Readers looking for a copy of a hot new bestseller now have the option of turning digital rather than paper pages after yesterday's launch of Whitcoulls' e-book service.
The company is hoping it can grab a dominant position in the local e-book market, which - if it follows US trends - could soon account for as much as 8 per cent of book sales.
The Whitcoulls service will offer buyers two million book titles and is based around the new e-reader device, the Kobo - although downloads will be compatible with computers and other e-book devices, such as Apple's iPad.
Purchasing an electronic version of Stieg Larsson's bestseller, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, will cost $14.95 - $5 cheaper than the paperback version available on Whitcoulls' website.
Dave Fenlon, group managing director of Whitcoulls' Australian owner REDgroup Retail, said handheld devices and web-enabled smart phones are changing the way people read.
He said overseas markets had seen a rise in book consumption with the arrival of e-readers.
Fenlon said the Kobo - an anagram of book - will retail for $295, less than half of the price of an iPad and $100 cheaper than an Amazon Kindle.
"We're not making any money on the device. We're not a device manufacturer. The device is to give consumers choice and it's about choice of how they read. We want to make sure we focus on content and getting New Zealanders reading more," he said.
The Kobo was developed by a spinoff of Canadian book retailer Indigo Books & Music and is available for sale in Canada, the United States and Australia.
Fenlon said there was the potential to sell 100,000 Kobos in New Zealand.
E-book buyers are not limited to using the Kobo and are able to download and read books on PCs, Macs and a range of handheld and smart phone devices.
All e-book purchases are stored in an web-based library accessible through the Whitcoulls website or downloadable applications for a range of devices developed for the service.
This means customers can read and bookmark a book on multiple devices and replace e-books on lost or damaged devices.
Fenlon said people will want to use the iPad as an e-reader when it is launched in New Zealand in July and will make a Whitcoulls application available for the device from launch.
He said the Whitcoulls e-books offering takes reading e-books mainstream, from travellers wanting to lighten the carry-on load to mums with a few minutes to kill waiting outside the school gate.
"I think it will be picked up across all sectors of the market," said Fenlon.
Random House managing director Karen Ferns said in the United States e-book sales typically accounted for 3 to 4 per cent of a publisher's turnover last year and were fast approaching 6 to 8 per cent of revenue.
"Early indications are that a bestseller in the printed world is likely also to be an e-book bestseller and owning an e-book reader will tend to increase book purchases per user. The new channel that is e-reading seems to encourage reading," said Ferns.
She said the "long tail" can be catered for as publishers convert back catalogues.
Ferns also sees a place for e-books enabling the sale of New Zealand books to a wider global audience.
"So e-books tick many boxes for consumers but we are too early in the process to know how many sales will be additional and how many substitutions to printed books," she said.
REDgroup's Fenlon was coy on sales figures off hardcopy books through the whitcoulls.co.nz website, although he said the book-only offering turned over the equivalent of four or five "very good" bricks-and-mortar stores.
EASY - BUT NOT SEXY
At $300 the Kobo offers a relatively cheap and easy way into the world of digital reading.
That money buys you a functional device the size and weight of a small paperback, but without the glossy sex appeal of the iPad.
The matt black-and-white screen uses eInk technology - like the Amazon Kindle - to give the display a page-like appearance. It looks easier on the eye than a PC screen but with a greyish background it doesn't have the contrast of a well-published (real) book.
Readers can, however, adjust the font size and style.
While the large screen gives the appearance of a touch-screen device, users navigate using a single pad.
Any Kobos bought through Whitcoulls come preloaded with 100 classic book titles, with two million available for purchase through the online store.
Unlike other e-reader devices, any e-book purchases cannot be made directly from the Kobo. Customers need to download the e-book to a PC or Mac desktop before transferring it to the Kobo over a USB or Bluetooth connection.
Although the device holds up to 1000 books, and more if extra storage is added, all e-book purchases are also stored on a web-accessible e-library.