EBooks.com, the first Australian company devoted to selling digital books, hopes to become the world's premiere e-bookstore—and having the perfect URL doesn't hurt.

The e-book retailer launched last September with bestselling Australian author Bryce Courtenay's Meeting at the Smokey Joe Café, which is available exclusively in digital form. The company currently offers about 350 titles in a variety of genres, with fiction and business titles—among the most popular with eBooks.com customers—the most heavily represented. EBooks.com utilizes DRM technology and its titles are available for browsing and download in Adobe PDF format, as a whole or as individual chapters.

"Consumers are coming to us in hoards because of the name," said founder and CEO Stephen Cole. "We want to make eBooks.com the first logical place for consumers to come to look for any e-book," He bought the URL from its previous owner for just $2,000 in 1997; last year, he was offered $1.5 million for it. And Cole expects to turn a profit by end of the year. The digital bookstore has nonexclusive licensing contracts with 45 publishers, including HarperCollins (partnering with HC's new digital book imprint PerfectBound), Penguin Books, McGraw-Hill, John Wiley, Oxford University Press and Taylor & Francis (a deal for about 17,000 titles by December).

EBooks.com is not a frontlist publisher. Its e-book editions are "virtually identical" to the hardcover editions, Cole said. Authors who approach the company directly are asked to work through the originating publisher of their books. The digital bookstore works with publishers to set prices for what Cole termed a "meaningful discount," generally 25% to 30% off the hardcover retail price. EBooks.com pays a percentage of each sale based on a net pricing model that guarantees a fixed price to the publisher while protecting the retailer's option to discount.

Although eBooks.com has partnering agreements with e-book marketers and is developing an affiliates program, for now, its primary goal is increasing inventory. "Our main focus is to aggregate and develop as much content as possible," said Cole. EBooks.com plans to list more than 30,000 titles by the end of the year.

Cole pointed to the emergence of two distinct digital-book—reading experiences: "Interactive reading and immersive reading, also called entertainment or leisure reading, which is perfectly suited to reading on a hand-held device; and interactive reading, where the book is a tool, suitable for reference and teaching and accessed through a PC."

MS Reader Also Available

For consumers looking to read for pleasure, eBooks.com offers its titles in Microsoft Reader format on handheld devices. For students and others involved in research, the site offers ePacks, which allow customers to purchase specific sections or pages of different books and "bind" them together into a single digital file. The file is then available for anyone to purchase according to the publisher's price per page. A teacher can create a customized digital anthology for students. About 90% of the company's titles are now available for this service, and Cole is developing a similar service through a new business venture called BooksOnCampus, which will offer virtual coursepacks and e-copy services directly to universities.

Cole is also launching two other businesses, eBookEngine, an infrastructure provider that will help other companies develop online bookstores; and eBookMill, which will offer conversion from print to digital, and among different digital formats. Both will launch by mid-year.

In the future, Cole hopes to offer hyperlinking within e-books to cross-reference other sources and to connect readers with goods and services. "The add-on revenue potential is really quite overwhelming," he said. "Publishers will start waking up to commercial opportunities to exploit the insides of their books in ways that will not offend the reader."

Cole was previously a bricks-and-mortar bookseller in Australia for 16 years. After purchasing the eBooks.com URL, Cole secured funding from private investors and started the eBooks Corporation. The company has spent $2.5 million over the last two and a half years building business relationships and developing the online interface, and has offices in Boston, London and Perth, Australia, where its production facilities are located.