Don’t fragment books (or other content)

I agree with Devin Coldewey at CrunchGear that Andrew Wylie’s deal to publish big authors’ backlists exclusively on the Amazon Kindle is bad for readers (and for authors and for the industry).

Fragmenting content such that one has to buy one device to read one author and another to read another is blind to the needs and realities of the market. It’s dealmaking for dealmaking’s sake.

If I were one of those authors, I’d squeal like a columnist put behind a Times paywall (either one). Random House is right to stick it back to Wylie and refuse to do business with the now-niche agency. And Amazon is putting itself in a dangerous position to be the enemy, not the friend, of writers, publishers, and readers. But Amazon’s no fool. It is driving a wedge into the heart of the industry.

The real upshot of this deal, I think, is that agents and publishers alike will find themselves locked out as big authors make deals directly with Amazon.

Yes, the Kindle reader is available on laptops and phones and iPads and coming Android tablets. But it won’t be available on other eBooks, and that’s going to hurt the eBook market’s growth, which could affect Amazon, even as it announces that its Kindle book sales exceeded hardback sales last month.

This is the same fear I have about the appification of content with magazine editors gleefully slapping their stories onto iPad apps in the belief that it returns control of the experience and business model to them when, in fact, it cuts them off from every browser user around the world. Nose. Face. Where’s my knife?

In the early days of content on mobile, we saw this game play out: Carriers made exclusive deals to get content in hopes that would get users to buy their phones instead of the other guys’. Didn’t work. A phone’s a phone. A browser’s a browser. A book’s a book.

And an e-book better damned well be an e-book, or books and authors and publishers and agents are all screwed.

  • Matt G.

    Couldn’t agree more. One of my biggest pet peeves. Same problem with pro sports organizations. MLB made their content exclusive to XM Radio — and now even after the Sirius-XM merger a Sirius subscriber still can’t get baseball games without taking out a second subscription. Or the NFL’s exclusive deal with DirecTV. Or iPhone and AT&T. I get why it’s done, but I still believe making your product available to the most amount of consumers is the best long-term model. No consumer in their right mind wants this, and right or wrong, it comes off as corporate greed.

  • I think the Times analogy isn’t very accurate, since books aren’t time-sensitive, iterative, and reader-interactive in the way news stories are (or should be,) and the deal is only for two years.

    An additional issue here is that making access to paid content more inconvenient (having to pay is an inconvenience in itself) helps piracy grow.

  • patricia

    You do know that your industry has always been behind a paywall, right?

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  • Grant

    Thanks for the great post Jeff. I couldn’t agree more. When I first read the news, it gave me my first bad taste towards Amazon. I have always liked Amazon and their services.

  • I think the devices cross the chasm this year before the book sales really do. I’ll buy an iPad and/or maybe even a Nook, but I expect I will use them to read DRM-free ePub and PDF books I buy (e.g. inexpensive O’Reilly iPhone ebook apps are officially supported for manual converstion to ePub) or acquire from public domain or CC sources. The attractiveness of the iPad is that it is (aside from more expensive) the metaphorical equivalent of an AB-positive blood type, a universal recipient for other types of stuff (besides Apple’s attempt to make ebooks more expensive across the market). Of course, this does come with UI strings attached having to switch between apps to read stuff I might buy from BN, Borders, Stanza, Kindle and other storefronts. And that annoyance is just enough to make me think twice about every single silo-enforced book purchase.

  • Maggie

    This is why I never bought a Kindle and waited for something better. The more a corporation tries to “control” the market the more likely they will be the “has been” in the end. I bought the Nook (though Sony and others are good too). I didn’t like Amazon’s proprietary standard from the beginning. When most epublishers were using the epub and it was accepted as the standard in 2007, Amazon had to do their own. Nook adopted what was the majority standard. Amazon never allowed lending–still doesn’t. Nook started with lending from the beginning. Amazon did a deal with another extremely proprietary company (Apple) for the cell phone app. Everyone else is doing Android. At every step, IMO, Amazon tries to gain control and in the process loses it. Too bad. I used to be a huge Amazon customer for ordering paper books. Now, I’m B&N all the way. I’m betting B&N will be competitive for royalties too. And if they aren’t quite 70%, it’s okay because they release in formats everyone uses except Amazon.

  • Pish. How about all those sites that brayed “Works best in IE.” Any still doing that? This will all pass. Putting aside the conflict of interest angle, and the Kindle lock-in angle, I’m glad Wylie has been pushing this issue. Look at how much of the backlist Google has been trying to steal through the “orphan works” ploy. Print publishing has dithered and is now paying the price. Come back in less than a year when Apple tells the Big 6 to shove the Agency Model of trust pricing. And given the crappy nature of both Kindle format and ePub (which will obsolete ALL existing devices next year with its new spec), the proper place for books is the Internet, accessible to everyone who can connect with any kind of device.

  • I agree this feels like short-term deal making for the sake of dealmaking.

    However, a shake up in the supply chain is needed – media companies have grown very very fat from one thing, and one thing only: total control of logistics, supply and distribution of books

    The supermarkets and super bookstores became very powerful when oversupply of book created the need for filtering and selective display – when the big publishers felt threatened they got into bed with the bookstores and again this boiled down to deals for the sake of deals, satisfying greed and keeping the big beast of bestseller distribution nourished

    Now Amazon has the advantage and rather than deal with publishers it is dealing with agents. Like iTunes’, it has amassed scale in its one-click market but folks with a passion and a deep special interest can be weened off this model just as soon as publishers get their heads out of the sand, stop wingeing and do something tangible about building out communities and creating relationships direct with their consumers – the time is ripe for niche

    I urge all publishers to view their market through the lens of community and to build their businesses from the ground up – this is not simple but it is indispensable

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  • wes

    Can you not buy your ebooks anywhere??? and convert them using calibre? Whats the prob?

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  • This is horrible news. For as much money as I spend eBooks, I sure hate the fragmentation. Lots more thoughts on this stupidity in my blog entry: