After tentative first steps, e-commerce giant Amazon is going on the offensive in Canada’s burgeoning e-reader market, finally debuting its Kindle north of the border in a direct challenge to the country’s top-selling Kobo.
But e-bookworms shouldn’t expect the same prices or selection granted to Kindle users in the U.S.
“It’s the big entry,” said Amazon’s vice-president of Kindle Peter Larsen, who flew to Toronto from Seattle to make the announcement.
True, Kindle enthusiasts could already purchase Canada’s second most popular e-reader from Amazon.com and pay to have it shipped across the border.
But for the first time, six years after making their debut in the U.S., the devices will be available on both Amazon.ca and at 1,000 retailers in Canada such as Shoppers Drug Mart, The Source and Staples.
And Canucks will now be able access the Canadian Kindle store’s selection of 1.5 million books directly from their e-readers.
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The launch, announced Wednesday, comes after the company quietly ramped up the number of titles available to Canadians in December when it made its e-book selection available on its Canadian website.
By making the Kindle available in Canada, Amazon expects to gain market share against Toronto-based Kobo, which holds 27 per cent of the Canadian e-book market, followed by Kindle at 19 per cent and the iPad with 14 per cent of the market, according to a survey conducted last year by BookNet Canada. The rest of the e-reading market is divided among desktops, laptops, mobile phones and other devices.
“In every country where we’ve launched the Kindle e-reading ecosystem, it’s very quickly become the best-selling device in that country, and we’re cautiously optimistic that that same thing will happen in Canada,” Larsen said.
Before December, the selection for Amazon e-books was quite limited for Canadian Kindle users as many bestsellers and popular titles were blocked, and those that were available were priced in U.S. dollars. The devices themselves had also been available only on Amazon’s U.S. website.
“So you paid in U.S. dollars, a little bit irritating, longer shipping,” Larsen said. “In this case, of course, you pay with Canadian dollars, you get fast shipping because of our warehouses throughout Canada.”
Larsen believes Canadians should be a lot happier with the new selection, but he added that differences in publishing and distribution rights between the U.S. and Canada could continue to prevent access to some titles.
“We’ve got some big name publishers. We’re improving all the time. Whether you can find the exact book you want, I’m not sure,” he added.
As for prices, they’re still a little steeper in Canada. For example, erotic lit hit Fifty Shades of Grey is C$10.99 on the Canadian site and US$9.99 on the U.S. version; the runaway bestselling thriller Gone Girl is C$13.99 on Amazon.ca and US$12.99 on Amazon.com.
Larsen explained that Amazon does not always have control over discrepancies between the U.S. and Canadian listings.
“When you see differences between the U.S. and Canada, a lot of the time the publishers set our prices and they have rights issues or they have a different strategy in some cases and they set the price between Canada and the U.S. a little bit differently,” he said.
“Whenever we have control over the price, we try to make it as close to the U.S. as possible.”
E-readers also cost more on Amazon.ca, which the company explained was due to “special offers” for U.S. customers that are not available in Canada.
The Wi-Fi and 3G enabled Paperwhite, just released in September, will be priced at C$199, while the most affordable Kindle model costs C$89. That compares with prices as low as US$179 for the 3G Paperwhite and US$69 for the latest version of the Kindle from the U.S. store (which would not ship to a Toronto address as of Tuesday).
Toronto-based rival Kobo offers its Touch version for $99 and the 16GB Kobo Arc, its Android-based tablet released in November, for $199.
Amazon’s popular Kindle Fire tablet, which sells at a "special offer" price of US$159 south of the border, will not yet be available in Canada. But Larsen said the company will “make it available in Canada as soon as we can.”
While the Canadian-rooted Kobo reigns with readers currently, BookNet’s customer relations director noted last year, even before Kindles were available in Canada, that Kindle and Apple devices could soon catch up as the market matures and more readers are expected to make the switch to e-books.
“The next couple of holiday seasons will be important events for e-reader adoption. Then we’ll see if the majority will mimic the early adopters in terms of device preference,” Pamela Millar said in an October release.
For now, Kobo will continue to be the winner for some Canadians, especially those who download rented books from libraries, a convenience that is still not possible with a Kindle.
“It’s an initiative that we’ve launched in the States, it’s very very popular, and we’re working to bring it over to Canada as fast as we can,” Larsen said.
Amazon doesn’t have a specific quota for Canadian content to be offered in its e-books but says its selection will include “the most” books from The Globe and Mail and Le Devoir bestsellers lists, winners of the Giller prize, a selection from leading Canadian authors including Margaret Atwood, Yann Martel and Alice Munro, in addition to 50,000 titles in French.
It will also enable independent authors and publishers to make their books available in the Canada Kindle store using Kindle Direct Publishing.
Amazon has spent years trying to crack into the Canadian market as it dealt with, among other issues, government red tape.
It reached a deal with Ottawa in 2010 to build its first warehouse in Canada in return for the U.S. company's promise to promote Canadian culture and to hire its first-ever Canadian employees.
The government reviewed the proposal under the Investment Canada Act, which protects the bookselling business from foreign ownership because it is part of a cultural industry.
Canada had been the only country in which Amazon sells books online but did not have a distribution centre. Instead it used a third-party shipping service to get around the country's foreign investment rules that had prevented it from setting up a bricks-and-mortar presence on Canadian soil.
The company just opened its second Canadian warehouse, a West Coast fulfilment centre in Delta, B.C., in September, in addition to one located in Mississauga, Ont. And earlier this month, it announced that it would bring its unlimited, two-day shipping service to Canada for an annual fee of $79.
CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this article listed the U.S. price of the Kindle Fire as US$214. That is the full price, not including special offers made to Kindle customers. As we had quoted the special-offer U.S. prices for other Kindle products, we corrected the text to include the comparable discounted price for the Kindle Fire.