It’s fair to say that ebooks are much more popular today than they were a few years ago. The questions curious friends ask me have gone from ‘what is an ebook’ to ‘where should I buy my ebooks from’, ‘what’s with all the different formats’, and ‘why is a certain ebook only available in one format’. Digital reading, however, is not being developed in a uniform way. Battle lines have been drawn between different publishers, with readers left in the dark about the directions of these technologies. This tech battle is much more uncertain than that between VHS and Beta. How it will end is anyone’s guess.
The future of digital reading is further complicated by the fact that there are no clear statistics about e-readers. Who is reading what and on what device? Many of these statistics are recorded, but as John Weldon explains, ‘Neilsen Bookscan doesn’t (at this stage) differentiate between the two and the ebook retailers (Amazon, Kobo, etc) are reluctant to reveal detailed sales information, preferring to talk in terms of percentage increase in sales volume instead. Such figures can be misleading. For instance, if you move from selling one copy to selling two that’s a percentage increase of 100, which sounds a lot more impressive that the raw number does.’
But according to my very unscientific analysis of what people on the number 55 tram use, Amazon’s Kindle seems to be the most dominant of the devices. There has occasionally been a Kobo or Sony Reader, and I’ve seen people with iPads, other tablets and smartphones, but rarely has anyone been reading a book on them. (Worthy of note: according to the same study, many people are still reading print books.)
The popularity of the Kindle led a recent conference of Australian booksellers to remark that it is the biggest threat to the Australian publishing industry, which is perplexing given that so many people are using it to buy Australian books. Michelle Calligaro from Text Publishing estimates that up to 80 per cent of their ebook sales are through Amazon. They release their books in both EPUB and MOBI formats, which covers most of the devices, including the favourite format of Australian independent bookstore Readings: Booki.sh.
A website that allows readers to access their ebooks stored in the cloud, Booki.sh is just one of many formats Australian publishers release their digital books through. Calligaro believes that the best way to combat piracy or other ‘threats’ to digital publishing is by ‘making our ebooks available through as many channels as possible, at a reasonable price’.
But the issue with Booki.sh is that it excludes readers who use e-ink devices, such as the Kindle or Kobo, unless they are one of the rare publishers that opt to have their books available in Booki.sh as a downloadable EPUB file able to be converted to all devices.
Australian booksellers, publishers and literary journals have pointed to Booki.sh as the leading format for Australian epublishing, even though it excludes a large portion of the (still small) market of readers using ebooks. If these Australian books were only available on Book.ish, perhaps readers would opt to pirate the book or just buy another book out of the thousands available on stores such as Amazon or many non-DRM sites. Does the device we use to read ebooks matter so much anyway? Is an e-ink screen a sticking point for users?
When asked whether the choice between e-ink or backlit devices such as tablets and smartphones was a factor in how he reads, blogger and ebook reader Philip Thiel commented, ‘I think it’s why some people reject e-reading, thinking it means more staring at illuminated screens!’
I have friends who are still discovering that e-reading does not have to mean reading on a backlit screen. ‘It’s just like a page,’ they say when they see me reading off the e-ink screen, and this discovery, as well as the prospect of having all their books on one portable device, often prompts them to go out and buy their own. I cannot say that the reaction would be the same if I was reading off a tablet, especially given people’s romantic attachment to print books. Perhaps the e-ink device is a stepping stone, or training wheels, something that will take us a step further and tablets will wind up being the norm for reading. (Personally I hope not, as those devices have other functions like Facebook and make it easy to be distracted and unable to focus solely on reading.)
Paul Haasz from Booki.sh says he can’t predict the future trends of digital publishing but that they are ‘seeing significant improvements in the display quality of tablets. So perhaps the distinction between dedicated e-readers and tablets will seem less meaningful in future. We know that people like the long battery life and restful screens of e-ink readers, but we also know that the tablet market is exponentiating, and that through tablets we have opportunities to reach many more casual readers – the type of people who buy or borrow only a few books a year, and who might never consider buying a dedicated reading device.’
In the future, I wonder, will devices be able to ‘switch’ between backlit and e-ink? Perhaps you will open an ‘app’ on your tablet that activates a page-like mode. It sounds more possible than Amazon releasing books as EPUB or one format emerging as readable on all devices.
But until the technology emerges, Amazon looks to maintain its market advantage – and readers in Australia are left confused about how to support independent and small press publishing if they want to read on the tram without having to burn their eyes out. There’s still the printed book, but then again, that’s what we’re trying to move away from.