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Battle of the titans

1 February 2010

This has been one of those weeks when there’s been so much happening that it’s difficult to cover it in a single column. Apple has broken the news of its iPad and, amidst the focus on that, Amazon has already started to fight back. This could be a turning-point and how publishing, books and authors come out of all this is hard to predict.

Steve Jobs’ unveiling of the iPad to an excited world caused no great surprise, as the new device had been comprehensively trailed. The iPad, which starts at $499, is a half-inch thick tablet computer with a 9.7 inch (25 cm) touchscreen. It will compete with other e-readers such as Amazon's Kindle, which currently sells for $259, and Barnes and Noble's Nook device.

Criticisms from tech reviewers have mostly focused on its over-bright screen, which may well making reading in bed possible, but will also make it very tiring on the eyes.

Claudine Beaumont, Telegraph technology editor, commented that it ‘looks exactly like a giant iPhone, right down to the "home" button at the bottom of its 9.7 in touch-screen.’ But she added, ‘the best feature is iBooks, the e-book reading software that knocks Amazon’s Kindle and Sony’s Reader into a cocked hat. Novels are beautifully presented . . . The pages of the books resemble proper printed pages, with a sense of texture and authenticity to them. Turning pages is achieved with a swiping gesture, or a single tap in the right-hand margins. Downloading books is incredibly easy too.’

Apple have been vague about when the iPad might be available outside the US, which probably means a delayed launch whilst they sort out the logistics and focus on beating the competition in the all-important US home market.

Tim Cooper, Director of Direct and Digital Marketing at Mills and Boon, said: ‘It looks great, fundamentally it's going to make a pretty big difference. It's fantastic news for publishers and the consumers as well, it must have sent a few shivers down the spines of other companies with e-reading devices. At that price point and with those multimedia opportunities, it's great for everyone. I think this will definitely help the e-book market.’

Whether his enthusiasm will be shared amongst the publishing community remains to be seen, but Publishers Lunch commented that: ‘For book publishers as important as the iBookstore (and a potential worldwide rollout) is the business model behind it, which the biggest trade publishers see as an opportunity to reset the terms of business in the still-emerging ebookmarket.’

And that was certainly the way Amazon saw it, as a possible threat. Jeff Bezos chose this moment to announce a huge surge in sales through the Kindle. When the company has both editions, he announced that it has been selling 6 Kindle books for every 10 physical books, an amazing claim which indicates the market is achieving much faster conversion to e-books than most people would have predicted.

Amazon had a huge fourth quarter, with total sales of $9.52 billion, an astounding 42% higher than for the same quarter a year ago. Their net US income is up 71% at $384 million, but their net international income is now even larger. Figures from the International Digital Publishers forum, held in New York last week, suggested that Bezos is right though, as it was announced that wholesale revenue from e-book sales in the US almost tripled in the third quarter of 2009 to $46.5 million, compared with the same quarter in 2008.

So it’s a battle of the titans which is now holding the book world in its grip. Apple has a huge base of supporters in the people using the 75 million iPhones and iPod Touches they’ve already sold. It also has its new iBooks from iTunes, which will enable people to download ebooks directly onto their iPad.

Amazon has a huge customer base across the world, an enormous range of merchandise taking it far beyond books, and is extremely aggressive in support of its interests. The very latest news is that all the books and e-books published by the Macmillan group in the US had their buy buttons removed on Friday because they tried to switch to a new model of e-book sales which would enable publishers to set higher prices than Amazon’s attempted standard of $9.95.

It looks like authors’ interests have to be with publishers on this one, even though publishers and authors do not currently agree on e-book royalties. Otherwise the risk is that the e-book threatens to undercut hardback editions and make books available even more cheaply – leaving the author potentially even further out in the cold.