eBooks in Australia are ready to take off

A friend recently asked about our experience with eBooks and I thought it would be interesting to post my reply here as well.

I’m a big fan of eBooks, and am looking forward to the day they hit critical mass in Australia and we can actually start to buy them big time.

That’s not to say don’t I love paper books. I do, and I love the fact that you can pick them up and carry them around and you don’t need any technology— power, batteries or reader— to read them (not counting my glasses, if you want to call that technology). But I like eBooks too, and am happy to buy them if the price is right. Often I find if I get a cheap eBook that I like I will purchase this and other books by the same author in paper. I did this earlier this year with Namoi Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon, which I first read when it was available through the Suvudu Free Library.

Availability of eBooks

  • eBook readers have really only arrived in Australia in the past 12 months. The first was the Kindle, which arrived in October last year, and Borders had the Kobo coming around the same time as Apple released their iPad and suddenly you can get eBooks anywhere
  • Just because you had a reader, didn’t necessarily mean you could get anything to read on it. I remember looking at the Borders site when they first started demonstrating the Kobo, and there was nothing, just lots of ‘coming soons’
  • The Apple eBook store opened last month
  • Finally, just before Christmas 2010, we actually getting some books to buy
  • Finding eBooks is hard. Have you ever tried to find an eBook in iTunes? I don’t understand why Apple doesn’t simply create another menu option. If eBooks grow like music has, surely hiding them under Apps isn’t the way to sell them. Or maybe they think no-one buys books any more and it’s a niche market. I find it difficult to find books in general, and have to say that I find Amazon’s site easiest to find books under
  • Insofar as my own buying of eBooks to date, I have not bought any electronic books from any of the the big publishers or booksellers. My buying has been from niche publishers, books I wouldn’t get any other way

Price points

  • eBooks are still way too expensive. When I can buy the paperback version from the Book Depository for two or three dollars cheaper than I can buy the electronic version (and have it posted free), what do you think I’m going to do? I’ll opt for the dead tree version every time
  • In a recent survey Andrew Burt, captain of the Critters online writing workshop, found that 93% of people thought $4.40 was a fair price for an eBook, with the price going down for older works. While I’d be prepared to pay a bit more for newer novels ($2 below the paperback price is my ideal), I have definitely found that I’ll pay around $4.00 for an older book that is released in electronic format. In fact, right now I’ll happily do that for all the old classics I have stored in boxes in my garage. (By classics I mean the books I grew up with. Charles Sheffield, Vernor Vinge, Nancy Kress)

Rights

  • Digital Rights Management issues are still a minefield. Just be sure that you can actually read what you buy
  • After the 1984 fiasco with Amazon I’m still not comfortable with them being able to take back something that I have bought, even if they didn’t have a right to sell it in the first place
  • I notice you can buy eBooks like Pride and Prejudice. Given that they’re in the public domain, I can’t see how some people get away with doing this. Sure, few people do it, and they don’t cost much, but still. If it’s out of copyright you will be able to get it free from somewhere

Formats

  • What a nightmare. I’m sure the formats will finally settle (remember VHS and Beta anyone, or Blu-ray vs HD-DVD?) and we’ll end up with one formats. I’m tipping it will be ePub, with maybe mobi (Kindle) and PDF as contenders for a very long time. I’m lucky though. I’m pretty good at the technical stuff and if I choose the wrong format I should be able to still convert my documents to whatever the new standard becomes. Most people don’t have that option. They’ll need a program that does the ePublishing equivalent of transferring video to DVD.
  • Think carefully about the format you want to use. Amazon sell a proprietary format (mobi I think) while Apple do ePubs and other places do other things. Notwithstanding Amazon, who started early and have a huge proportion of the market because of this (and because of the way they discounted books to start with). If you buy books from Amazon Amazon keep the books on their server and can take them back at any time (remember the fuss about 1984 a couple of years ago)

Out of print books and niche books

  • This is one of the things I love about eBooks. When I discover an author I like I usually go through and read their backlist. Until now some books have been downright impossible to get. Publishers aren’t interested in reissuing these books, and why should they. Sometimes, when the rights revert back to the author, the author makes the book available for sale electronically. (Memo to authors who do this. Please do not make PayPal the only way to buy your books. I’ve had two bad experiences with PayPal already, and would rather not buy your books than go through a third. There are other ways to handle the money.)

I believe that eBooks in Australia is about ready to take off, and judging by the interest in eReaders at retailers this Christmas, come December 25 there will be a lot more people with technology to read them.

One of the most fascinating, and science-fictional aspects of eBooks is the comment from Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) foundation on the demise of physical books. He said,

The physical medium cannot be distributed to enough people. When you go to Africa, half a million people want books … you can’t send the physical thing. When we ship with our laptop books to a village, we put 100 books on a laptop, but we also send 100 laptops in … That village now has 10,000 books. This is an African village without electricity. So that’s the future…

Nicholas Negropote, OLPC Foundation

Here in the Western World we find it hard to imagine a world without books, but as Negroponte says (my words, my take on what he means), you can’t physically send 10,000 books into each village.

The people in these communities will go direct from no books to electronic books, with no paper in between. They will never know paper books.

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