If Railroads Predict the Death of the Open Web, What Do They Say About eBooks?
Two paragraphs in particular caught my eye:
The open web’s terminal illness is not a story that he alone is telling. It is the common wisdom of the moment, espoused by Times columnists and longtime tech bloggers. The developers who wrote Drupal and WordPress, two important pieces of blogging software, both recently expressedanxiety over the open web’s future. Since so many of these social networks are operated by algorithms, whose machinations are proprietary knowledge, they worry that people are losing any control over what they see when they log on. The once-polyphonic blogosphere, they say, will turn into the web of mass-manufactured schlock.
Something like this has happened before. Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia University, argues in his book The Master Switch that every major telecommunications technology has followed the same pattern: a brief, thrilling period of openness, followed by a monopolistic and increasingly atrophied closedness. Without government intervention, the same fate will befall the internet, he says. Williams cites Wu frequently. “Railroad, electricity, cable, telephone—all followed this similar pattern toward closedness and monopoly, and government regulated or not, it tends to happen because of the power of network effects and the economies of scale,” he told me.
While that piece focuses on the internet, we can see the same trends in the book industry in the US.
Even before Amazon launched the Kindle, we were already seeing consolidation in the book trade. The several major book store chains were displacing indie bookstores, buying up their competitors, and launching ever larger stores. And on the other end, the Big Six publishers (or book content publishers, as Teleread would say) were buying up smaller publishers (although that trend got started a few years later).
These trends started even before Amazon launched in the mid-1990s. But then Amazon came along, and two things happened.
Amazon acquired Booksurge/Createspace and launched KDP, and disrupted the production side of the book industry. Amazon created all sorts of opportunities for industrious authors to bypass the gatekeepers and reach consumers.
If you look at it one way, Amazon effectively threw open the book market, but at the same time, Amazon established the Kindle Store and started to monopolize the retail side of the book industry (both print in the US and digital globally).
One the one hand, Amazon has fractured the book publishing industry, but on the other hand it has also accelerated the consolidation and monopolization trend.
If the book industry follows the same pattern as previous industries, pretty soon Amazon’s detractors will be right: you’re going to have to go through Amazon (and a handful of other retailers) in order to reach consumers.
And that’s just in the US; some countries may have already reached that point.
Think about your country, and ask yourself just how much of the retail book market is controlled by the four or five largest bookstore chains. If it’s more than 75% then you have my sympathies. You’re already well into the "monopolistic and increasingly atrophied closedness" stage.
Has the US already reached that point, do you think?
image by Hikosaemon