Technology columnist for the NZ Herald

Chris Barton: Reading between the lines of an ebook

ebooks may be gaining in popularity but in some instances their higher costs compared to hardback copies means consumers seem to be getting a raw deal. Photo / Thinkstock
ebooks may be gaining in popularity but in some instances their higher costs compared to hardback copies means consumers seem to be getting a raw deal. Photo / Thinkstock

Holidays. Yes. A time to breathe, a time for the beach, a time to read. And so continues my stop-start experiment with whether I can ever make the move to ebooks. In this instalment, thanks to a Kobo VoxeReader which arrived just before Christmas, I discover three things:

* The price of ebooks can be ridiculous
* eNew Zealand is a third world country
* Tablets are actually quite handy devices

Take John Sutherland's Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives. Through Kobo New Zealand's store it costs $37.19 which seems an awful lot for an electronic book. On Amazon the Kindle ebook reader edition is $US13.75 ($NZ17.69 when I did the conversion) and the hardback $US26.37 ($NZ33.93). Similarly P. D. James's Death Comes to Pemberley. On Kobo here it's $22.29. The Kindle edition is $US9.99 ($NZ12.86) and the hardback on Amazon $US15.57 ($NZ20.04).

What's going on? Regulators in both the Unites Sates and Europe are worried that consumers may be overpaying and are investigating ebook price-fixing claims. At the heart of the matter are "agency" deals signed between Apple and five of the biggest publishers: Hachette Livre, Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, Penguin and Macmillan.

The agency model for digital books - where publishers set the retail prices and bookshops take a 30 per cent cut on each sale - was designed by Apple and is now used by most ebook publishers worldwide. The arrangement was in marked contrast to the early days of ebooks when Amazon drove sales of its Kindle by discounting heavily - usually a flat rate of $US9.99 for new titles in the United States.

That seems no longer to be the case, with bestsellers on average selling for $US15 and reports of some ebooks costing more than paperbacks. Others say Apple was doing everyone a favour by stopping Amazon's monopoly in its tracks.

On the face of it the consumer seems to be getting a raw deal - digital books should be a lot cheaper than physical books. End of story. Luckily, if you stay away from new releases, there are many great deals to be found. Ever since I've been using the Kobo Vox my inbox has been peppered with discount offers. So far I haven't bought - preferring to be a "freeloader" and downloading the many free e-books available. That's largely thanks to the late Michael Hart and his marvellous Project Gutenberg.

But I suspect it may not be long before I make my first ebook buy, and it will likely be one of the read-along children's books which have already proved very useful in keeping the grandson amused. Once again, there are free options and I can thoroughly recommend iStoryBooks. On the other hand, I have to confess that while I've downloaded lots of ebooks on both a smartphone and the Kobo Vox, I've yet to finish reading one.

I do, however, read articles - heaps of then - so what I was really looking forward to was being able to peruse my favourite magazines. Click on the Kobo link to such things and you get told: "We currently do not offer newspapers and magazines for our international customers" and that the company is trying to sort the issue out as soon as possible. Great. I got similarly annoyed with Google Currents which is only available in the United States. The app, which is a response to the very cool Flipboard for the iPad and iPhone, gives a fantastic range of magazine and newspaper content arranged in magazine-style format for offline reading on your tablet or smartphone.

Try as I might I couldn't find a workaround to run it on the Kobo Vox. I did manage to get it running on an Ideos smartphone, where it provides a welcome addition to my other favourite ereading app, InstaFetch - essentially a way to get the very cool iPhone app, Instapaper on an Android phone.

What really gets my goat about this state of affairs is that it reduces New Zealand to third world status. Everywhere you turn these days content - Netflix, Hulu, the BBC iPlayer - is being turned off for New Zealand customers. Whatever happened to the world wide web and open access? Yes, I know those with a bit of tech savvy can find ways to bypass such restrictions (just ask Google) but surely by now content owners should be thinking global not parochial.

Herein lies both the beauty and the curse of tablets. Be it the seductive iPad which started it all, or its various challengers like the Samsung Galaxy Tab, Amazon's KindleFire, Barnes & Noble's Nook Tablet , or the Kobo Vox, they are all aiming at the same thing: locking in the consumer to their system.

Apple does it via the iTunes and App Store, which provides a guaranteed common user experience and ensures that nothing runs on an Apple iDevice that hasn't been approved. The others - various Android platforms like Kindle, the Kobo Vox, the Nook and other ereaders - have all become more iPad-like in their latest incarnations in an attempt to challenge Apple. They too want to lock you in, not so much with their beautiful kit as Apple does, but with content. In other words, making the device a channel to their bookstore. The problem with that is you're always left wondering what you might be missing out on at the other bookstores.

Putting that trap aside, I have to say that while I have resisted the lure of an iPad so far, the more I see of what tablets offer as a portable, easy-to-use content receiving device, the more I see how useful one could be. The main drawback is the iPad's insane price ($800-$1200). Which makes something like the KoboVox at $359 - even if it is a pale iPad imitation - quite a good option.

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Technology columnist for the NZ Herald

Chris Barton is a freelance writer with 28 years experience in newspapers and magazines. He's been writing about technology since 1986, was the founding editor of New Zealand PC World and has won numerous media awards, including, in 2009, journalism's top prize, the Wolfson Press Fellowship to Cambridge. He has a Master of Architecture, teaches part time at the Auckland School of Architecture and is an architecture critic, winning, in 2014, the Canon Media Awards Reviewer of the Year.

Read more by Chris Barton

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