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Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

Who Cares If Amazon Becomes an E-book Monopoly?

It’s not as if the Kindle and its store aren’t also vulnerable to disruption.

  • April 12, 2012

The Department of Justice is suing Apple and book publishers for “collusion” on book prices, and the result, as Tim Carmody thoughtfully articulates at Wired, is that everything Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has built over the past decade, his entire e-publishing empire, is now sanctified at the level of Federal law. On the other hand, observes Mathew Ingram in an equally thoughtful post at GigaOm, the “agency” pricing model that publishers and Apple got in trouble for might have been a barrier to innovation.

“Muhahahaha!” says Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos (Photo by Doc Searls)

Watching from what feels like the nosebleed seats, I have to say that I find this entire battle baffling. Because I don’t think Amazon really matters all that much in the long run.

Right now the Kindle is a very popular reading device. But so what? It’s just a commodity e-ink screen fused to Amazon’s purchasing system. Granted, Apple’s success with an identical model has proved that the level of convenience it affords is almost unstoppable. For now.

In the long run, e-readers are nothing special – the very definition of commodity hardware. Given the trajectory of pricing for Kindle hardware, Amazon’s going to be giving them away as loss leaders within a few years.

Meanwhile, tablets continue to proliferate. And with the iPad 3, they finally have the resolution to match an e-ink display. Huzzah! Further developments in screen resolution are superfluous, given the visual acuity of H. sapiens. Now we simply wait for this technology to become cheap and ubiquitous.

The people who seem to care most deeply about the Amazon vs. Apple dustup are publishers, because the model they are being penalized for adopting helps them make more money. But really, who cares? Based on the experiences of many of my writer friends, publishers have already cut back on the services to writers that used to make them worthwhile – attentive editors, marketing campaigns, etc.

For the most part, the publishing industry is already, from the perspective of the content maker, a ghost ship. Amazon’s impending monopoly may look like an event horizon beyond which nothing good can exist, but that kind of doomsaying is unimaginative.

Books are just text. There is nothing more readily transmissible, more endlessly compatible with device types, screen sizes, etc. There will be open and closed platforms, and new ways to market and sell books – many of them much more direct than the old ways.

These efficiencies will probably drive down the prices of books, to a point. But it’s hard to imagine that creating a more liquid market for books by clearing out the entrenched players – by which I mean publishers – is ultimately such a terrible thing for authors and readers.

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