Big-bookstore squabbles drive alternative distribution models 18 Sep 2010Last 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.)

OPDS is the core of the Bookserver project, which is coordinated by the Internet Archive.

Distributed licensing

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.

One thought on “Big-bookstore squabbles drive alternative distribution models

  1. Good read, thanks. I’ve often heard it said that piracy is a supply problem, which I agree with.

    I think the most effective model of digital distribution done right that I’ve ever seen is Valve’s Steam platform for gaming content. I really, really wish other media formats would adopt a similar approach.

    Basically, you buy licenses for content. Once you own a license, you own it forever. They’re not tied to a device, they’re tied to your account – so the hardware you’re using to experience the content is irrelevant. Provided you have a license, you can use the content.

    You don’t even have to get the content from Steam – you can copy it from a mate on a USB stick if that’s more convenient for you, put it on your device, and acquire a license later at your convenience. They make no attempt to prevent you copying stuff, but the platform will only let you use content you’ve acquired licenses for.

    Acquired new hardware? No problem. The software runs on PC, Mac, Linux, and now also smartphones. Either copy your content library folder off your last device, or stream it back down from Steam’s servers.

    Your preferences are account-based, so they follow you around from device to device. Visiting a friend and want to access your stuff? No problem. Log on using someone else’s hardware, and it configures like it knows you like it. And, provided you’ve opened content at least once while connected to the Internet, you can enjoy it offline henceforward – sustained connection to the net is not required.

    This device-agnostic approach to content freaks out most of the big media companies, because it closes the door on a niche they’ve enjoyed for many years: selling you content you already own in newer formats. For example: Buy it on VHS. Now buy it on VCD. Now buy it on DVD. Now buy it on Bluray. This, IMHO, is the primary reason a platform like this doesn’t exist for anything other than gaming right now.

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