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» Buyers rush for the iPod of ebooks
Buyers rush for the iPod of ebooks
THE new generation of electronic books – ebooks – has fired a revolution even before they go on sale in Britain. Such is the sudden success in the United States of the Amazon Kindle, a reading device capable of storing 200 books, that UK buyers are bidding for them on eBay in the hope of shipping them over.
Although the US versions will not be fully operational in Britain, the Kindle is rapidly taking on the must-have aura of Apple’s iPod. After many false dawns, publishers fear the ebook could finally do to the book trade what the iPod has done to the music industry: turn it upside down.
One UK literary agent said: “It’s a tremendously exciting time. I can imagine a world where I would sell books direct from an author’s website.”
Another said: “Amazon clearly wants the Kindle to be the iPod of the book business.”
The Kindle, which is expected to go on sale in the UK later this year, has surprised US publishers and authors by how rapidly it has moved into the mainstream. Pat Schroeder, president of the Association of American Publishers, said: “I think people initially thought it would attract young people. But old people like it, too.”
The Kindle allows the user to increase the type size, making books easier to read for older people with impaired eyesight. When Walter Isaacson, former chairman of CNN and managing editor of Time magazine, acquired a Kindle, he soon found that his 84-year-old father and his 86-year-old father-in-law were asking for one as well as his 18-year-old daughter.
In the six months since the Kindle went on sale in the United States, it has grabbed a significant chunk of book sales. Jeffrey Bezos, founder of Amazon, said last week that the Kindle was already taking 6% of sales of books that were available in both traditional print and new electronic form.
Electronic readers of one sort or another have been around for years but the Kindle, and its rival the Sony Reader, deliver a quality and ease of use that seem to have mass appeal. The International Digital Publishing Forum, a trade group for ebook sellers, estimates that sales in March 2008 were 59% higher than in March 2007.
More than 125,000 titles are available for downloading and Simon & Schuster, the publisher, said it would add a further 5,000 titles this year.
In 2006 Harlequin Enterprises, the world’s biggest romance publisher, which sells 130m books a year, released eight titles in electronic form. Last year it decided to make all its titles available in both traditional and ebook formats.
“We blew away a lot of people’s expectations about ebooks,” said Brent Lewis, vice-president of digital and internet for Harlequin. Growing numbers of the company’s customers, he said, are reading romances on the Kindle, the Sony Reader or a mobile phone. In Japan all Harlequin’s ebooks are sold directly to customers’ mobiles.
Amazon has not decided how much ebooks for the Kindle will cost in Britain, but in America new releases and bestsellers, for example, typically cost $9.99 (£5), compared with £7.50-£10 for traditional volumes bought through the company’s website.
The Kindle, which costs $359 (£182) in America, has built-in free wireless internet connection, allowing users to download titles direct from Amazon’s website. Other firms’ readers require ebooks to be downloaded onto a computer and then transferred.
The pace of change, and Amazon’s aggressive lead, are unnerving British authors and publishers. They fear Amazon will use its dominance to squeeze them. Publishers sell books to retailers at a discount off the cover price. While 20 years ago this was about 35%-40%, Waterstone’s and Amazon now expect discounts of 50%-55%.
A pricing dispute recently led the online retailer to refuse to sell new copies of books such as Labyrinth by Kate Mosse and The 6th Target by James Patterson. The website removed its “buy now” button from about 60 books by authors of the publisher Hachette Livre UK, which also publishes Patricia Cornwell, the crime writer.
Tracy Chevalier, the historical novelist who chairs the Society of Authors, said: “What is unusual here is, Amazon is saying: ‘We are not going to sell these books.’ It’s greatly disappointing that Amazon would choose to punish authors in this way.”