Walmart, Apple and Google go up against Amazon in a fight for readers (and listeners)

AFP 549307106 A FIN USA MD

SAN FRANCISCO — Readers rejoice. Some of the world’s biggest companies are rolling out new electronic and audiobook offerings that will compete with giant Amazon for your eyes and ears, a digital tussle that could result in lower prices.

The latest volley came from Walmart, which said it was teaming up with Rakuten, Japan’s top e-commerce company, to start offering e-books and audiobooks in the U.S. later this year. Prior to this, Walmart hasn’t sold either.

The digital and audiobooks join the more than 70 million items available on Walmart’s website and become the latest drive in a battle that has seen Walmart add products, perks and a range of online partners to better compete with Amazon.

“The idea is truly to be able to leverage each company’s unique strengths, unique assets to expand our audience size,’’ says Walmart spokesman Ravi Jariwala.

Rakuten’s digital book division, called Kobo, offers nearly 6 million electronic books and audio books from tens of thousands of publishers. Walmart shoppers will be able to access the books through a co-branded app, which will launch later this year, and the Kobo e-Reader, which will go on sale at Walmart later this year.

Walmart, which became the world’s largest retailer by offering a broad array of products for low prices, could possibly target readers and listeners with prices that undercut Amazon. The company did not give a more specific time frame or comment on prices.

It is “every best seller you could possibly imagine,” says Michael Tamblyn, Kobo’s CEO, of the catalog.

Kobo has already been selling its e-readers in the U.S., such as versions of its Kobo Aura ($119.99-$279.99), available through its U.S. website.

In a swap, Walmart will use its growing expertise in the realm of online grocery ordering and delivery to launch a a new collaboration with Rakuten in Japan.

Walmart has been aggressively moving into the online grocery space, with plans to offer it through more than 2,000 U.S. stores by the end of 2018. It also offers the service in eight other nations, including Japan, where it’s available at more than 300 locations — but with no delivery option. In collaboration with Rakuten, it will start offering online grocery delivery there in the third quarter.

It’s really all about audio

Walmart’s announcement comes as two other players in the world of words are also making bookish moves, Apple with a rumored new ebook app that comes with hints about an audiobook tab, and an audiobook offering from Google.

Each is hoping to grab some market share from Amazon, which dominates the U.S. book market in general and the ebook and especially audio book markets in particular.

According to the book industry data site AuthorEarnings.com in 2017, of printed books, about 38% of the 800 million sold in 2016 were sold on Amazon. For ebooks it’s about 75% of the 400 million sold. And for audio books it’s close to 95% of the 50 million sold.

Just this week Google said it will begin selling audiobooks through the Google Play Store, with many best-selling titles priced at under $10 each, at least to start. The offerings will be available in 45 countries and nine languages. It will also allow purchasers to share their books with up to five family members for no additional fees

Then there’s Apple. The seller of more than 1 billion iPhones is about to renew its efforts to challenge Amazon in the ebooks space with a redesign of its books app, including a dedicated tab for audiobooks, according to a report Thursday in Bloomberg.

In publishing, all eyes are on that tab. A year ago last week, Apple and Amazon subsidiary Audible agreed to end a worldwide digital audiobook exclusivity agreement they’d had in place, due to an investigation by the European Commission and a complaint from the German Publishers and Booksellers Association.

Since then Apple hasn’t been offering digital audiobooks. Its return to the market, just as Google and Walmart enter, should create many more options for consumers who are increasingly listening to their books as they commute, exercise and simply go about their day.

Apple declined a USA TODAY request for comment.

Audiobooks are the place to be right now because unlike print and ebooks, they are growing substantially and they’re a market that until a year ago was essentially locked down due to the  agreement between Amazon and Apple.

The end of that agreement “set in motion what you’re now seeing, and what you’ll continue to see for a year or two. Large and new players are deciding this is a market worth pursuing,” said Michael Cader, founder of Publishers Lunch, a digital newsletter for the publishing industry.

While audio books still make up a fairly small percentage of the books Americans consume, they represent an important revenue stream for publishers.

Numbers are hard to come by because Amazon doesn’t share its data. But big publishing houses see somewhere between 3% and 7% of their annual revenue coming from audiobooks, said Cader.

That’s lower than it might be because currently almost all of those books are sold to Amazon’s Audible “and publishers don’t consider they’re getting a generous deal there. Which is why most people are very interested in other players entering the market,” he said.

Sales of downloaded audiobooks increased 21.8% in 2016, the most recent year for which number are available, according to the Association of American Publishers.

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