Publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin has posted another opinion piece on his blog, in which he looks at the recent banishment of the Google Books app and Kobo’s in-app store as the latest in a series of business decisions affecting publishing that were outside publishing’s control. As he puts it in the headline, “publishing is living in a world not of its own making.”
The point most emphatically made by all of this is that the book business is a cork floating on a digital device stream. We don’t control our environment. We must keep adapting to what bigger players, some of which have pretty minimal bandwidth to engage us in a dialogue and pretty minimal interest in what’s best from our point of view, see as the best strategy for them.
Shatzkin notes that even he had tended to assume Apple wouldn’t enforce its decision against e-book apps, given how much Apple had benefited from having so many e-book apps to attract book-lovers to its platforms. But in the end, he has to admit he forgot that companies will usually act in their own self-interest.
It didn’t look that way at first, of course. Apple’s invention and then the publishers’ imposition of agency pricing last year actually leveled the publishing playing field—consumers might gripe at having to pay more for e-books from Amazon, but it also meant that companies like Barnes & Noble, Google, and particularly Kobo had a better shot at competing for market share. Shatzkin singles out Kobo in particular as benefiting, since it has nowhere near as deep pockets as the other companies.
But Apple’s latest change, effectively making iBooks the only e-book app allowed to have an integrated store on its devices (thanks to the price pressure of agency pricing, which it invented itself, meaning that e-bookstores can’t sell e-books through an in-app store without sacrificing their profit margin!), means that Amazon, Google, and Kobo will probably all lose sales as there are lower barriers to instant purchase through iBooks than through any other e-book store on iOS devices.
Shatzkin points out that publishers have been subject to a series of external decisions that have shaped the current industry: Amazon jumpstarting e-books with its Kindle, Barnes & Noble giving Amazon its first serious competition with the Nook, Apple introducing the iPad to show people who didn’t want a dedicated device what e-reading could be like, and so on. This isn’t necessarily bad, or even new—it’s just the way the business world works—but it also means that changes in the marketplace can be unexpectedly surprising.
Shatzkin also says that Apple’s changes, while possibly harmful to other e-book vendors, may nonetheless not be harmful to publishers—it may only change how people will buy e-books, not the fact that they will buy them. Indeed, from the point of view of reducing the power of Amazon further, publishers may find it to be a good thing (provided it does not disproportionately affect the non-Amazon retailers).
But either way, it seems Apple’s happy symbiosis with e-book retailers is over. It remains to be seen whether the net effect will benefit publishers in the end.