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How the e-book landscape is becoming a walled garden

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Just as a few massive chain stores eventually came to dominate the traditional printed book market in North America, the e-book marketplace is a kind of oligopoly involving a few major players — primarily Amazon(s amzn), Apple(s aapl) and Barnes & Noble(s bks). And while bookstore owners of all kinds are free to decide which books they wish to put on their shelves, these new giants have far more control over whose e-books see the light of day because they also own the major e-reading platforms, and they are making decisions based not on what they think consumers want to read but on their own competitive interests. That is turning the e-book landscape into even more of a walled garden.

Author and digital-marketing maven Seth Godin highlighted this issue in a recent blog post, in which he described how his new book was turned down by Apple because it contained hyperlinks to books sold by Amazon (with whom Godin has a partnership). According to a letter that the author says he received from the company, the new title — Stop Stealing Dreams, a book about the transformation that Godin believes needs to happen in public education — was rejected by Apple due to what the letter described as “multiple links to [the] Amazon store.” Godin notes that the book had links to related works, including Too Big to Know from David Weinberger, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto.

Should e-bookstores only carry their parent company’s titles?

As Godin notes in his post, we don’t expect supermarkets to carry every brand of cereal or other products that we want to buy, because we assume that they have to make various business decisions about what they stock their shelves with. But the author argues that bookstores are different — or at least they should be:

We’re heading to a world where there are just a handful of influential bookstores (Amazon, Apple, Nook…) and one by one, the principles of open access are disappearing. Apple, apparently, won’t carry an ebook that contains a link to buy a hardcover book from Amazon.

It’s one thing when an independent bookstore owner decides not to carry a book for personal reasons, and even when a national chain decides not to stock books because of their subject matter (although those decisions also often get criticized by free-speech advocates, with good reason). But what makes the recent moves by Apple and Amazon and Barnes & Noble different is that they also own the major e-reading platforms, of which Amazon is the largest in terms of market share. So it’s not just the stores they control, but one of the fundamental methods of reading those books.

As Godin notes in his post, there are open standards for e-books such as ePub (and Google has made a well-intentioned but ultimately weak attempt at trying to open up the e-book market), but the majority of e-books are still read via the Kindle and the iPad and the Nook, and that gives the three major players a firm grip on what people consume — and they are using it. My colleague Laura Owen at paidContent pointed out in a recent post how Amazon blocked any books from distributor IPG because it was trying to negotiate a new contract with the company, a move similar to Amazon’s lockout of Macmillan’s titles during a negotiation over pricing in the days before Apple introduced the “agency model.”

Welcome to the platform-dependent bookstore of the future

For its part, Barnes & Noble has made what appears to be a retaliatory move against Amazon for the digital giant’s recent expansion of its power — which has involved signing authors to its own publishing imprint and launching features such as the Kindle Owners Lending Library. B&N has said that it will not carry any Amazon titles in its stores (although Amazon is trying hard to find a way around this restriction by doing deals with other distributors). At least B&N’s aggression can be understood somewhat, since the chain is said to be in fairly deep trouble financially.

As we’ve described before, Apple and Amazon come at the e-book market from different perspectives: Apple sees books as just another form of content that it can use to sell iPads and other devices, whereas Amazon sees devices like the Kindle and the Kindle Fire as ways it can lock people into its content ecosystem and sell them more books, movies and so on. But both are dependent on having users locked into their products, and so they make it as difficult as possible to move from one to the other.

Publishers are partly to blame for the walled-garden status of the market as well, since they handed Amazon and Apple the stick of digital-rights management, which the two companies are now using to beat them — and they won’t allow their books to be loaned to other users, or even in many cases to public libraries, and they certainly don’t make it easy to get access to them on different platforms. Welcome to the mutually incompatible, silo-based, platform-dependent and user-unfriendly future of books.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users sly06 and Jeremy Mates.

58 Responses to “How the e-book landscape is becoming a walled garden”

  1. HenkPoley

    So, what will happen. After buying a book, people will pirate the book to be sure they’ll have access to it in the future. Or they’ll just pirate it, if that’s easier.

    Where have we heard this before?

  2. A world where any book in eBook format is available from only one vendor to be read on only one device? Inconceivable. If I were an author contemplating such a fate for my work, I would be running around like the proverbial chicken looking for a better way. There is a better way. And it will bring down all the walls around all these gardens. The conduit is the public library, as I describe in Part II of

    The End of Libraries

  3. As Matthew notes, Although the big name players such as Apple, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble are making e-book publishing more and more competitive, there still is a huge, relatively untapped marketplace in self-publishing e-books. I’ve been doing this now for 2.5 years with great success. So, where there’s a will, there’s ALWAYS a way.

  4. The best analogy, in my opinion, although perhaps one you younger folks can’t relate to, is records. I bought a record player in 1965. Then, for many years, I bought records to play on it. It would have been outrageous, unthinkable, for me to buy, let alone be virtually forced to buy, say, an RCA record player that only played RCA records. Of course not! I bought whatever brand record player I chose, and I bought lots of records put out by lots of companies, all of which, of course, I could play on my RCA record player or any other record player.

    For the device with which you access the art to be useable only with art marketed by this same device’s manufacturer is outrageous and disgusting. But I do want to also point out that this conversation has so far ignored the fact that there are other e-readers out there that do in fact permit you to get your e-books from any and every source (well, not from Kindle since Kindle’s e-books are devised to only be readable on Kindle, but every other source). For example, the Sony Reader, especially its latest model the Sony Reader WiFi, with which I can go online not only to the Sony store but anywhere else including libraries or online stores, and download e-pub, pdf or various other types of e-books. This is why I bought the Sony Reader, so that I would not be forced to get my books from only one source.

  5. Edward Steel

    If it were possible to link to a book directly, rather than a store that sells a book, this problem wouldn’t exist. Godin could sell the same book in both ecosystems, and the apple device would link to its store, and amazon its store. (And competing devices might let the user choose a store, imagine!) What I mean is, we need a layer of abstraction, something like a URI schema for books (doesn’t ISBN get us half way there already?)

      • Edward Steel

        That’s funny, I came to this article from there, but didn’t get that from his entry. I think bundling is great way for publishers to stay relevant, but what I’m talking about is a way to link to ebooks (even DRMed ones) from other ebooks, without specifying the store. That way Godin isn’t “promoting Apple’s competitors”, he’s just promoting other ebooks.

        If the physical books used such a schema to link to digital copies as well, so much the better (but you’d expect them to download for free, not resolve to a store to buy another copy).

  6. Its getting to theoint I try to find a torrent of a book I’ve bought on kindle just to make sure I dont get screwed over when I change platforms. And as most of what I want is often just not available in my region, I’ve been using kindle less often.

  7. bergmayer

    Hi. I agree with this article for the most part. But so many articles (this on included) fail to state the actual reason why B&N will not stock Amazon books, that I wrote a canned response:

    Basically, B&N will not stock *any* physical books where, if there is an ebook equivalent, they can’t sell it on Nook.

    I would also prefer no DRM (best) or interoperable DRM (not great, but better than what we have). But we also have to make sure that ebooks don’t get locked into an “exclusively available on Amazon” model and B&N’s been fighting that, which I applaud.

  8. This is the same thing that happened with music on iTunes. To get the business, Apple offered DRM. If they hadn’t, no music store. Later, there was Jobs’ declaration that he wanted to lose DRM entirely. As a result, Amazon got the non-DRM’ed, and lower priced, mp3s. Once again, the false security of DRM exerts a siren song to people who are used to printing copies of physical books, and then relying on booksellers to contain the thievery.

    No one, none of the older “owners”, realize that if they open it up, lose DRM, that people will still pay, and the presence of “illegally shared” books will mean they won’t have to spend on promotion and advertising… unless what they’re selling is really a turkey. Word of mouth is the best.

    And I swear I used to loan out books after I read them. Two or three times. No DRM.

  9. Ted Landau

    RE: “we don’t expect supermarkets to carry every brand of cereal, because we assume that they have to make various business decisions about what they stock their shelves with. But the author argues that bookstores are different…”

    This reminds of the debates regarding the “closed” iTunes App Store. One side would argue that Apple was unfairly restricting access to apps by its App Store review process, rejecting apps for reasons having nothing to do with the quality of the app or its potential sales.

    The other side would respond that it’s Apple’s store and they can do what they want, just as Target can decide what products to carry. If you don’t like it, shop elsewhere.

    The first side would rebut that Apple’s App Store is not like Target. If you don’t like Target’s selection, you can always go to Wal-Mart. If you don’t like Apple’s choices for its App Store, you can’t go anywhere else, unless you abandon your iPhone altogether or jailbreak.

    The second side would respond by saying…. Well, you get the idea.

    Consumers tend to be the losers in these situations. as your article points out. But unless and until it starts hurting the bottom line of these companies, I doubt we can expect much to change.

  10. T Hammock

    I’ll stick to printed materials, thank you. I never found a book too cumbersome to carry around and they are certainly more durable than readers. I have a reader, but I only use it for my own content. After trying them for a year I decided that digital books are a bit silly.

    • For me! Ebooks are what I’ve been waiting for since I bought my palmIII. I’ve read more books on my iPad and phone in two years than the 10 years before that. Because the books are always with me, I can read them in the dark without bothering my wife, and they are cheaper (mostly) than the physicals. DRM still sucks though, just like it did with music.

  11. Scott Jensen

    Who cares? Here’s what will happen. Cellphone companies will kill off ALL ebook readers. Not human readers. The tablet PC readers. Just as cellphones have killed of pagers, PDAs, watches, and a long list of other single-purpose gizmos. Cellphones are the greatest Swiss Army knives ever invented and they’ll just continue to wipe out single-purpose technologies one after another.

    There is NO hope for, B&N, or any physical or digital bookstore. Publishers and bookstores will go the way of the Dodo and buggy whips. This will happen as soon ebooks start to be given away free by incorporating ad pages between their chapters and advertisers will pay the author (via his agent) by how many people download their book. Think TV. Advertisers pay by ratings. Downloads are a form of ratings. There’s NO role for publishers or bookstores in this future. They’re not needed. Given this, your concerns about “walled gardens” is meaningless and even a bit cute. You think what is going on will always go on. Read some history. Nothing works that way in real life.

    Right now you’re watching the literature industry … not the publishing industry as that’s dying … in the process of going through its greatest transformation since the invention of the printing press. So instead of being a Chicken Little, go grab some popcorn and a beer and enjoy the show.

  12. A guy getting $$ to publish through Amazon complaining that the ‘principles of open access’ (aka bookstores) are disappearing? yea no irony there…

  13. Jim Kukral

    The wild card here is of course, Google books. It’s completely lame right now, but oh, what it could be! Did you happen to notice, as I did, that about a year ago that Amazon results don’t show up in organic search results as much as they used to? At one point even, I was seeing Google Book results replacing them, then it went away.

    Google could jump right in in a flash and make serious waves as a competitor to Amazon. BN and the publishers? No way.

    • I don’t think so. The reason why Google Books is a mess is because they totally ignored rights holders. Don’t blame them, in a way, because longterm copyright is a slippery thing. Good that they made copies. But having massively infringed, Google’s not in a good position to negotiate prices and compensation. And, of course, they’ve got so many things they’re doing that you never know whether they’re going to work at finishing it or just let it drop. They remind me of the dog in “UP”: their attention is easily… squirrel!

  14. Good grief. I grow weary of all the whining about how Amazon, B&N, or anyone else is not playing fair. Hogwash. It’s a free marketplace. If you don’t like B&N’s rules, then take your business elsewhere. If you don’t like anyone’s rules, start your own competitor. Of course, that might cost you some money, but that’s how the marketplace works.

  15. Why publish a book which has links to a competing business? It seems naive. No other business model is keen to allow you to advertise the competition.
    If you buy a Beatles track there is no link to ask you to take a look at Lady Gaga.

    As for DRM I think the publishers are right to stick with it. Yes, you could share a paperback book but to how many?- 3, 6 or 10 friends.
    A digital file allows you to share with thousands.

    Anyone in this forum keen to share whatever they do for living with thousands thus affecting your ability to make a living?
    I think not.

    Publishing should not make the same mistake as the music biz. Now everyone expects music to be free.
    No one else on the planet works for free so why should musicians and writers?

    • rick gregory

      Ron – DRM doesn’t stop sharing though. There are scripts out there that make it trivial for a person who’s even a bit technical to strip the DRM from DRMed books. If someone wants to do that and torrent books they can and will do it now. All DRM does is hinder things for those of us who want easy interoperability.

      For an enlightened take on this, look at Angry Robot Books. They’re a speculative fiction publisher who make all of their books available without DRM at the same time around the world (no restrictions on buying the books because of your location). AS a result, I actively look for works by them. They’re inexpensive, good quality technically and they don’t hobble me.

  16. Mathew, I think your tense is incorrect. The retail ebook landscape has always been a walled garden, with a few publisher-direct-to-reader exceptions (O’Reilly comes to mind). It will be “news” when there is interoperability. Which will come (and we have it a little bit with Kindle app for iOS, for example).

    Go back a few decades. Would Sony have told Paramount that since they were distributing a title for Betamax that Paramount could not also distribute a title as VHS? I think not. Would they have objected to a trailer promoting VHS technology? Probably – but why would Paramount have done something like that unless they benefited financially from the sales of VHS players? And that’s the rub – ebooks are in a vertically integrated market.

    Your point about there not being a one-to-one real world analog to hypertext links is a valid one, I think.

  17. Gary Chapman

    With regard Seth Godin’s book – I don’t understand why he did not produce a revised edition for Apple circumventing their objections.

  18. these new giants have far more control over whose e-books see the light of day because they also own the major e-reading platforms, and they are making decisions based not on what they think consumers want to read but on their own competitive interests. That is turning the e-book landscape into even more of a walled garden.”

    Yes, that’s one way to look at it. You can say the exact same thing about the Publishers. They pull books from a specific platform…all in the name of competitive interests as opposed to what consumers want to read.

  19. Richard Birecki

    A S, they could still potentially work with google. Also, people can have their own bookstores as well, and hope that their book is good enough to go viral.
    Amazon is going to have a lot of power in the online retail world, they are already using it. Best Buy will be out of business soon, ( book stores already basically are, and we’ll just have to see how it plays out. Go Google!

  20. minimalist

    Godin is being more than a bit disingenuous. “Too Big to Know” is also available in the iBookstore. So if linking directly to a store was so much better than a standard bibliography reference he did that option. Of course he won’t make money off that link like he will off the Amazon one but its not Apple’s responsibility to promote an author’s third party deals. if he wanted to put coupons for Amazon in his hardcover books I’m sure Barnes & Noble might have a little chat with him as well.

    I have faith that this will all work itself out in the end … just like digital music DRM. At the beginning people are just excited by the new concept. Then as eBooks become greater and greater share of the market consumers become more savvy their limitations and they begin to speak up. Eventually, eBooks publishers will be forced to standardize or remove DRM by either market forces or judicial forces and all of this will be an unpleasant memory. These are just growing pains.

    • Steve Sabol

      Exactly… But then he’d have to have the infrastructure to do that. So, he wants Apple (or Amazon or B&N) to sell his book, handle all the overhead of the sale process, and then is shocked SHOCKED I TELL YOU when that retailer has a problem with him driving business to a competitor.

    • Ted T.

      More to the point, he could sell as an ePub, which would make it appear identically in iBooks to what one would get via the iBooks/iTunes bookstore.

      On the more general point, the ball is in the publisher’s court — they just need to get rid of DRM to make all eBooks universal.

  21. Secular Investor

    He doth protest too much!

    Godin wants his cake an eat it. He’s happy to get paid by Apple who sell his book, but he also wants to place links to in his book to Apple’s competitors, where he can presumably earn a fee for every hit.

    Asking Apple, Amazon or Nook to allow links from the books they publish to their competitors is like expecting supermarkets to sell products with vouchers to buy similar products from they competitors down the road.

    • Grocery stores/supermarkets do this Every Day.

      They sell newspapers, which advertise competitors and contain coupons for same. THEIR response, at least in my market, is to accept competitor coupons and prices as tho they were their own ads.

      • Matt I.

        Rather than invalidate his basic point, all you did was show the list muted applicability of his analogy. Coupons for generic products are not a good analogy for links to books exclusive available from one publisher after all.

        Indeed, after reading the article and several of these comments it seems to me unfair to compare what Apple did with Godin’s book with what the other publishers are doing so partitioned not the industry.

  22. I think a better analogy would be a brick and mortar book store choosing not to stock a book because the appendix contains a list of other titles by the author with the address of a major competitor store selling them – and that store have exclusivity.

    • I admit Gruber has a point — but why shouldn’t we expect Barnes & Noble to sell books that have coupons in them for Borders? The bottom line is that I want an ebook store to sell me ebooks, regardless of who publishes them, and none of the companies with a platform is apparently willing to do that.

      • rick gregory

        I think that’s naive. tell me, did you ever see a physical store selling books that promoted a competitor? Why on earth would they do that? Why shouldn’t a store expect any cross promotion to point to the product sold by that store? When have you EVER seen this?

        I noticed you ignored the point that Godin could simply edit the links.

        Finally, you seem kind of hostile to entities doing what they can to monetize their product. On newspapers you mock things like paywalls. Here, you expect on distribution channel to sell products promoting a competitor. Tell me… have you ever had P&L responsibilities?

      • I’m not hostile to them monetizing their product, I’m just thinking like a consumer, and what I want is a broad selection from multiple sources, but that’s antithetical to the platform-and-content model that Apple and Amazon are both focused on. As for a stores selling products that promote a competitor, there is no real-world analogue to hyperlinks so it’s difficult to find an example. Why should Apple tell me what to link to?

      • minimalist

        “I’m not hostile to them monetizing their product, I’m just thinking like a consumer, and what I want is a broad selection from multiple sources,…”

        OK, fair enough. But that’s really an issue with DRM, not with Apple’s rejection of a book that contained affiliate links the author has with a competitor’s bookstore. As a consumer none of us is privy to the back room dealings with bookstores in the physical world. If all Godin had to do to get the book accepted was insert a regular bibliography or link to copies of the same books in the iBookstore then not doing so seems like he is cutting off his nose to spite his face. Or he tried to slip one by Apple to make a few extra bucks and is now using the controversy he created to get some free publicity for his book. I’d be willing to bet in the end he will strip the offending links and resubmit and make even more money because of all the attention. No sane person would he give up the thousands of dollars he stands to make in the iBookstore for the pennies he’d get from his Amazon affiliate links.

        And who is to say that DRM won’t eventually be pushed aside by more and more readers gutting savvy about the books they buy? Just 5 years after the inception of the iTunes store, market forces rid digital music of DRM. There is no reason to think that the system as it exist now will be the system we will all have to live under for the next hundred years.

        “Why should Apple tell me what to link to?”

        Tell you? They told the Godin which is sort of none of our business or concern as consumers. As consumers why should we care whether Godin get his affiliate fees from Amazon or not? That’s all just inside baseball. And wouldn’t the more “open” way to do it be for Godin to simply to list the books in his bibliography and let us choose where to buy them?

      • rick gregory


        You’re thinking like a consumer? Pardon me, but no. No consumer will care in the least about Godin’s links one way or the other. This is a spat that only people like you and I will care about. The reason I questioned you on your attitude is that what Apple did is perfectly reasonable from the point of view of someone who is responsible for running a business.

        No physical bookstore would be fine with a book that contained coupons to a competitor for the author’s other works. I’m guessing Best Buy wouldn’t want to sell Samsung TVs that had coupons for other Samsung products at, say, Amazon. The only reason the web is getting all bent about this is that it’s Apple.

        Again, this is PR by Godin. He could easily have updated the links (Apple has an affiliate program too, as does B&N if I’m not mistaken). And do you honestly think this would have gotten a fraction of the attention if Seth had been rejected by Barnes & Noble? Of course it wouldn’t have. This is nothing more than PR for him and linkbait for the news sites. “OMG Apple is a walled garden! They’re CLOSED!!!!”

        What solves the oligopoly issue isn’t something as mundane as allowing cross-linking to other stores. It’s the abandonment of DRM and the use of published ebook formats (or, of course, the wide distribution of programs that read proprietary formats ala the Kindle).

    • minimalist

      Well its got the whole blogosphere talking about his book doesn’t it? I can’t believe Godin is that naive about such things. Seems about as casual a mishap as MIA giving the bird at the Superbowl. Cause a minor controversy that will blow over in a few days and get lots of free publicity as a result.

  23. This is exactly what forced the music labels to remove DRM. Apple controlled the devices so completely that in turn it controlled how music was sold online through the iTunes store.

    Now Amazon, Apple and B&N control the reading devices and in turn how books are sold. I’d love to see a situation where publishers are forced to get rid of DRM because the “Big 3” control distribution. It’s less likely to happen this time around, because with 3 players, the publishers have some level of say in pricing while with music, Apple effectively controlled the pricing.

    • I believe DRM meet its demise because of AMZN not APPL. Remember, itunes started as Apple-only platform. Music industry would rather throw lawyers at the changes wrought by digitization than think about how to adapt to change.

    • Apple fought DRM in music and won. They make enormous amounts of money from hardware and run iTunes at breakeven. They would be happy if music were free, since that would sell the most hardware, but they try to keep the price just high enough to keep the supply healthy.

      Logically they should take the same approach to ebooks, but it’s harder because individual books can be so expensive. They do support ePub, and most of my iBooks are DRM free ePubs.

  24. “these new giants have far more control over whose e-books see the light of day because they also own the major e-reading platforms, and they are making decisions based not on what they think consumers want to read but on their own competitive interests. That is turning the e-book landscape into even more of a walled garden.”

    Yes, that’s one way to look at it. You can say the exact same thing about the Publishers. They pull books from a specific platform…all in the name of competitive interests as opposed to what consumers want to read.

  25. A. Nony Mouse

    Everytime I hit “Buy Now” on the kindle store, I have to console myself by thinking at least the author will get paid, but then I think, all this does is let Amazon think it is OK to sell books (OK, a licence to view one copy of the book) with DRM that ties it only to their reader, which can’t read epubs. So that means I have to have a device that can run multiple reading apps, pushing up the price of the reader. And then the publishers with regional rights – go to get a book – not available in your region – yet Amazon will happily sell me a paper copy and charge me shipping. I know it mush be the publishers because A book I was after was actually available in Amazon, and B&N, but not here in NZ. SO I got it from instead. THE DRM DOES NOT STOP PIRACY. Letting my buy the book to read on whatever reader I want will reduce piracy.

  26. I’m not sure how different the situation you describe is from the situation 30 years ago. Back then, the “readers” were physical books, so the publishers controlled the fundamental method of reading content in the past, too; they owned the reading platforms, and Random House wouldn’t publish something to be read on Simon & Schuster’s “reader.” Also, publishers made decisions based on their own competitive interests, i.e. if they didn’t think a book would sell, they wouldn’t publish it. That was a walled garden 30 years ago.

  27. > Publishers are partly to blame for the walled-garden status of the market as well, since they handed Amazon and Apple the stick of digital-rights management, which the two companies are now using to beat them

    I place a bigger chunk of blame on the publishers. When Google was trying to launch the books initiative, these publishers cried “MOMMY!” and ran to Amazon-daddy and Apple-daddy, while fighting Google’s attempts tooth and nail. Now Amazon and Apple are showing them who’s daddy. If the publishers had any sense, they would have WORKED with Google have a viable alternative and a competitor who would have kept Amazon and Apple somewhat in check. They can still do this, but they are too stupid to understand Google Books.