using their built-in web browser.

ReadCloud uses a different system. You must first download the ReadCloud software or app in order to read its ebooks. To read offline, you download the ebook in EPUB format with Adobe encryption. This also makes the ebooks available to eReaders such as Sony, Kobo and others that support the widely-used EPUB/Adobe DRM combination.

Interestingly, Google Ebooks is a hybrid of these two approaches: Like Booki.sh, it allows online and offline reading using just a web browser; and like ReadCloud, it offers eReading apps and the ability to download an EPUB file wrapped with Adobe DRM for offline storage and reading.

But there’s good news for Australian booksellers, bloggers and other website publishers who might want a simple ebook option to test the waters. Google opened its affiliate network – the same one it uses to serve ads on partner sites – to Google Ebooks. This means you can place links to Google Ebooks on your site and earn a commission if the visitor you sent ends up buying an ebook. At its simplest, this can just be a link to the Google Ebooks home page but other options are available to link to specific books or to lists of titles.

With local booksellers now staking out their ebook territory, will the readers buy?

We seem to have gone very quickly from famine to feast with many competing – and perhaps confusing – options now open to Australia’s reading public. So will they buy from bricks and mortar booksellers or will the international online giants like Amazon leave little on the table for local businesses?

Jon Page, of ReadCloud partner Pages and Pages Booksellers, thinks the public will support the locals. “We want to give our customers the same service and expert advice they expect from us for physical books. The response has been fantastic so far,” he says. Among Page’s initiatives to achieve this is an in-store kiosk that brings the ebookstore inside the physical store.

From selling and supporting eReader hardware, to various promotional tie-ins such as Dymocks’ Booklover loyalty scheme, to serving communities with specialist needs such as campus bookstores, the new players will be aiming to pick up market share points from the giants, a point at a time.

Readings’ Mark Rubbo is under no illusions about how tough this will be. “It is going to be pretty hard for anyone to compete seriously with Amazon’s clout and GST free prices. The best we can hope for is to build a niche that complements what we do physically,” he says.

Kobo’s Malcolm Neill thinks all of the activity is going to be good for the market. “With the independent booksellers establishing a couple of boutique ebook options and Google finally reaching the market, we think that the education of the consumer in digital reading will now move at a rate commensurate with the rest of the world,” he says.

And that consumer awareness and education spells good news all around. In a rapidly rising market, it should leave plenty of room for newcomers.

 [This story was originally published in the November issue of the Australian Booksellers Association magazine News on Bookselling.]