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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 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 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 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.

Building groundswell

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.

  • phill

    I’ve only recently been given a Sony eReader by Lou, as a late birthday present, and I’ve been totally impressed with it so far. It has a whole bunch of features: touch-screen, mp3 playback, the ability to write highlight and handwrite notes (which I’m dying to try out when editing), bookmarks, in-built dictionary, etc. Unfortunately, it seems the only thing it doesn’t have is browser compatibility, so I was incredibly disappointed when I found out that the books from Readings would only be available in web browsers via book.ish.

    Of course, since the announcement there’s been a lot of calls for more formats, and I believe there’s been a statement made somewhere that more formats will be available at a future date. But I just get the feeling that they’ve shot themselves right in the foot with this one, by excluding a whole bunch of people who–by the very definition of them having bought an e-reader device–are enthusiastic about supporting and buying e-books. It certainly wouldn’t have been my first move.

    Anyway, as soon as I can download a .epub with my purchase, I’ll be right in their store, clicking away. Until then, I’ll stick with the hundreds of free classics I still have to work through. (:

    • Mark Welker

      Yeah it’s an interesting debate around ebook formats. It’s unfortunate that by going the browser based pathway, book.ish are in the short term potentially further confusing an already confusing format question. But I wonder if this is inevitable, no matter what path they took.

      In a way, most other media have gone through similar periods of format ambuguity, the most recent being Blu-ray v HD Video. The winner their ended up being the format with the biggest backing from studios, not merely hardware.

      Hence I can see book.ish perspective – that today ebook formats are confusing and disparate, often requiring third party converters just to start reading.

      But in the future (and really, in the now) the most recogniseable and universally understood and read format is a URL, and you can’t really fault that logic. Why isn’t an ebook a webpage already? Especially if you consider the promise of HTML 5 and its potential impact on web platforms like Flash and Silverlight.

      The choice to include a physical file lies with the publisher in the end, hence ultimately it will be their call on whether they believe there is enough audience gain to justify the inclusion of some kind of format. I hope that they do, at least for the short term, as I really hate reading on my iPhone.

      • phill

        It is a bit inevitable, I agree. I was just so excited by the announcement that it felt like a bit of a sucker punch when I realised I wouldn’t be able to purchase them. And I really, truly hate reading on a screen–I do enough of that by day, I don’t want to have to continue doing so in my free time.

        Format wars have always been waged, and will probably continue to be. While EPUB is probably the best and most widely supported open format available at the moment (unsupported by only the Kindle of all the major brands of readers), there’s still gaps. And I guess taking the ‘html is universal’ approach is one way to get around that.

        I dunno, obviously Readings have taken the best path they could have based on the information and predictions they have about the e-book market. And since it’s still a very variable market, I can see the sense in what they’ve done. But it doesn’t make me any less disappointed that I can’t buy from them.

  • Virginia Murdoch

    Thanks, Mark, for such a long and detailed review of – it’s great that you took the time to investigate and think about all the different aspects of what we’re doing here, and your comments are very useful.

    The question of compatibility has been much-discussed over the last few days. For people who’ve invested in specialist hardware, we’re deplorable, and for those who’ve been turned off ebooks because of the requirement that they purchase yet another gadget, we’re doing something useful and exciting. We have lots of ideas about how we can satisfy both camps, but we’re definitely firmly of the view that the browser is the best place for books, and is where the future of reading (and of lies.

    You’ll be pleased to know that I’m working on iPhone-friendlier versions of the websites – so many things on my todo list, and so few reliable ways of cloning myself! It should be live early next week though.

    • phill

      Heh, yeah there’s certainly been some, uh, forceful responses haven’t there? If it helps any, those bloggers and readers that have taken such a direct approach obviously care a lot about the situation, and really want to get involved with supporting the Australian e-books market. So perhaps don’t take it personally, instead read it as a sign of the enthusiasm of the average Australian e-book reader. :)

      • Virginia Murdoch

        Thanks Phill – we’re definitely trying not to take it personally! I think the only thing that I find a bit hurtful is the assumption (from some quarters) that we’ve chosen this model out of greed, or a desire to control people’s reading and lock them into some spooky regime, rather than out of a sincere belief that it solves many more problems than it creates. Publishers – and independent booksellers even more so –have extremely limited options for getting ebooks into the hands of their readers and customers. gives them a new opportunity to do this.

    • Mark

      Quite right Phill, passioned voices is never a bad thing.

      I’ll just note that I actually did persevere with reading on the iPhone whilst on the tram this morning. I already had a bunch of heavy books in my bag (none too memorable) and hence whilst I couldn’t encourage long term reading this way, I couldn’t deny the convenience and simplicity of it given the situation I was in. If I had an ereader at home to pick up where I left off, you might have almost convinced me.

      If anyone feels like donating an ipad, I will give that a shot. *tumbleweeds*

  • TF

    Good write-up, Mark. I already thought it was a gutsy move – kind of proud an independent Aus organisation is taking on the big boys and doing something innovative – and your post makes me more keen to check out the new e-book store (and probably buy Stinson’s Known Unknowns). It’s great that independent authors and publishers will get some exposure in a growing market, too.

    I have read entire ebooks on my iPhone, a new platform (i.e. book.ish) isn’t a concern and cloud storage isn’t an issue if I can access my purchase offline too (my 3G coverage is horrendous). I have a problem with pricing. I know there are any number of variables involved but I am not paying some of the prices being asked for a digital file which costs, if we’re rounding off, nothing to reproduce and ship. I obviously want everybody involved to get their just reward for putting the creative piece together. The quandry seems to be related to the tangible – pay $25-$30 for a hard copy and not much less for something that will be accessible only when I’m near a digital device. It seems like a big psychic leap to make. Am I being cheap? Should I expand my mind?

    This problem is not unique to the Readings ebook shop. Some time ago I was eager to read McCarthy’s C. However, the hardcover was $40 and the size of a cinderblock so I thought I’d buy the ebook. After a few Google searches the cheapest I could find it for was $26.95. The most satisfying option seemed to be to wait for the paperback.

    • Mark

      Cheers Tristan. Yeah I’m a bit cloudy on the pricing too – some of the titles seem a real bargain, others seem more set based on how much the print book is currently retailing for (in the case of trade paperbacks).

      However, having worked in marketing for a while now I have come to accept that the final price consumers pay often has little to no relation to the physical attributes of the book itself. With the products I’ve worked on, marketing and reseller costs have made up the bulk of the final price.

      There was a great post a little while back by a publisher named Michael Hyatt. In it he speaks directly to why ebooks cost so much (from a publishers perspective). Here is the link:

  • Greg G

    “For people who’ve invested in specialist hardware, we’re deplorable, and for those who’ve been turned off ebooks because of the requirement that they purchase yet another gadget, we’re doing something useful and exciting.”

    That’s a positive way to look at it, and completely wrong.

    You would get so much argro if you were honest about your product. Instead you hype your “book streaming”, hide away the fact that some titles *can* be downloaded (because it makes the rest look like a bad deal?), and outright mislead people about some e-reading devices. The Kobo, for example, is not a perfect device but it is NOT locked to one e-book store. Nor, with Kindle and Kobo both, are you locked to reading those titles on the e-reader device.

    You’re offering the equivalent of Amazon’s Whispersync service without the ability to download the book. That’s all.

  • Philip

    I agree with Greg and all the many people already happily reading ebooks downloaded from sites ( et al) willing to offer formats compatible with a range of specialised ereaders.

    Readings staff agree with each other. *consumer wave*

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