Amazon.com, in its zeal to keep book prices low, is in a large fight with Hachette — the smallest of New York’s big 5 publishers. According to the NYT, it started with tactics to crimp Hachette’s sales and has now apparently led to the removal of many Hachette books including, ironically, the paperback version of Brad Stone’s terrific book on Jeff Bezos but far more interestingly, JK Rowling’s latest that is due to be released in a month. That last one seems to be designed as a ‘waking the beast’ move and I suspect we will hear from Rowling soon.
Authors are, of course, aligned with publishers to fight against Amazon’s power. But where is that power coming from? Basically, Amazon have retail power. Many people get their books exclusively from Amazon and so if a book doesn’t appear there those customers may well not buy it. Of course, there are other online options for physical books. The most serious lock-in therefore, is for Kindle sales. While we don’t have numbers, it would appear that Kindle sales likely reflect a dominant chunk of ebook sales and, moreover, most of those customers don’t really want to buy books on other eReading platforms — either they don’t have the device or they don’t want to switch apps on the iPad. In my household, for instance, while I would switch to iBooks tomorrow because it is a much better app, the rest of the household still uses those old time eInk devices and so if we want to share books, I’m stuck. I also like to keep my books in the one place (re: app bookshelf).
For this reason, I suspect that it is hard to really bring an antitrust claim against Amazon for this type of behaviour. Put simply, it is hard to prove they are a long-standing monopoly even if to many people it seems that way. There are substitutes for the purchase of all manner of Amazon items, especially books.
On that score, we have to wonder then what options a book publisher might have. Ben Edelman had a terrific new piece at HBR on this sort of issue which is freely available on his website. The bottom line is that you have to take up arms.
For Hachette, with its looming JK Rowling book launch date, there is opportunity. If people want to be able to read her book on their Kindle, Hachette need only provide it in .mobi format without DRM to make it so. Yes, that would leave them with the spectre of potential piracy but that exists anyway and the music industry has demonstrated that most consumers will take convenience over free anyday; especially curmudgeonly readers tied to their existing devices. All they need to do is set up a site that allows people to pay and then click a ‘send to Kindle’ button. Not only will Hachette bypass Amazon but they can sell the book for less because they don’t have to pay Amazon’s commission.
The notion of selling DRM-free eBooks is the weapon publishers have not been willing to fire. They either do that or they will have to accept
Trade Federation Amazon rule for the time being.