Why We Won’t See a Publishers’ Bookstore App for the iPad

Len Edgerly interviewed Seth Godin on February 24th for The Reading Edge podcast. (It took me forever to get that pun, for some reason). Though Godin was there ostensibly to talk about his latest book, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? (Amazon affiliate link), the podcast bills itself as “Conversations about the eBook Revolution,” and this proved to be one, taking place as it did right after the great Macmillan-Amazon pricing dispute. (In case you missed that, Macmillan wanted to sell its new Kindle books for $14.99 instead of $9.99. Amazon took all the “buy” buttons off Macmillan’s books in the Kindle store, but then caved in, largely because of Apple’s intention to sell books in its iBook store for the iPad at $14.99.)

Starting about 7 minutes into the episode, Godin explains that instead of creating books for their readers, publishers have gone looking for readers for their books. Publishers are obsessed with moving paper (with what David Mathison called “packaging” in his talk at the 2010 BAIPA conference) around rather than getting attention. What they need is a platform that lets them know who is reading what. When it comes to e-books, they’ve ceded carriage to Amazon, and now to Apple. And because the iBook app doesn’t come pre-installed on the iPad,

That means that carriage is going to be an issue from the first day, because before you can even read a book on the iPad, you’re going to have to go download an app for it. Which is opening a huge door for any publisher with guts, who could, if I were doing it, join up with five other publishers and jointly issue your own app. Because if you issue your own app, then you don’t have to cut Apple in, the way you do in the current system, but most important, the data, the privilege, the ability to find out who needs what and how to get it to them, belongs to the publishers, not to the middleman.

My immediate thought was that it would never happen. Not because the Big Six would never cooperate in such a venture (though they might not). Not even because traditional publishers believe they’re in the business of producing and distributing physical objects rather than words, as Godin claims in the interview.

No, because Apple wouldn’t permit the competition. Back when the iPod Touch and the iPhone first came out, the mobile version of iTunes installed on them didn’t support podcasts. But when someone created a podcatching application, Apple wouldn’t allow it in the App Store because it competed with iTunes. Or would compete with iTunes, once iTunes supported podcasting on the iPhone and iPod touch.

And this was for something that didn’t actually make Apple any money.

So it’s pretty hard for me to believe that they’d allow serious competition for their iBook store.

For a moment, looking at the iPad app store, I thought I might be wrong. After all, there’s not only a Kindle app (the better to keep people from buying a competitor’s device) but a few other e-book applications, at least one of those focuses on free public-domain books. And let’s not forget the comic books and magazines. There are plenty of individual books (and Vooks) for sale as apps, but we had those already on the iPhone, and Apple gets its cut of each of those.

If you have contrary information and can refute me, please do, but I can’t imagine that Apple is letting Amazon sell books through its Kindle app, or Marvel Comics through it’s iPad app, without taking a cut. (It would certainly account for per issue prices that have Marvel’s reviewers complaining). The percentage they take of individual book apps is fair enough, at least by comparison with what an author can expect to get in royalties from a traditional publishing deal, but if anyone else is going to make money off an iPad app, Apple will, too. It beggars belief that they would do it any other way.

Because you can’t get an app into  the App Store without Apple’s permission (and, rumor has it, without designing the thing on Apple-approved tools), there’s no way book publishers could create a platform for recommending, selling, and reading books without cutting Apple in on the profits. Hence Apple would inevitably have a say in the pricing of any Mystery Novel or Science Fiction bookstore app that the publishers got together to produce, and it’s pretty unlikely that they’d stand for anything that seriously undercut the prices in their own iBook store. And that could act as quite a deterrent, not just to the big publishers, who might not be flexible enough to try such a thing anyway, but to smaller publishers, who might.

It could still be worth it for publishers to create their own system, for the sake of that data about who’s reading what. Amazon’s recommendation engine, its ability to say “People who bought this also bought that” is a great tool. So are its reviews, even if not all of them are genuine. There might be something extra that a publisher-created e-book app could offer to readers, and to the publishers, that would make it a worthwhile investment. But it’s not going to be freedom from Apple’s influence, not on Apple’s device.

Apple is the ultimate closed system. If you want to play with their toys, you play by their rules. If book publishers really want an e-book distribution system that they control, they’re going to have to produce their own e-book reader, and it’s going to have to provide a better experience than the Kindle and the iPad put together.

I’m not holding my breath.

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