Consumer interest in e-books has jumped since Borders and Angus & Robertson slipped into voluntary administration, according to industry insiders, suggesting a swift pace of growth in the sector this year.
The Australian arm of Canada-based e-books company Kobo estimates there has been at least a 30 per cent increase in traffic to its sites, generating “good” sales, since REDgroup Retail slipped into voluntary administration in February.
"The mere fact that there is all this speculation whether e-books had pushed REDgroup into administration drove a lot of people to look at e-books,” said Kobo’s Australian head Malcolm Neil. “We actually saw a huge sales spike in the couple weeks afterwards.”
Although none of the e-books companies interviewed for this article provided revenue totals, data from web traffic tracking company Experian Hitwise backs up claims of a recent rise in e-book interest.
The share of searches on e-books rose nearly 5 percentage points for Amazon from mid-January to March 19, and 29 per cent since Borders and Angus & Robertson fell into voluntary administration.
For Kobo, in the No. 2 spot after Amazon, the share of web traffic searching on the term e-book rose about 3 percentage points, or as much as 46 per cent.
With total book retailing worth $1.4 billion in Australia last year, Mr Neil who is also the former chief executive of the Australian Booksellers Association, estimated e-books retail sales represented somewhere between $42 million to $52 million, or 3 to 4 per cent of the total. Mr Neil is also the former communications manager for REDgroup.
As e-book offerings increase, ease of access and awareness grows - thanks in part to REDgroup’s troubles - industry experts are expecting a swifter take-up of the platforms, despite weaker sales in traditional retail.
University of Melbourne publishing and communications lecturer Emmett Stinson said e-books were likely to generate around 7 to 8 per cent of all book sales by the end of the year, but might even come close to 10 per cent.
Mr Stinson said his guess was "based on Australia's adoption of other new media: ... slow at first, but quick to catch up".
Mr Neil, Mr Stinson and others interviewed for this article disputed Australians’ reputation as early adopters of technology, but said once local consumers adopted a technology it was embraced more deeply and more broadly than in other markets.
Starting in 2008, e-books sales accounted for just 2 per cent of the US book retail market but rose steeply to about 10 per cent last year, said Mark Tanner, Google eBooks representative in Australia, who like Mr Neil and others, is forging links between his company and local publishers.
He expects a similar curve in Australia, once selling begins in earnest.
“We take a little time to get into it, but once we make up our minds, there is very rapid adoption,” said Mr Tanner.
Although a US court rejected Google’s plan to create a huge digital library of scanned books last week, the search giant’s planned e-book launch later this year in Australia is expected to generate yet more attention to the format.
Dominant player Amazon with its popular Kindle reader is expected to be well represented, too.
“We now offer over 590,000 books to customers in Australia as well as over one million of free, out-of-copyright, pre-1923 books that are available to read on Kindle,” said Amazon senior media manager Stephanie Mantello.
Despite the growth perspectives for e-books, the outlook for the overall book retailing sector is far from certain.
"The question is whether the take-up of e-books will be enough to offset the likely losses in print sales due to bookstore closures," said Mr Stinson. "No-one knows the answer to that."