Everyone has an opinion about the DOJ v. Apple/Big Six case (or Big Five, I guess, since Random House wasn’t involved in the alleged collusion). I’ve got my own opinion on the merits of the case, of course, but I’m not going to discuss that in this post. Instead, I’m going to address some common misconceptions: first, that publishers find it difficult or impossible to get their books on the Kindle without paying Amazon (as expressed by Bruce in the comment thread on this post by John Scalzi) and second, that setting up your own ebook publishing workflow requires scads of time and money (as expressed by Charlie Stross here). Now, Charlie Stross is a smart, technically sophisticated guy, but he’s way off base when he claims (in the comments) that “if I had to run my own self-publishing op I’d lose half my writing time”.
Starting at 5:39 PM CST, I created a cover image, formatted and compiled an ebook using Abulafia (shameless plug, deal with it), created a video explaining how to set up your Kindle to receive third-party books by email, and wrote a rudimentary book-to-Kindle distribution mechanism (actually, there was very little original code involved — all it really has to do is send the book file as an email attachment, and people have already written that code plenty of times :-)). If you want to try it, watch the video, then set up your Kindle to allow mail from email@example.com.
In a (probably vain) attempt to forestall nitpicking:
- No, I didn’t write the book in that time. It’s actually just a short story; Poe’s Masque of the Red Death — but I could just as easily have copied and pasted his complete works. The writing time is irrelevant to this discussion anyway (you’ll have to write the book no matter how it’s distributed, yes?).
- The cover image could use some work, certainly. It’s a modification of an illustration by Aubrey Beardsley, taken from a 19th century edition of the piece (it may be moderately NSFW, depending on where you W). If I were going to put this up for sale, I’d either spend more time on the cover or hire an artist. Maybe one of these folks.
- It wouldn’t take much volume to bring this little server to its knees. A production server farm for the likes of the Big Six would need to be much more robust, no question about it (and I’d definitely spend more than 15 minutes on the code :-)). But, you know, you can spin up as many servers as you want nowadays — within minutes. Hundreds of servers. Thousands of servers. If you don’t want to screw around with maintaining your own, there are companies (including Amazon itself) that will rent you as many commodity servers as you want, by the hour.
- I don’t have a payment mechanism set up but that’s also a solved problem. These guys, or these guys, or even these guys (if you must). Hundreds of others.
- Yes, Amazon could shut down the Kindle’s email facilities (or start blocking email from competitors they don’t like), but that would very likely result in the DOJ descending on them. If that happens, getting a third-party book on the Kindle would require the awesomely complex process of plugging it in to your computer, waiting for it to show up as a USB drive, then copying the files (or you could use this — another shameless plug).
It is now 11:08 PM, and I spent 25 minutes of that time talking to my aunt Joyce on the phone about issues unrelated to this project — so about 5 hours total to go from raw text to an ebook that’s available to every Kindle owner on the planet at the click of a button. Not bad.
Remember, that’s the total time to format the book, create the cover image, compile the book, set up the server for distribution, create the tutorial video, and write this blog post.
And I’m just, like, a guy, you know. If I can do this why can’t the Big Six do the same? Claiming that they’re “unable to compete with Amazon” is sheer unadulterated nonsense. Sorry, it just is.
I should note here that forward-thinking publishers such as Baen and Pragmatic Programmers have been doing exactly this for quite some time. I didn’t invent this process. I have probably a couple of dozen books from those publishers on my Kindles right now — none of which were purchased through Amazon.
Update: April 22, 2012
In case it’s not perfectly clear: I’m not planning to go into competition with Amazon myself (certainly not with this server :-)) — this is just an illustration of how easy it would be. If I can do this in 5 hours, imagine what someone with Rupert Murdoch’s budget could do.
The story choice was not a coincidence. The publishing industry is behaving in much the same way as the characters in the story.
This only addresses ebooks. Amazon, of course, also has a colossal (and massively efficient) infrastructure for delivering physical goods. Now that is an area where it would be very hard to compete with them. Digital goods are another story entirely.
With respect to Amazon “not paying taxes”: Amazon charges sales tax and pays their own taxes in every state where they have a physical presence, and doesn’t in states where they don’t, just like every other mail-order company since, well, always. The same is true of every other retailer from Apple and Barnes & Noble all the way down to the indie bookstore on the corner, which doesn’t collect sales tax on mail orders to other states. This is one of the consequences of a federal form of government. In general, you’re not obliged to abide by the laws of a state unless you’re physically present in that state. Changing that would likely require a constitutional amendment. If you think that’s a good idea, it might be worth considering how you’d feel about being required to abide by all the laws of (insert least-favorite state). That doesn’t sound quite as appealing, does it?