eReading in a walled garden

Are e-books entering a new phase of the digital revolution?


The first generation Kobo eReader (Source: Kobo)

3 years since eBooks hit the market by storm, the eBook revolution is now entering a new phase.   Phase 1 can be summed up with two words: ‘market capitalisation’, with Kobo, Amazon, Sony and the ‘Nook’ (Barnes & Noble’s exclusive eReader) emerging as the top four bestselling eReaders around the world.  Australia’s uptake has been slower, in part due to the closure of Borders bookstores in 2011, which ended for several months distribution of the entry-level Kobo eReader.  Competitors such as Dymocks did not, at the time, have any entry-level eReaders – their offers were in the ~A$3oo range.

But now that the eReader fight has subsided, with eReaders being sold widely, not just in bookstores, the fight has turned to content licensing.  And the field isn’t a pretty one.

In the past year, the problem really has focused on the Agency Model v the Wholesale Model in the sale of eBooks.  In August 2012, a US court even ruled that certain eBook publishers had colluded over eBook pricing.  Now, we are seeing something which the music industry has recently embraced.  The subscription model.

Libraries around the world already use subscription services such as Overdrive to provide eBook lending services to their library members. Overdrive claims it services over 22,000 libraries, school and retailers worldwide.  To-date, Overdrive has leased ebook content to libraries with great success, acting like a wholesaler.

Now, we are seeing a possible shift towards a retail subscription model for eBooks.

A retail subscription model?

The retail subscription model isn’t new to the book industry.  Amazon, famous for their Kindle eReader, already has a Lending Library available for a monthly subscription fee.   Amazon claims it has over 100 current and past New York Times bestsellers on the list.  Even the Sydney Morning Herald plans to introduce subscription fees to access online news content later this year.

But it hasn’t yet become mainstream.  Though it may only be a matter of time until it is.

Waterstones, a UK bookstore, is introducing an eBook library on a subscription basis.  A few pounds a month would secure access to (currently) over 300,000 titles.   Market leader Kobo also signalled that the subscription model may be the way to go in the future.

The Walled Garden

So you may have read this far, and still wondering, why this article is called ‘Reading in a Walled Garden’.  Let me provide a bit of background.

Amazon’s eReader, the Kindle, has reached so many markets around the world, that many don’t realise that the Kindle really isn’t the eReader it’s made out to be.  While it certainly has its place in the eReader market, it really shouldn’t be your first port of call when purchasing an eReader, or gifting one.

Amazon’s ecosystem is entirely separate from the rest of the eReading ecosystem.  Kindle users are unable to purchase books from mainstream bookstores such as Dymocks, or from other specialist online eBook retailers such as Kobo.  Furthermore, Kindle users are unable to borrow books from public libraries’ Overdrive systems.  This is due to an incompatible file type.

Amazon uses an exclusive file type “.mobi”, whilst the rest of the industry uses the industry-standard .ePub file type.

Perhaps the biggest problem we’re seeing is that Kindle users are effectively reading inside a Walled Garden.  It looks nice inside, it’s luscious, it seems like there’s lots of content.  But really, not many new items are being added, particularly geo-specific content due to rights restrictions.  Furthermore, publishers are increasingly moving away from Amazon’s relatively harsh sales agreements (though Apple is not much better, if any).

But this isn’t a small walled garden.   The issue is, so many people are inside, and they can’t find the way out.

Observer and Sydney bookseller Jon Page has recently had enough, and declared a ‘Kindle Amnesty’ of his own.  His bookstore will give you $50 just for purchasing another eReader and trading in your Kindle.  Whether it will start a movement? Probably not.  But as to whether it’s making a statement?  This local bookseller certainly is.

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Filed under Book News, E-Readers

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