Two days ago I had a long exchange with REDgroup Retail’s head of publicity, Malcolm Neil, about the company’s efforts in almost single-handedly dragging the country into the ebook era

You can read the post here, but the upshot is that they are currently chasing a deal with Hachette, who are the only publishers in Australia yet to sign a deal to supply ebooks to REDgroup’s brands, Angus & Robertson and Whitcoulls in New Zealand.

Borders-display.JPGA few months ago, the knives were out for REDgroup. A story about their finances broke, was largely beaten up to sound more serious than it was, and promptly died a quick death.

The company didn’t keel over; in fact, they’ve maintained their efforts as the main force pushing to bring ebooks into the mainstream here. Why wouldn’t they? They invested a truckload of money in creating the infrastructure and processes to making the transition to digital books, so they have to see it through.

Now all that effort may be paying off.

Yesterday on my daily train trip to my day job, on the same carriage I counted one Kindle (2), one Sony Reader (650), one iPad and a handful of iPhones seemingly being used for reading. Even a couple of months ago I was attracting second glances for using my Kindle in public.

Why? Because there’s now stuff to read. and Whitcoulls now both have more than 200,000 mainstream paid titles for those of us Down Under to buy. This is up from about 50,000 in May. Soon they will have all local publishers onboard – then the huge task of digitising backlists (not to mention keeping pace with the new titles) will be the main focus. Apparently the ebooks need a lot of work. Given that publishers here haven’t been overly proactive in ebooks (at least from where consumers stand), I’m not surprised that large volumes of the ebooks that REDgroup are dealing with are incomplete in terms of metadata formatting, and are not initially in a publishable state.
JBhifi.JPGBut soon Borders will publish its first “Top 20” ebooks bestseller list. Yes, until now the volume of sales hadn’t been high enough to produce a top 20 with any degree of accuracy.

You there in the US – yes you! – stop giggling behind your hand.

Probably more telling are the positive comments I’m getting on my site from ebook customers who have dealt with Borders customers service and are happy with the response. I’ve said it before – no-one expects perfection, but they do expect attention when things go wrong.

Then I happened to stroll into my local Borders store recently, and there they were – the Kobo and Sony’s two new touchscreen eReaders, all set up and charged and on a display table at the front of the store. That they were set up amid posters at the front of the store, and everything was charged, present and correct says more than you might think. How many times have chain stores rolled out new products and your local outlet didn’t have them yet, hadn’t heard of them or hadn’t set them up? There were people all over them too. I had to wait for a while to get a shot with no-one obscuring them (I wasn’t after an eReader-in-hands shot).

Just for interest’s sake, I went over to JB HiFi (probably the equivalent of Best Buy in North America). A row of readers – this time Hanvon, iRiver and the rarer Pico (see pic). Now if they could just do something about those prices…

So e-sales are picking up for Borders, and the profile of ebooks rising. Prices are coming down somewhat, although if Amazon ever decide our little corner of the world is worth bothering with, they’ll need to come down a lot more.

Could it be a case of “who dares wins” for REDgroup? It certainly has been for Amazon.

Jason Davis is an Australian journalist and runs the Book Bee and Ebook Ant websites. PB


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