Sunday, January 31, 2010

Rumble in the (Amazon) Jungle

Last week was a big week for books with everyone expressing their support, or their concerns for Apple’s industry game play on their iPad. Publishing is renowned for its ability to play ‘follow the leader’ and until the dust settles it is often difficult to separate the real news from the noise. We also witnessed the final closure of objections to the Google Book Settlement with some staking their claims for a seat at the table, whilst others continued to point out the hypocrisy of a deal that sanctions breaking copyright whilst arguing for the support of the very same laws.

Authors are clearly pawns in the game and amazingly still have not been balloted by the very bodies vocally supporting the deal.

We now have a major house, Macmillan, squaring up to Amazon over pricing. They clearly find the $9.99 price unacceptable and have demanded a change of terms to one they find acceptable or said that they would change their digital release windows. Amazon in response has clearly refused to be dictated to and have appeared to have delisted all Macmillan direct sales. It is almost impossible to introduce price maintenance unless you effectively own the market and no one does in publishing.

Pricing is an emotive issue and digital pricing one which clearly is now becoming a battlefield. John Sargent’s open letter in Publish Lunch displays either calm and calculated nerves or a speedy and questionable reaction. Who is right and who is wrong is immaterial. What is important is the message that this public spat sends out to the two people that matter, the author and the consumer. There is only winner in a price war is the consumer and the player with the deepest pockets. You can call it whatever model you like, the issue about digital pricing is not going away, the more it is raised the harder it will be to manage.

If all publishers were to follow Macmillan and all publishers where locked out by Amazon life would become interesting. However, the publishing marketplace’s diversity is it greatest strength and how long can publishers turn their back on the biggest physical channel and the digital leading channel today? Remember the public cries of foul play when CDs first came out? Some would suggest that the case for cheap ebooks is even greater and the current public fight is a clear wake up call to all.

The one thing that is clear is that the US marketplace is setting many digital precedents in our global market. We are starting to see a landscape where the control of digital books is in the hands of Google, Apple, Adobe and Amazon. An interesting quartet of book lovers. Their platforms and technology are dictating the future and what deals are in place today may not be the deals in play tomorrow. Playing with Gorillas can be dangerous.

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