While self-publishing my novel, Baby Jane, to Amazon’s Kindle was relatively easy, publishing to the other devices is proving more challenging. Sony, who own the eReader, Apple, who own the iBookstore, Kobo, which is mostly owned by Indigo Books and Music Inc., and Barnes & Noble, who own the Nook, have all adopted business policies that exclude small publishers and self-publishing authors or, as in the Nook and iBookstore, have installed barriers that make it difficult for non-Americans (or non Mac users) to sell on the their sites.
Sony and Kobo won’t deal with publishers with fewer than ten titles to sell, forcing small publishers and writers to sell through a digital aggregate such as Smashwords or Fast Pencil, who will not only swallow up a good portion of your royalties — anywhere from 15 to 50% — but may also charge the writer an upfront “insertion” fee. Moreover, forcing writers and small publishers to use an aggregate also forces them into suffering the risk that the aggregate might not pay its authors (or massage the sales figures — there’s been grumblings online). And most of these aggregates are not following the rules of the International ISBN Agency, with a showdown likely on the horizon. (More on that later.)
Apple won’t talk to you unless you use a Mac (despite having adopted the cross-platform ePub format). And Barnes & Noble will not allow a writer or publisher to open an account unless the writer/publisher has a US bank account, a US credit card, and a US tax number. While it’s possible for non-Americans to acquire a tax number, the process is tedious, expensive, and time-consuming; and even if you do you can still forget about B&N: they don’t want to hear from foreigners at all.
What this all means is that Amazon has a significant market advantage over all other digital bookstores: more titles, global distribution, and a open-door policy to individuals and small publishers. Moreover, Amazon has adopted a shared-platform policy, offering free apps for iPads, mobile phones, and personal computers so consumers don’t actually need a Kindle to buy from the robustly stocked Kindle store.
What Amazon does not have is a clear technological advantage in its device. Amazon’s Kindle uses a proprietary digital book format, while all the other devices make use of the open source ePub format. What this means is that, except for the Kindle, regardless of which reading device you own you can purchase books from multiple retail channels and read them on your device. Kindle books can be converted using third party software but only if the book is not rights-managed. (Rights-managed books are secured to prevent unlawful copying. Adobe Digital Editions controls the conversion of rights-managed ePub books by forcing the reader to register the book with Adobe prior to conversion.)
The result is that we’re seeing another Beta-versus-VHS-style challenge between a large player with a proprietary format and a host of smaller players who have formed a united open-format front. Who will win? As with VHS, I predict the open and easily adopted ePub format will win on the technology front, but if Amazon adopts a conversion process similar to Adobe Digital Editions, the result will be much more like the current Sony Blu-Ray players that can also play the lower-quality DVDs, giving consumers the best of both worlds.