Flipkart offers 4,000 ebooks for free, paid titles start at Rs 30

Flipkart.com, India’s most successful and arguably the biggest online retail store, has become the first in the country to offer a large-scale collection of e-books – that can be read directly on a phone or tablet, instead of on paper.

E-books, or electronic books, account for about half of all the books sold in the United States and Europe, and often cost a fraction of what the paperbacks do.

They are also easy to distribute, and can be transferred to the reader in a few seconds. They are also estimated to be ecofriendly. Some, however, have disputed the ecofriendly claim, saying that e-books lead to extra consumption of electrical energy as the tablets are kept switched on for a long time for the book to be read.

Flipkart’s Flyte store will offer about 4000 free ebooks and offer about 100,000 in all. They will be priced starting from Rs 30, Flipkart said.

Flipkart is arguably India’s most successful ecommerce business and was initially envisioned as a comparison shopping engine by IITians and ex-Amazon.com employees Sachin Bansal and Binny Bansal in 2007. Books were among the earliest items to be sold on the website and continue to be a substantial chunk of the company’s volumes.

At present, the e-book service will only be available for Android devices, Flipkart said. India does not have a large iOS market, but has a strong base of Android phones and tablets. A Windows 8 application will also be launched soon, it added.

Flyte eBooks will offer an Android app, free book samples and the ability to read each eBook on up to six device. The application will allow readers to take notes, highlight text, search, add multiple bookmarks, it said.

Unlike the US, where Apple and Amazon.com have more or less cornered the market for digital commodities – such as music and ebooks – the market in India is wide open. Flipkart may yet emerge as the Indian Amazon.com, though companies like Google may also try their hand at the market.

Google and Nokia have paid considerable attention to the Indian digital commodities market, which primarily consisted of game downloads so far.

“eBooks is a logical progression in our plan to be India’s online megastore. With music, we started with something that Indians are familiar with, from a digital goods perspective. With eBooks we’re upping the ante by entering into a new space”, said Ravi Vora of Flipkart said.

Flipkart is already known for having perhaps the largest collection of traditional paper books for sale in India.

Chetan Bhagat, noted author, remembered the contribution of Flipkart to book selling in India. “Flipkart is at the cutting edge of innovation and it has been as much a reason for the growth in Indian publishing as the publishers and the authors. It changed how books were sold in India with an amazing online platform,” he said.

In addition commercial services, Indians can also read ebooks through volunteer-backed products such as the Gutenberg Project.

Separately, Flipkart is being probed by the government for allegedly violating foreign investment norms. Foreign investment rules in India prohibit foreign-owned companies, such as Amazon.com, from selling any merchandise to Indians.

The norm also applies to companies, such as Flipkart, which have VC investment from foreign firms. It remains to be seen, however, whether the government will take action to block all foreign e-commerce websites in India, as they are, by definition, foreign-owned.

Most of India’s internet companies have some sort of foreign investment, mostly in the form of venture capital or seed money. They include online ticketing companies and content-cum-e-commerce portals. The government had not tried to prevent Indian or foreign firms from selling goods to people in India so far.

However, recently, in a reply in Parliament this week, the government seemed to imply any company which has any foreign funding, including those based outside India, will not be allowed to sell anything to consumers in India. As companies based outside India are not legally bound to obey the Indian government’s orders, the government would be left with no option other than to block foreign e-commerce sites if it wants to implement the policy.