February 25, 2009
Electronic Books and the Myth of Ownership
Some details have leaked out about the impending Google book store. Richard Sarnoff, chairman of the Association of American Publishers identified some of the restrictions publishers are placing on electronic content. One is that all purchases will stay on Google's servers with bits and pieces transmitted to the reader. Obviously the publishers are a paranoid bunch concerned about piracy. The lesson of the music industry is not lost on them. Access to books will exist as long as Google supports the book store. If Google abandons the market the purchases go bye-bye. That should be a real incentive for the masses to buy electronic books readable on cell phones and portable computers. Google gets something out of this as well. A Google ID is required to access the electronic library. That means opportunities to introduce people to Google Apps, Gmail, Chrome, and other Google services.
Aside from pricing details, this makes Amazon's Kindle look like the super elegant way to consume e-books. The pricey device comes with its own connectivity, which certainly trumps the Google option. No Internet connection, no Google book access. But doesn't it come down to the same thing? Books are locked into a device that prevent any form of manipulation on the part of the reader. Readers are buying access only, no matter how its dressed up. As of now Amazon is charging $9.99 for each electronic title. That scares publishers because someone else controls how electronic books are marketed. Such is the power of the major distributor of printed materials. Publishers hope that Google becomes a viable alternative, and that other channels can dilute Amazon's market. The sketchy terms for Google, however, make it hard to see that happening.
Publishers should learn the lesson of the movie industry instead. The nascent market for entertainment downloads went nowhere because distributors charged the same price as a DVD and offered less quality and features. Customers rejected that market in droves until Netflix, Blockbuster, and others figured out that reasonably priced subscriptions was the better business model. Publishers would like to see electronic books priced closer to print. If that's the case, print may be the better value, if for no other reason that one can do more with print that a restricted electronic copy.
Amazon has the right idea in charging a low fee for content. It's just a file, after all. The real value in electronic books is the convenience in acquiring and consuming them. There's no point in paying a premium for something that you can never truly own. some day the publishers will get that. It will be years of denial before they get there, however. [MG]