frying.jpgLet me begin by saying this: I just don’t get it. What hallucinogen are publishers imbibing? The music industry would love to trump Apple and the publishing industry would love to trump Amazon; but only the movie industry is thinking the matter through.

There are lots of problems with publishing’s looking to Apple for salvation; here are a few: First, if there is a bigger control freak in the media industry than Jeff Bezos, it is Steve Jobs. Have publishers forgotten that the music industry was unhappy with iTunes pricing but couldn’t budge Jobs? Publishers can’t budge Amazon’s $9.99 pricing, what are they going to do when Jobs demands $6.99 pricing?

Second, if rumors are right and that what Apple is bringing to the table is a tablet and not a dedicated reading device, what makes publishers think tablet buyers will suddenly become book buyers? Why do publishers think the tablet will be the Damocletian sword over Amazon’s head? Or do publishers plan to simply cut out Amazon altogether even though it commands 20% or more of the book-buying market?And what about the expected premium price for the Apple tablet? If book buyers are complaining now about what a Sony Reader or Amazon Kindle costs, what makes publishers think they’ll jump at Apple’s pricing?

In addition, studies show that when a multimedia device, which the tablet will be, is used, the user’s time is spent listening to or watching audio and video media or playing games, not reading books. All a publisher needs to do is read the most recent Kaiser Family Foundation study of children and teens ages 8 to 18 years and how they use their multimedia devices for the publishers to know they are barking up the wrong tree.

Third, are publishers so lacking in imagination that they have to give up control of their industry to not one player but two? What are they going to do when Google starts throwing its weight around? Close their doors?

Yes, there has been drooling by some ebookers for the Apple tablet, with pundits assuming its arrival will cure whatever ails all media businesses. But what ails publishers is not curable by any device. It’s like having a fever and assuming that a thermometer will cure it — it isn’t going to happen. If anything, publishers are setting themselves up to fail and fail mightily, especially if there is an initial but unsustained burst in book sales concurrent with Apple tablet sales.

Let’s assume that publishers get very favorable terms from Apple. How long do publishers think that honeymoon will last? My guess: until Jobs decides that people really do read books and realizes that he needs to do to publishers what he did to the music companies. This may be a win for consumers, but not for publishers.

As each day goes by, I worry more about the world of publishing. Publishers have been important to the spread of quality literature and of knowledge, but they are rapidly marching to their funeral pyres. Publishers need to recognize that their salvation lies in their own hands, not in the hands of the Bezos’ and Jobs’ of the world.

If publishers need a role model to emulate, look to the video industry. The Economist reported that 5 of the 6 big studios (Disney is working on a similar solution by itself) want to join, along with some other firms and retailers – but not Apple — to create a single download video format and a single firm to track purchases. They are looking to create what I called a repository in an earlier Modest Proposal. The consumer will buy the video online at a partnering retailer who will then link the buyer to the repository. According to The Economist, “Consumers will be able to buy a film once and then play it on different gadgets….[The] initiative aims to stop a company doing to film what Apple has done to music and Amazon threatens to do to electronic books.” At least the movie industry is thinking with its brains and not sitting on them. Shouldn’t publishers be doing this?

Publishers need to grapple with their problems themselves and not look to external fixes by companies and persons that they ultimately can neither influence nor control. Trying to use Apple to thwart Amazon is jumping from the frying pan of to the fire — it is the tolling of the death bells for the big publishers.

Editor’s Note: Rich Adin is an editor and owner of Freelance Editorial Services, a provider of editorial and production services to publishers and authors. This is reprinted, with permission, from his An American Editor blog. PB


  1. Amazon, who undoubtedly collects statistics on how much reading is done on the Kindle, desktop, and iPhone versions, probably has a very good idea of how much reading will be done on an Apple tablet.

    And unless Apple has some great spies, they are the only one who knows. That puts Amazon in a grand position to introduce devices which will excel at encouraging book sales.

    So my guess is to watch Amazon if you want to know how the Apple tablet will do as a book reading device. If Amazon brings out a tablet, we know Apple is onto something. Otherwise, Apple will make it’s money off apps.

  2. I certainly agree that publishers have failed to understand the market as well as the implications to their business model, but I don’t see Apple as the great threat. Instead, I see it as another alternative to Amazon which, in the long run, will be a good thing for publishing.

    Not long after the Apple tablet’s business model became public knowledge, Amazon announced a much more favorable profit sharing arrangement for those using the Kindle publishing program. I imagine that the major publishers will soon see an improvement on their rates, as well.

    The publishers should use their own control of the content as a lever to improve their bottom line. Amazon/Kindle needs name authors like Stephen King and Nora Roberts considerably more than the authors need them, and the publishers control access to those names’ books.

    The more players in hardware, content, and distribution the better it will be for publishing and authors as a whole. After all, the major problem plaguing paper publishing right now is that we have much fewer distributors, book stores, and other outlets so that just a few control most of the funnel of publisher to reader.

  3. Good ideas! The lack of a book repository ranks in my mind with:

    1. DRM (except social).

    2. No centralized, upload-once and forget, scheme for authors and publishers. (Smashwords has begun to change that.)

    3. Something similar to ISBNs but designed specifically for ebooks. Those involved with ISBNs seem as clueless about this need for change as publishing industry execs.

    as reasons why ebooks are still an immature product. When I buy a paper book, it’s mine permanently though every change I may make in my life. When I buy a Kindle book, do I really own it, or must I keep around some Amazon-approved gadget to read it?

    As you suggest, there should be an industry-wide book repository where, once purchased, all my ebooks are available in a variety of formats. If I let a book drop off any hardware I own, it’d still be there when I need it. And if I move, I wouldn’t have the hassle that comes from relocating dozens of boxes of paper books. When new formats come along, the repository would take care of the converting. All would be big pluses.

    It might even make sense to let people put their ebooks up for sale/transfer to someone else, with slices of the sale price going to all the parties involved, including the author. Creating a ‘used’ market for ebooks would be another way to keep down bootlegging, and it’d help fund the repository. Since the product would be identical and always in new condition, if users are allowed to set the retail price, the result might be interesting. If I want to sell really quickly, I price an ebook the cheapest and it becomes the next sale. If I’m in no hurry, I could price it at the historical average or above, and wait. Allowing users to set a price, would make it more likely that used ebooks would always be ‘in stock.’ An making inexpensive ‘used’ ebooks easy to get would keep down bootlegging.

    I might add that Apple’s obsession with control isn’t the same as that at Amazon. Apple does exert a great deal of control over their own platform (i.e. approving apps for the iPhone), but they don’t attempt to control other markets. For instance, they don’t tell music companies what price they can sell their music for elsewhere. Amazon’s new Kindle agreement does just that, attempting to dictate not just the price of ebooks sold elsewhere (including an author’s own website) but dictating prices for any printed version.

    That raises potential anti-trust issues. Apple is likely to be with us for a long time. Within a decade, Amazon may find itself broken in various pieces, making the 800-pound gorilla of book distribution into a a half-dozen or so chattering chimps. That’d wreck Amazon scheme to leverage economy of scale into large profits.

  4. The idea of appealing to Apple (and Barnes and Noble, and Google, and Scribd, and Smashwords, and Sony…) is to get retailers competing with one another, and escape from the near-monopoly Amazon is aiming at.

    The Repository sounds like a good idea … for publishers. It sounds like you want to surrender us readers to that same single-source, so that publishers can charge whatever they want (and unlike print, there will be no used-ebook market). I wonder whether such a thing would pass antitrust and antimonopoly laws around the world. If the movie studios go through with their plan, I guess we’ll find out.

  5. Mike said, “Creating a ‘used’ market for ebooks would be another way to keep down bootlegging, and it’d help fund the repository. Since the product would be identical and always in new condition, if users are allowed to set the retail price, the result might be interesting. If I want to sell really quickly, I price an ebook the cheapest and it becomes the next sale. If I’m in no hurry, I could price it at the historical average or above, and wait. Allowing users to set a price, would make it more likely that used ebooks would always be ‘in stock.’ An making inexpensive ‘used’ ebooks easy to get would keep down bootlegging.”

    As copyright law now stands, ebooks can not be sold “used.” I seriously doubt publishers and copyright owners would allow that law to change.

  6. They have missed the boat already though. Let;s say they band together, now. Either they:

    1) Offer the same price and format as the Kindle in which case, why would people switch

    2) Offer higher prices than the Kindle, in which case, why would people buy

    3) Higher prices and no more Kindle editions, in which case, unhappy customers who don’t buy and/or turn to Darknet

  7. I just want to make one thing as clear as I can. I have said this before and I will say it probably a thousand more times :): The repository I am proposing would NOT sell any book. It would be where a person who bought a book from B&N, Smashwords, Amazon, BooksonBoard, or any other bookseller would go to retrieve the copy of the book they bought.

    Currently, when you buy a book from Amazon, you are betting that Amazon will still be in existence 10 years from now and that Amazon will still support the Kindle 10 years from now. The idea of the repository is to take away that risk. Retail selling price would still be set by the individual retail bookseller.

    Second, it would be a way to enforce a single standard of formatting and DRM (assuming DRM was used) so that you can read the book you bought on your Kindle, on your Sony, on your Nook, on any device. It would be device agnostic. You can buy one device today and replace it with a completely different device tomorrow yet still have access to every book you bought.

    It would be more analogous to establishing a Library of Congress for consumers than aq monopolistic bookseller. The idea is to prevent any one company from becoming so controlling of ebooks that the only losers are the consumer.

    @ficbot — You repeat the mantra of every Kindler as regards Amazon’s low pricing. A cautionary note is appropriate. Should Amazon come to truly dominate the market, there is no guarantee that today’s low prices will be tomorrow’s prices. Jeff Bezos has Jeff Bezos’ best interests in mind, not yours. Today your and his interests intersect, tomorrow they may well diverge. (And this is true of any retailer, not just Amazon.) I think it is incautious to view ebooks so myopically.

  8. @Felix: There would be no antitrust violation as I envision the repository (there might be as someone else envisions it, but all I can deal with is my proposal). Again, there would be no selling from the repository; it would be more like your own permanent library. There is nothing anticompetitive about it.

  9. Rich, I have yet to buy a single ebook from Amazon, except the French-Englis dictionary I bought to replace the on-board Kindle dictionary 🙂

    My point is this: say that right now, Amazon sells a best-seller for $9.99 and the publishers are not happy with this price point. So Apple is in negotiations to launch the Magical Tablet of Magic which everyone assumes is going to Change the World and they go okay,go with us and we will not be evil like they are and will let you set your own prices. And the publishers go okay, $20 all around. Why would a reader pay it when they know it will be cheaper elsewhere? And why would Amazon not exploit this issue to their advantage?

    So they go okay, step two. We will cut off the Kindle editions and people who want to buy the book will *have to* buy the costlier Apple version. Amazon again exploits this, grumbles about anti-trust or whatever, Apple and the publishers are now the bad guys and a booming business in darknet copies springs up. Why wouldn’t it?

    Lately, I have been finding that many of my commercially bought ebooks are taking an awful lot of effort to convert nicely for the Kindle. There are plenty of free books, in the public domain, lovingly formatted by hand specifically for the Kindle and I have enough of those stashed away to last me years. They are so much more pleasant to read because they look SO much better than anything commercial right now. And *that* is a threat to the publishers too…

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