Readings ebooks launches in Australia: a very long review
Monday's launch of the Readings ebook store is an important first step in providing book lovers with improved access to Australian authors in the digital realm.
Whilst market leaders Amazon and Borders will probably always reign supreme in terms of raw volume of listed ebook titles, their selection of lesser known titles – particularly those from Australian publishers – have often been lacking.
In fact, much has already been made of discrepancies between the US and Australian kindle store, and the lengths people have gone to to circumvent the problem.
Over the last few months I’ve been back and forth over the decision to buy an ereader. After recently experiencing the complex process my parents went through to manoeuver around international copyright restriction roadblocks and finally purchase Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections for their two e-reader devices, I decided I could wait a while longer to jump on that wagon.
Buying a book, online or off, has never been anything but pleasurable for me. There are few more satisfying feelings than strolling the isles of a well stocked bookstore or receiving a word heavy package on my doorstep after returning from work.
Personally, I don’t mind paying extra for a tangible product, and for many smaller Australian publishers, there hasn’t exactly been a choice. That is, until now.
What’s in store
According to the recent SMH article, there are 150 titles available on the Readings estore from a host of independent Australian publishers and collectives including Text Publishing, Sleepers, Affirm and Black Inc Books. Thousands more will reportedly be available from mid March.
It’s great to see among the titles, back catalogues from popular Australian literary journal’s such as Griffith Review and The Quarterly Essay. Only a few back issues are currently available, but hopefully we’ll see the rest become available as the format catches on.
Of the 150 titles around a third are available to international buyers, which suggests international copyright restrictions are still very much in place.
Most titles are priced between $9 and $20 Australian dollars, with variations mostly by publisher, not title.
Affirm Press are offering titles from Authors such as Emmett Stinson and Bob Franklin at $11.95, whilst Sleepers Publishing are asking $14.95 for Age Book of The Year recipient Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See coming.
Text Publishing contributes a large bulk of the store’s titles, with over forty selections from their extensive trade paperback catalogue including Nick Cave’s The Death of Bunny Munro and Kate Holden’s The Romantic – both $19.95.
A quick price check of these titles on the Readings print bookstore reveals about a $10 saving on titles from Affirm and Sleepers, $6 on something like Griffith Review, and $14 for Text Publishing. Not bad.
Reading in the cloud
The Melbourne-based firm behind the new Readings digital venture is Inventive Labs. Using their new book.ish platform, Inventive have certainly gone to great lengths to provide a universal ebook format, currently one of the biggest bones of contention for prospective ebook buyers.
book.ish works on cloud technology, requiring only a browser to access and read each title. Rather than restrict the format to certain devices by asking you to download the title, with book.ish the ebook file remains online in your book.ish account. This way you can read your book on any device with a browser, online and offline.
Now what does this actually mean in terms of ownership? Well it’s a little interesting. I’ll just quote from the website shall I?
When you buy a Booki.sh ebook, you’re not buying a downloadable file – you’re buying ongoing access to a website containing the contents of the book.
And if that made you a little queasy, this next bit will really kick you in the guts:
We are committed to ensuring that the books you buy through Booki.sh continue to be available indefinitely, accessible from the URL sent to you in your receipt email. In the unlikely event that you purchase a book from Booki.sh which shouldn’t have been sold to you (this could happen if a publisher makes available a title that they don’t have the right to sell in your country, for example), we may be required by law to retract the book.
Thing is, I’m not a cloud hater. Google’s new ebook service is built upon a similar premise, and Google ‘do no evil’ right?. Book.ish are quite open on the reasons for the cloud approach on their blog, and although the idea of having a book revoked freaks me out a little, I can see their point.
Ownership in the digital realm is a fluid concept, there are few crannies left for traditional notions of physical ownership to wither away in.
Thing is, I have a draw full of DVDs I ‘own’, but in ten years they will be coasters, just like my CD collection. What will I ‘own’ then? Given that we consume such vast quantities of content online for free at the moment – through news sites, blogs and other means – ownership really feels more like access to me.
In this realm, a URL has permanency, at least as much as any digital file or device has. But if the permanency you’re after is of the ‘when I’m 80 I might read that again’ kind, then move away from the ebook space, and go buy a print book.
To their credit, much like Google’s ebook store, book.ish is leaving it to the publisher to set DRM controls, meaning that any publisher who wants to include an epub file on the book.ish platform can do so. And if Steve Jobs can pull DRM out of iTunes, surely he can lean on ebooks next.
Learning to read again
Book.ish claim their titles can be read on “anything with a modern web browser.” The only issue is, not many traditional e-reader devices (when I say traditional I mean those released in the last 5 years) have modern internet browsers yet.
The book.ish device compatibility chart suggests partial support of the most popular mass market e-reader, the Kindle, with offline reading disabled – “it’s experimental, but it works.” There’s no mention of any other e-reader devices currently out on the market, including the second in line Kobo.
Instead, book.ish primarily supports those reading on iPad, iPhone and Android devices, and anyone wanting to read on a PC or Mac (not sure who these people are).
Given that the newly launched US Google ebookstore uses a similar approach, Book.ish seems to be focused on providing an ebook platform suited to the future of ereading, rather than the present.
But what is it like? Well as I said earlier, unfortunately I’m not yet on the e-reader wagon. In fact I found it hard to justify even purchasing one of the e-titles for the purposes writing this post. But I did.
If any book format is made for e-reading, it’s the short story. So it seemed fitting to start out with Emmett Stinson’s much recommended short story collection Known Unknowns – retailing for a bargain $11.95 (and available internationally).
A book.ish experience
Upon clicking to buy the book from the Reading’s ebook store, you’re required to sign up for a free book.ish account. A few seconds later, you punch in your credit card details and you’re redirected back to the readings estore to get reading.
Almost immediately upon clicking “read now” I’m presented with the full text (including cover) of Known Unknowns and a prompt to say the book has been ‘cached on my device for offline reading’.
Reading is pretty much what you would expect (see sample below) – you click in the left and right margins to advance or reverse through pages, and click in the centre to bring up the menu for functions like bookmarking, changing font size, accessing chapter marks, and searching.
You’ve got four choices in size and font type, and options for adjusting contrast. Unfortunately book.ish are yet to add the ability to highlight and save passages, which is really a shame as it’s a standard ereader function that I’ve long eyed off.
I had a few issues with not being able to get the main menu to come up on occasion, and bizarrely I found that I could sometimes get stuck with a cursor and gain the ability to select and paste the text from the novel into a word document – formatting still attached. Obviously still some kinks to work through.
A book is a book though right? I’m really just buying it to read, so for the most part the experience is much the same as it has been for the last 30 years of my life. Only I have to read it on my computer in the study. So I figured it was about time I did some reading on my next least favourite reading device, the iPhone.
Now call me picky, but for a company that’s all about reading from mobile devices, I was a little surprised that the main book.ish website isn’t formatted for iPhones. The log in to go to “your library” books is also super small at the top of the screen. How about something a bit more prominent from here on?
After you log in, things are looking much better. There’s the book I bought sitting in my library. But why is Emmett’s cover so blurry? I’ll get over it. Conveniently, the book appears on the iPhone in about 3 seconds across my home wifi connection.
I have to say reading on an iPhone 4 is a lot better than on a previous Gen iPhone. I actually prefer reading text on my iPhone 4 than a desktop in some regards, partly because the retina screen is just so damn clear.
The same hold’s true for my new book.ish title. In fact I would go as far as to say that if I was born with a third arm protruding from my chest at a right angle, and with retinas suited to eye bleeding contrast in dimly lit rooms, then I would happily read for hours and hours on my iPhone 4.
However, considering the neck ache that playing Angry Birds sometimes delivers (I still love you), I gave up after about 20 minutes. Unfortunately, I don’t have an ipad. Nor do I have a Kindle. So this review is only partially complete.
E-reading preferences aside, what Inventive Labs and Readings should be praised for is launching what looks to be a sustainable model for ebook creation and purchasing in Australia that directly benefits and supports independent publishers and writers.
Whilst device compatibility still remains an issue, and will likely narrow the market for Reading’s range of ebooks in the short term, the concept of browser based reading appears forward thinking. As devices evolve and more browser based features are supported (almost inevitable with the onset of the Google ebookstore) I’m sure book.ish will quickly start to expand their list of supported devices.
Until then, significant change in reading habits is required to start enjoying book.ish titles, either reading on a 3.5 inch screen (in the case of the iPhone 4), or sitting down on your PC. Of course, those already sold on e-readers will think nothing of this, and hence will already be shortlisting titles to start adding to their book.ish library.
One thing is for sure, it is a fine thing that Readings, Book.ish and SPUNC have done to promote and support Australian authors in the digital space.
Taking the first step into the ebook world requires an optimistic outlook, and it’s a comforting sign that all three parties have such faith in the industry to make the considerable investment.