Pundits have predicted the death of the book since the Apple 2E was a boy. The digital reading experience, however, was always strictly second-rate to the musty, dog-eared paper one.
But with the arrival of the iPad, and the rampant popularity that followed, it appears the eBook has finally reached maturity. With the iPad (and Amazon’s Kindle) the reading public has found a device that adequately simulates a traditional book, even improving on it in a number of significant ways.
It’s easy enough to fathom the eBook’s popularity: weightless, readily available, with resizable text, active bookmarks, inbuilt dictionaries and, critically, cheaper content than their physical counterparts.
Convenient; sure, but the rise of the eBook hasn’t been a picnic for everyone. The independent bookstore, a venerable institution that’s been the mainstay of local literary communities, has found itself sidelined.
Likewise, small publishing houses that stubbornly insist on printing work unlikely to make it onto Oprah’s Book Club simply don’t appear on major online booksellers like Apple or Amazon.
Melbourne literary fixture, Readings Bookstore in Carlton is a business that’s been squeezed by the two fists of online sales and the global financial crisis.
“Our business has taken a hit the same way that the retail industry in this country has in general over the last couple of years,” says Reading’s online manager, Andrew McDonald “But being able to buy books on Kindle and iBooks has taken away a little bit.”
However, Readings decided not to go quietly, instead coming up with a plan to not beat but join them.
“The eBook market has, we think, been slow to take off here,” says McDonald. “It’s so big overseas, and there are definitely gaps here. We were keen to get in there and fill them.”
At the urging of the Small Press Underground Networking Community, a representative body for small and independent Australian publishers with an unusual acronym, Readings approached Melbourne digital firm Inventive Labs to come up with a method for offering books online.
Run by locals Virginia Murdoch and Joseph Pearson, Inventive Labs began developing its own eBook platform, Booki.sh. In January last year,
Pearson created Monocle – open-source software that allowed users to read books in their web browser.
“Basically, it takes a bunch of HTML files and displays them in the browser in a paginated format,” explains co-founder Murdoch. “The text is reflowable, and all that sort of stuff, to make that eBook work in a browser that’s iPhone-sized, compared with a browser that’s the size of a larger screen.”
Working with both small and large publishers, Booki.sh began amassing a database of titles, which are already being sold through the Readings-branded online store.
The approach differs from that of the Big Guns, with Kindle and Apple using a dedicated program from the App Store, both of which download an ePub file which is stored and read by the reader.
Instead, Monocle allows a reader to login to the online bookseller – in this case, Readings – select and purchase a title, and then read it within the browser. The service, known as Booki.sh, also allows users to bookmark whatever they’re reading on the iOS homescreen, which displays the jacket of the book.
Murdoch explains that Booki.sh was designed using HTML5, a burgeoning internet platform that lets developers use polished animations and
transitions, along with excellent offline caching, allowing titles to be viewed both on and offline.
“The combination of HTML5 and CSS3, with animations and so forth, allowed us to have a very book-feeling book. That makes people feel like they’re really reading a book in a way that scrolling through a web-page wouldn’t,” she says. “The HTML5 offline cache really makes this possible in a way that wouldn’t have been before.”
Opting for a browser-based approach solves a number of problems for both Readings and Booki.sh, the first being the ease with which customers can approach the shopping experience.
But it also has simplifying effect on copyright complications. Without having a downloadable file per se, Booki.sh absolves itself of digital rights management responsibilities.
“Just the requirement from most publishers that you protect books with DRM means that you have to pay license fees, big license fees, to big companies, aside from the cost of the platform. It’s really been beyond the reach of even larger independents,” Murdoch explains. “The browser allows us to provide a form of digital rights management that is much more familiar to people. The idea of using a username and password to access something that only you should have access to is something people are already on top of.”
Besides circumventing copyright issues, a browser-based reader also allows Booki.sh to sidestep what could turn out to be a major problem for online retailers. Last week, Apple rejected an eBook reader app developed by Sony on the grounds that it didn’t cater for in-app purchases of books. Rather, it directed customers to a browser-based purchasing system that would then download the file to the app. The system has been working very successfully for Amazon’s Kindle app, though Apple, unexpectedly, decided to ‘enforce an existing rule’.
The decision leaves booksellers in a tight spot – Apple demands 30 per cent of all purchases made through its App Store, an amount that typically represents the entirety of an online retailer’s product.
Murdoch says that such a requirement would make it impossible for smaller players like Booki.sh to operate.
“Thirty per cent is a big charge,” observes Murdoch. “Particularly given the information you get out of Apple about your customers. To hand over 30 per cent and not ever find out the email address of the person who bought the product, that’s pretty full on, I think.”
However, Inventive Labs believes that it’s managed to anticipate the quandary that could leave a number of eBook readers upset by not developing an app.
“We haven’t thought about producing an app, and I’m pretty glad we haven’t put any energy into it. We certainly wouldn’t be in a position to make Apple treat us nicely,” she says. “It’s a philosophical choice for us really. We’re very committed to the web as a platform.”
In any case, Reading’s online bookstore has whirred open, with a more titles joining a database of a couple of hundred books from Australian publishers such as Scribe, Black Inc and Giramondo everyday.
Because of its focus on the independent bookstore, rather than the global one-stop-shop, each shop will be able to curate titles they believe their customer wants to read.
“One of the things we’re really keen on, working with Readings… is to bring back that idea of local specificity that works so well in the High Street bookshop,” says Murdoch. “We’re basically getting the booksellers to do the stuff they’re good at, making the connection with their local customers and hand-sell, I think is the expression they use in the trade.”
For the moment the Booki.sh platform will be limited to Readings, but Inventive has plans to roll it out to other independents later in the year. Murdoch is confident about the burgeoning popularity of digital books, but is philosophical about the demise of paper ones.
“You have to make people feel as emotionally invested in their iPhone as they do their hardcover book. I mean, I feel like that, but I don’t know if that’s likely to come for a lot of people…” she says. “I think there’s room in the market for both types of books, but a lot of people will stick with paper books for their entire lives.”
At Readings, where books made of trees have been selling steadily for 42 years, McDonald is also measured in his predictions for the book’s future: “I think physical books will always be around. Look at the music industry, for example, the way that vinyl’s made a resurgence. Who knows what the bookshop’s going to look like in 10 years, but it’s always going to have a place,” he says. “I think it’s important that people have a choice.”
Books are on sale – on paper and in ones and zeros – at Readings now.