This ebook thing is just going to get more complicated
Adam Hodgkin at the Exact Editions blog posted a piece that explains the ebook strategies of Apple, Amazon, and Google in simple terms. Hodgkin’s piece really helps think things through, but I think his analysis is a bit oversimplified (which is part of why it helps think things through.)
Hodgkin sees brilliance in Apple’s move not to enter the proprietary ebook wars, but simply to be a facilitator of sales to iPhone users (iPhones being, at least currently, the most widely-distributed handheld device deemed suitable for ebook reading.) He takes special note of Amazon’s 30% “market maker” fee, which he posits might help drive down the accepted price for middle services in the ebook supply chain.
And, as Hodgkin sees it, Google and Apple are pursuing directly opposite strategies to bring the ebook business to themselves. Google is betting that the future is licensing whole libraries in the cloud and Amazon is betting that it is buying ebooks one at a time to download to your device.
Hodgkin also notes that Apple’s 30% fee makes the 37% share Google will take before paying Book Rights Registry and the 55-65% discounts Amazon takes on Kindle ebooks (I actually doubt the discounts are quite that high on the vast majority of the Kindle books sold and Amazon discounting practices sharply reduce the percentage they are taking of actual selling price, which is, presumably, what Apple’s 30% would be based on) look very aggressive. By this move, he says, ”Apple will thus appear to most publishers and authors as a reasonable partner, a less monopolistic partner, than either of the other West coast web giants.”
Hodgkin concludes the piece by seeing ebooks as a 3-company race (these three) and says he is “tempted to call it for Apple” although “there are quite a few laps to go.”
That last sentence is the absolute truth.
This piece took no note of Sony, Stanza, or the potential impact of broadly-distributed epub files. Perhaps Sony is considered part of the Google strategy, except that the 500,000 public domain books Google has made available for the Sony reader are free (aren’t they? I am happy to be corrected if I have that wrong) and they are downloaded, not left in the cloud (unlike the PD books that can be read directly on the iPhone, with the toggling between the OCRd version and the original print, which Google announced two weeks ago, and which do remain in the cloud.)
It also took no note of Barnes & Noble’s recent purchase of Fictionwise or the fact that Waterstone’s has teamed with Sony Reader for distribution in the UK.
And if Apple’s strategy is to capture 30% of the ebook revenue for everything that goes to an iPhone, they have a big hole in it already. One buys Kindle ebooks from the Amazon store, not the App Store. They download directly into the iPhone from the net (no intermediating PC necessary). I don’t see how Apple gets any of that revenue. (I am not sure about the “why” of this from Apple’s POV, except that some smarter people have told me that it will be much harder for Kindle to repeat this trick on other phones, so it could be a competitive move by Apple against Nokia and RIM.)
But I think, most of all, this analysis omits full consideration of the discrete functions served by the retailer in the supply chain.
The online book retailer needs to do these things: 1) secure a customer’s attention 2) aggregate titles to choose from, 3) merchandise, which is enabling discovery through “shopping” 4) provide search, which is enabling discovery through “asking”, 5) transact, which includes delivering the file and accepting the money, and 6) provide customer service.
If a publisher or retailer or ebook platform provider sets up to sell through the App Store, Apple gives them a head start on number 1, nothing on number 2, nothing on number 3, nothing on number 4, presumably all of number 5, and probably nothing on number 6.
Amazon provides it all. I am still trying to understand what Google provides; I don’t think we have all the answers on that yet, except that we know they’re providing a ton of free econtent that will make selling other ebooks at substantial retail prices that much more difficult for everybody. This should not surprise anybody and it is not a knock on Google. They are primarily in the free content business. They are not in the “merchandising” business. And they don’t have the most saleable titles to sell; they actually, title for title, have the least saleable titles. The value of what Google has is in the aggregate and was always intended to be.
It is also critical to keep in mind that the ebook market for consumers has not happened yet! Publishers are seeing sales of about 1% of their revenue. I am a bit abashed about how over-optimistic I have been about ebooks for the past ten years (a by-product of having personally read more books on devices than on paper, by a factor of about 4 to 1, in the 21st century, and about 40 to 1 since I got my Kindle.) I can see ebooks getting to 7-10% of the units sold for consumer books in the next 3-to-5 years and I’m the optimist.
And with 85% of even that incipient market having not happened yet, most of which will be read on devices that haven’t been delivered yet (including future versions of Kindle, Sony Reader, iPhone, etc.) and, further with whole business models (subscriptions, book-of-the-month plans, bundling of titles together, offers by publishers to give ebooks away with print or audio books) which have hardly surfaced yet, we can only imagine what more changes we might see between now and then.
When there is a real ebook market, there will have to be real ebook merchandising. That means complete metadata on the titles, including reader reviews and information about the printed book publication. (Amazon, because they have it for their regular store, has it for Kindle books. Nobody else comes close, although one presumes Fictionwise will get that printed book metadata once they’re integrated with Barnes & Noble.)
Michael Tamblyn pointed out in his widely-circulated “6 things” address that book merchandising on the web hasn’t really made much progress since Amazon invented it in the mid 1990s. What Kindle has got, what Stanza has built for the iPhone, and even what Fictionwise has,which might be the best presentation of ebooks even before being enhanced by B&N (and even without the book information as mentioned above), are not really well suited for presentation on the smaller screen of a device.
Apple is not providing the full suite of retail services. If you assume that somebody has to be the bookseller here: pull the titles together, curate them, group them, put the right stuff out “in the window” or on the virtual “front table” on a daily basis (or, on the web, a more sophisticated basis than “daily” suggests) and handhold the customer through any further questions (I’ve gotten great customer service attention for ebook problems in the past from both Powell’s and Diesel Ebooks), then there will be a lot of costs to pile on top of Apple’s 30% take for providing the venue and ringing up the sale. Apple is providing the real-world equivalents of “rent” and “shipping”. Looked at that way, 30% doesn’t seem so cheap, even if it is a very high-traffic location.
This is going to get a lot more complicated before it gets simpler. I didn’t mention Scrollmotion, another ebook format that can handle illustrated material better than any of the others so far. I didn’t mention publishers selling direct, which they are definitely going to be doing more and more. I didn’t mention that every phone manufacturer and cell phone network is going to go all out to compete with Apple and AT&T and their devices will handle ebooks too and they’ll have app stores too. I didn’t mention that directing you to your choice of format — any ebook or a printed book which could be in different formats — is (one of) the real end game(s) here. Neither of us mentioned Adobe Reader format, which is still the market leader in ebook units sold.
It isn’t just too early to predict a winner; it is too early to declare the finalists.