Market Fragments?

February 4, 2012 Articles and Opinionse-book

There have been a few interesting developments in the ebook market this week.

New markets often have competing formats. As technology develops many different ways are found of doing the same thing, which eventually standardise to two or three, and as the market matures and new technologies emerge, before one standard emerges.

With videos the VHS/Betamax rivalry eventually came to a head and resulted in the triumph of VHS. With Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD, Blu Ray eventually came out on top.

Is the same thing now happening to e-readers? Initially there were hosts of formats, many of which are now falling by the wayside, but the first signs of the industry really polarising happened around Christmas 2011.

Amazon offered readers a chance to go into bookstores, scan books and then buy on Amazon at a discount. They also offered Select, designed to promote authors who made their books exclusively available from Amazon and withdrew them from other markets.

Barnes and Noble and Books A Million have now said they won’t stock or sell books published by Amazon imprints. While this may affect paperbacks mainly (and there are reports that may signal Createspace books being dropped from online listings) the overall effect is to create two market blocks of book titles.

One is Amazon, with the Kindle and .azw format.

The second, largely using epub, is the Nook, Kobo and other epub readers, served by retailers like Apple, Sony, distributors like Smashwords and stores like B&N.

Some books will span both: most major publishers for example. The really polarising effect is on indies and small publishers – the bonuses from Select against the wider market of epub. Small press publishers that use Createspace may find themselves having to choose between Createspace and Amazon and a third party printer and access to bookstores.

In the case of both VHS and Blu-Ray, the winning format wasn’t, as widely said, the one with the cheapest reader and the widest industry backing and market share. It was the one with the most content available. Sony restricted what was available on Betamax, so VHS took the rental market. When Warner dropped HD-DVD in 2008, it was followed swiftly by the end of the format. With e-readers this is even more true. Most readers have free software versions, so competition is going to be about the content and availability. If things heat up, I would not be surprised to see other retailers/publishers offering bonuses for exclusivity – similar to Amazon Select – in the near future.

However there is one other major difference: epub is an open format, freely available. Anyone can produce a software reader for it. That means that rather than HD-DVD v. Blu-Ray this could end up being Linux v. Windows.

This affects authors because while format wars usually end in consolidation (impelled by physical production costs), software ‘wars’ are ongoing – not least because different types of software and OS are better at different things and change over time. In a format war, choosing a side early is a good idea (if it is the winning side) while in a software situation you need to keep your options open because in eighteen months the position can reverse.

The next few months are going to be an interesting time to be an author.