jpegAmazon.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.

10 Responses to How Hachette could fight back against Amazon

  1. Dan Hill says:

    I think you mean “without DRM” in the penultimate para.

    It’s ironic that by being so insistent on DRM, the big publishers have helped create the Kindle/Amazon lock in.

    Tor are now releasing DRM free (I think they’re an in imprint of one of the big 5?) Maybe they decided hard core scifi readers know how to defeat DRM anyway!

    I’m a bit surprised you’re down in eink. For long for reading, eink is a far superior experience. I agree iBooks does a better job of page layout etc, but that’s not worth the eye strain at least for me.

  2. ThomasW says:

    One publisher (Baen) has been providing DRM free ebooks for over 10 years. For many years they also provided a CD containing dozens of free ebooks with many hardcover releases. So the notion of DRM free ebooks has been tried successfully by at least one publisher.

  3. Hillary says:

    I immediately thought of Baen as well. It’ll be interesting to see how their strategy evolves with new leadership at the helm.

    Personally, I’d prefer to buy ebooks directly from the publisher if they were DRM-free (and I put my money where my mouth is with Baen, even though their ebooks are usually $1 or $2 less on Amazon). I appreciate the curator role that publishers fill in today’s market, and I want to support it.

  4. Avi says:

    I think the link to Benjamin Edelman’s blog is broken, here is a link that works:
    http://www.benedelman.org/
    I believe the article referred to is ‘Mastering the Intermediaries: Strategies for Dealing with the Likes of Google, Amazon, and Kayak’

  5. Ben Edelman says:

    Avi, the link was broken because my server was briefly down (apologies!), but it’s back now. http://www.benedelman.org/publications/hbr-mastering-intermediaries-june2014.pdf should last for the foreseeable future.

  6. Tony says:

    Exactly. It’s the publishers who, by insisting on DRM “protection,” are giving Amazon its stranglehold.

    Tech publishers like O’Reilly Media and Manning Publications have been offering DRM-free ebooks direct from their own sites for some time now. They understand that their readers abhor technology lock-in. The direct price is often significantly higher than the Amazon price for the same book, but I’m more than willing to pay it.

  7. […] Amazon ($AMZN) is in a knock-down, drag out fight with some publishers.  (Bits also Digitopology) […]

  8. kaleberg says:

    Cory Doctorow is probably laughing even now. He’s that anti-DRM science fiction writer who always said that DRM is a trap for the seller, not the buyer.

    He also pointed out that DRM really can’t work since you have to ship both the protected content and the key to unlock it or the user can’t read, hear or watch it.

  9. […] an ode for Amazon against publishers and also authors who support them. One line is the DRM issue that I have highlighted many times before: if publishers care so much about readers and want them to have retailing choice they would […]

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