Statistics are flying around the net at the moment, quoting large publishers such as Hachette and Random House as saying ebook sales are up to 22%. Of what? Or do they mean by? A Google search revealed nothing. But I suspect these kinds of figures are going to be flung around for the forseeable future until things settle down, and goodness knows when that will be. Every second day I seem to get an email from Barnes & Noble that wants me to buy the new colour Nook. Not much point really, as a lot of the books I might want are not published in Australia, and copyright laws prevent me from downloading them from US sites as an ebook.
Where does this kind of restriction leave us in Australia? Even if you have a Kindle, you still can't download Kindle books that don't comply with the copyright laws. It hardly matters if you want the latest bestsellers, but if you don't, it's easy to find yourself with nothing to buy. Back to "real" books then. I wonder how Australia is going to fare over the next 2-3 years. People are jumping onto ebooks with great speed, there's no doubt about that, wherever you get your statistics. And it's also hardly surprising that ebooks are taking over from hardbacks (traditionally how most books in the US get published first).
We don't do many hardbacks here. So our competition is between trade paperbacks (currently selling at $32-39 each) and ebooks, with ebooks still behind, I'd say. Although the iPad2 might change that. So what is happening here? You can get an "Australian" Kindle, you can buy an iPad2 or 1, there are various cheap ereaders around (that are pretty hopeless). But where do we get our ebooks? Do we download the software from Readings site and go with their platform? I would bet if you asked people what DRM is, hardly anyone would know (it's a formatting thing that supposedly is to stop you "stealing" ebooks).
At least if you want to self-publish an ebook, it's easy to do. Either on your own or through sites such as Smashwords or Bookbaby. It's the thing to do right now, especially if you think you can generate enough publicity and word-of-mouth to sell several thousand copies. Industry pundits are saying that the rush of self-published ebooks will fade as readers sort out the good from the truly awful. I'm not so sure - a visit to any large bookshop will soon show you how many books are being published the traditional way. How do we find these?
My feeling is that Australia is still way behind on ebooks, and not catching up. I looked up Cate Kennedy's new poetry book today - The Taste of River Water. It's available as a book for $24.95 from both Scribe and the Readings site, but also available as an ebook from Readings (but not Scribe) for $14.99. In fact, most Readings ebooks are around $15. But when I went and looked them up on various publishers' sites, many of the same books are only listed as paperbacks. Or, in the case of Random House Australia, their ebooks are listed as being available from Amazon.
It's all very messy really, and it'll be interesting to see if and how things change over the next year or two. Because if there's one thing you can guarantee, this is an area of huge change at the moment - the question is - change to what? And what will it mean to both readers and authors?