Margaret Simons wrote yesterday about giving away the free Kobo e-reader she’d received from Borders. Fair enough, but while Borders (and its parent company REDgroup, which also owns Angus & Robertson and Whitcoulls in NZ) may be angling for coverage in sending the device out to media, the fact is that this launch does actually represent a significant step in the development of a local ebook market — it’s the first time an e-book retailer has been able to offer a significant range of Australian e-books to sell.

The Kobo reader itself is cheap — at $199, it’s the cheapest dedicated e-reader on the market, but it is pretty basic. That’s not really the point, though: e-reading is quickly moving away from proprietary devices and multiple formats toward files in a standard format (ePub) that can be read on a range of devices.

One of Kobo’s advantages is that it is cross-platform: Kobo promises that its ePub titles — while still being restricted/protected by digital rights management to prevent copying/sharing — will be able to be read on a range of devices, from smartphones to tablets. And if you have ePub or PDF files from other sources, they will be readable on the Kobo reader or in the Kobo apps. (Frustratingly, if you have already bought yourself a Kindle from Amazon and/or you have Kindle e-book files downloaded on your computer or iPhone, you won’t be able to read those on the Kobo reader — Amazon supplies its e-books in a proprietary format.)

But let’s forget about the device and look at the list of titles on offer, because that’s the important thing about this launch. Kobo has energised and engaged with Australian publishers in a way that the overseas players (Kindle, Apple, etc) haven’t. Australian readers will now be able to buy e-book versions of books published by up to 100 local publishers, ranging from the local offerings of the multinationals — HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Pan Macmillan, Hachette — to books from Allen & Unwin, MUP, UQP, Scribe, Text and many more of Australia’s diverse independent publishers.

“The offer is about us trying to offer as many Australian titles on this open platform as we can,” REDgroup’s communications manager Malcolm Neil told me.

Here are some authors whose titles you can buy on Kobo you can’t get anywhere else (yet): Kate Grenville, Shane Maloney, Peter Temple, Malcolm Knox, Thomas Kenneally… now that the local publishers have created the e-book versions, in time, most of these titles will probably also be made available on the other platforms and internationally (as long as the pricing and international rights issues are sorted out: that’s another complicated part of the story).

Kobo isn’t the be-all and end-all, and it’s clear that REDgroup still has a lot of work to do in building its offering: right now, only about 50,000 of the promised 2 million titles on Kobo are anything other than free or cheap public domain (i.e: out-of-copyright). REDgroup is still inking deals with publishers large and small, and has promised that the number of new and backlist titles will climb to 250,000 ‘within weeks’ — a total comparable with what Amazon can offer to Australian consumers, but with the advantage that there will be a much higher proportion of local titles in the mix.

And don’t forget that there are other local players: Dymocks has offered e-books since 2007, and has recently expanded its offer to include files in the ePub and DNL formats; Perth-based has been operating for a decade and is recognised an an international e-book pioneer, and there is, which offers e-books from the Overdrive range and its own Ecoreader e-reader.

The imminent launch of Apple’s iPad will be the next test: how many of the Australian publishers that have got their act together to get onto Kobo will also have concluded deals with Apple by next week?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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