Wylie's agreement this week with with Amazon to allow Amazon exclusive rights to publish eBook versions of it's classics on the kindle (techcrunch) has a lot of publishers up in arms because of it's potential to fragment the eBook market. On the one hand it's arguably just another sign of the disruption electronic publishing is likely to wreak on the publishing industry but on the other it also seems like a spectacularly bad idea in the medium and long term. Although it's not the fist such deal, the trend seems to be changing from one off's like Stephen King's UR to larger catalogues.
It's also logical that super-star owners will seek to make deals directly with distributers as far up the value chain as possible.
The exclusivity deal itself though, firstly smacks somewhat of impotence in the face of Apple's iPad - trying to leverage exclusive content to defend the Kindle's market position. It signals that this market fragmentation is "the best option" now - which is a shame.
However before authors and publishers go down this route they should think about where the real clearing houses for electronic books may end up. and owners of Book stores about which audiences they can serve:
APIs now allow seamless and highly flexible delivery of content in raw form - a perfect opportunity to restructure how user receive content, how they consume it (a multitude of readers apps could now emerge) and how they pay - it should be irrelevant where you buy a book (the content and presentation) from - the experience should be the same.
Even worse if content is tied to a specific device you'll need many devices to read what you want to read and (worse) innovation in the reader device market will stall almost before it started, because the biggest platforms will be the only ones with noteworthy content.
- This is bad for publishers since their patch to an audience is fragmented
- This is bad for readers since they can't consume content in the form they want despite technology allowing that for the first time.
- It is also bad for Amazon and Apple in the long run since they will fail to win all deals and they wont create a sufficient device ecosystem around their sales channel.
Publishers would be well advised to stay away from single channel sales until those channels genuinely support access to the majority of the world reader audience. It seems to me that:
- Amazon's best strategy would be to open it's eBook distribution store to as many platforms as possible (iPad is already covered) but Nook and others - to make it unattractive for anybody to do exclusive deals which exclude them.
- Further, amazon doing exclusives now when they address few 3rd party readers risks killing an ecosystem which they later may need.
- Apple's best strategy would be to do the same with iBooks - open to as many platforms as possible, to also make it unattractive to do exclusive deals with Amazon.
In fact - how about this: an open DRM standard for eBooks which works across all reader devices which all eBook stores (let's root for ePUB) support and APIs for those stores. Apple would hate it (see iTunes / ACC), Amazon would in theory loose an advantage - but in practice very likely gain heavily from it (at the expense of API and not having to develop it's own hardware exclusively).
With the world heading for open ecosystems of content and the chance to decouple data, algorithms and viewing experiences it would be a shame if publishers ended up locking book content into closed ecosystems. If Amazon precipitates this they could loose more than they gain by crippling the ecosystem.