Macrumors is reporting that there are rumors of Apple negotiating with HarperCollins to sell ebooks on the Apple tablet/iSlate. There have been similar rumors around magazines, and idea of Apple as a bookstore comes up in speculation often, but this is the first solid, believable rumor in some time. What does this mean for reading ebooks on your iPhone/iPod Touch/future Apple tablet? How will this impact existing reader programs in the Apple ecosystem, and will the repercussions spread to the larger ebook world? I have a few thoughts on what could happen, and whether these are pros or cons to the current and future ebook world.
You want me to pay HOW MUCH for a book?:
In my opinion, there are only a few ways this will be a huge negative for consumers. The $9.99 pricepoint has been aggressively established for new vanilla ebooks, and Apple wouldn’t want to immediately be undercut by Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Kobo right out of the gate. Even if Apple went into lockdown mode and booted all ebook readers out of the app store (more on that in a moment), there are other smartphones tablets, and dedicated ebook readers all using competitor’s stores. So Apple needs to be mindful of the existing price points. But let’s say Apple decides, “Hey, we’re Apple, and we can charge $11.99 because our books are color and on the Apple Tablet.”, there’s no reason to believe the other big bookstores would follow suit. If anything, they’d maintain and promote their $9.99 pricing, since it would give them a major advantage over Apple.
The electronic book reading population is not so huge that Apple could garner a big chunk just by being Apple; the price war is already underway, and Apple’s customers have started building libraries in competitor’s stores. The only wrench in this is if the rumors of “enhanced ebooks” are true Without any details, it becomes tough to see what would make an ebook command almost double the market rate (up to $19.99!). Video is certainly a possibility, though it raises the question of quality and source; not every book is going to need that sort of treatment, and when video is available it needs to be a decent clip, and not just a gimmick. Otherwise, what could command a higher price? Immediate availability upon hardcover launch? Not really an enhancement so much as an early adopter tax. Annotations highlighting, and other interactions with ebooks are supported on the Kindle, the nook, the Sony Reader, etc., as are dictionary and wikipedia lookups. What other “enhancements” could you add to an ebook to command a seriously higher price?
For vanilla ebooks, I don’t see anything changing regarding price. And without information, it’s tough to say whether enhanced ebooks would be a worthy buy, or even if consumers would even want them!
Format Wars…two files go on, only one comes out:
Currently, the formats in ebooks shake out generally like this: ePUB, Amazon, a few dying formats (eReader PDB, for example.) Every major store uses ePUB except Amazon, but what will the future hold if Apple steps into the fray? Unless Apple is way more invested in ebooks already, to the point where they are troubling themselves with inventing a proprietary format, it’s likely they’ll be using ePUB, simply because it is flexible, easy to format and can easily handle videos (for those “enhanced” ebooks). There’s little benefit to creating yet another format; even if Apple wants to make their books proprietary, all that would require is another layer of DRM on the ePUB, as opposed to a whole new file type. I hope they don’t go that route but it would at least open up the possibility that if publishers release their stranglehold on digital rights management that it would be easy to make the books transferable Really, this is one of those, “Wait and see” type scenarios, because even with further information it is tough to see what will happen. What people nitpick and complain about on the internet may not be what consumers care about; look at the success of Amazon’s model, with its tight store to device integration. Most people buying from them don’t care they can’tmove their books elsewhere, and prefer the convenience of Amazon managing the experience over the freedom of book portability, and the same may be true for the Apple content.
Bookstore eat bookstore world out there:
As I alluded to earlier, Apple already carries several major bookstores in the App Store. What happens to them with this new Apple books concept? Will they be allowed to remain in the store, or will they suddenly be redundant and unceremoniously pulled? Either one is a strong possibility and this worries me more than anything else. Apple could easily choose to boot Barnes and Noble, Kindle, Stanza, et al from the store, and instead provide ebooks through iTunes. The downside is that they’d be cutting off consumers from libraries they may have built on the iPhone/iPod Touch. But from Apple’s perspective this isn’t really a loss; all those stores make money off iPhone users without paying a dime to Apple. Yes, it would annoy a lot of consumers, but the ebook market is still growing, and with everything else an Apple tablet is rumored to offer…would people really not buy one over ebooks? Or would they complain and end up buying their ebooks from Apple anyway?
The risk to Apple in that scenario is that they lose those consumers. Even worse, B&N, Amazon, etc may then turn to Android, Blackberry, etc and enhance their smartphone software offerings. Android is the real threat here; how would it look if an Android tablet at half the cost of the Apple one offered all the orphaned ebook fans a place to read their libraries, and Amazon, B&N, et al gain a smartphone space where they can develop their reader software without oversight or interference. Not to mention the influx of color ebook reader screens due to come out this year, which will only add to the competition for ebook buyer’s hardware dollars. Why make the decision more difficult for ebook consumers, when Apple already has their eyeballs and wallets from stores operating within the Apple ecosystem? Why push them out?
This one is a tough one, as I can see Apple going either way. The ebook fan in me is hoping for option two, but the realist in me thinks the lack of cash flow from all those Kindle readers on the iPhone, plus the fact that Apple HATES competition in its own sandbox, makes me think option one is the more likely (and unfortunate) scenario here. I just hope I’m wrong!
Winner winner chicken dinner:
So who wins when Apple gets involved in ebooks? Overall, the consumer with no library tie-ins is probably going to be very happy. Assuming the pricing is reasonable, Apple will no doubt pull a rabbit out of their hats and ebooks for some time now, it’s probably going to be a mixed bag. As great as it is to see a tech giant like Apple involved in ebooks, it means big changes are no doubt in store, and it is going to be a very bumpy ride along the way.
What do you think? Am I being overly cynical? Is Apple going to save the book world? Share your thoughts and speculation below!