“Problem is, this is too little, too late and will have almost no effect on Amazon and Apple. These companies are far too popular (and, by the majority of customers, well loved) for the removal of DRM to make a difference. Did Apple’s removal of DRM from songs on iTunes have much of an impact on either Apple or the competition? No. Did the fact that Amazon came into the MP3 market with DRM-free music right from the start torpedo iTunes? No.”
Repeat after me: DRM will not save publishers; neither using it, nor dropping it.
Based on the steady increase in ebook sales over the past few years, it’s reasonable to conclude that the average reader doesn’t really care too much about DRM. They’re apparently bigger fans of the platforms Amazon, B&N, and to a lesser degree, Apple, have built to purchase and read ebooks, and the ebooks themselves don’t have the same emotional connection as those they buy in print to keep on bookshelves. As such, legitimately or not, from the consumers’ perspective, “lock-in” isn’t the factor many think it is, or desire it to be.
More importantly, though, beyond the shiny gadgets and apps, readers are fans of authors and genres (and, sometimes, even publishers), and while selection varies amongst the major e-tailers (especially Apple), there’s an interesting comparison to video games that I’ve been mulling over for a while now. It’s an imperfect but workable analogy, where the big hits are almost always cross-platform (including PC and, increasingly, mobile), while the exclusives tend to align with each platform’s respective strengths and core audiences (especially mobile).
In console gaming, exclusive first-party titles are often among the perennial best-sellers (especially on Nintendo’s platforms), while third-party games fight it out for gamers’ limited time, attention, and disposable income. The biggest sellers often spawn successful franchises and spin-offs, but even more frequently, a ton of copycat, rip-off shovelware, similar to the mobile space where, pre-KDP, Apple successfully leveled the playing field for independent game developers and the app store has been flooded with me-too apps.
In PC gaming there’s a bit of a twist, where Valve’s Steam platform is effectively the Kindle, DRM included, though, as I understand it, lacking Amazon’s strongarm tactics, perhaps because Valve was first a successful “traditional” game publisher, including some extremely popular franchises like Half-Life and Portal.
I think that you either embrace the new approaches or you go away. I mean Sega and Atari and lots of other, you know, Vectrex, Commodore, you either figure out how to move forward or you get left behind and I don’t think it’s any different. As soon as Valve stops doing interesting, innovative work we’re gonna be left behind and we’ve all been around long enough in the game industry to know that and you have to be pretty myopic not to realize that just because something used to work a certain way there’s absolutely no reason for them to expect that that’s going to be the tickets to being successful in subsequent iterations.
ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED: AMAZON WINS?
In publishing, Amazon’s Kindle is the only “platform” currently in a position to challenge its “third party developers” (aka, traditional publishers) for content in any significant way, adding their own imprints to the flood of “independent” self-publishers who arguably helped drive the Kindle platform to its current dominant position. B&N doesn’t have the resources to compete on that front, and Apple clearly lacks the interest.
It’s not a huge stretch to posit Amazon as the reverse-Valve of the ebook world, constantly pushing the envelope in unexpected ways, aggressively experimenting with pricing, developing a core of popular franchises, while staying focused on delivering and optimizing the best consumer experience.
[NOTE: All of those links go to examples of what Valve is doing, and each one has an Amazon equivalent, to varying degrees, as well as offering lessons to traditional publishers on how to compete. I'll leave the "What Publishers Can Learn From Valve..." post to someone else.]
Amazon has a potent mix in its diversified arsenal that presents an unenviable challenge to traditional publishers who don’t have their own platform to compete with them (a la Steam), and who have yet to figure out how to balance the digital needs of their brick-and-mortar partners (independent booksellers and libraries) with the powerful demands Amazon feels entitled to put forward.
At least three major publishers seem to be banking on the still-delayed launch of Bookish, but if it doesn’t include a robust inventory of content, competitively priced, with a user-friendly, cross-platform distribution strategy AT LAUNCH, it’s likely as DOA as I predicted last summer.
Now, the $100,000 question is: If Amazon has truly won this round (and I think they have), does that automatically mean traditional publishers have lost the fight? I don’t think so, but how they choose to get off the mat this time can’t be related to DRM, pricing schemes, or rope-a-doping the “traditional” business model.
Bookish might ultimately be a wild roundhouse that misses and leaves them open for a body blow, but I believe the underlying desire to connect directly with readers and provide them with a valuable service is the right strategy. Finding the combination that works, though, is going to be the tricky part, and the recent charges of collusion, legitimate or not, are only going to make the need to move towards aggressive co-opetition even harder to pull off.