This post, by Mike Shatzkin, originally appeared on his The Shatzkin Files blog on The Idea Logical Company site on 10/2/11.
Almost two years ago, I wrote a post which continues to be one of the most-read in the history of this blog, the point of which was that the business model disruption (called “agency”) prompted by the iPad would have more impact on the ebook ecosystem than the device itself. I’m happy to repeat that statement today because I think events have proven that hunch to be correct.
This week Amazon announced their new tablet, the Kindle Fire. (Mine’s on order. I gave the original Kindle I had to my wife, who still uses it. I also own an iPad but never read books on it. As everybody who reads this blog regularly knows, my ebook consumption is all iPhone, largely purchased through the Kindle store, sometimes through Nook, Kobo, or Google, but never through iBookstore.)
The Kindle Fire announcement has unleashed a spate of stories in the tech press about the battle between Apple and Amazon. Who knows what Apple’s rejoinder will be, but it would seem that Fire offers much more than half of what an iPad delivers to a media consumer for much less than half the price and about two-thirds the weight. It appears it will fit in the hip pocket of a man’s suit jacket. That sounds like a competitive formula. It already was for Nook Color, and Amazon seems, at least for the moment, to have done them one better.
Books are not the central focus of this Amazon-Apple battle even from Amazon’s point of view and they are certainly are not from Apple’s. Apple is a device company and their content offerings, and their control of their content offerings, are intended to reinforce the unique experience their devices deliver. Amazon certainly knows from their Kindle experience that offering the right device can propel content sales and secure the content customers’ business (a lesson B&N has both learned and demonstrated quite successfully with Nook as well). The Fire is as much about video content as it is about books.
Amazon wants to acquire its book content with the ability to control the selling price so they can continue to burnish their reputation as the lowest-cost provider and exploit other advantages that their huge customer base and extraordinarily deep pockets provide them. Apple wants a margin-guaranteed commercial model that also assures them that they won’t be embarrassed by having their customers see the same content for a lower price elsewhere.
Apple assumed they’d be able to move the most devices and, with price neutrality, create enough advantages to their device owners to shop in the device’s “home” store to satisfy their competitive requirements. That is, Apple’s content-selling strategy was to maximize their market share among their own device owners. They do nothing to move the content onto other companies’ devices.
But in the book business, we look at these two titans in a different way because they force publishing into managing two completely different commercial models simultaneously. That’s not something most of the tech community has paid any attention to in the prolific “Amazon versus Apple” commentary following the Kindle Fire announcement. But it reinforces the point made in the post from two years ago: the fact that Amazon and Apple have different approaches to acquiring and pricing content offerngs is the most important aspect of the battle between them to the book publishing community. Who “wins”, as in “who sells the most devices?” (or even “who sells the most ebooks?”), is really quite secondary since both are significant and neither is going away.