Last week, Amazon stopped selling ebooks by the Independent Publishers Group because the IPG wouldn’t agree to their terms – Amazon ebook terms are notoriously one-sided, which is natural for a company with market share easily over 60%. This week, Apple refused to carry Seth Godin’s Stop Stealing Dreams because it contained hyperlinks to books on Amazon. That’s natural for a company that needs a bite of Amazon’s market share.
The debate so far seems to revolve around the ethics of these decisions: Should bookstores with immense power be limiting access to books? That’s a tricky argument. I don’t think we’ll resolve it.
While it rages on, though, we have a chance to highlight alternative ways the ebook marketplace could work. Ways that don’t rely on massive centralization of the ebook marketplace around companies like Amazon, Apple, and Adobe. Specifically, we get to talk about DRM-free ebooks, the Open Publication Distribution System (OPDS), and retail innovation.
When they insist on using DRM for almost everything, publishers create obstacles for consumers. To keep their reading lives simple, consumers will flock to the retailer with the biggest catalogue and the simplest checkout process, so that they never have to worry about DRM compatibility between ereaders. That’s how Amazon cleaned up. Charlie Stross makes a compelling argument that publishers’ insistence on DRM created Amazon’s dominance – a rod for their own backs.
The way out for publishers is to sell DRM-free books from any retailer, and from their own sites. Their books should be for sale in so many places that it’s infinitely easier to buy them than it is to find pirated versions, or to figure out which one big retailer carries them.
But how will consumers find those sites? How will they even know which publisher’s site to visit? Enter OPDS and distributed licensing.
OPDS is a simple computer language for sharing ebook catalogues online. By putting an OPDS catalogue of their books online – with a link for each book to a buy-now page – any retailer or ereader application can find and redistribute that catalogue. This way, catalogues can spread virally among applications and platforms, pointing more and more users back to the publisher’s buy-now page. (If the publisher doesn’t want to build their own ecommerce store, they can choose to send buyers somewhere else, even to Amazon.)
Distributed licensing is my keenest interest. To grow markets internationally, publishers must rely more and more on local expertise to sell to consumers over the last mile. Local experts might be municipal school boards on the other side of the world, a remote healthcare NGO, or a keen translator in another country. These people repackage content in ways that best suit their local markets. A local expert might also be a retailer with a niche market so specific that the publisher can’t reach it or even think of it.
The rights industry is built for publishers to take advantage of licensing agreements with local experts to grow revenue in distant markets. But agreements are slow and costly to come by. With Paperight, we’re making an important licence – print-on-demand, reprographic rights – one-click easy.
I hope that before long we’ll see more businesses enabling the quick, easy sale of licences that increase access to book content, and earn publishers revenue beyond the narrow confines of the mainstream ebook marketplace. Quick, open or imaginative licensing encourages retailers to think of entirely new ways to sell book content. Our Paperight outlets are one example. I’m certain we’ll see others soon.