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WSJ Doesn’t Buy Into Amazon’s ‘Buy Once, Read Everywhere’ Plans

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Earlier this month, I told an Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) VP the aspect that bothered me most as a Kindle user was the inability to access my subscriptions across the e-reader platform. Amazon execs are among the best I’ve ever seen at playing it close to the vest and he was no exception, never letting on that they were on the verge of doing just that. Well, on the verge of making it possible for publishers to do it. PaidContent has learned the Wall Street Journal, one of the top-selling newspapers on Kindle, is opting out.

The New York Times Co. (NYSE: NYT) reply to my question about whether it would be taking part initially wasn’t a straight up or down: “We’ll be announcing our bundle details when we launch the details of our paid model.” The NYT is the top-selling Kindle newspaper.

I have queries out to other publishers but no “yes” yet. So what newspapers and magazines will be taking part? Friday’s casual announcement in the Kindle Community forum doesn’t mention any specifics, saying only “many newspapers and magazines” will be available through free Kindle apps, or go into much detail about how it will work.

The feature will start in “coming weeks” on the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch, with promises to bring it to the Android and other apps “down the road.” Amazon adds: “Our vision is Buy Once, Read Everywhere, and we’re excited to make this possible for Kindle periodicals in the same way that it works now for Kindle books.” If that is the template, subscribers will be able to move issues or entire subscriptions between devices and apps, picking up where they left off each time.

Does it make sense for publishers? It makes sense for me as a Kindle device and app user. It makes sense for Amazon because it enhances the value of a subscription, expands sales potential and enables it to compete in the subscription space outside its own devices. But does it make sense for publishers? Probably not for those already selling their own multi-platform subscriptions, who want to control their customer relationships and/or who want to control their brands on other devices. The NYT has invested considerable resources in an iPad app that eventually will be part of its metered plans. Selling subscriptions on the Kindle or Nook makes sense. Selling one that works on an iPad and competes with that, not so much.

News Corp (NSDQ: NWS). CEO Rupert Murdoch has been among the most vocal critics of the Amazon model even while his papers are among the most prominent in the Kindle store. The money poured into now-stalled Project Alesia was in part a response to Kindle and a desire for a more publisher-centric digital distribution alternative. Along the way, Murdoch, the NYT and other gained some concessions from Amazon, allowing higher prices to be charged and a lower revenue split. A WSJ Kindle subscription runs $14.99 now; it started around $10 and some customer info to be shared. But opting in to this new scheme would run counter to his goals of more, not less control, over his publications’ digital distribution.

It might make sense for other publishers who are less interested in brand-building on devices and/or more interested in selling subscriptions than in trying to provide a bundle. It’s also possible that this new feature comes with a new plan for publishers that makes it more financially interesting for them than the usual 70-30 split with Amazon.

Book lending later this year

In the same post, Amazon announced another pending feature that is getting the most attention: book sharing or lending, something Barnes & Noble (NYSE: BKS) already does through its Nook. Until now, it has been one of the key differences between the newcomer and the entrenched player. Kindle already allows sharing between devices on the same account but not across accounts.

Like Nook, once a book has been loaned on Kindle, the original owner can’t access it. The lending period is 14 days. Both are hampered in one major area: publishers determine which books can be lent. As Amazon explains: “Each book can be lent once for a loan period of 14-days and the lender cannot read the book during the loan period. Additionally, not all e-books will be lendable – this is solely up to the publisher or rights holder, who determines which titles are enabled for lending.”

Why announce these features before they’re ready? Barnes & Noble has a big Nook announcement Tuesday, expected by many to be the advent of a full-color, touchscreen device. We’re also headed in to what should be a big 2010 holiday season for e-books so telegraphing any feature significant enough to sway minds and dollars might help.

Update: With Time as the #1 magazine on Kindle, what are Time (NYSE: TWX) Inc.’s plans? From a spokeswoman: “We’re in active conversations with a number of partners. We’re very excited about the possibilities. We don’t have anything specific to say about Kindle’s program and Time Inc. and this time.”

A Time subscription on Kindle runs $2.99 a month. That’s a little more than half of the cost of buying a single issue on on an iPad — the only way you can get it there now due to Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) and Time Inc.’s inability to find a subscription solution so far. A subscription on the iPad likely would be at a substantial discount from the newsstand rate but do they want a whole to be as low as Kindle? Then again, increasing subscription numbers has its own value — $36 a year each, in the case of Kindle, minus Amazon’s take.