Yesterday at Book Expo America, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced plans to take over the publishing industry. After that, he plans to fly away to space.
The publishing industry’s reaction? Polite applause.
Bezos’ presentation was something of a coming out party for the Kindle. This is the first Book Expo since the Kindle’s release, and it was the first time that the industry as a whole has had a good look at the device.
Launched last December, the Kindle is just now becoming widely available without a long delay. Bezos was on hand to show off the Kindle, brag about early user reactions, and beat around the bush about what appears to be very promising ebook sales figures.
Naturally, book publishers love Bezos. He’s the man who figured out how to sell books on the Internet. He took the hard work out of ecommerce and provided publishers with an incredibly efficient sales channel at no cost to the industry. What’s not to love?
It wasn’t always this way, though. As Bezos noted on Friday, in the early days “the more you knew about the book business, the less likely you were to invest in Amazon”.
It’s clear now that Amazon has transformed the way books are sold. Although, if you listen closely to Bezos, that transformation isn’t nearly done yet. During his Q&A session with Chris Anderson, Bezos revealed that his ultimate goal is to see every book ever published available electronically.
That’s a remarkable goal, and one that’s hard not to support. However, it’s a goal that raises more than a few questions. Questions that publishers would certainly want answers to if they were ever to take Bezos’ vision at face value. Questions that Anderson, unfortunately, did not ask.
If you examine Bezos vision a bit closer, you realize that what he really means is, “in the future every book ever sold will be available in the Kindle format and available only to Amazon customers“.
Any way you look at it, it’s hard not to compare the Kindle business model to iTunes. Publishers will eventually discover the same thing the recording industry discovered — DRM and proprietary media formats create monopolies on digital distribution.
Meanwhile, Bezos is undertaking his publishing industry revolution in as non-threatening a way as possible. Earlier this week at the D: All Things Digital conference Bezos repeatedly compared books to horses, noting that the automobile didn’t eliminate horses.
What he didn’t say is that hardly anyone actually owns or rides a horse these days.
So, what should publishers be doing? Actually, they should be encouraging Bezos’ grand vision, but they should also pressure Amazon to open up the Kindle device to support a standardized ebook format. If Amazon is serious about building a viable marketplace for ebooks, that marketplace has to include more than one retail source for books, and more than one ebook reader.
The International Digital Publisher Forum (IDPF) has been working on just such a standard. Unfortunately, the Kindle currently doesn’t support the IDPF’s epub format.
You would expect that BEA might be a logical place to hash out these issues, but sadly that doesn’t seem to be the case. The IDPF booth is relegated to the dark side of the trade show floor. Ironically, the group is positioned at the end of a very long row of remaindered print books. I’m still not sure if that positioning is a sad commentary on how the industry views ebook standards, or a reminder of the promise that ebooks hold.