Macmillan vs Amazon, Round One

According to Huffington Post, after the iPad launch Walter Mossberg cornered Steve Jobs to ask a pertinent question:

Mossberg asks why users would want to shell out $14.99 for an ebook on the iPad, when they can buy ebooks for Amazon’s Kindle for $9.99.

Steve Jobs’ retort: ‘Well, that won’t be the case.’ Mossberg presses him on whether that means Apple’s prices will go down, or Amazon’s will go up, to which Jobs offers a cryptic, non-committal, ‘The prices will be the same.’

On Friday, this exchange was explained. Macmillan demanded that Amazon jack up the prices of e-books to $14.99. In response, Amazon stopped selling Macmillan books. That includes all books from Tor and Forge, the science fiction and fantasy publishers.

As it happens, next month’s book at the book club I go to is published by Tor. I went to buy a copy on Friday, not knowing about the dispute. I had seen it available for Kindle before, and wondered why it was no longer available.

Then I shrugged, and bought a dirt-cheap used paperback copy instead. If Amazon had given in and upped the price to over $10, rather than refusing to sell it, I’d have done the same.

The thing is, a book is something I rarely read more than once. There are so many good books out there, I feel like it would be crazy to re-read when I could read something new to me. Hence $15 for a book is expensive entertainment, compared to $15 for a CD I’ll listen to many times, or $3 for a movie rental.

I suspect that I’m not unusual in this respect, and that Amazon have done the market research, and concluded that DRM-crippled e-books are never going to sell for more than $10–particularly not when you can pick up a paperback for $5 including shipping. Rather than devalue the Kindle and allow other publishers leverage to introduce their own disastrous price increases, Amazon is playing hardball and opting not to sell Macmillan books–which is their right in a free market, isn’t it?

Apple did the same thing with the music industry, pushing them to keep prices at 99ยข per track. Later, the big music companies were allowed to increase prices in return for dropping DRM. Everyone loved it when Apple forced prices down, but this time there are some angry voices.

John Scalzi is one of them. He’s pretty angry at Amazon. Reading between the lines, I think he’s pretty angry at his publisher too, for trying to sell his books at a price he doesn’t think most people will buy at. Meanwhile, Cory Doctorow proposes the iTunes Music Store solution: allow publishers the freedom to set prices however they like, if they drop DRM and abusive EULAs. (Sounds good to me, as it makes the problem somewhat self-correcting–if publishers jack up the prices too high for the market, copyright violation ensues.)

I can understand why Macmillan’s authors are upset by what Amazon have done, but fundamentally, I think this is a very simple problem: Macmillan has decided to set its prices higher than Amazon thinks it can sell books at, so Amazon is choosing not to sell Macmillan books. If you’re an author published by Macmillan, I think the people you really need to be directing your ire at are at your publishing company, for attempting to raise prices in the middle of a terrible recession. In the mean time, well, I guess I’ll buy your books used.

Underneath the spreading chestnut tree

Another day, another round of bad media coverage for the Amazon Kindle.

The story as originally reported: Publisher changes mind about having an e-book edition of George Orwell’s books. Amazon remotely deletes them and refunds the purchase price.

What actually happened: A third party illegally published editions of George Orwell’s books, which they did not have the right to publish. Amazon remotely deleted those illegal copies and refunded the purchase price.

Of course, Pogue’s speculations are now half way around the planet as fact. Thanks, mainstream media.

The only thing that’s new here is the discovery that Amazon can remotely remove DRM-protected books from the Kindle. That enables them to recall illegal product. Previously, in the world of physical goods, stores who discovered that they had sold illegal products would request that customers return them for refunds, but they were not able to force the issue.

Now, it can certainly be argued that the ability to recall illegally-sold product is a misfeature, but of course nobody has to buy DRM-encumbered books, even if they want to read them on Kindle. Nobody has to keep the wireless connection to Amazon enabled, even. Nevertheless this story has led all the usual FUD to resurface, so I refer back to my previous articles about the device.

Still, the continuous bad press might have the positive effect of making Amazon open up and support open standards better, right? It would certainly be nice to see Open eBook support in the next firmware revision.

Kindle DX thoughts

My initial thoughts about the Kindle DX:

The price seems surprisingly reasonable. The iRex with an A4 size screen was over $800.

I’m not convinced that textbooks are workable on an e-book reader. You don’t read textbooks linearly. (Or at least, I never did.) The ability to flip around between marked locations is limited on the Kindle 2, and I’m guessing it will be on the DX as well.

On the other hand, the size and weight benefits are hard to deny. However, I never used to carry multiple textbooks around with me. Maybe American students’ habits are different?

It wouldn’t work for me as a general purpose device for reading novels as well as PDFs, because it won’t fit into a shoulder bag or reasonable size backpack. With a screen that big, it’ll be scarily easy to break by banging your bag against the corner of a table, unless you get some kind of metal hardcase.

Newspapers? Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see the ability to display text in multiple columns as that big of a win. Consider that most people under the age of about 50 get their written news from the web, where a single column for the stories is the rule. We went through all the madness of trying to make electronic pages look like newspaper pages ten years ago; it didn’t work as well as a simple clickable table of contents. I bet the newspaper guys think going back to multiple columns is a great idea, though. As for diagrams, the existing Kindle can display those fairly adequately, it’s mainly being held back by the content producers failing to include them.

What about magazines, which generally require color? If I’m going to be spending a big chunk of cash on something with an A4 screen, I want to be able to read Scientific American on it without compromises.

Overall, I’m more skeptical about this than I was about the original Kindle. I think I’d advise waiting to see what Pixel Qi come up with, not to mention the CrunchPad.