By Harry McCracken | Saturday, February 5, 2011 at 7:49 pm
Today, I wanted to buy a book. I did what I usually do these days before I plunk down my money for one: I checked to see if it was available as an Amazon Kindle e-book–one which I’d be able read not only on a Kindle but also on an iPad, an iPhone, an Android phone, a Mac, or a PC. It was. My finger instinctively lunged towards the 1-Click button.
And then it dawned on me: With the recent development that Apple is going to require creators of e-reader apps to sell books using its in-app purchasing feature, it’s not the least bit clear what the fate of Kindle books on Apple devices will be. (Apple says that as long as e-readers support in-app purchases, they’ll be able to retain access to digital books bought elsewhere–even though this violates the App Store approval guidelines.)
I’ve spent several hundred dollars on Kindle books over the past few years. Nowadays, I do about 80 percent of my reading of them on an iPhone and an iPad. An e-book I can’t read on Apple gizmos would be dramatically less valuable. And it’s not clear what’s going to happen to the Apple-compatible e-reader apps offered by Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google, and Kobo.
At the moment, Apple charges third-party sellers a thirty percent commission on content offered through the App Store’s in-app purchasing option. But as Reuters’ Aaron Pressman noted in a comment on an earlier post here, the “agency pricing” system used for e-books only gives Amazon and its competitors thirty percent of the book’s price. In other words, if Apple insists on getting a thirty percent cut, it’s demanding all the profit. That’s not going to work.
It’s possible that Apple has a tenable plan here–which would presumably involve charging Amazon and other e-book sellers a fee of a lot less than thirty percent of the book price. (At this week’s unveiling of News Corp.’s The Daily iPad newspaper, Apple Internet services honcho Eddy Cue made reference to an upcoming announcement involving content subscriptions; maybe single-copy sales will also be part of the news.)
Maybe Apple has even shared its plans with Amazon and other e-booksellers; maybe they even had a say in figuring it all out. Or maybe Amazon and others have a strategy for opting out of Apple’s new stipulation without leaving Apple devices behind–presumably something along the lines of the proposal floated by Slate’s Farhad Manjoo, who thinks that e-book sellers should build entirely Web-based readers. We just don’t know. And thanks to the opaque nature of Apple’s explanation of such things, it’s not clear when we will know.
I’m also unclear what’s going to happen to the existing versions of e-reading apps such as the iPhone and iPad Kindle apps. My guess is that if I never upgrade them, I’ll be able to use the current versions indefinitely and get access to my Kindle tomes. But I’m not positive.
Best case scenario, this all works out in a way that Apple, Amazon, and consumers can live with. Worst case scenario, Kindle e-books become the equivalent of music locked up with Microsoft’s ill-fated PlaysForSure technology: They’ll work on just about every gizmo out there…except the Apple devices that dominate the market.
In any event, this Amazon “Buy once, read everywhere” ad from a couple of months ago–which involves a lady taking her “vast Kindle library” with her when she dumps her iPhone for an Android handset–suddenly has a whole new meaning…
In the end, I snapped up the Kindle edition of the book I decided to buy today. But I’m still fretting that my “vast Kindle library” may be about to get less useful. One nice thing about dead-tree books, even though they cost more than electronic ones and take up more space: Once you own one, its capabilities aren’t subject to change…