In 1936, in the movie Poppy, W.C. Fields tells his daughter, “If we should ever separate, my little plum, I want to give you just one bit of fatherly advice: Never give a sucker an even break!” It appears that Apple has adopted it as its motto for the 21st century, at least in regards to ebooks and publishers.

I’ve got to give credit where credit is due, and Apple deserves credit for great design. Apple’s approach is like wrapping a Volkswagen Beetle in a Lamborghini shell and proclaiming the new car to be a $100,000 car. Apple gives you a great shell but the components are often mediocre at best. And when a design flaw is caught out, the usual response seems to be it’s the customer’s fault — never give a sucker an even break!

Let’s face it – the iPad is really a so-so device. Pretty to look at, but not a great computing experience, especially when compared to notebooks that permit multitasking. Perhaps this will be cured in the forthcoming version 2, but even if it is, Apple still will be a company that treats its customers and partners as suckers — suckers who will part with hard-earned dollars in exchange for good design, mediocre performance, and anticonsumer restrictions. Just consider Apple’s recent insistence on getting a cut on all ebook sales.

The initial culprit in the current ebook fiasco was Amazon who spread its tentacles to far too quickly, giving Apple the opening it needed to give false hope to publishers and consumers that there would be another, better way. Regular readers of my blog may recall my post from 9 months ago, The Decline & Fall of the Agency 5, in which I wrote:

April 2011 is the month to prepare for armageddon in ebookdom. It is when the 2010 agency model pricing scheme will be buried by publishing’s 2010 savior, Steve Jobs and Apple. You read it here first.

All the stars and moons and planets will align and the caterwaul of panic will be heard throughout ebookdom, because that is when the Agency 5 — Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Penguin, and Hachette – will realize they have been snookered by the snooker master.

In April 2011, publishers will discover that the iBookstore is a losing proposition. Oh, Apple will have sold many millions of iPads, fulfilling expectations for a successful tablet, but the buyers, it will soon be discovered, either aren’t buying ebooks at all (maybe 1 or 2) or what they are buying they are buying from Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Smashwords.…

Well, I wasn’t spot-on, but pretty darn close. iPads did sell millions and the iBookstore is a loser. iPad owners who are buying ebooks, emagazines, and enewspapers are buying them through the Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and publisher apps, not from the iBookstore. But Apple has moved to close down any pipeline that bypasses the iBookstore by making it impossible for those apps to remain in the Apple iOS system.

So, tell me again how much of a friend Steve Jobs and Apple are to publishing and to readers. How did Apple become the publishers’ white knight? How did Apple save publishers from the clutches of Amazon?

Publishers certainly have had their comeuppance. What was supposed to save the industry has turned out to be less a saving grace and more of another poke in the eye. The Agency 5 can sit back and be satisfied that what ebooks they are selling they are selling at their dictated price. But if they look at Random House’s ebook sales (remember that Random House was the only one of the big 6 not to embrace agency), they must look with jealous eyes.

So how did Apple’s “generous” offer in April 2010 help the Agency 5? It appears to have put them against the proverbial wall and offered them a rotten carrot — never give a sucker an even break! The Agency 5 will have to pay yet again (i.e., in addition to lower sales for going the agency route) for siding with Steve Jobs when the various ebook apps, including the Amazon, B&N, and Kobo apps, disappear from the iOS. Because of their greed and reluctance to embrace ebooks, the Agency 5 have shot themselves in the foot yet again. They bet on Apple and the iBookstore and the only winner was Apple.

The harder it is for people to buy ebooks, the fewer ebooks they will buy. Yes, I know the Agency 5 would prefer to sell fewer ebooks, but they are already doing that. This latest Apple move simply makes it more difficult for a large segment of the reading market to buy ebooks, a segment that no publisher can afford to ignore in the long run. It seems that no matter what the Agency 5 do in their attempt to thwart the rise of ebooks or to control pricing and sales, someone is waiting to prove to them that they really are fools for not embracing ebooks and trying to exploit the new market to its fullest — never give a sucker an even break!

On many levels I am glad to see the Agency 5 suffer from this blow; it seems to be fair payback for Macmillan’s and Simon & Schuster’s refusal to sell ebooks to libraries and for HarperCollins’ new change to library licensing terms that restrict the number of times an ebook can be lent even though libraries are paying 60+% more for an ebook version than for the hardcover version of the same book. (One example: A library can buy John Grisham’s The Confession in hardcover for $17.37 and lend it out hundreds of times. In ebook, a single license costs $28.95 and if the new HarperCollins license terms were applied, it could be lent only 26 times. In addition, while libraries have to pay $28.95 for an ebook version, the consumer, whose taxes support libraries, can buy the ebook version for $9.99.) It also seems fair payback for the outrageous pricing the Agency 5 have imposed on their ebooks.

It is clear to me that with each misstep that the Agency 5 takes, the more likely it is that increasing numbers of ebookers will remove DRM and share ebooks. When you make an enemy of someone whose good wishes you need, you invite them to retaliate as best they can. In the case of the Agency 5, the best way to retaliate is to not buy their books, or if you buy them, to remove the DRM and share them.

When will publishers ever learn?


  1. Good analysis. Most of us who sell indie e-books realized about five minutes after the smug Apple announcement, followed by the smug press releases of the major publishers, that indies and small publishers had a historic window of opportunity. It’s almost like every single step NY makes is the unavoidable march to the gallows. And the nail in the coffin isn’t April, it was the day Steve Jobs stood up in front of a screen claiming Apple had nearly a third of the ebook market. Tell big lies and no one challenges.

    Except those in the trenches who knew, at best, Apple had 2 percent of the book market. A number which hardly seems to have changed. At any rate, everything is changing too fast to make any predictions anymore. Hang on for one wild ride!

    Scott Nicholson

  2. This reads more like an anti-Apple diatribe in the comments section of an Ars Technica Apple article than it does a thoughtful discussion of the multitude of issues involved in the clash between Big Publishing, Big tech ( Apple, etc.), and the disenfranchised reader that I would expect around here.

    I get that the author hates Apple. It’s fairly dripping in large puddles all over the place. But this screed doesn’t advance the discussion in any positive direction.

  3. To Scott: Apple’s claims regarding the ebook market were based on sales during the first couple of months of it’s launch on the iPad. As as near as I can tell, the number given was about 22% of the US market. Not even a quarter, much less a third.

    Second, I just have to take exception to the following quote from the article which states, “…the iPad is really a so-so device. Pretty to look at, but not a great computing experience, especially when compared to notebooks that permit multitasking.”

    The iPad is, in my opinion, a great device. Or to be more specific: a great MEDIA device. I continually use it to check email, check RSS feeds, read a ton of articles via Instapaper, books through iBooks and Kindle, watch movies, TV shows, and Apple University videos while on the road, and a score of other applications.

    It’s true that I can do more with my 17″ MacBook Pro. Then again, I’m not going to grab the MBP and just throw it into my backback or gym bag. I’m not going to curl up with the MBP on the couch or in bed to do my reading. Hell, I wouldn’t do it with an Air.

    The convenient small, flat form factor, the instant-on, always available apps, the long battery life; these are all things in which the iPad excels, and they’re what make using the iPad different from using a notebook.

    In short, the iPad and the notebook are different devices, with different uses, each with it’s own strengths and weaknesses.

    Yes, Apple could have put a dual-core i7 into that Lamborghini shell…. but that would have killed batter life, and really have made the device no better for it’s intended purpose. There are always tradeoffs, and there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

    As to Lamborghini pricing… right. That’s funny. Especially when talking about the iPad. Though it’s weird how no other manufacturer, including those that typically excel at build plastic POS systems, have managed to get the same components (including screen) into a device for less than the iPad’s $499 base price.

    Apple’s restrictive model? You mean as in actually exerting some form of control over their marketplace? One has only to look at the mess that’s the Android Marketplace to see all of the ripoff apps and junk apps that manage to bury the very few gems. Even Google is disappointed with the place, and has said so.

    Do I agree with every single one of Apple’s policies? Of course not. They do, for example, need to give on the subscription model issue. But they also manage to create great user experiences in hardware AND software, and their sales show it.

    People buy Apple. And once they do, they tend to buy more of them. Apple has consistently had the highest user satisfaction ratings in the industry.

    As to the rest of the article, it appears that the real villains in the piece are the publishers who, like their counterparts in the music and movie industries, are afraid to move forward with new pricing models and new distribution methods. As such, they fall back on what can only be called protectionism, attempting to preserve the “good old days” for as long as they can.

  4. @Michael: Apple’s ebook share of the market was never 22 percent, even in the first few months. What Jobs said was this:

    “Five of the six biggest publishers in the US, who have their books on the iBookstore tell us that the share of eBooks now that are going through the iBookstore, is about 22%.

    “So iBooks market share now, of ebooks from 5 of these 6 major publishers, is up to 22% in just about eight weeks.”

    If the one missing major, Random House, is the largest book publisher of English language book with more than half the market, how does Apple get anywhere near 22 percent of the total? It’s a nuanced point and Steve Jobs didn’t lie. The graphic that was behind him did, however. See it here:

    Intentional? Perhaps. Perhaps not. The fact remains that, because the reportage that came from that event, wasn’t what Jobs said but what the graphic said, the myth became the truth and Jobs’ actual remarks were forgotten.

  5. @Rob: I understand the difference between Job’s statement and the graphic. Steve’s comment was accurate. The graphic, less so. Regardless, the percentage comment was a reply to Scott, who claimed: “…it was the day Steve Jobs stood up in front of a screen claiming Apple had nearly a third of the ebook market.”

    Now, either Scott was exaggerating, or he can’t do math, because 22% isn’t even a quarter of the aforementioned market, much less a “third”.

    If Scott is going to refute arguments with “facts”, it would help if he didn’t simply fabricate them out of thin air.

  6. @Michael: It’s a fair enough point to make. Of course, you don’t know whether Scott fabricated them or was simply mistaken. I certainly don’t. What IS known, though, is that Jobs, who is by all accounts an extremely bright and PR-savvy man, willfully allowed the erroneous slide to remain up long enough for him to have his pictures taken in front of it and then used to report the smashing success of the iBookstore in just two short months. Headline after headline after headline — whether in generic tech media, or Apple-specific media — reported the 22 percent as fact, when quite obviously it wasn’t. Yet I recall a dearth of “Regret the Error” follow-ups at these same news outlets. And Apple certainly didn’t fall all over itself to try to set the record straight. *Shock*

    Don’t get me wrong, I think Apple is a fine company that produces great products. I own an iPad (among other electronic devices) and it’s wonderful. I just found it odd you’d criticize Nicholson for being wildly off the mark — intentionally or otherwise — while apologizing for Apple being similarly wrong.

  7. I have iPods in my family (4 of them), because all our music,, my audiobooks, and podcasts, are in iTunes, and finding another platform for them is more work than it’s worth. But the iPods are the only Apple product we have, or are likely to have.

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