Back when it started, I’d ordered my last Harry Potter book to complete a personal collection. The order was placed on a lazy Tuesday afternoon and before lunchtime and on Wednesday I was already signing a receipt after having received the book. This was Flipkart, and frankly I was nothing short of dumbfounded when it dawned that an Indian e-commerce start-up had delivered a product to me in less than 24 hours! It was a miracle for someone who was used to waiting for at least a month for any e-shopping order. This was three years ago.

Last week, Flipkart forayed into the e-books territory by launching the category in its online store, Flyte. Till now, e-book stores – such as the Kindle – accessible to the Indian consumers on all mobile platforms, were been primarily built to draw numbers to native devices (the Amazon Kindle e-book reader in this case).

The Flyte eBooks now available, then, turns out to be one of a kind - neither backed by a company which solely focuses on digital books nor one that is looking to up the sales of digital devices of any kind. The Flyte app is available only for Android devices on Google Play store at the moment, but plans to expand on all platforms. “For context, Android installed base in India is around 12 million out of the total smartphone base of 44 million. We are also working on making this app available for other OS like Windows8 and iOS," said Sameer Nigam, Vice President, Digital, at Flipkart.

The app thankfully is a free one which allows for in-app purchases whenever a book catches your fancy. Flyte eBooks opens to a magazine rack-like interface (not unlike other PDF and e-book reader apps), where a handful of pre-installed e-books are ready to be read. Some really popular titles such as ‘50 Shades of Grey’ by E.L James and ‘Only Time Will Tell’ by Jeffrey Archer are slated as previews. You wouldn’t want to let your kid open this one by mistake! The app has a smooth scroll bar at the bottom for you to move ahead and browse through the e-book. Swipes to the left ad right let you flip over the digital pages and while there is no option to pinch-and-zoom in to the text, the app does let you highlight text, bookmark pages and take down notes. You can tweak the font size for better readability if you are using a small device, however this would entail a lot of swiping and scrolling than you’d like to indulge in while reading an e-book.

Cognizant of the fact that the average user might access his/her e-books across platforms, the Flyte eBooks app lets you read each purchased e-book on up to six devices. An integral feature emulated since the very first Amazon Kindle is the syncing across devices, where you can pick on your smartphone from where you stopped reading on your tablet earlier.

One problem however, is the fact that despite launching more than one lakh titles, not everyone who could order a physical book from Flipkart, can make use of the mobile app. Low internet penetration and, at times, abysmal broadband speeds might keep consumer in Tier-II and Tier-III cities from adapting well to the app. A lot of people, even now, remain wary of online payments despite them being secured payment gateways. Hence, Flipkart’s COD option for physical books works in the Web sites’ favour but in-app purchases might not be popular with the same set of consumers.

While the consumption of media on mobile devices is reaching unprecedented heights, it’s still a pain to be reading an entire novel across a 3.2-inch screen. While there are devices such as the Samsung Galaxy Note II, HTC One X+, LG Optimus Vu etc, which offer pretty decent readability on their massive touchscreen displays, these still make up only a small fraction of the total number of mobile devices in India, most of which remains budget phones with average to small displays.

In the meantime, someone as accessible as Flipkart foraying into e-books means a lot of budding authors might adapt to the e-publishing platform before they go paperback.

Local production costs of e-publications are drastically lower when compared to going to print for the same amount of copies.

(This article was published on December 6, 2012)
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