This blog started five years ago today, a couple of weeks before Amazon launched the game-changing Kindle and a couple of months after the industry had placed its hopes for a smooth transition to digital on its own open format, EPUB.
It's hard to remember or imagine but at that time Sony was the hot ticklet with its eInk-based e-reader and its connected ebookstore. Amazon took this model a year after Sony and turned it into the stellar success story we see today. Sony failed to capitalise on its early lead.
Like Apple which had transformed the music business with its iPod, Amazon didn't invent the ebook business. It took what was there, put it into a consumer-friendly package and marketed it superbly. And like Apple with its iPod/iTunes digital music success, Amazon captured more than half of the market (and almost 60% of the largest market, the US). And it has managed to hold this lead. None of its competitors has come close.
I'm at the Frankfurt Book Fair as I write this and a global study released by researcher Bowker confirms this. The research, conducted online, compares a dozen countries, including New Zealand, for ebook use. (Excuse the fuzzy picture but the general trend should be clear in the few countries compared here.)
(The data in the chart above shows the site most frequently used for eBook purchases.)
The large mid-blue bar is Amazon whose share of purchases ranges from more than 70% in the UK to 52% in New Zealand and just 28% in Canada where home-grown Kobo seems to have done an outstanding job of holding Amazon at bay.
Kobo's relatively strong performance in New Zealand is helped by its local agent Whitcoulls. In Australia, its much weaker showing was probably caused by the closure of its original agent, the Angus and Robertson chain.
The Kindle's success continues to undermine EPUB as the ambitious new version, EPUB3, struggles to get traction a year after its release. It highlights the challenging position the industry is now in. Five years after the Kindle and EPUB, there's a clear digital path for simple narrative works but we seem to be little closer to a digital solution for the rest.
In many ways, we might be worse off because publishers are now confronted with so many format choices — including KF8, Amazon's rival to EPUB3. But KF8 adoption is also slow — at least as far as its use in rich format eBooks is concerned. This is partly due to Amazon's own slow roll-out: it has a large installed base of older Kindles that won't support the more advanced features and it's not in Amazon's — or publishers' — interests to suddenly lock out a large chunk of Amazon's user base from new ebooks.
So, where to in the next five years? Well, in many ways, we're back to where we were before October 2007. There's a plethora of formats, fragmented distribution channels, and a big opportunity waiting for eBooks 2.0, the move beyond our simple formats of today. Where's the next Amazon?
Martin Taylor (@nztaylor) has been involved in the publishing, technology and internet fields for more than 20 years. He operates a digital publishing consultancy and founded the Digital Publishing Forum, an initiative to accelerate the development of digital publishing in New Zealand. In a former life, he published technology and business magazines.