The ef­fects of e-books

New Zealand book­shops are fight­ing to keep up with changes that could ren­der them ob­so­lete, writes Max Rashbrooke.

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First it was a trickle, then a flood. A few years ago, sales of e-books – elec­tronic ver­sions of books that can be down­loaded and read on a com­puter or hand­held de­vice – were neg­li­gi­ble.

Now, Ama­zon sells more e-books than pa­per ones, and on some pre­dic­tions e-books will make up a sixth of a global US$80 bil­lion book mar­ket by 2013.

These are glad tid­ings for online re­tail­ers. But might good old-fash­ioned high-street book­shops, locked into their tra­di­tional bricks and mor­tar, be swept away by this new tide?

Not if the book­shops them­selves have any­thing to do with it. It’s true that they would strug­gle to sell e-books by them­selves, be­cause of the pro­hib­i­tive cost of ap­ply­ing the com­plex data pro­tec­tion tech­nol­ogy needed to stop e-books be­ing copied re­peat­edly.

But help is at hand across the Tas­man. Aus­tralian firm Read Cloud has de­vel­oped a ser­vice that will al­low peo­ple to buy e-books from independent book­stores and store them online in a ‘‘cloud’’ so that they can be read at any time. Ti­tle Page, a site cre­ated by Aus­tralian pub­lish­ers, will of­fer a sim­i­lar ser­vice.

Lin­coln Gould, the head of Book­sell­ers New Zealand, says both ser­vices should be avail­able soon af­ter Christ­mas, although progress has been ‘‘a bit slower than ev­ery­body hoped’’.

Dis­cus­sions are also un­der way to pro­vide in­de­pen­dents with an e-book reader de­vice to sell to cus­tomers, as an al­ter­na­tive to prod­ucts like the Kin­dle, which can only read Ama­zon’s e-books. ‘‘Once a Kin­dle is in some­body’s hands, we have lost that cus­tomer,’’ says Tim Black­more of Nel­son store Page and Black­more.

David Cameron, the owner of Christchurch’s Scorpio Books, says in­de­pen­dents ‘‘do see’’ the need to em­brace e-books, although the tech­nol­ogy will not change his busi­ness ‘‘as quickly as some of the tech­nol­ogy pun­dits have pre­dicted’’.

Although e-books sales here could hit NZ$35 mil­lion by 2014, ac­cord­ing to an Aus­tralian re­port ear­lier this year, Gould says ‘‘anec­do­tally, it’s early days’’. But this Christ­mas may see e-book read­ers like the Kin­dle be­come pop­u­lar presents, ‘‘so in 2012 you will start to see the real im­pact of e-books on the mar­ket’’.

Cameron hopes to have his web­site ready to han­dle e-books early in the new year. But it’s not clear that cus­tomers will visit a book­shop’s web­site when they can buy from an online re­tailer – and the tide may be turn­ing in the lat­ter’s favour.

Around $100,000 of state money and book li­cens­ing fees has been spent mak­ing dig­i­tal copies of ex­ist­ing print ti­tles for the soonto-launch Great New Zealand E-books web­site. But as it stands, site vis­i­tors who want to buy the books will be di­rected ei­ther to Ja­panese-owned online store Kobo, or to New Zealand-based online re­tail­ers Wheel­ers and – tech­ni­cal is­sues per­mit­ting – Fish­pond.

What about the book­shops? ‘‘That’s the mil­lion-dol­lar ques­tion,’’ says Paula Brown­ing of Copy­right Li­cens­ing Ltd, which is help­ing run the project. She is in talks with Book­sell­ers New Zealand, which is think­ing about ‘‘how that might work’’. For his part, Gould says book­shops will be in­volved, although he is not yet sure of the de­tail: ‘‘A lot of these things are up in the air.’’

Scorpio’s David Cameron says it ‘‘wouldn’t go down very well’’ if book­shops missed out on Great New Zealand E-books sales. But he is much more ex­cited about de­sign in­no­va­tions – such as tex­tured and 3-D book cov­ers – that turn hard­back books into de­sir­able ob­jects, fur­ther dis­tin­guish­ing them from their elec­tronic im­i­ta­tors.

And when e-books may be sell­ing at $13 to $14, there is not much mar­gin in it, es­pe­cially once Read Cloud or Ti­tle Page take their cut. Sell­ing e-books is, in Tim Black­more’s words, mostly about ‘‘ser­vic­ing the lo­cal com­mu­nity’’ that wants to sup­port book­shops. ‘‘At the mo­ment,’’ he says, ‘‘we have im­mensely loyal cus­tomers. That may change. It will cer­tainly change if we can’t come up with a so­lu­tion.’’

greatnze­books.co.nz

Photo: KIRK HAR­G­REAVES

No change: Scorpio Books owner Dave Cameron, with his dogs, Patch and Coco, says the tech­nol­ogy will not change his busi­ness.

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