I have been following the story regarding Amazon’s foray into publishing. It reminded me of an old (early 1960s) hit by Gerry and the Pacemakers called How Do You Do It? So let’s set the question with Gerry and the Pacemakers.
As the song asks and says, “If I only knew, I’d do it to you.” And that is the crux of the matter in the latest nose thumbing by Amazon.
If publishers cannot figure out what is happening, cannot see the upheaval that is coming, then perhaps they should fold their tents and slither away in the night.
The truth is that the publishers do have an ultimate weapon, a “nuclear bomb” so to speak, at their disposal if they are willing to stand up and use it now, before it is too late.
It is clear that the future lies in ebooks. eBook sales are growing, paperback sales are declining, and hardcover sales seem to be remaining steady. Although I think publishers should begin to pull the rug out from under paperbacks, perhaps it is too soon. But the one thing that it isn’t too soon for is to put an end to the ebook format war.
By format war, I mean both the underlying format and the DRM wrapper. It is time for publishers to go the route of DVD producers and enact a single standard that all ebooks adhere to and that all retailers must abide by. Doing that now is the only way to tame the Amazon tiger.
In no other field has a retailer been able to set its own standard. If you notice, the DVDs that Amazon sells, just like the TVs it sells, adhere to the same format and copy protection scheme as those sold by Best Buy, Barnes & Noble, Walmart, and any retailer you can name — but not ebooks. In ebooks, we have two different formats — ePub for everyone except Amazon; mobi or a derivative for Amazon — and multiple copy protection schemes — a base Adobe DRM for everyone except Amazon; a proprietary scheme for Amazon.
Now that Amazon has decided to challenge publishers at their own game and has begun signing authors to Amazon exclusives, the publishers need to strike back while they can. For now, as Amazon’s dispute with Macmillan over agency demonstrated, Amazon needs the publishers more than the publishers need Amazon. Yes, Amazon has the largest market share, but that can be changed. Publishers need only to find some backbone.
Once Amazon starts signing frontlist authors to exclusive contracts, publishers will be in trouble. The way to head that off is to make it mandatory that every bookseller sell ebooks only in ePub and only with a standard DRM scheme. Doesn’t matter what the DRM wrapper is as long as everyone uses it, just like it doesn’t matter what the copy protection scheme is for DVDs because everyone is using it.
Amazon is at its most vulnerable now. That status vulnerability will change, eventually disappearing, as Amazon expands its publishing base. Amazon will become a vertically integrated company that handles ebooks from beginning to end. When that occurs, there will be no need for the traditional publisher and other bookstores will be at Amazon’s mercy.
Yet it is now that publishers can act to preserve themselves and bookstores by simply leveling the playing field. Just as publishers were able to force feed Amazon the agency system, they can modify that agency system to require that ebooks be sold in ePub with a publisher-approved DRM wrapper. Amazon needs content to survive and it is in the process of developing its own content. Because it is just starting the process, now is the time to strike.
Following this path has one other benefit. It will allow the publishers to create the ebook version themselves and be sure that errors aren’t introduced in Amazon’s conversion process (or if there are errors, that they appear universally in all ebookseller versions). Of course, this would mean that publishers would need to proofread and edit, but there is always hope that they might do so. This would just be an incentive to do so.
Alas, I expect publishers to wring their hands, palpably worry about their future, and do nothing. Their past practice indicates that they always do too little too late, and there is no reason to expect otherwise now, even though they can see their future demise if they open their eyes.