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Borders Joins the E-Books Game Late, but Still Competes With Amazon

Borders ebooks

Borders just joined the ranks of bricks-and-mortar bookstores embracing the brave new world of e-publishing by launching its own digital bookstore and e-reader apps. It's late to the game, but not too late, and it's a sure sign of the future.

Barnes and Noble's efforts to counter Amazon's dominance of the e-book market struck an interesting chord as the publishing giant also commissioned its own dedicated e-book reader device. This was an attempt to really tackle Amazon head-to-head with a device demonstrating all the supposed benefits of e-ink screens. The company also launched e-reader apps for other platforms, so that it could compete on an ecosystem level as well as a device level.

And that's what Borders' approach seems to be. It's not launching its own dedicated e-reader, but instead it has said that by the end of 2010 it'll sell more than 10 different compatible e-book readers in stores. It's also fronted its new efforts with free iPhone and iPad e-book apps, with BlackBerry and Android apps "coming soon." The apps let you do all the same interactive things that competing systems do—change font sizes, browse an e-book store, automatically sync bookmarks and so on. Borders' move may actually be the boldest we've seen yet among "traditional" bookstores to embrace the future. It's as if your local record store suddenly replaced a whole shelf of CDs with an iPod stand, an in-store dock, and PC so you can download tracks and a rack of iTunes vouchers so you could pay for them.

Borders is saying there're a million and a half titles available right now, including free ones, and that's comparable with B&N's million-plus titles. And while Amazon's 600,000 paid titles and 1.8 million free ones definitely mean it's still dominating this market, it's only going to take a short while for B&N and Borders to catch up. It's just a question of signing the right deals with the right publishing houses.

There's one problem with Borders' new e-book powers: It's for U.S. customers only. We've contacted the company to find out when, and indeed "if," it's going to be rolling out the service internationally ... but for now it's extraordinarily limiting to the company's potential for growth. B&N's service has similar limitations, and considering the deeply bookish character of other nations—particularly in Europe—it's quite surprising that neither company has considered launching an e-book system outside the U.S. Until they do, Amazon is going to have a definite upper hand.

But really, the writing is on the wall for Amazon and the future of e-publishing. It's difficult for bookstores to compete with Amazon's physical book sales network, as the company's business model and reduced costs mean it's often more convenient for today's book enthusiasts to shop this way. But when books go digital, it's a whole new paradigm, with everybody—including Apple, which is playing along too with its iBook store—having pretty similar chances for success. Since Amazon's Kindle ecosystem is the only one that's limited to consuming only its own content, the e-book consumer of tomorrow looks like they're going to have a lot of choice available to them. Voracious readers, dig in.

To keep up with this news, follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.