There is no avoiding the fact that the Big 6 publishers created their own problem in the Kindle. Amazon provided them with an easy way to start making a move into digital publishing when it was just getting off the ground and they jumped at it. That alone wasn’t the problem, though. The issue was that they were so paranoid about the medium that they managed to lock people into the first platform they purchased any significant number of books through. Let’s face it, nobody is better at successfully selling, suggesting, and just generally getting people interested in books than Amazon.
I’ve talked here before about how the Kindle deserves its place as the top selling eReader primarily because nobody else has come close to designing a store that gives customers so much of what they want. The suggestions are often eerily accurate, the categories make sense, and the search options are almost always up to a given task. Even Barnes & Noble can’t come close because of how used to the store-based practice of sponsored marketing they are. Given a choice between accurate recommendations based on personal purchase history balanced against similar customer profiles and recommendations based on what publishers decided to pour an advertising budget into, the choice is fairly simple.
We know that Apple’s price fixing scheme was not the answer in the long run. Not only did it not work particularly well to decrease Amazon’s influence, now the publishers are enjoying legal troubles for their efforts. They do have plenty of reason to want more diversified distribution, though. Looking at Amazon’s treatment of the IPG is enough to highlight some of what it means to be completely at the mercy of a single distributor.
The problem these publishers really need to address is that of their DRM. Amazon has not required publishers to participate in their DRM scheme, to the best of my knowledge. That was forced by publisher paranoia over piracy. If done away with, they are afraid that eBook profits will plummet.
Here, it seems like publisher interests are actually well served by the design of the Kindle. Without losing existing Kindle owners as customers, publishers could easily begin selling their titles without DRM and encourage wider competition. Best case scenario, this would allow publishers to open their own cooperatively stocked eBook store. It would also make possible the creation of smaller stores taking advantage of the same opportunity.
If somebody got truly ambitious, it wouldn’t even be hard to create a Kindle alternative that allowed for essentially the same experience. There are any number of Kindle clones on the market already that do the job fairly well and could probably do it better if the provider felt it was worth the investment in development. There’s no incentive if they can’t attract customers because Kindle Store purchases are locked down to Kindles.
All of this hinges on publishers looking past the possibility of piracy. How is that really so difficult, though? The DRM on eBooks is already laughably easy to get around, judging by how common stories of switching platforms through format conversion have become. If somebody really wants to pirate content, it is going to happen anyway. If these companies genuinely believe that the only thing keeping most Kindle owners from helping themselves to hundreds of free books is the DRM scheme, they’re fooling themselves and working against their own best interests.