Wednesday 8 June 2011

Not another eBook post

I am a die-hard eBooks fan. Since I bought my Sony Reader a few years ago, I’ve had a strong preference for reading eBooks rather than print books. I am, however, a frustrated eBook user, like so many other people. In Australia, we have been stuck with a poor content selection because of geographic distribution rights that don’t work in our favour and we’ve suffered through extremely limited availability of dedicated devices. And that’s on top of all the other issues that make eBooks a problematic format internationally: DRM, proprietary formats and vendor lock-in, and half-baked models for the library market place to name just a few.

A couple of weeks back, I was preparing a lecture on online collections for the collections management unit I teach at QUT. When I looked back at my notes from last year, I realised just how far we’ve come in 12 months.


When I gave this lecture last year, Borders had just launched their eBook store and begun selling Kobo and Sony Reader devices. When I heard Sony Readers were coming to Australia, I was more excited by what else Sony might release here – I hoped the launch of Sony devices in Australia would also mean the Sony eBook store would be available here. I was somewhat disappointed to find this wasn’t the case, and even more so when Borders’ promised thousands upon thousands of eBooks included a whole lot of public domain and backlist content. That disappointment turned to dismay when I picked up a brochure from Borders, and, being excited to see some top selling titles emblazoned across it, went back to my desk to give my credit card a bashing… only to discover that a handful of the featured titles were available. I remember tweeting about this at the time and feeling seriously cheated. Nevertheless, I was optimistic about the Borders model and excited to see what it would mean for eBooks in Australia.

At that stage, it remained to be seen how sales of dedicated eReaders would fare in Australia. There was also uncertainty about the iPad – would it herald a whole new era for eBook reading? Similarly, we were yet to see what impact iBooks would have. The Kindle had only been available in Australia for about six months, and at over $300, it was still a fairly hefty investment for a single purpose device. Perhaps most importantly, the range of content available was pretty grim. Availability of new releases was so sporadic that I simply stopped checking and instead, headed straight to my favourite independent bookseller to pick up my latest reads.

As an eBook user, I was still reluctant to read on a small screen device (although I have to confess this was pre-iPhone for me, and I think the iPhone as a device has had a big impact on my willingness to read on a tiny screen). I was also staunchly anti-proprietary formats and wouldn’t dream of buying a Kindle because it was my responsibility as an eBook user to make a stand against DRM, proprietary formats, and all related evils. Plus, I couldn’t justify forking out more than $300 for another (in my mind inferior) eReader, and I wasn’t prepared to take a gamble on a first generation iPad (read: my mortgage won out) to try out the Kindle app there.

… and now

Fast forward 12 months, and things have changed fairly significantly. On the device front, there is a much better range of devices available in Australia and they seem to be selling pretty well. I see eBook readers in the wild fairly regularly, and iPads everyday. Perhaps the most significant change in the device marketplace is that the Kindle has dropped in price to $114 (if you don’t mind ads while you’re not reading; $139 if you’re not so keen). To my way of thinking, this drops the Kindle into a category where people don’t have to think about the purchase a great deal before they make it. It also makes the Kindle a realistic option for a gift. And yes, this staunch advocate of openness bought her mum a Kindle for mothers’ day this year, and is seriously considering getting herself one too. Perhaps this is another big change on the eBook front: our mums now have the eBook readers we covet.

On a personal level, this year, I tried reading on my iPhone and grew to love it. While I much prefer reading on an eInk device, reading on the iPhone is convenient enough to counterbalance the crappy ergonomics.

I’ve also developed an interesting behaviour, and one that I’m sure is common to other eBook fans: I am an eBook scavenger. I move from seller to seller (did I mention the demise of Borders?), library to library, and app to app to get the content I want. And it doesn’t bother me at all. I’m an eBook opportunist! My first port of call is sellers of ePub content (first choice because then I can read on my Sony); if I can’t get what I want there, I head next to my public library’s OverDrive service (and then onto all the libraries I have reciprocal membership at…); and then my next stop is Amazon. While I prefer to buy in ePub, I don’t really care about format or provider as long as I can get the content I want. Sure, I’d prefer a one-stop-shop for all my ePub needs, but I’ve got the routine of scavenging for my content (and remembering which device or app it’s on when I want to read it) pretty sorted.

On a broader level, the biggest change in the marketplace in the last year has probably been the availability of content. When I look back at the books I’ve read in 2011 (21 just-for-fun reads to date), there has been relatively few I’ve been unable to get as an eBook, and every new release I’ve wanted to read has been available within about two weeks of release. I’ve stopped buying print books and I’ve stopped borrowing them from the library. If I can’t get a book in eBook now, I’m more likely to simply set it aside, marked as ‘to-read’ in GoodReads. So far this year, there has only been three books I’ve wanted to read for fun that I haven’t been able to get in eBook format: books four to six in the Phryne Fisher series by Kerry Greenwood (although I have to confess I did go out and buy four and five in print at the height of my eBook seeking frustration).

I was pretty sure, twelve months ago, that we were on the cusp of something awesome with eBooks, and now, I feel like we’re almost there. Choosing to read eBooks over print books is now something you can do without completely compromising on the content you read, and the options for devices to read on are exciting. Sure, DRM is still a complete debacle; Australia still gets the raw end when it comes to geographic distribution rights; some Australian publishers have been slow to get on the bandwagon; and the library marketplace is fraught with issues… But as an end user of eBooks, I feel optimistic about what the future might bring.

- Kate Davis

Kate lectures at QUT, blogs at virtuallyalibrarian and tweets at @katiedavis (warning! lifestream!) and @katiedatwork. In her spare time (!) she is a PhD student, eBook lover, and aunty extraordinaire.

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