Hot on the heels of the Amazon/1984 news came word that Barnes & Noble is entering the ebook retail space. Oh sure, they were already there with their purchase of Fictionwise, but now they’ve planted a giant flag in the sand. They have proclaimed we are here, we are serious, we are formidable.
While everyone applauds the competition, the truth of the matter is that B&N have just added to the confusion. Several times over the past few days, I’ve read comments from publishing experts, all of whom note that it is very important to keep Amazon from winning the digital book game. Alrighty then, I say, what are you doing about it?
‘Cause thinking the Barnes & Noble store is an “in your face, Amazon” move isn’t reassuring me.
The Barnes & Noble ebook store is being touted as device agnostic. This is simply wrong. They are only selling books in their proprietary eReader format (likewise, when the world was aflutter about B&N matching Amazon’s ebook prices, few noted this was only happening in that same eReader format). I can read books purchased from B&N on my iPhone, Blackberry, or laptop/desktop. I cannot read books on my existing Kindle or Sony Readers. Or any other reader I might happen to own (note to booksellers trying to get in this game: the breadth of readers used by real people is astonishing; try to meet them halfway, okay?).
Unless “device agnostic” now means “devices, but not the ones you happen to own”, it’s not really device agnostic. It’s really just a variation of the Kindle ecosystem. It’s not competition for Amazon or the Kindle in any meaningful way. Jane Litte notes, and I agree, that the Barnes & Noble store won’t entice customers from Amazon. It’s possible that the iPhone app will convince regular B&N customers to try ebooks on their phones, but, like Jane, I seriously doubt existing iPhone ebook readers will be converted in great numbers.
For what it’s worth, I have six reading-related apps on my iPhone right now. No seven. I use two regularly. There is nothing particularly special about the B&N app to convince me to switch from the Stanza and Kindle apps, and I think that’s an important consideration. Offering a similar experience and similar pricing without actually adding something new and exciting to the mix doesn’t make for a game-changer.
(If the goal is open up the marketplace to other devices, that would have been the best possible way for B&N to introduce this store.)
In the near future, B&N will be offering the (large-size) device from PlasticLogic — I like this device, but see it working more for the business user than for the casual reader (it’s not purse-sized); they are also (apparently) developing their own reading device. Will that device be wide open and accept all types of files in an easy-to-manage sort of way? Or will the B&N reader, like so many others, only work with limited formats with a special emphasis on the eReader format.
eReader is a proprietary format. Rumor has it that, in the future, B&N will be selling in the EPUB format. In theory, this opens the door to owners of other devices. If and when EPUB is offered on Kindle, it will be wrapped in Amazon’s DRM. It would be a pleasant surprise if Barnes & Noble chose not to wrap their EPUB files in their own DRM, but ain’t nobody holding their breath for that one.
What is happening — to the surprise of very few — is an ever-increasing Landscape of Confusion. This doesn’t, actually, help publishers achieve their apparent goal of creating a competitive marketplace. Now if the goal were chaos, we have a winner! All these devices, all these formats, all these stores…and readers are reeling because they simply don’t know what formats work with what device (or, heck, operating system).
I’m not sure publishers can do anything about this. But the more confusing the marketplace becomes for ebook readers, the more comforting Amazon seems. It’s a seamless shopping experience. It has the most variety (c’mon Barnes & Noble, playing silly games with public domain works to bump up your numbers?). It’s wireless.
Okay, maybe there are things publishers can do. Set up a fund to help the ABA get its ebook marketplace up and running in a smart way. Sell ebooks directly to consumers in formats that are, ahem, truly device agnostic. I don’t know, maybe beg big retailers like Barnes & Noble to make it easy on readers.
The music industry really wanted, swore they wanted, competition. So they set out to create a marketplace to achieve this goal, aided and abetted by various and sundry services and devices. It was a disaster. In the meantime, music consumers were frustrated beyond belief with the industry’s refusal to listen to what they were saying. It wasn’t hard for Apple to dominate the music space with the right device and purchasing experience.
It’s great that Barnes & Noble is offering its customers an ebook option. But to pretend they’re creating serious competition to the Kindle ecosystem is madness. Let’s talk when they have a device and experience that makes the buying and reading of ebooks the best experience technologically possible.