Since the beginning of the “modern” ebook era, when Amazon entered the marketplace with its Kindle, I’ve wondered why Amazon chose to follow its own path as regards format and DRM rather than adopting the ePub standard and a more benign or universal form of DRM. I’ve wondered because by choosing its own path, Amazon has decided that readers who are not Kindlers (by which I mean consumers who read on dedicated e-ink devices that are incompatible with Amazon and thus cannot buy ebooks at Amazon unless they are willing to strip the DRM and convert the file, which the majority are either unwilling or unable to do) is not a demographic to woo.
What is it about ebooks that makes them different from virtually every other market that Amazon is in? Amazon sells, either directly or indirectly, all kinds of universally usable electronic equipment and entertainment. It does not sell, for example, digital music or movie DVDs that are incompatible with the devices consumers already own or buy at Amazon or elsewhere. Only in ebooks has Amazon struck a different path.
In every other category of goods for sale at Amazon, Amazon tries to woo every consumer it can. Only in ebooks does it deliberately exclude millions of potential customers. Why? What is it about ebooks that warrants this divergence by Amazon from its very successful business plan? Granted that Amazon would prefer to sell you a Kindle and lock you into its eco system, but that, at least on the surface, makes no sense as a reason to exclude millions of other ebook consumers from being able to buy ebooks at Amazon. One would think that Amazon’s priority is to sell ebooks on which it makes a profit, not reading devices on which it is said to lose money.
Try as I might, I see no obvious reason for this discrepancy. Amazon could sell its Kindles and also sell ebooks in a Kindle-specific format alongside an ePub format. Or it could sell its Kindles and simply make Kindles ePub compatible. Yet it does neither. It prefers to exclude millions of ebookers who are using devices that require the ePub format.
So I ask again: What makes the ebook market different from the other entertainment markets in which Amazon competes?
It surely can’t be because Amazon doesn’t think it can have a winning hand. Amazon has competed and continues to compete in the hardcover and paperback market on equal terms with all competitors, yet it is the dominant bookseller in those markets. I would expect Amazon to dominate in the ePub ebook market as well, simply because of its marketing prowess, its reputation for value and low prices, and its willingness to operate at a loss fiscal quarter after fiscal quarter.
Although no one has accurate numbers, I think it is reasonable to speculate that Sony, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble have sold millions of ereading devices, not one of which is compatible with the Amazon ebook store. Yet every B&N-branded device is compatible with the Sony and Kobo ebookstores (and every ePub ebookstore except Apple’s) — buy a book at Sony, download it to your computer, and sideload it onto your Nook. No questions asked. Similarly, Kobo and Sony devices work the same with any ePub ebookstore except B&N and Apple.
Why is Amazon willing to ignore the millions of readers in the ePub market? Strategically, Amazon has always tried to make people want to shop at Amazon because of price, selection, and ease of buying. Isn’t that the rationale behind the patenting of the 1-click system? And this is the strategy Amazon follows in everything it sells — except ebooks. Why?
I wonder about this but have no answer. I’m certainly open to suggestions, but I struggle to see how ebooks are different from movie DVDs, digital music, televisions, baby diapers, or any other commodity within Amazon’s sales world. The rationale for establishing an exclusionary system for ebooks when all else is inclusionary eludes me.
What else also eludes me is why Amazon thinks this is good policy for Amazon. Amazon has always worked on the principle that if a person buys their hardcover or paperback books from Amazon, they will also buy their TV from Amazon. So if a person won’t or can’t buy their ebooks from Amazon, are they likely to buy their TV from Amazon? Does this exclusionary policy on ebooks have a snowball effect on other items Amazon sells and on the other markets in which it competes?
Consider this difference as well: Amazon has gone to great effort to create the Kindle, its own dedicated reading device using a proprietary format and DRM scheme. But it hasn’t gone to that effort for other devices such as a DVD player. Why? What makes ebooks and the ebook market different from every other commodity that Amazon sells and every other market in which Amazon competes?
The only answer I have come up with, and I don’t find it a satisfactory answer, is that of all the industries represented by the goods that Amazon sells, the weakest in every sense of the word is the publishing industry, making it the one industry that is highly vulnerable to a direct attack by Amazon. Amazon can become a major publisher because of the industry’s weakness and thus be a vertically integrated enterprise — something that would be much more difficult and costly if attempted in the movie or TV production industries.
Of course, the same question can be asked about B&N’s choice of a DRM scheme, but at least B&N has made it freely available to all other device makers. That it hasn’t been adopted by Kobo or Sony, for example, does make me wonder if B&N hasn’t made a major error in not changing its DRM scheme to be compatible with Sony and Kobo. I think given a choice between the Sony, Kobo, and B&N ebookstores, most ebookers would shop at B&N, even if they prefer the Sony or Kobo device over the Nook.
What do you think?