How the e-book landscape is becoming a walled garden

Just as a few massive chain stores eventually came to dominate the traditional printed book market in North America, the e-book marketplace is a kind of oligopoly involving a few major players — primarily Amazon(s amzn), Apple(s aapl) and Barnes & Noble(s bks). And while bookstore owners of all kinds are free to decide which books they wish to put on their shelves, these new giants have far more control over whose e-books see the light of day because they also own the major e-reading platforms, and they are making decisions based not on what they think consumers want to read but on their own competitive interests. That is turning the e-book landscape into even more of a walled garden.

Author and digital-marketing maven Seth Godin highlighted this issue in a recent blog post, in which he described how his new book was turned down by Apple because it contained hyperlinks to books sold by Amazon (with whom Godin has a partnership). According to a letter that the author says he received from the company, the new title — Stop Stealing Dreams, a book about the transformation that Godin believes needs to happen in public education — was rejected by Apple due to what the letter described as “multiple links to [the] Amazon store.” Godin notes that the book had links to related works, including Too Big to Know from David Weinberger, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto.

Should e-bookstores only carry their parent company’s titles?

As Godin notes in his post, we don’t expect supermarkets to carry every brand of cereal or other products that we want to buy, because we assume that they have to make various business decisions about what they stock their shelves with. But the author argues that bookstores are different — or at least they should be:

We’re heading to a world where there are just a handful of influential bookstores (Amazon, Apple, Nook…) and one by one, the principles of open access are disappearing. Apple, apparently, won’t carry an ebook that contains a link to buy a hardcover book from Amazon.

It’s one thing when an independent bookstore owner decides not to carry a book for personal reasons, and even when a national chain decides not to stock books because of their subject matter (although those decisions also often get criticized by free-speech advocates, with good reason). But what makes the recent moves by Apple and Amazon and Barnes & Noble different is that they also own the major e-reading platforms, of which Amazon is the largest in terms of market share. So it’s not just the stores they control, but one of the fundamental methods of reading those books.

As Godin notes in his post, there are open standards for e-books such as ePub (and Google has made a well-intentioned but ultimately weak attempt at trying to open up the e-book market), but the majority of e-books are still read via the Kindle and the iPad and the Nook, and that gives the three major players a firm grip on what people consume — and they are using it. My colleague Laura Owen at paidContent pointed out in a recent post how Amazon blocked any books from distributor IPG because it was trying to negotiate a new contract with the company, a move similar to Amazon’s lockout of Macmillan’s titles during a negotiation over pricing in the days before Apple introduced the “agency model.”

Welcome to the platform-dependent bookstore of the future

For its part, Barnes & Noble has made what appears to be a retaliatory move against Amazon for the digital giant’s recent expansion of its power — which has involved signing authors to its own publishing imprint and launching features such as the Kindle Owners Lending Library. B&N has said that it will not carry any Amazon titles in its stores (although Amazon is trying hard to find a way around this restriction by doing deals with other distributors). At least B&N’s aggression can be understood somewhat, since the chain is said to be in fairly deep trouble financially.

As we’ve described before, Apple and Amazon come at the e-book market from different perspectives: Apple sees books as just another form of content that it can use to sell iPads and other devices, whereas Amazon sees devices like the Kindle and the Kindle Fire as ways it can lock people into its content ecosystem and sell them more books, movies and so on. But both are dependent on having users locked into their products, and so they make it as difficult as possible to move from one to the other.

Publishers are partly to blame for the walled-garden status of the market as well, since they handed Amazon and Apple the stick of digital-rights management, which the two companies are now using to beat them — and they won’t allow their books to be loaned to other users, or even in many cases to public libraries, and they certainly don’t make it easy to get access to them on different platforms. Welcome to the mutually incompatible, silo-based, platform-dependent and user-unfriendly future of books.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users sly06 and Jeremy Mates.