Amazon vs Hachette is nothing: just WAIT for the audiobook wars!

In my latest Locus column, Audible, Comixology, Amazon, and Doctorow’s First Law, I unpick the technological forces at work in the fight between Amazon and Hachette, one of the "big five" publishers, whose books have not been normally available through Amazon for months now, as the publisher and the bookseller go to war over the terms on which Amazon will sell books in the future.

The publishing world is, by and large, rooting for Hachette, but hasn't paid much attention to the ways in which Hachette made itself especially vulnerable to Amazon in this fight: by insisting that all its books be sold with Amazon's DRM, it has permanently locked all its customers into Amazon's ecosystem, and if Hachette tries to convince them to start buying ebooks elsewhere, it would mean asking their readers to abandon their libraries in the bargain (or maintain two separate, incompatible libraries with different apps, URLs, and even devices to read them).

Worse still: people in publishing who are alarmed about Hachette are still allowing their audiobooks to be sold by Audible, the Amazon division that controls 90% of the audiobook market and will only sell audiobooks in a format that can't be legally played with anything except Amazon-approved technology. Audible has already started putting the screws to its audiobook suppliers -- the publishers and studios that make most of the audiobooks it sells -- even as it has gone into business competing with them.

It's profoundly, heartbreakingly naive to expect that Amazon will be any less ruthless in exploiting the advantage it is being handed over audiobooks than it has been in its exploitation of ebooks.

Take Amazon’s subsidiary Audible, a great favorite among science fiction writers and fans. The company has absolute dominance over the audiobook market, accounting for as much as 90 percent of sales for major audio publishers. Audible has a no-exceptions requirement for DRM, even where publishers and authors object (my own audiobooks are not available through Audible as a result). Audible is also the sole audiobook supplier for iTunes, meaning that authors and publishers who sell audiobooks through iTunes are likewise bound to lock these to Amazon’s platform and put them in Amazon’s perpetual control.

As John Scalzi wrote recently:

These businesses and corporations are not your friends. They will seek to extract the maximum benefit from you that they can, and from others with whom they engage in business, consistent with their current set of business goals. This does not make them evil – it makes them business entities (they might also be evil, or might not be, but that’s a different thing). If you’re treating these businesses as friends, you’re likely to get screwed.

Anyone who believes that Audible would hesitate to use its market power to extract additional profit at the expense of its suppliers – that is, writers and publishers – is delusional. Not because Audible is evil, but because it is a for-profit corporation that is seeking to maximize its gain. The lesson of Hachette is that Amazon plays hardball when it can, and the more leverage Amazon has over its suppliers, the more it will use that leverage to its suppliers’ detriment.

Audible, Comixology, Amazon, and Doctorow’s First Law [Locus/Cory Doctorow]

(Image: DRM PNG 900 2, Listentomyvoice, CC-BY-SA)

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