One of the big issues at the recent Australian Booksellers Association (ABA) conference was eBooks, in particular how and when would Australian bookshops be able to sell them. Readings in Melbourne have been selling a limited catalogue of eBooks since February this year via Booki.sh with Fullers in Tasmania, Gleebooks in Sydney and Books for Cooks in Melbourne set to join them. The other option for Australian bookshops is via ReadCloud. They have developed eReading software for use in schools but have also developed a retail platform using the same software. They have over 200 bookshops signed up, including Pages & Pages, Shearer’s Bookshop, Better Read Than Dead, Abbey’s Bookshop and Galaxy Bookshop. They will all begin selling eBooks in October.
This is all fantastic news. Firstly because a year ago there were zero options for Australian booksellers, other than for the larger players. Because of some expectations that TitlePage would be providing a whole of industry eBook solution, booksellers delayed investing in and exploring other eBook options. Unfortunately after 12 months of delay the project was deemed unviable. This left booksellers 12 months behind where they should have been.
Luckily though two local options have emerged, but access to content is now the critical issue. Booki.sh launched with a number of small and independent publishers including Text, Scribe, Black Inc and members of SPUNC. They now have eBooks from Allen & Unwin, Macmillan and
Murdoch with more coming on board (although it was mentioned at the ABA conference that one big publisher would not be signing with them for reasons not made clear). ReadCloud have had a similar experience with local publishers keen to sign on and multi-national publishers taking a more measured approach, although one major publisher has just signed up which is fantastic. One of the issues is that the process is very chicken and egg. Publishers will sign up when there are lots of booksellers signed up and booksellers will sign up when there is enough content. This is not an insurmountable problem but it does slow down the process. It also means than international retailers like Amazon, Apple, Kobo and Google are effectively given priority over local retailers.
The process is getting easier. This is largely thanks to the work Kobo have done in the Australian market. Kobo, a Canadian company, were the first to launch a local eBook site with the now defunct RedGroup and they have thankfully paved the way for other eBook providers to follow. They have now partnered with Collins Booksellers but they also have their own retail website. But accessing eBook content is still a complex process. What would simplify the whole process though would be a central repository for eBook wholesalers to access eBook content from so that multiple contracts with hundreds of individual publishers are not needed.
Google’s role with eBooks in Australia is still unclear. Google eBooks launched in the US in December last year with the American Booksellers Association (US-ABA) as retail partners but they have yet to launch here. There are many rumours about who they have partnered with in Australia but nothing has been confirmed. Independent bookshops were interested to find out if there would be an eBook solution for them via Google. The fact that there is no common eCommerce platform means that there would be difficulty with Google eBooks working with Australian independent bookshops.
Google will also be a competing retailer in the eBook market and while this not new (Kobo in fact competes against their retail partners), Google is a different kettle of fish. Google’s primary business and income is advertising and they are the primary internet search engine accounting for 90% of all internet searches in Australia(in the US it is about 50%). This dominance of the internet search engine market means that as a retailer Google has a very significant advantage over competitors and, consequently, retail partners.
Whether a reader buys a Google eBook directly from Google or from a retail partner they must have a Google log in. A reader’s eBook library is then stored with Google. This results in a retail partner effectively doing the work in gaining a customer who may make future purchases directly through Google. We were told at the ABA Conference that the majority of US Indies’ eBook customers ended up purchasing their second eBook direct from Google. This is telescoped by the fact that Google’s eBook app, which readers use to access their eBooks seamlessly, allows in-app purchasing from Google only. This is far from an ideal eBook solution.
None of this would be a problem if Google was not a retailer. I do not have anything against Google. I love their products but I do not like the idea of Google being a retailer. Google’s main business is advertising. Their search engine capability is what they use to deliver an audience to advertisers as does all there other products. I think Google’s venture into eBooks is not about selling eBooks as much as it is about increasing their opportunity to advertise to people. Google could still do all this without being a retailer but in order for Google eBooks to be relevant to their search engine (and therefore to advertisers) they need to compete with Amazon directly. Google’s size means they can afford to price match or even beat Amazon. Nobody else is in that position. In my opinion this means any retail partnership with Google would be inequitable.
The retail landscape has changed dramatically in the last two years. The publishing landscape will change even more. In the new global retail marketplace the key for Australian booksellers and Australian publishers is local content. Access to and knowledge about Australian authors and Australian books are the advantages that Australian booksellers have over Amazon & Co, and they enable the local publishing industry to remain viable. The same can be said about eBooks. Local eBook options are the key to the future viability of our industry. Giving priority of content to multinationals like Amazon, Apple and Google sets off alarm bells. I would not want to see publishers’ Australian operations run from an office in London or New York and I think the same should apply to eBook retailing. EBooks are a part of the future of bookselling and there should be a multiplicity of players, especially local ones like Booki.sh and ReadCloud, if we want to retain an Australian book industry.
With the announcement that TitlePage will be migrating to Bowker’s platform and that “eBook warehousing, distribution and sales will also be integrated into TitlePage Plus” my hope is that this solution benefits local eBook providers not international ones.