It was a surprising weekend for those of us who had naively imagined that after crossing the River iPad, we might actually get some Elysian rest. But, alas, the fates conspired against us and handed us the curious case of Amazon vs. Macmillan. Or Macmillan vs. Amazon?
For those who actually took the weekend off, let me summarize what happened. John Sargeant, the CEO of Macmillan Books, gave Amazon a wee-bit of an ultimatum: switch from a wholesale sell-through model, where Amazon buys digital books at a fixed wholesale rate and then can choose to sell those books at whatever price it deems appropriate (even at a loss, as it does with $9.99 bestsellers), to an agency model, where Amazon agrees to sell at a price set by the publisher in exchange for a 30% agency fee. Sargeant explained to Amazon that if it did not agree to the switch, Macmillan Books would make its eBooks subject to significant "windowing" wherein new books are held back from the digital store for some period, say six months, while hardback books are sold in stores and possibly, digital copies are sold through the iPad at $14.99.
This is more detail than we usually know about a negotiation like this because of what happened next. Sargeant got off of a plane on Friday only to discover that Amazon had responded by pulling all Macmillan books from the Kindle store as well as from Amazon.com. He then decided to make it clear to the industry (and his authors) that this drastic action was Amazon's fault, in a paid advertisement in a special Sunday edition of Publishers Lunch.
I have a weakness. I like to think big. And when we heard so many juicy rumors about the Apple tablet device, now named the iPad, I knew that with Steve Jobs at the helm, I could afford to think big. So big did I think, that I suggested the iPad should take media consumption to the next level and create an entirely new category of device.
At first, Jobs appeared ready to confirm my suspicions. He said seductive things like, "Everybody uses a laptop and or a smartphone. The question has arisen lately. Is there room for a third category in the middle?" I was sitting on the edge of my seat, ready to hear Jobs demonstrate that new category of device. But he didn't.
Instead, what Apple debuted today was a very nice upgrade to the iPod Touch.
Don't get me wrong. I love the iPod Touch and I was this close to getting one for myself. Now that the iPad has arrived, I can finally get one, the new, big one. But it's not a new category of device. It doesn't really revolutionize the 5-6 hours of media we consume the way it could have. It doesn't even send Amazon's Kindle running to the hills for cover. In fact, the competitor likely to take the biggest hit from the arrival of the iPad is Apple, in the form of fewer iPod Touches sold and fewer MacBook Airs sold.
Frankly I am surprised that it took this long. But today, we read in the Wall Street Journal that two major publishers have decided to pull a music industry mistake. Simon and Schuster and Hachette Book Group have announced that they will not release most eBook editions until the hardbacks have been on shelves for four months.
And I quote David Young, CEO of Hachette Book Group, whom the article cites as saying: "We're doing this to preserve our industry, I can't sit back and watch years of building authors sold off at bargain-basement prices. It's about the future of the business."
Correction: This move is about the past of your business.
I'm just being a historian here when I point out that language like "We're doing this to preserve our industry" is a classic symptom of what we at Forrester loving call The Media Meltdown. I wrote a whole report on this ailment and its many symptoms, chief among them is that media businesses attempt to preserve analog business models in the digital economy, even when analog economics no longer apply. This is exactly that scenario.
I have two very important messages to offer the book industry (most all of them clients, so I'm trying to be delicate here, the way a group of friends running an intervention for an alcoholic have to act even if it involves summoning tough love). The first message is the hardest to hear and it will make me some enemies. But the second message offers some hope and I encourage you book types to give it a fair hearing, because I have history and economics on my side.
The official announcements about the Nook went out yesterday and much has been said about the device, such as whether it trounces the Kindle (it does not) and whether the delay in shipping (units you buy today, for example, are expected to ship January 15) will permanently keep the Nook out of the running (it will not).
Because so much has already been said, we paid attention to what hasn't yet been said -- as far as we can tell, by anyone. It's this: the Nook is the first eReader to hit the market that has any kind of social connectivity built in to it. I'm referring to the "loan a book" feature the Nook offers. Read reviews like the one at CNET and you'd think that the book loaning feature is a flop because: a) it only applies to select books (at the publishers' whim) and b) it only lasts for 14 days.
I'm gonna tell you a secret: it doesn't matter how limited today's loan a book feature is, it's a huge step in an increasingly important direction for eReaders.
People share books. They share them, and then they talk about them. A lot. This fact is so critical to the way people read books that it is amazing that none of the eReaders yet offered to the market have any meaningful book sharing built into them. So even though the Nook is shipping late (folks, this is the eReader market, demand has been outstripping supply for the past two years now, stop acting surprised that Barnes and Noble and Sony are experiencing delays), we applaud its arrival because it opens Pandora's social box in this space. Once it's open, this box will set free all kinds of goodies that we are excited to have, including: