Did you feel the Earth shift a little bit yesterday? Maybe around 1:30 or so Pacific Standard Time (the only time zone that matters!)? Did you Twitter feed seem to be filled with jangly nerves? It turns out that Amazon bought Lexcycle today.
Lexcycle? Huh? Who? Erm?
Lexcycle is the mighty little company behind the bookish iPhone application darling, the Stanza Reader. Not only were they near first, they’ve been the best. With a strong focus on usability (or, if you will, making it easy for real people to accomplish the very simple goal of reading), support for ePub, and a growing list of public domain and new books, the literary digerati swooned.
(And before I type one letter further, I want to express sincere excitement for Neelan Choksi, Marc Prud’hommeaux, and Abe [of the missing last name]. Couldn’t happen to a nicer group of guys.)
I think a good number of us expected that Lexcycle would be sold (I was hoping Barnes & Noble would get it in gear because it fits nicely with their Fictionwise purchase and stated hardware goals). Being bought is a common trajectory for a technology company, and Lexcycle is a technology company. Perhaps that’s why Amazon stepped up first. They don’t think like a bookseller. Obviously, the usability and innovation from Lexcycle made this an attractive purchase; the question remains as to whether the Stanza Reader will remain standalone or its functionality integrated into the Kindle iPhone application.
Outside of the Stanza application, Lexcycle’s primary asset is its enthusiastic user base. It’s hard to be punk rock in the world of books, but the Stanza Reader came close. For us, Stanza represented independence — from Amazon, from Barnes & Noble, from iTunes. The Lexcycle gang were the outsiders who got it right and spoke to our independent souls.
Amazon just bought those customers.
Not to mention the foundation for other mobile devices. We have seen the future and it is this: people will not read on a single device, in a single format. We expect portability and we expect flexibility. Book-books are just one part of the mix; different kinds of reading, different kinds of books, will invite different kinds of digital experiences. This is why we, the community, were so excited about Lexcycle’s embrace of the EPUB standard. If you think of EPUB as HTML (over-simplifying a little bit), then you understand how getting the base right means maximum usability across platforms and devices.
While we can argue the merits of the Adobe engine, the fact that it gives us DRMd and DRM-free EPUB files is a huge plus. Right now, Amazon’s not on board with Adobe. The Kindle format, basically, is set up in direct opposition to pretty much every other ereading device (Sony, PlasticLogic, iRex’s iLiad, Stanza). If it’s true that men prefer the iPhone and Sony Reader while women prefer the Kindle (as rumored), then there goes the ability of spouses to share books. Uh?
I don’t think the Lexcycle purchase is the end of the world as we know it, but it should be a huge wake-up call for the publishing business. Amazon now owns the top two reading apps for the iPhone: Stanza and Kindle. The only possible contender in this space is the ScrollMotion product, and count me as one of many who aren’t thrilled about downloading separate applications for every book purchased. Unless iTunes suddenly changes its mind about adding ebooks to the mix — and until publishers make many, many things easier, including working with themselves, that isn’t likely — Amazon has a near-monopoly on iPhone book applications.
It also has the potential to shape other aspects of the marketplace. Recall, if you will, that one key Stanza partner is Fictionwise. Who happens to be owned by Barnes & Noble. Which happens to be an Amazon competitor. How long will this partnership remain in place?
(Of course, this could lead to a commentary on prices, but I’ll resist the urge. This time.)
If the Google Book Search settlement is approved, the vast majority of book discovery will be centered in the hands of two companies. The GBS settlement is, in my opinion, a result of the publishing industry missing the forest for the trees. At this point — and we’ll be talking more about this later this week — no other player can enter this space, even if the settlement fails to win approval. Who will pick up the pieces then?
Right now, it’s time for the publishing industry to step up to the plate. Stop worrying about fake issues like text-to-speech and start worrying about your customers. You may not be able to stop the settlement you negotiated and you cannot stop Amazon from acquiring better technology. But you can demand that your books be sold in the most consumer-friendly manner possible. Take the initiative to be a leader in the future of books — recall that your competition is changing rapidly — and you’ll be a leader in the future of reading.
There will be another Lexcycle, another innovative company that develops an iPhone app for reading. It will face the myriad challenges Lexcycle faced, including working with publishers to get books to readers (should be so easy, actually not). It will face the apparent commerce restrictions placed on apps by Apple. It might even succeed in the face of the obstacles that doom independent newcomers in the market.
As far as potential is concerned, IndieBound, at the moment, has my full support, but their success depends upon their ability to deliver digital books via the iPhone, to a dedicated device, downloads from a convenient location (be it local bookstore or IndieBound site), while ensuring that local bookstores get their fair share of of the sale. Many hurdles, none insurmountable as long as egos get checked at the door.
The Lexcycle sale is great news for the hard-working team that developed this incredible application, against so many odds. It’s not so great news for everybody else. Consumers are slowly being locked into a single vendor. Publishers are being backed into Amazon’s corner. Yet, yet, yet, I ask again: where are the publishing initiatives, the fresh thinking, to protect the free market?