Graham Cottew (right), reading a book on his i-pad, while his 19-year-old son Tim prefers a paper book. Photo: Ken Irwin
E-books are set to revolutionise the way we
read. But plot twists may save paper books from going the way of the
FOR 15 years, pundits have declared the old-fashioned
book to be as doomed as the orang-utan. Just as we will one day have to
visit the last of that sad species in a zoo, the dog-eared paperback is
destined for a similar freakshow status. Perhaps along the lines of
collectable Wedgwood or silver spoons.
It isn't only the smug futurists who hold this view: some of Melbourne's most devoted bibliophiles told The Sunday Age
the book is destined to be little more than an ornament as technology
increasingly transports Charles Dickens and Dan Brown into the digital
If this is true, the local death throes of tree-sourced
literature began in May, very quietly, when the Borders website posted
the first e-book bestseller list for Australia. For the first couple of
weeks, a No. 1 hit meant 20 copies sold. Four months later, Borders
Australia and its sister company, Angus & Robertson, have sold more
then 100,000 e-books and 20,000 Kobo e-readers, and seen 200,000 e-book
applications downloaded free (for iPhone and desktop computer reading)
from their websites.
While one rival bookseller queried the Kobo e-reader
sales figures, REDgroup, the company that owns Borders and Angus &
Robertson, thinks they could have sold more if more of them had been
''But for about six or seven weeks we couldn't get
[enough] devices into our shops,'' REDgroup communications manager
Malcolm Neil says.
''We were just getting orders and managing demand … a huge latent demand.''
Ask local publishers and booksellers what the sales mean for the future of reading and they'll say: ''We don't know yet.''
On one hand, the fact that the applications (web-based
software) are available free on the Borders website is just one part of
an aggressive strategy by REDgroup that, for the moment, is all but
locking up the e-book market in Australia. On the other hand, the fact
there have been twice as many e-reading applications downloaded as
actual books sold by REDgroup suggests the revolution so far is a
geek-led phenomenon. If there's a new gadget going, the tech-nerds will
tend to snap it up.
Graham Cottew, a web designer who specialises in risk and
compliance management for the finance industry, describes himself as
''an early adopter of technology'', yet he's only read one e-book so
far, The Art of War, and on his iPad, not on a dedicated
e-reader. He reckons he won't take to stand-alone e-readers ''because
they're a one-trick pony. I would never pick a technology that did just
As for the electronic reading experience, he says: ''At
the time, I really enjoyed it. The simulation of turning pages is great,
the clarity of text is fine and I didn't get any eye strain. And the
one thing I haven't seen mentioned: my wife and I often fight about
turning the lights out when I want to read one more chapter. Because the
iPad is back-lit, she could have the lights out and I could keep
Cottew sees e-books as having two advantages over paper
books: portability and cost. ''If you are a geek, you always have your
iPad with you, which means you always have your library with you. That
you're virtually taking along kilograms of paper with no extra weight is
a fantastic advantage.
''The other thing: I've just been given the Millennium
trilogy (the Stieg Larsson juggernaut) as paper books … but I was going
to buy them as e-books because the e-book version was $US9 [$A9.40 per
volume] while the Albert Park bookshop sells them for $27 each. It might
be over the top to say this spells the death knell for traditional
books, but it's bound to take a big share of the market.''
Cottew admits an emotional attachment to his favourite paper books, including a number of ''beaten-up paperbacks''.
''They mean something to me sitting on the shelf.
Sometimes books mean more to you than just the words written in them.
They might have been part of your life or inspiration.''
BUT does this old-school sentimentality
wash with a younger generation suckled on digital technology? Cottew's
son, Tim, 19, is also a geek. To wit, a science and engineering student
at Monash University. He has read a couple of science fiction e-books on
his computer but isn't a fan, largely because he already spends too
much of his time looking at a screen.
''I prefer reading to be a different experience. I love a
paper book. I love [that] they all have different covers, where I think
e-books would tend to all look the same. So you don't get the same
attachment. With a paper book, it's more intimate.''
Of course, the death of intimacy tends to occur in stages, and catches its victims by surprise.
For the moment, e-book sales make up less than 1 per cent
of total book sales in Australia. However, Australia is two to three
years behind the US, where e-books accounted for 8.5 per cent of all
book sales as of May, compared with 2.9 per cent in the same period last
year, according to the Association of American Publishers.
By the end of the year, e-books are expected to account
for 10 per cent of the US market, and by the end of 2011 may reach
upwards of 15 per cent. In July, Amazon announced that Stieg Larsson was
the first author to have sold a million copies via its exclusive Kindle
e-reader. In the same week, Amazon said it was selling more e-books
than hardcover books.
The growth in the Australian market will be on an equally
exponential curve, says REDgroup's Malcolm Neil. ''Every new device and
application adds to the size of the market,'' he says.
Two weeks ago, REDgroup signed a deal to market the Sony
e-reader. Myer has also signed on, but other booksellers are locked out.
While REDgroup has trumpeted its dominance of the market,
Neil doesn't believe his company has taken it hostage. ''This is the
new world,'' he says. ''Everyone is staking out their claims. But it
costs money to do this, big investment. We can do it because we're
partners with other markets around the world, which means we're sharing
''I wouldn't say we're trying to tie up the market; we're
trying to obtain as much content as possible. Content is king. If you
don't have content, you can't have a share of the market.''
Which is precisely what has happened so far with the
independent book shops - they have no easy access to e-titles. From a
consumer's point of view, you cannot go to an independent bookshop's
website and buy an e-book, because they don't have them in stock -
regardless of how tooled up you might be with the latest e-readers or
Surely it's a simple matter of the stores buying the files direct from the publishers?
Well, no. It's a delicate and complicated issue that, as The Sunday Age
discovered, many people in the Australian publishing world find
difficult to understand, let alone explain. Here is the short version,
as related by Stephen May, president of the Australian Publishers
■ The e-book trade is complex because of technical and
legal issues related to file integrity and copyright protection - and
the way a couple of big companies have exploited these complexities to
corner the market.
■ For the past three years, some publishers and
bookstores, such as Dymocks, have been selling e-books on their websites
but in formats such as PDF that don't deliver the true e-book
page-turning experience. The true experience is delivered via an
e-reader (such as the Kindle or Kobo) or e-reading application (as on
■ When Amazon launched its e-titles in 2007, it invested a
huge amount of money in being able to digitally ''talk'' to all the
publishers and gain access to the titles. It was then able to virtually
monopolise the market because people could only buy and read the books
through Amazon's Kindle e-reader. The company has since dominated the
market via aggressive pricing and convenience.
■ Borders internationally has likewise invested in being
able to talk to all publishers - and Borders Australia has benefited
from this. It then did a deal with the Canadian company that produces
the Kobo reader, in effect copying the Amazon model by initially
adopting limited access via one type of e-reader. However, Borders has
now begun selling the Sony e-reader.
■ There are 2000 Australian booksellers. Very few of them
could afford to develop their own e-readers, and they'd never make
their money back. Meanwhile, there is no point in a publisher simply
emailing book files to bookshops that don't have the technical support
for their consumers to access their books in the format they choose.
■ However, there are new e-readers coming on to the
market and the number of devices is expected to grow radically - and,
increasingly, they will be open systems that can talk to files sold from
■ What's missing is a new kind of integrated distribution
system - akin to the old-fashioned warehouse, but in digital form -
that will serve as a protected link between publishers and bookstores,
and will digitally talk to any device the consumer chooses to use. These
warehouses are already being established in the US and Britain.
Says Stephen May: ''The only way to get a file into an
e-reader has been through a bookstore. So far, that's meant either
Amazon or REDgroup. They have the march on it. But every week there will
be a new e-reader out, and that's what we're all dealing with at this
As one industry insider explains: the independents
expected the publishers to broker individual deals with retailers, while
the publishers hoped the retailers might amalgamate into a big enough
group to fund a warehouse.
Victoria Nash, digital strategy manager for Pan
Macmillan, says there is talk of ''an industry-based solution'' but it
will take time.
The most immediate solution (or, at least, the big white
hope for the independent bookstores) rests with the Google Editions
library getting online and serving as a wholesaler. Google Editions,
which has scanned 21 million titles from major libraries around the
world, could essentially serve as the missing wholesaler link.
Although in recent years Google has provided access to
many free books that are out of copyright, Google Editions, which has
been negotiating with publishers around the world, including Australia,
will essentially be another online bookseller - similar to Amazon but
willing to open up the market by allowing users to access books from a
broad range of websites using an array of devices.
Mark Tanner, Google Editions' man in Australia, says the
company is planning to sell direct to consumers, ''but we're willing to
work with retailers, including the independents''. It was widely
reported that Google Editions would be ready for business in July. Two
months later, Tanner says the company is keeping its launch date under
Mark Rubbo, managing director of Readings, believes
Google Editions ''will be the game-changer'' - and for him, the game
can't change soon enough.
''My life and my business is all about selling physical
books, but the e-book could take enough business that … the bookshop may
not be viable on its own,'' he says.
''I guess that's why we're keen to participate in the e-book thing. And, you know, I'm sort of excited by the challenge.''
Indeed, he has already started sleeping with the enemy.
''I bought a Sony reader and a Kindle,'' he says. ''I wanted to see what
it was like. On the Kindle, I have bought 10 books and read only one, a
literary thriller. You didn't have to think about it, and I read it in a
night … But I didn't like the way the book looked. It's very
one-dimensional. Flat and bland on the page.
''I really like to flick back and forth through pages,
but this was unpleasant and hard to do on the Kindle. So I think at the
moment the technology is pretty basic and not very good.
''The technology will get better … but for me, the physicality of the [paper] book is always going to be more enjoyable.''
Will the paper book last? ''I think so, but nobody really
knows what's going to happen. We won't have any real idea for another
two or three years. And most of the predictions I've ever made about the
industry have been wrong. Ten years ago, I predicted that Amazon
The big question is whether e-books will cannibalise the
existing book market, or if it will lead to new growth. Says Victoria
Nash of Pan Macmillan, one of Australia's top three publishers:
''Whatever happens, there is going to be a seismic shift in how the
business works. I would suggest the digital generation wouldn't go into a
bookstore … but because you are in their [digital] space, then, yes,
the potential is there to show the market will expand rather than eat
She also points to the fact that digital technology opens
up opportunities to people who have restricted access to traditional
books. ''The ability to change the size of fonts has improved reading
ability for the visually impaired … so they have more choices.''
Is Nash an e-book fan? ''I read them, but not as much at
home. After work, the last thing I want to do is look at a screen, so
paper is my preference. But … when I went travelling I had a guide book
and a couple of fiction books on my iPad, so I could still access emails
as well. Half the people reading e-books use a laptop instead of an
Does she believe the paper book is doomed to novelty
status? ''I think what will happen to books is similar to what's
happened to the cinema. You go to the cinema for an experience. Books on
paper are a different experience. TV didn't kill off radio.''
Joel Becker, CEO of the Australian Booksellers
Association, is optimistic that the e-book will eventually complement
rather than replace the traditional book.
''There's talk about packaging purchases so you buy both
the hard copy and the e-book as well. My hope is there will be a
broadening access to reading and it helps in terms of literacy … There
are potential tools at the educational literacy level where someone who
is reading with literacy difficulties can push a button and the book
sounds out the word for them.''
Brett Osmond, head of digital publishing for Random
House, says the one thing he's sure about is ''people have been making
predictions every day, and I don't want to be one of them. It's too
early to make firm predictions, but I don't think anything's dying.''
He remembers watching Oprah Winfrey 18 months ago
introduce the Kindle on her show. She ''stood up with her Kindle and
said, 'This is amazing.' She gave one to everyone in her audience.''
Osmond thought initially it was just a knee-jerk response by Oprah and
her followers to the latest fad, but the fact is e-readers aren't just
being bought only by those aged 18 to 25.
''We don't have a lot of information yet, but it looks
like older readers are buying them. The revolution is in play … but
predictions of the traditional book being dead are premature.
''They will continue to have a viable place in the market
… because it's human nature to be attracted to objects and to have
momentoes of the things that we love.''
Osmond is also optimistic about the future of bookshops.
''One thing you get from a little bookstore, where the people working
there have read a good number of books, is a curating service. They are
able to give the sort of informed advice to customers that isn't
available in the digital world.''
As for his own reading habits, Osmond spends most of his
working days reading manuscripts in PDF format. Last week, he jetted off
to Britain for a six-month stint at Random House's London office.
He was taking Moby Dick along to read on the plane. The old-fashioned paper version: big enough to smash a computer with.
Source: The Age