Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

Amazon explores wider distribution: Is the tech world becoming more publishing savvy?

As far as industries go, publishing and technology are two very different beasts.

It is sometimes easy to forget these days, but publishing provides a vehicle to help people share their ideas with the world. After all, isn’t that why we write? Don’t we have things that we want people to read? And can’t we make money doing it, too?

Intellectual property can be funny. On the one hand, it is important to protect ideas to give proper credit where proper credit is due, and for those who are doing this to make a living, it is important to make sure that the fruit of their blood, sweat, and tears is protected in a financial sense. But in the publishing world, it’s a lot different than slapping a patent on something and saying “hands off!” to everyone else. Authors and publishers still want their work to be purchased and read by as many people as possible. It needs to be protected, yes, but it also needs to be shared and widely distributed. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Just recently, Apple rejected Seth Godin’s latest work for sale in the iBookstore because it included links in the bibliography that directed readers to Amazon. Godin makes a fantastic argument:

I think that Amazon and Apple and B&N need to take a deep breath and make a decision on principle: what’s inside the book shouldn’t be of concern to a bookstore with a substantial choke on the marketplace. If it’s legal, they ought to let people read it if they choose to. A small bookstore doesn’t have that obligation, but if they’re seeking to be the one and only, if they have a big share of the market, then they do, particularly if they’re integrating the device into the store. I also think that if any of these companies publish a book, they ought to think really hard before they refuse to let the others sell it.

I couldn’t agree more. Back in the day when all we had were our oral traditions to help us share stories, I highly doubt storytellers would refuse to spin a tale to protect their competitive advantage against that other guy down the road. But now that storytelling is a moneymaker with more people involved, things are a lot different.

The publishing industry is complicated, as is technology (I don’t mean to give the impression that it isn’t). There are many similarities, but there are a whole lot of differences, too. When you force consumers to choose sides, it goes against everything that the publishing industry was built on. It divides the market in a way that isn’t a sustainable business model for anyone, really. That sort of thing works in the technology world. Not so much here.

Now, we all know Amazon has made a lot of mistakes as it has more aggressively entered the publishing business. From choosing .mobi over .epub, to more recently yanking almost 5,000 titles due to a contract disagreement, they’ve introduced their own rules to the mix and apparently expected others to play along.

Except it hasn’t exactly worked out so well, and others have decided not to sell Amazon print titles if they won’t make their ebook titles available as well. So Amazon may be trying out a new strategy. The etailer-turned-publisher has recruited yet another publishing veteran, James Atlas, to edit a new line of twelve biographies called Amazon Lives. Amazon is expanding its publishing arm quite steadily, but the most important twist in this latest move is that Amazon plans to distribute the ebook versions everywhere. That’s right, not just for Kindle users. In response to this news,’s Lauren Hazard Owen raises an important question that could very well be a turning point:

The real question, still unanswered (including by Amazon; I asked them) is whether ALL Amazon Publishing titles will now be available to other booksellers in all formats. Making 12 e-single-length biographies available is fine—but will the splashier upcoming e-books from Larry Kirshbaum’s new imprint, including titles by Tim Ferriss and Deepak Chopra, be available across etailers as well? Will you be able to read Penny Marshall’s memoir on your Nook? Judging by today’s news, the answer will probably be yes.

If that answer is yes, it’s going to be a game changer, because it’s going to create a more level playing field; but the competition is going to be fierce if they’re able to find a way to play by publishing’s rules while simultaneously breaking them by negotiating different royalty rates and contract terms. It seems as though Amazon is getting better acquainted with the rules of the road. Are technology companies starting to understand the intricacies of the publishing world? I’m interested to see how this one unfolds.


This entry was posted on March 6, 2012 by in Business, Opinion and tagged , .

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