Thursday, March 5, 2009

Amazon Kindle on iPhone: eBooks go Mass Market. Kind Of. Almost.

Image representing Amazon Kindle as depicted i...

The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberger and other prominent lights are weighing in on the launch of an application on Apple's iPhone that enables reading e-books compatible with Amazon's Kindle mobile device, with many analysts cooing about this as a huge event. There's no doubt that Kindle e-books have everthing to gain from leapfrogging out of a pond of half a million Kindle devices into a lake of thirteen million-plus iPhone owners (just in time for "Content Nation," which is now available on Kindle). Better yet, since the Kindle application does not tie down Amazon to any exclusive marketing deal with Apple, the doorway is open for Amazon to march onto Nokias, Blackberries and phones equipped with Google's Andriod application. As people owning Kindle-compatible book titles move from one mobile device to another, the Kindle Store on the Web will make it possible for them to use their e-book on any equipped device, "closing" their book on one gizmo and being able to "open" it on another one at the same spot. Think of it as an iTunes for books that's not tied down to any particular player. Not much to complain about here at first glance: it's the creation of the first true mass market platform for electronic books from major publishers. Kudos to Amazon and to the publishers that are playing with them to advance Kindle sales.

But let's look past the first glance and get to what this really means for book publishing. The good news is that Kindle books can now reach the relatively affluent and educated audience that has enough money to buy iPhones - many of whom may have the money for both an iPhone and a Kindle reader but not necessarily the desire to lug around two book-reading gizmos all of the time. Now e-books get to take a major step towards the "nearly everywhere" profile that Web content has on both Internet and mobile-based devices. The bad news, though, is that the book industry, already beholden to Amazon almost as much as music companies are beholden to iTunes for electronic sales, appears to be repeating the mistakes that are likely to prevent their revenues from growing quickly enough to sustain their business models. Put simply, book publishers have turned over the keys to their electronic printing presses to Jeff Bezos and said, "Knock yourself out, you know what to do more than we do." E-books will progress only as quickly as it suits Amazon - and on only those platforms that suit them.

A benevolent monopoly of this kind for electronic book distribution might be beneficial for publishers if it had global reach, but those 13 million iPhones represent only about half of the greater New York City metropolitan market. A good chunk, to be sure, but a far step away from, say, the 1.6 billion people using the Web or the billions of mobile phone users around the world. And even within that universe of 13 million iPhone users, a fair amount of those people fall into the category of folks who Steve Jobs believed would never really read much of anything. In the meantime the audience for books continues to get grayer and grayer. To put it another way, I don't see all that many people in book stores toting around iPhones. The Kindle packaging for iPhone solves a key licensing and distribution problem for book publishers that's likely to improve their profits in the short term, but it does not come even close to building marketable exposure for books on a scale that is likely to draw attention away from other forms of electronic content.

This brings us back to those music publishing companies which had such high hopes for the DRM-enabled iPhone agreements that they signed only a few years ago. This "magic bullet" seemed great at the time - and it certainly has been great for Apple's profits. But it did little to slow the rapid erosion of profits from music sales at most of the major music publishers. Put simply, the insistence on having packaging that seemed to protect their existing business models only delayed the point at which music publishers had to face that their models were going to miss the lion's share of revenues that could be generated online from music. What they saw in the Web was the world's largest music store. What they should have seen was the world's largest theatre and radio station rolled into one.

Book publishers in general don't suffer from the electronic piracy problems that plagued the music industry, so no doubt it seemed like a logical step to move into rights-protected distribution that enabled book publishers to manage industry metrics in much the same way that they have managed metics on print book sales. But in focusing on protecting their existing business model, like the music industry the book industry is largely delaying the more troubling question of how they can make the most money possible from the global audience of billions who engage the Web and mobile devices daily.

Kindle book packaging is useful for traditional reading, but how, for example, can it facilitate even the most basic collaborative use of books? Basic uses of books such as discusions via book clubs, classroom discussion, fair-use excerpting, note-sharing and other value-add services are nowhere near the surface of the stack of potential Kindle developments. Beyond replicating basic uses of print books there is little if any thought given as to how multimedia can be integrated into Kindle books effectively. For example, the online version of the "Content Nation" book has about a dozen video clips embedded in the text. Even still photos of most of these clips did not make their way into the print edition because of traditional print publishing standards. Yet these same clips would be great to have in an electronic, Web-enabled version of the book.

While it's possible that an aggressive roll-out of Kindle readers on most major mobile devices could help to stave off some of the worst problems that are looming for book publishers, the truth is that they are years behind in developing the real opportunities for books in electronic format. Book publishers are facing the same revenue gaps that confront music, newspaper and magazine publishers that waited far too long to build robust online revenue models that could sustain them as their traditional revenue sources moved into legacy status. In the meantime the Google e-books initiative that builds on their book-scanning initiative promises to put millions of book titles on electronic devices that are no longer controlled by book publishers. In other words, Kindle may just turn out to be the "eight track tape" solution for books - a technology that seemed to be extremely popular at first with the public for listening to tape-recorded music but that turned out to be a dead end for early adapters when more flexible and higher-quality technologies came along.

Every time publishers resist the fundamental dynamics of the Web, they usually come to regret it. Traditional book publishers still have an opportunity to redefine their future independent of the Kindle, but it's more likely that the explosion of alternative online book publishing services will begin to overtake Kindle-based books over the next few years as sources of content that are more flexible, more shareable and more attuned to the needs of new generations of readers to whom the term "cracking the books" is largely a metaphor. Traditional books and book publishers will live on, and Kindle will help them to live on for many years to come. But in the meantime a new book industry is being defined that will be the true future of books - with or without Kindles.
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