Fifty Shades of Grey, the best-selling ebook of all time, is said to owe its popularity to the fact that it could be purchased discretely via Amazon. The privacy allowed by online book purchasing and the convenience of reading the latest literature without making a trek to the bookstore has made ebooks extremely popular. While there’s no public reporting of Australian ebook sales figures, industry insiders estimate ebooks make up between 10 and 20% of the market and if we follow the US example, it could get up to 30%.
But Amazon isn’t the only player in town. As our list of the best international and Australian ebookstores shows, there are plenty of alternatives.
Amazon’s ebook sales make up 60 to 80% of the market here. Amazon discounts heavily in a bid to win market share. It also uses a proprietary file format to prevent non-Kindle users from accessing its books. Australians can’t purchase the latest Kindle devices because of their extreme tie-ins to the bigger Amazon ecosystem, which isn’t available in Australia because of its ties to specific territories. Nor do we have access to certain Amazon-exclusive content such as Kindle Serials.
Experts can’t decide whether Kobo or Apple is the next most successful ebook retailer here after Amazon. Apple’s iBooks app comes loaded on iOS devices, meaning many first-time ebook buyers start there and stay there, despite the availability of apps for many other retailers. Apple ebook purchases can’t easily be read on non-Apple devices.
Canadian-founded Kobo supports the EPUB format that’s used by many ebook publishers (the closest thing to an industry standard) and sells its ereading devices globally. It offers social reading via its Kobo Reading Life and Kobo Pulse services. Readers can see how long they’ve spent reading a book, how many other Kobo readers are reading or have read a certain title, and share highlights and notes within the pages of an ebook or via social media.
Google’s ebook retail business was late to market in Australia and struggled to compete with Amazon, Kobo and Apple without a tie-in device prior to the launch of the Google Nexus tablet. Google’s ebooks are available in industry-standard file formats (EPUB and PDF).
US-based Copia, like Kobo, specialises in social reading. Copia is weeks away from its soft launch in the Australian market and is already in partnership talks with several local retailers. Copia is working with the Australian Publishers Association on an ebook supply solution for retailers, TitlePage Plus.
Melbourne browser-based ereading specialist Booki.sh supplies ebooks to bookstores like Readings and Gleebooks. It also allows readers to upload EPUB files purchased elsewhere into their Booki.sh libraries. Global book distribution giant OverDrive recently acquired Booki.sh.
To date this Sydney startup has focused on supplying retailers like Better Read Than Dead, Shearers and Berkelouw with ebooks. It will shortly launch a social reading app to allow school classes, book clubs and other groups to discuss books digitally as they read them.
Australian indies operating ebookstores include Abbeys, Better Read Than Dead, Shearers, Berkelouw, Galaxy, New Edition, Megalong Books and Pages & Pages (supplied by ReadCloud), and Readings, Books For Cooks, Fullers Bookshop, Mary Ryan’s, Avid Reader, Gleebooks and The Turning Page (supplied by Booki.sh).
Dymocks and the Co-op are currently supplied by Google, but will soon announce new ebook partners as Google will focus on direct sales from 2013. Collins sells ebooks from Kobo and stocks Kobo devices.
Australian online specialists
Booktopia is supplied by Google, but will shortly announce a replacement partner. The Boomerang Books ebookstore, Booku.com, works with global ebook supplier OverDrive. All that remains of REDgroup, the parent company of the former Borders and Angus & Robertson chains, are two online bookstores: Angus & Robertson and Bookworld. Both stock Kobo-supplied ebooks.
Direct from authors
The most high-profile author to sell directly to customers is JK Rowling, through her Pottermore web site (www.pottermore.com), but many independent self-publishing authors are going it alone, too. Readers surveyed for this article said they regularly found and purchased books on author web sites via mentions in mainstream and social media.
Direct from publishers
US tech book specialist O’Reilly (oreilly.com) gives customers a for-life licence for purchased ebooks so they can download them over and over, and receive access to updated editions for free. Australian publishers selling ebooks directly include Random House, Pan Macmillan and the Writer’s Coffee Shop Publishing House (where Fifty Shades of Grey was first published).
Like its global social reading community competitors LibraryThing, Readmill, GoodReads and Shelfari, this Australian site for book lovers has recommendations, reviews and bookshelf management. It will soon introduce ebook sales.
Scribd is a digital documents library for original writings and documents including ebooks. Smashwords is the world’s largest distributor of ebooks created by independent authors and publishers. Bkclb.co is a Smashwords-like Australian retail startup.
Global ebook specialists
Other players on the global ebook scene include eBooks.com, BooksOnBoard, Feedbooks and Barnes & Noble. The latter, with its Nook ereader, is a competitor to Amazon in the US, but has made no move to stock Australian content or sell its devices here.
Digital publishers distribute bookish apps or enhanced ebooks including educational and non-fiction titles, and adaptations of children’s stories like Paddington Bear and Hairy Maclary in Apple’s iTunes Store and the Google Play app store.
Free ebook suppliers
Tens of thousands of out-of-copyright books are available for free ebook download via sites like Project Gutenberg.
Many Australian public libraries have ebooks available for loan. See your local library service’s web site to find out whether ebooks are available and how to access them.
Other interesting tidbits:
You won’t necessarily be able to read a book on more than one device. Digital rights management and proprietary software issues continue to confound ebook buyers, too. Apple and Amazon, for example, prevent the reading of their ebooks on other devices. Ebook file conversion software like Calibre can help those looking to form industry-standard EPUB file collections suitable for reading on a PC or Mac, on an e-ink device like a Kobo Touch or Sony Reader, or via ereading apps like Aldiko (Android) and Bluefire Reader (iOS).
Bear in mind that Amazon’s loss-leading policy on price makes it difficult for Australians to compete head on. Try a book price comparison yourself at Booko.com.au.
Some titles still aren’t available as ebooks or on certain platforms due to ongoing contract negotiations between authors and publishers or publishers and retailers. Lostbooksales.com allows you to record frustrations on this front.
Charlotte Harper is resident blogger at Booku.com, and founder and publisher of digital startup Editia (editia.com).