on the U train

Feb 02

Amazon vs. Macmillan: the aftermath

What happened

Soon after the iPad shindig went down, Macmillan held a meeting with Amazon, and demanded new terms for selling ebooks. In exchange for becoming able to set prices for the ebooks they sold through Amazon, they wanted to take a lower cut of the entire sale (full explanation here). Amazon said no thanks, then delisted all of Macmillan’s print and ebook inventory from Amazon.com on Friday. Macmillan’s CEO posted an open letter describing what had happened, and Amazon released no statements all weekend, save for a rather petulant one it posted on its Kindle forums on Sunday. Right now, Amazon is slowly and creakily relisting the books it delisted, with predictable hiccups.

My perspective

As a prospective author (lol), my reaction to this was, “oh dear D:”. That is really the unifying sentiment that has cropped up on the sites of many authors’ blogs, served with a side of wtf and WTFBBQ.

As a reader, my initial reaction was more calm. I’d been following iPad buzz and news ever since it was announced last week; I had heard Steve Jobs being quoted as saying “the pricing [of iPad and Kindle ebooks] will be the same”, and wondered how the hell that was going to happen without Apple lowering its prices past Amazon’s $9.99 threshold.

Well, now I have a really good idea. Big publishers like Macmillan are going to walk up to Amazon and demand to be able to set pricing, and threaten “severe windowing” of titles if Amazon doesn’t give in. After this very public spectacle, I can finally see Amazon whining about this, but giving in with bad grace, because they, like everyone else, don’t know how well the iPad is going to do.

There are three major things no one knows about the iPad right now, as it relates to ebooks:

  1. No one knows whether the ebooks sold in the iBookstore will have any kind of DRM on them
  2. No one knows whether the iPad will sell well enough to prove a significant channel for the publishers that are involved
  3. No one knows if competing ebook apps will be allowed on the iPad, i.e. whether the Kindle Store or any other ebook store will be cut out as a competitor in that realm

Right now, Amazon is asking themselves these questions, and coming up with competing answers that could either spell lingering death for the Kindle platform, or a healthy future.

Personally, as a reader and aspiring writer, I know what outcome I would vastly prefer. I would love to have a large, wide-ranging legal source of DRM-free ebooks; I would love for the big publishers to finally dispense with using DRM to protect themselves from piracy by making things harder for legitimate customers. I would love for there to be competing apps available on the iPad, so that there is not just one place to list your ebook for sale in a way that matters. I want there to continue to be a future where people pay for ebooks, and authors get paid for making them.

That said, I really don’t know what will happen. The only thing I feel any kind of confidence predicting is that the books Apple sells will have DRM on them, which just makes the probable outcome of this whole trend worse. Right now, buying books on the Kindle suits me just fine: the DRM on the books I buy is currently the easier to strip compared to the DRM espoused by competing ebook stores. Pricing is really attractive, which makes poor formatting, disabled text-to-speech and the sometimes baffling unavailability of some books easier to bear. All that this Macmillan-Amazon fight has done is signal that prices are going to rise, and give a major publisher control over the pricing of their ebooks.

I can see how that could be a good thing for authors and readers. Maybe Macmillan will use their newfound powers to give authors better contracts. Maybe their new clout will make them able to publish more books, and make good-quality ebooks available in a more timely manner, and perhaps even without DRM.

Or maybe they will just do what they have done with their power in the past: i.e. squeeze anyone they can get their hands on to better their bottom line.

  1. uche posted this