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Could Publishers Start Windowing eBooks Again?

QuestionMarkThe ruling against Apple today for their role in the price-fixing conspiracy is generating a lot of debate over who’s right, who’s wrong, and what this could mean for the ebook market.

One commenter on this blog made an offhand remark about the possibility that publishers might respond to Amazon’s strong market presence by not windowing content, and I thought it worth sharing:

No matter. Now, I want to see publishers delay their physical and digital titles to Amazon much like what movie industry is doing to Netflix.

What are the chances that this might happen, do you think?

I can’t see any sign that the major publishers have started windowing content, but it’s not impossible. I’ve spot checked the new and upcoming releases pages for Penguin, HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster, and so far as I can tell Amazon is getting the new print books and ebooks at the same time as everyone else.

Given that 3 of the publishers settled as early as last September (that’s when the agreement was accepted by Judge Cote), I would have been surprised to find signs of windowing today.  I cannot recall reading about any reports of Kindle ebooks being delayed, and I am quite sure that this would have been a hot news story.

But I’ve also scanned the settlement agreement and I can’t see that there is any rule against windowing content. The only restrictions I can see on publishers' actions refer to pricing policies, not availability (unless I missed something). So this isn’t completely out of the question.

I don’t think this has a high chance of happening, but these publishers have demonstrated a remarkable ability to choose the worst option (they conspired with Apple, didn’t they). And windowing has been tried before in 2008 and 2009, so the idea isn’t completely new. Also, I’m sure you recall that this was one of the threats that the conspirators used to force Amazon to agree to agency pricing.

What are the chances that this might happen, do you think?

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fjtorres July 10, 2013 um 8:13 pm

Let the bravest go first.

Ben July 10, 2013 um 8:57 pm

Windowing is just one option. Without seeing some numbers I would not conclude it as a useless option in the hopes of getting a few extra hardcovers sold and still reap rewards later from ebooks. Much like how movie industry are only imposing the delay on new releases, publishers can just apply this to front list titles.

Alternative option is to clearly to start selling DRM-free ebooks directly from their own websites. Take a look at what Tor and Baen at quietly doing, and of course, there is O’Reilly. When you have a love-hate relationship with a single vendor, you can cut your ties or you can offer a better option for the same content. Amazon can keep selling their version for less…buyers get to purchase either lifetime DRM-free ebooks or be stuck within Amazon’s DRM ecosystem…if that choice isn’t clear to ebook readers then we are all in serious trouble, not just publishers.

William Ockham July 10, 2013 um 9:22 pm

Well, yeah. An alternative option for the Middle East is for everyone there to just lay down their weapons and have a big group hug. That is more likely than the publishers selling DRM-free ebooks on their own sites.

It is a myth that Amazon forces their DRM on publishers. The vast majority of the ebooks I buy from Amazon have no DRM. I just don’t buy very many books from traditional publishers.

Tony Hursh July 10, 2013 um 10:40 pm

Right. It’s a checkbox in the KDP portal, and there’s similar functionality for large publishers. Tor sells some books through Amazon DRM-free.

Tony Hursh July 10, 2013 um 10:44 pm

I spot-checked a few Baen books at Amazon, and they are also DRM-free.

Ben July 10, 2013 um 11:00 pm

Did you also noticed lower price? That’s Amazon for you. If publishers or Amazon don’t have a problem getting less in return, who am I to tell them it’s silly?

Gary July 10, 2013 um 9:09 pm

I don’t like the idea of windowning, but I could live with it, if the publisher has a consistent, formally stated policy. For example, "we will release all of our new release books as ebooks exactly 90 days after the first paper release."

What drove me quite crazy in earlier instances of 'windowing' was the complete uncertainty. Will this book ever be released as an ebook, or will it only be released as a paper book? Will the ebook be released this week? Next month? Seventeen days from now? Just before Christmas?

Nothing made me more angry than to finally give up hoping for an ebook to be released, to buy the paper book, and then to have the ebook released 2 days later.

Chris Meadows July 10, 2013 um 10:02 pm

I don’t think the publishers would resort to windowing. I mean, just look at what’s said about it in today’s decision. They all realize it’s a bad idea, promotes piracy, and costs sales that are never regained.

Ben July 10, 2013 um 10:56 pm

You really believe these same publisher execs understand their digital readers and the changing technology? Piracy will never go away, how you deal with it in a none destructive way is the way forward.

Mims July 11, 2013 um 12:42 am

If the big six/five decide to window, it would be yet another bad decision in a long history of bad decisions that they’ve made regarding e-books. Refusing to sell people an e-book that they WANT to pay for on the day that the hard copy is available for purchase is stupid on so many levels.

Publishers can try to sell directly to customers, but that will only work if they can match Amazon’s ease of use and customer service. Amazon makes buying e-books so damn EASY. In contrast for example, I bought a digital text book that was not available through Amazon. It took several days and about five e-mails before I could get a straight answer about whether or not it could be read on a Kindle. I had to download their app (VitalSource Bookshelf) and then download the book. The book took almost an hour to download (it was less than 200 pages, no pictures).

Bill Smith July 11, 2013 um 7:39 am

I think a combination of windowing and direct-download DRM-free from the publishers' websites would be an EASY way for them to counteract Amazon’s influence and put themselves in control of their destiny.

In terms of ease of use (for checkout), all they need to do is look at a site like — enter email, CC#, download, done.

Explaining sideloading really IS simple.

Given that this is big publishing we are talking about, I am sure they will find some way to screw up this beautifully simple idea.

Mel July 11, 2013 um 9:35 am

Not that publishers use any sort of logic but windowing to Amazon to drive me to their own site would just kill a sale. Lets say it’s big release day and I have the three books I want. I go to Amazon and they aren’t there. I really doubt I’m going to go look up which publisher each book is from, hunt up their webpage, find the book, create an account and hand over my information to yet another server, and perhaps have to download their special custom reader software. Nope, not gonna do it. IF Amazon has information on the book I might put it on my wishlist to perhaps buy when it’s available. Unless I change my mind before the windowing period is over because I heard a bad review or got impatient and borrowed it from the library. All they have done is keep their book from getting a first week sale that might put it on a bestseller list. And if they think my life is long enough to spend browsing a dozen different websites to perhaps find a new author they are mistaken.

Could Publishers Start Windowing eBooks Again? | The Passive Voice | Writers, Writing, Self-Publishing, Disruptive Innovation and the Universe July 11, 2013 um 10:01 am

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Kevin McLaughlin July 11, 2013 um 10:58 am

I don’t think major publishers are likely to make such a foolish decision, but I’ve said that about other things and been surprised, so you never know. They tend to act out of emotion rather than logic and business sense more often than they ought.

In any event, I’d welcome the move. It’s never a bad thing when a competitor shoots themselves in the foot. I can already see the thousands one one star reviews readers would pile onto every windowed book. Because, you know, making your customer incredibly angry with you is always good business, right?

Doug July 11, 2013 um 2:24 pm

This decision was against Apple. Apple isn’t a publisher.

All of the defendant publishing houses have already settled and have already made the changes they’re going to make stemming from the settlement. This decision doesn’t affect them. At all.

It hardly affects the consumer, either. It may eventually result in a settlement in the Attorney General’s lawsuit, which would mean more refunds to consumers. That’s about it. Apple is the only party seriously affected. There’s a lot of speculation that the remedies (yet to be determined) will include government oversight of Apple’s contracting process.

In the Apple decision, Judge Cote finds that the publishers didn’t like windowing, and only did it to stick a knife into Amazon’s "$9.99 new releases and NYT bestsellers" by not having new releases or NYT bestsellers be available in e-book form. See, for example, page 25 et seq of the Opinion & Order.

Macmillan’s John Sargent is quoted, “[w]indowing is entirely stupid,” and “actually makes no damn sense at all really.”

Simon & Schuster’s Carolyn Reidy is quoted that windowing “did not seem the wisest course” since “it doesn’t seem smart to penalize the eBook reader: we in fact want to encourage eBook purchases, so long as we can maintain our margins and income.” She feared that windowing could “alienate an entire portion (and a growing one) of our audience.”

"A Penguin study showed … when a Publisher delayed the release of e-books, its sales never recovered. The lost customers neither bought the print book at a higher price nor returned to purchase those e-books when they finally became available."

Penguin refused to window. So did Random House. So.. there are four of the Big Six standing against windowing. And Cote found that, "In order for the tactic of windowing to succeed, the Publishers knew they needed to act together."

Windowing isn’t going to happen.

Rudy July 11, 2013 um 2:49 pm

Publishers have been windowing for decades. That’s what it is when you wait a year or so before selling the mass market paperback version. My consumer solution if I simply MUST have the book hot off the presses is to check it out of the library. If I like it well enough to own a copy, I wait until the mmpb comes out. If they window digital versions of their books, I’ll do the same thing. Note that some publishers drop the price of the digital edition when the mmpb (or trade pb) comes out. And I wait for that. There are plenty of books out there.

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