As the year draws to a close many are looking back at 2014 and reflecting on the year's events. Today I would like to take a look at an event which would have been a huge news story if it had ever happened.
As you may recall, for much of 2014 Hachette and Amazon were in a nasty contract negotiation here in the US. As we all know from following the news, Hachette fought a vicious media campaign against Amazon as a way of pressuring Amazon to give in, but what no one else knew was that Hachette had a second string to their bow.
Just so you know: I have very little evidence to back up the following post. I trust my sources, and I do have a little evidence, but you should take this report with a grain of salt.
Update: Hachette has confirmed my report, telling Publishers Lunch that:
Asked about the report, HBG spokesperson Sophie Cottrell told us, "We're always doing internal experiments and many never see the light of day. The ebooksforall site was one of those experiments, and we shelved it months ago, in its early stages, to work on other projects."
Earlier this year Hachette secretly started developing an ebookstore called www.eBooksForAll.com. That store never launched, but my sources tell me that it would have sold Hachette titles in both Epub and Kindle formats.
Yes, Kindle. Hachette's new ebookstore was going to use digital watermark DRM on the ebooks it sold.
Unlike encryption DRM like Adobe's, digital watermarks are little more than tags which can be used to identify who bought an ebook and where. They are almost invisible to the end user, and that means that an eBooks For All customer could buy an ebook and sideload it on their Kindle.
In short, Hachette nearly launched a site which could have directly competed with the Kindle Store. I can't tell you why it was not launched, but I do have some more background details.
The site was developed by an Australia-based ebook company called eBooks.com, which would operate the site on behalf of Hachette. The watermark DRM would have been supplied by Booxtream, which also provides a similar service to Pottermore and other ebook retailers.
eBooks For All was supposed to go live in the summer, and then in the early fall, but now that December has rolled around I figure the idea is probably dead, and thus it is safe to tell everyone about what would have been the biggest digital publishing story of the year.
At this point you're probably thinking that this is a great story, but you also want to see some proof. Unfortunately, I don't have much to show. Hachette hasn't confirmed any of the details, and in fact they haven't even acknowledged my existence.
But I do have a couple details to share. For example, there is the @eBooksForAll twitter handle, which appears to currently belong to someone called HBG Test. There are no tweets or identifying information on that account, though.
I also have a Whois history report (PDF) for www.eBooksForAll.com which shows that the contact name is Joe Mangan, the COO of Hachette Book Group. That report also shows that the site is hosted on Hachette's servers and uses Hachette's nameservers. (At this time the site is just a blank page.)
Hachette apparently acquired the domain in April 2014, not too long after their previous contract with Amazon lapsed. Is it just me, or does that raise some new questions as to why the contract was allowed to expire?
Without a response from Hachette, I can't answer those questions, so if you have the ear of anyone at Hachette please do us all a favor and ask them about this site.
As much as I would love to see this store launch (just to see what happened), I can understand why it did not.
As much as pundits may talk about publishers routing around Amazon and dealing directly with Kindle owners, there is a large group of Kindle owners who can't be reached either because they either don't know how to buy ebooks elsewhere and add them to their Kindle account, don't know the option exists, or simply do not feel the effort is worth it.
This is part of the reason why Baen Books started distributing to the Kindle Store back in 2012 after over a decade of selling only through their own site, and it is also why Pottermore launched its ebookstore with close integration with the major ebook platforms.
On the other hand, there are times where you can only identify an unworkable idea after it is put into practice (this is why startups pivot). I would like to see what would happen if a major publisher followed Pottermore, but it looks like we're going to have to wait a little longer before that happens.