The ever-thought-provoking Joe Konrath has posted an essay with six areas Amazon seems unwilling or unable to pursue, that might provide fertile ground for some competitor to come in and disrupt the company.
The areas Konrath thinks are promising include ad-supported e-books, libraries, user-aggregated content (i.e. communities built around authors and readers), active e-books (which would enable and incorporate that sort of community into the e-book itself), free content, and erotica. (Joe Wilkert’s recent prognostication on what e-books will be like in 2020 involves a couple of the same ideas. Great minds think alike, I suppose.)
Konrath elaborates in a comment that he has a business plan involving ad-supported e-books that would incorporate ten ads per book, each costing the advertiser 2 cents per ad. The ads would be targeted to customers’ geographic area and interests, and could be downvoted or shared.
Ad-supported e-books do get some discussion every so often (as in these pieces from 2007, 2009, 2010, and 2013), but by and large seem to be an idea whose time hasn’t come. We did have one startup, Wowio, attempt to implement it but end up not paying its royalties and largely fizzling (though it did manage to obtain some patents related to advertising in e-books).
But then, e-books themselves weren’t very successful (beyond early adopters) until Amazon came out with the Kindle. Just because nobody’s figured out how to do something yet doesn’t mean nobody ever will.
Who knows? There could be something there in Konrath’s ideas. Getting e-books into libraries is historically something Amazon hasn’t cared much about, though given how many startups there are working in that area right now I’m not sure if there’s any room left for Konrath’s proposal there.
The user-aggregated content idea might have better prospects. Communities are pretty big on the Internet, including communities built around content such as Elizabeth Bear’s Shadow Unit. So far that sort of thing has largely been done through the web, but if there were some way to incorporate it into the e-book itself so you could flip right over from reading to participating…well, who knows whether it would work until someone tries it?
Amazon isn’t too interested in giving much content away for free, but we’ve seen via promotional efforts like Webscriptions and Cory Doctorow’s e-book giveaways that it was effective even back when not as many people cared about e-books. Maybe someone could do something with it now. And as I noted earlier, erotica has long been a driver of e-book sales, even if Amazon would rather not handle some types of it itself.
I think it’s great that people out there are thinking about these ideas. It will be even better if they try some of them out. Not all of them will work, but sometimes these things can be hard to predict. The major publishers thought women wouldn’t be interested in erotica until Ellora’s Cave proved them wrong—but even now, they still aren’t willing to go as far as EC.