For some time, I’ve intended to write a few non-review posts and have kept procrastinating. Recently I’ve read some blog posts touching on two of my planned subjects that served as the push I needed. This is the first of these.
As Anne Allen points out in a recent blog post, Amazon has a near monopoly, at least where purchasing eBooks for Kindles are concerned. The same is true of Barnes & Noble for Nook owners. Although Anne’s post is on a different subject (and it’s well worth reading both it and the follow up if you haven’t already), this “monopoly” is what I’ve wanted to talk about.
I’m a big fan of Amazon and they have received the vast majority of my book-purchasing budget for many years. This isn’t likely to change any time soon. They provide the best selection, superior customer service, and excellent prices. But they also have an unbelievable percentage of the book market in the US and close to a monopoly on books for our Kindles. Quoting Anne Allen’s blog post, “… the truth is: monopolies are always scary.”
This could also be scary for authors. In a recent guest post on Joe Konrath’s blog, bestselling author Barry Eisler made the case that if this were to become a problem, competitors would enter the market, forcing Amazon to remain competitive. The fact remains, some authors are also nervous about Amazon’s position. Whether an author or a reader, having all your eggs in one basket is unnerving.
I would suggest the old saying about an ounce of prevention is pertinent here. There are a limited number of alternatives to Amazon for Kindle owners, but supporting those that exist by occasionally using them for your eBook purchases will help keep them viable. These alternatives have some tradeoffs. You lose some of the convenience of purchasing from Amazon, but there are also some benefits. I’ll discuss both in more detail below.
The downside to any of these alternatives is the loss of that convenience one enjoys when purchasing from Amazon. With a single click, you can purchase and have your eBook “instantly” delivered via 3G or Wi-Fi to your Kindle. Use of an alternative involves setting up a new account the first time you purchase, downloading the eBook file to your computer, and side loading it onto your Kindle. While relatively quick and simple, especially after you have experience with this, there is no denying it falls short of the almost instant delivery Amazon provides. Amazon’s archive also means you don’t have to be concerned with keeping a backup of the eBook file in case of accidental deletion. However, there are advantages to using some of the alternatives that help offset this loss of convenience.
Amazon alternatives fall into three categories: alternative sources for Indie books (both self-published and small publishers), sources for free (public domain) books, and other places to purchase books published by larger publishers. We’ll take these in reverse order. This guide isn’t comprehensive. My aim is to raise the issue and point you to some potential Amazon alternatives.
There is an excellent argument that, for books in this category, there is no compelling reason to look for an alternative source. The publisher sets the eBook price and retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble can’t discount. The publishers are a quasi-monopoly and some think they are engaging in monopoly pricing. Sticking with Amazon or Barnes & Noble for Kindle and Nook owners makes sense for these books. (If you don’t understand why all sources charge the same price, Google “Agency Pricing.”) However, there are some alternative sources if you’re interested in finding them.
Almost everything in this post applies more or less equally to Nook owners and anyone who has any other major eReader as much as it does Kindle owners. This section is an exception in that it much of it doesn’t apply to Kindle owners. As Kindle owners, we believe we have the most reliable and easy to use eReader on the market, backed by the best customer service in the business, but the Kindle has one quality that is a definite negative.
While most eReaders use the ePub format, which is as close to an industry standard as currently exists, Amazon uses a proprietary format. A DRM (digital rights management) or copy protection scheme is available for the ePub format (called ADE or Adobe Digital Editions) for use by anyone. It appears that many large publishers have decided not to offer Kindle format eBooks through other sites beyond Amazon. I suspect this is because of issues with DRM. For those with other eReaders, there are two possibilities. The first is the publisher site.
For romance readers, Harlequin offers eBooks directly from the publisher. I should note that this site does have eBooks in the Mobipocket format, which might have been compatible with the Kindle, but they are discontinuing this format as of the end of 2011.
Another publisher with eBooks (ADE format) available for purchase directly from their website is Simon & Schuster.
Many other publishers may have the same capability on their websites.
There are also other sites that sell eBooks from the major publishers for non-Kindle owners. One such site is eBooks.com, which has books from many large publishers available.
Although there are many places you might legitimately find eBooks for free, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and some titles from Baen Books (a publisher of science fiction), this section is for books in the public domain. (Books no longer under copyright, which can be copied at will.) Many of these are available free from Amazon or Barnes & Noble and other sources, but the most extensive collection is at Project Gutenberg. If you’re a fan of the old classics: Dickens, Twain, Poe, Shakespeare, Thoreau … the list goes on and on, this is a great place to find those books at a price that can’t be beat.
Most Indie authors don’t sell eBooks directly from their website, instead providing a link to Amazon or B&N. However, there are exceptions and I expect this to become more common in the future. Along with offering multiple formats to satisfy the needs of most readers, an eBook store integrated into an author website is generally going to mean more of the money you spend will actually make it into the author’s pocket. While not every reader will see this as an advantage, I see it as a positive in encouraging my favorite authors to write more. The other advantage is that books obtained this way are normally DRM-free. Lack of DRM does not give you the right to give the book away or send a copy to your friends, but it does have advantages to the purchaser. (A good subject for a future post.)
Here are a few Indie authors who have set up stores as part of their website:
Joe Konrath has an eBook store integrated into his website, which also has books from two of his fellow Indie authors, Barry Eisler and Blake Crouch.
Eisler also offers the option of buying some of his books directly from his website (along with links to the major eBook sites).
The primary alternative source for Indie books is Smashwords. Although a large part of Smashword’s business is as a distributer for self-published authors and small publishers, they also have a retail operation. Smashwords is how most Indie authors get their books to the major eBooks stores except Amazon and (for many US authors) Barnes & Noble, so most Indie books are available there. Although they don’t have tools as extensive as Amazon to discover books, they’re an excellent alternative if you’ve already identified a book you want to purchase. (Since mid-June Books and Pals has included links to a book’s page at Smashwords if it is available there.) Smashwords is an especially good alternative to Amazon if you live in one of the countries where Amazon charges a $2 per book delivery fee, since Smashwords does not . There are two major advantages that Smashwords has over Amazon. The first is that it has multiple formats available. If you have more than one brand of eReader or own a Nook eReader, but also read eBooks on your smartphone and prefer the Kindle emulator, this gives you a way to be able to read a book in both places. It also helps protect your book investment if you decide to change eReader brands. The second advantage is that all books purchased from Smashwords are DRM-free.
What do you think? Should we be concerned? Does spreading our eBook purchases among multiple sites make sense?