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The Ebook Market Begins to Free Up
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  • September 3, 2010
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  • AU   |   Buzz
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It’s been a big news week in Australia in the world of ebooks – as it has overseas.

But, for this much-overlooked corner of the world, ebooks have started to take their first tentative steps into the mainstream, and the logjam of rights, content and device issues has started to free up.

In short, some important players in book publishing and selling here have evidently been looking at the whole “ebook thing” and decided that rather than a fad, it’s the inevitable direction of the book industry. To be fair, I’m sure this happened a while back but, aside from one major ebook vendor, the results have been hidden from consumers here.

But the picture is starting to become clearer and – mercifully – more accessible.

In this post, I was hoping to publish the first definitive schedule of when all major Australian publishers will release digital versions of their books, but the last straggling publishing house has not quite signed on the dotted line yet – so that will have to wait.

What I can say is that REDgroup Retail – owner of Borders, Angus & Robertson and Whitcoulls chains in Australia and New Zealand – are inches from signing the last ebooks deal with the last local publisher. When it happens it will be the first time all major publishers in the country have agreed to provide ebook versions of their lists.

That it has taken this long (actually, a little longer) is worrying in itself, but let’s focus on the positive.

All major local books lists available in ebook form – for sale somewhere. Imagine if that hadn’t happened in the US yet. It seems so simple, yet when Joe Public sees he can buy local books and not just overseas thrillers and load them onto the funny device his kids gave him for Father’s Day, then ebooks start glimpsing the mainstream.

Happily for long-suffering locals, that’s where we’re finally headed.

Two of Sony’s new touchscreen Reader range will be available here next week, and dovetail with the Borders online store. (Unbelievably, Sony Readers have never been sold in Australia before.)

As Sony Australia’s Technology Communications manager Paul Colley told me recently, “It’s been a chicken and egg situation. We’ve been waiting for the content. If you don’t have the content, the device is a paperweight.”

Hard to argue with that logic. Sony joins the Kindle, Kobo and various iDevices (the argument about their eReader credentials is one for another time), plus a slew of niche readers that now offer real device choice to consumers (even though the Readers are on the pricey side). Samsung’s Galaxy Tab will be here soon. I recently noted that in North America, from within the program, Kobo’s desktop software would soon start to sync across all Adobe Digital Editions devices, regardless of the brand name on the front. This change will flow through to other markets too. Companies are realising that, rather than defending their hardware or software territory, there’s more money to be made in facilitating people in buying ebooks quickly and easily regardless of platform. That’s the ideal, anyway.

But Australia needs a decent range of content – even if it is only through one major vendor at the moment – to start spurring action from device-makers, publishers, accessory-makers, online stores and you and I and the woman down the road. When consumers get the message that a digital alternative to paper books exists, then the industry starts to snowball.

Make no mistake, it’s a tough process. REDgroup have been working for many months on negotiating ebook rights, and to my knowledge they’re the only entity that have ever attempted to get deals with the whole industry here. (Apple haven’t even started). I know REDgroup are frustrated and have been (I suspect) pulling out all the stops to get deals done. I’m sure they have been negotiating hard, as publishers do too. But as consumers, we need a starting point to get the ball rolling.

We need our own books in digital form and easier ways to read them and now is the time.

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