Kindle Serials

Hats off to Amazon


When the story of how Amazon came to dominate the consumer book business is written ten years from now, there will need to be a chapter entitled “September 6, 2012″.

Of course, that was the day that Judge Cote approved the settlement agreed to by HarperCollins, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster and began the process of undoing the publisher price-setting regime that was established by the agency model. This is actually designed to unleash broad and deep discounting in the ebook marketplace and I think we’ll see evidence very soon that it will succeed in that objective beyond anybody’s wildest dreams. (I have repeatedly expressed my concerns about what I think are inevitable consequences of that achievement.)

But that’s not all Amazon accomplished on September 6, 2012. It’s not nearly all. In fact, the only thing that wasn’t good for Amazon about the Judge’s announcement was that it stole a lot of the attention from what they can accomplish without the government’s help.

One day after scrappy competitor Kobo tried to upstage them by announcing their own updated suite of devices, Amazon did a combination of outperforming and underpricing the device competition from them, as well as from NOOK, Apple, and Google. Even the device innovation wasn’t what most impressed me. There were several other innovations that raise the bar substantially for everybody competing with the Kindle ecosystem.

1. Leveraging their ownership of Audible, the dominant player in downloadable audiobooks, Amazon has introduced a Whispersync feature that enables seamless switching between reading an ebook and listening to the audiobook version. One of my sisters-in-law, who is both a teacher of reading-challenged kids and an adjunct professor teaching others who do the same, had asked me a few months ago why nobody had done this. I asked around and was told “it is complicated.” Publishers can’t do it because they don’t control the delivery ecosystems. Other ebook retailers can’t do it because they don’t deliver audio.

Only Amazon could do it. Now they have.

1A. In addition to the use of Whispersync to allow seamless toggling between reading and listening, Kindle introduced a feature called “Immersion Reading” that allows you to read and listen at the same time.

Does everybody notice that this creates a real reason to buy both an audiobook and an ebook of the same title? Seems like that is something all authors and publishers can celebrate.

This specific innovation is particularly ironic if we remember some history. In the early days of the Kindle, Amazon wanted to put in a text-to-speech capability that would deliver an audiobook by automation of every ebook. Agents and publishers balked because of the obvious rights issues; audiobooks are a separate profit center for everybody and nobody with a commercial interest wanted to see that threatened, even though others thought that the automated delivery wouldn’t really satisfy an audiobook customer.

Nobody will have a problem with this solution, though. The consumer buys twice.

And, incidentally, somebody else can write a whole blog post on how this suite of capabilities can be used as an opportunity-creator in the college and school markets!

2. Leveraging their ownership of IMDb (the movie and TV database), Amazon is enhancing the experience of watching video by making information about the film and its personnel available at a click. Last month bloggers were explaining that Google bought Frommer’s from Wiley because they wanted to turn content into metadata. Now Amazon is clearly demonstrating exactly why that’s useful and important.

3. Leveraging their publishing capabilities and their role as the only retailer with an audience large enough to deliver a critical mass of readers all by itself, they are introducing serialization by subscription with Kindle Serials. The initial foray is modest: a selection of eight very low-priced serial novels delivered in chunks of at least 10,000 words. But this “tests” the model of getting people to buy something up front knowing in advance that it will come in stages.

(When I explored the viability of subscription models for ebooks, I speculated that the only one that could really pull it off for general reading would be Amazon. Consider the camel’s nose to have now officially penetrated the tent.)

On one hand, this recalls the success of the self-published novellas-cum-novel called “Wool” by Hugh Howey. But it also could be the foundation for something like Dominique Raccah’s “agile publishing” model, which is an active experiment now at her company, Sourcebooks, with author David Houle. Amazon would have the great advantage of a much larger audience to “invite” into an experiment of that kind and, when you are doing something dependent on participation for success, having more people to appeal to at the outset is a huge advantage.

4. Amazon is subsidizing all their devices with ads served as screen savers. They were initially planning to change the previous practice of offering higher pricing that enabled consumers to avoid the advertisements. Their first announcement was that Amazon had gone all in with all their devices coming with advertising and without a “pay more” option to avoid it. Although the initial reaction to this apparently forced a change, and they’re now offering the Kindle Fire without ads for $15 more, this still opens up a series of other thoughts and questions.

How can anybody compete on device pricing with a competitor that not only has the most direct contact with buying-and-paying customers but which is also bringing in ad dollars to subsidize a cheaper retail price?

Does this mean that Amazon “knows” that by far most consumers elected to save the money and don’t care about the ads?

Are they building a priceless communication network to promote content and to charge content creators for the next generation equivalent of store windows and front tables?

I thought Google was the champion of advertising. Why didn’t they figure this out first for the Nexus 7?

5. Amazon’s X-Ray feature, which basically collects core metadata (characters, scenes) from books and movies, is a building block to ultimately deliver summaries and outlines that could be an exciting additional unique capability of the platform. It could perhaps even be a start on generating automation-assisted “Cliffs Notes”-type content that could ultimately command a separate purchase fee.

6. Amazon has built a parental control capability into their Kindle ecosystem called FreeTime so that kids can use the device and even obtain content but only in approved ways. There are fledgling initiatives like Storia from Scholastic and the longstanding PBS brand Reading Rainbow for which one of the core propositions is creating a reading environment for kids with adult controls. These kid-centric platforms are obviously designed to present environments that parents and teachers will find superior to what they use themselves for the purpose of enabling kids’ reading. They suddenly have some serious competition from the most popular platform already out there.

And Amazon has built in what is perhaps a killer app that the others probably can’t even contemplate: they can apparently control the amount of time a kid can spend doing various activities on the device, so parents can mandate a ratio of reading time to movie time to game-playing time. I’m sure more than a few parents will say “wow!” to that.

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Judge Cote’s decision is also very good news for Amazon, and it was what reporters called to talk about on the day of the press conference that announced all of the above. Michael Cader’s very thorough analysis (on which I have written a few more words below) spells out what we don’t yet know about the speed and complexity of implementation, starting with whether an appeal will be heard and whether implementation will be delayed pending that appeal.

But it would seem that the chances are good that many of the controls that prevented Amazon from discounting high-profile books for the past 18 months will come off a month, or maybe two months, before Christmas.

I think that Amazon will discount aggressively. Their “brand” is, among other things, very much about “low prices for the consumer”. And they have always used price as a tool to build market share. Expect them to lead the way.

The price-setting won’t be done by humans; it will be done by bots and algorithms, responding to what is happening in the marketplace among their competitors every day. Amazon is very good at this; they’ve been doing it for years. Presumably, BN.com has a similar set of skills and tools. Presumably everybody except Apple had to price at least their wholesale-purchased books competitively.

Apple was protected by the MFNs that remain in place for all but the settling publishers. But without that protection, how will Apple compete? They’ve never had to do competitive pricing of commodity products before. I will be very impressed if Apple can get through the price fights about to take place without an obvious black eye. They haven’t been training for this.

Overall, this should mean another surge of growth in the ebook market, which had seen a serious dropoff in its growth rate over the past year. We won’t be seeing ebooks doubling share annually again, but we’re about to see digital priced aggressively in ways that will make any regular consumer of print wonder whether they should consider making the shift that so many heavy readers have already made.

When the settlement is implemented, the three settling publishers will have their book prices cut by retailers, whatever they decide about setting list prices and however they negotiate the next round of commercial terms. But the three publishers still permitted to use agency pricing — Random House and the continuing litigants Macmillan and Penguin — will probably find that they are forced to lower the prices they set to keep their big books competitive. At least that would be my expectation. It will be beyond interesting to see how this plays out over the next few months.

Pardon a plug here for my Publishers Launch Conferences partner, Michael Cader, and his skills as the indispensible reporter on the publishing scene. His four posts on Friday: on the Judge’s ruling, on what happens next as a result, on their new hardware, and on the various reading and consumption features that were the subject of most of this post, comprised — by far — the clearest and most thorough explanation of a staggering array of complex information. Of course, Michael is more than a reporter on the industry; he’s been a player in it for 25 years.

I really don’t understand how reporters who don’t have the benefit of that background can justify not reading him. (You hit a pay wall it takes $20 a month to scale if you are not a subscriber. Just about everybody making a living in trade publishing has no trouble with the value proposition.) They’d all certainly be doing their jobs better if they did.

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