Time for Washington to investigate the e-book business. No question mark. Scrutinize! Especially Amazon!
April 27, 2009 | 5:27 pm
Just the same, in the wake of Amazon’s acquisition of Stanza, a leading e-reader for the iPhone, do we really want this one company to dominate so much of the book business? I’ve already documented how difficult Amazon is making it to find the nonKindle version of my book via the company’s search engine if you omit the “the” in the title. And speaking of baffling search results, how about my frequent problems using my iTouch’s Safari browser and Amazon’s search engine to find The Solomon Scandals and other books in the format for the Kindle, an Apple competitor? Notice the “currently unavailable” for the Kindle version, in the Safari-related screen shot to the left, below? Yet, as shown by the right screenshot from my desktop machine, the novel is for sale for the Kindle. Is the Safari hassle just an accident rather than sleazy Kindle-hardware favoritism? Who knows? But as with Google, this is a great example of the dangers of entrusting so much of our online lives and our commercial dealings to just one company in a specific area—because of the size and obstinacy of the corpocracy, if nothing else. Damn it, Jeff, you are costing me sales to people using Safari to shop for my book’s Kindle version. At a more cosmic level, questions abound about Amazon’s treatment of writers and publishers. Amazon can especially be hell for nonconglomerates to deal with; try arranging for the Amazon-owned Mobipocket store not to contaminate your books with Amazon’s DRM. So often, however, small publishers are the innovators. In the end this is a content issue, not just a technological one.
Message to the feds: Investigate, please!
The Amazon-Lexcycle deal thus should send a big signal to relevant congressional committees, the FTC and, if the facts justify it, maybe even the U.S. Justice Department. And perhaps the Association of American Publishers, if it isn’t snoozing and truly cares. One S&S executive has told AP that she’s all in favor of diversity in e-book platforms. Of course. But with common standards for these platforms—ePub, in this case—the consumer will have more choice. ePub is how Stanza grew. Now we run the risk of Amazon using its acquisition to choke off ePub’s growth or at least slow down Lexcycle/Stanza’s ePub-related efforts at some point. Yes, I think it is time for someone in Washington to care. Investigations, please! Washington often bungles things, but at least we can vote the bastards out of office. No one elected Jeff Bezos to boss the book business. Significantly, Stanza includes not just e-book-reading capabilities, but also online cataloging ones, which could well be weakened eventually to thwart Jeff’s competition, regardless of any promises to the contrary that Amazon may have made to Lexcycle, Stanza’s developers. Amazon is trying to become the Comcast of the e-book business, the gateway to most everything, and books could become more TVish as a result if, wittingly or not, the company doesn’t give a fair shake to the more adventurous smallfry.
The good news is that maybe someone else besides Stanza and Adobe, etc., can leverage the ePub standard to create more competition within the standard. Perhaps in the iPhone area, BookShelf will draw more interest as an ePub platform for small commercial publishers, Feedbooks, Gutenberg and the like. But considering the fondness of many publishers for dealing with large companies, it will be more difficult than in the past—hence, the need for federal scrutiny of the e-book industry to see how competitive it remains, given Amazon’s penchant for herding people into its formats. Remember the job it did on Adobe and Microsoft Reader—once staples within the Amazon store?
One positive: A member of the Reading 2.0 list notes that Lexycle will continue development for Google’s Android platform. Let’s see. Maybe good things will happen in the short term—I haven’t any doubt of the Lexcycle team’s sincerity in believing this; it’s the long term I worry about. We know what happened shortly after Amazon bought Mobipocket. Not much. But now? So far, Amazon refuses to do a Mobi app for the iPhone platform. It’ll be interesting to see if Amazon will let Stanza/Lexcycle read DRMed Mobi, an issue that Chris Meadows has just raised in our comments area.