Amazon’s Kindle: publishers, what the hell are you doing?

There’s a superb article on Slate about the Kindle – and in particular, the dangers it poses to the book industry.

the Kindle locks you down with more rules than the Army Field Manual. The Kindle won’t let you resell or share your books. Anything you buy through the reader is fixed to your Amazon account, readable only on the Kindle or other devices that Amazon may one day deem appropriate. (The company has hinted that it’ll build an iPhone app that can read Kindle books.) Even worse, you can buy books for your Kindle only from Amazon’s store. Indeed, the device makes it difficult to read anything that’s not somehow routed through Amazon first—you can surf the Web on the Kindle, and you can convert some of your personal Microsoft Word or text files to the device’s format, but doing so is slow and not very reliable. In order to read blogs, magazines, newspapers, and books, you’ve really got to go through Amazon’s store first.

Publishing is already changing because of the rise of Amazon and supermarkets, both in books – the independent bookshop sector has been decimated – and in magazines, where increasingly you can’t sell enough copies to make your publication viable if the supermarkets don’t stock it (and you might have to change your covers, content or hand over some cash to persuade them to do that). But at least there’s still a little bit of competition in the real world. If Amazon dominates ebooks – and the linked article’s argument that that’s going to happen seems pretty persuasive to me – then online, you’ll either have to go through Amazon or fight for scraps.

This, inevitably, involves DRM. There are all kinds of open formats for documents, including ePub, but guess what? They don’t have DRM.

The best way to make e-books sharable and to untether them from proprietary devices like the Kindle would be to sell them without copy protection—but the book industry, like every other content business, is paranoid about piracy. Record labels fell into the same trap: They demanded that Apple impose copy restrictions that forced iPod owners to buy music through the iTunes store. But that ended up making Apple the nation’s largest music retailer, with the power to single-handedly determine the price of all recorded music.

There is a smart way and a stupid way for publishers to approach this. The stupid way seems to be happening already.

The smart way? Assuming that DRM is a deal breaker, which I assume it is, then print publishers of all kinds need to come together, agree on a standard, cross-platform, royalty-free format for ebook publishing, get all the hardware firms to support it, get shitloads of titles available as soon as you possibly can and – this bit is key – only deliver books in your format. Amazon wants its own format? Tough shit. Good luck selling nothing but vanity publishing!

I appreciate that getting a consensus will be as easy as catching air in a net, and of course any copy protection will be cracked. But book piracy already exists. Scanned books have been online since scanners were invented. The trick isn’t to get rid of piracy. It’s to create a market so easy and so compelling that people won’t think of pirating because they can get what they want on the hardware they want for a price they won’t mind paying.

You know, like the music industry should have done a decade ago – and like Amazon is trying to do right now.



, ,



0 responses to “Amazon’s Kindle: publishers, what the hell are you doing?”

  1. How much is the Kindle? Amazon are selling an overpriced gizmo loaded with pain and people still buy it.


  2. OK, so I own an iMac and an iPhone. Let’s discuss the delicious irony of my last statement.

    I appal myself sometimes. At least I’m using Open Office on my Mac.

  3. Squander Two

    > only deliver books in your format

    God, yeah. Why haven’t the idiots twigged to that one yet? What gets me is that they’re throwing away massive sales, because, while this is all annoying for the likes of us, it is merely annoying. There are millions of people over the age of sixty who love music and love books and love films, and, as long as the format wars continue, they simply will not buy — or, at best, will buy a lot less than they otherwise would. The moment you decide it’s OK to give one of your customers an error message about codecs or region codes or compatibility or anything like that, you throw away millions. These morons in the various electronic publishing industries should be looking at the vinyl record player and figuring out how it caught on. Start with the startling ability to play an EMI record on a Sony record player and work up from there.

  4. Gary

    Absolutely. Part of the problem with format wars IMO is that the customer is taken for granted, so the starting point is always “we need this format” rather than “customers need this format”.

    There’s a certain irony in the Kindle thing with Amazon blabbing on about the joys of DRM-free music while simultaneously pushing DRMed text.

    The thing that’s really frustrating about this, to me at least, is that I’m really excited about the potential of electronic paper. But it’s hardly out of the labs and we’ve already got a bit of a format issue that confuses the hell out of me, never mind confuses people who can’t be arsed following all this nonsense.

    Rutty, how do you find OpenOffice? I’m really picky about word processing, and I’ve found Pages is best for general writing and Word best for work writing. UI is a big part of that – the Pages UI is lovely – but simple wee things like live, reliable word count in a corner of the screen, being able to set a default file saving format and stick to it, etc. keep me on Word Mac.

  5. Gary

    Also: obviously I have a vested interest in all of this, both as a writer and as a reader.

  6. I’m a cheapskate when it comes to using applications so I’ve not tried Pages or any of the other native OSX office apps.

    Open Office is fine for what I do. I use it for my Open University assignments which I have to save in Word format. It has a few auto-formatting quirks, but then so does Word. It’s pretty good to say that it’s free and I’ve only noticed a couple of funnies with formatting when opened in Word.

    It’s funny that all these different formats cause problems no matter the media isn’t it? You have to think that an open format would be the best solution for the customer. Now if only we could get these idiot companies to appreciate that…

  7. Gary

    What’s best for the customer isn’t always best for companies. Hence the love of DRM.

  8. If you believe Cory Doctorow (and I do) DRM doesn’t even work – as a deterrent for piracy. It obviously has some benefits as a hardware lock-in obviously.

    Oddly enough I have an article to write for my current OU assignment that quotes an article by a certain Mr Doctorow. It’s all about free formats and DRM. I suppose I’m going to have to try and find some positive reasons for DRM use as a couterpoint

  9. Gary

    Are there any positives?

  10. I need to make an “informed commentary” on it so I suppose I’d better try and figure out why DRM might be considered to be a good thing. This is going to be a toughie ;)

  11. Gary

    I could babble on all day about why it’s good for companies, if that’s any help.