The DC/Barnes & Noble Fracas — Who’s Sauron Now?

As the New York Times reports:

“Amazon, seeking to make its coming Kindle Fire tablet as appealing as possible, negotiated a deal with DC Comics for the exclusive digital rights to a hundred popular graphic novels. Among the series: Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, the Sandman and Watchmen.

Barnes & Noble, with a tablet of its own to nurture, did not like this one bit. Two weeks ago it removed all the copies of the physical volumes from its 1,300 stores, saying it would not carry any book if it were denied the right to sell the digital version…”

Some quick observations on this matter:

1) What’s increasingly obvious is that the electronic distribution rights are now the prize, with the “physical volumes” (sic) the bargaining chip to play for access to the electronic distribution rights. Maybe one year ago, but certainly two, B&N wouldn’t have cared if Amazon had all the DC titles exclusively online, as long as B&N could stock the print versions on its bookstore shelves. B&N’s play here is a tacit recognition that the electronic distribution rights are increasingly more valuable, while the physical distribution rights are less valuable, to the point that B&N is willing to forego its own revenue from selling the print comic books in order to somehow punish DC for giving Amazon exclusive electronic distribution rights;

2) That being the case, this is a self-correcting situation for Amazon and DC. As B&N’s ability and willingness to carry the physical comic books on its bookstore shelves becomes less and less valuable with every passing day, the stick with which B&N wishes to beat DC, for doing something B&N doesn’t like, likewise becomes smaller and less punitive. It’s just as easy to see B&N’s action against DC not as a “warning shot” across the bows of anybody else looking to give Amazon exclusive electronic distribution rights, but as a confirmation of what those parties might already be thinking, i.e. it’s safe to cut whatever deal you want with Amazon, there being nothing that B&N can do that outweighs the advantages of the possible Amazon deal, and nothing that B&N can do that doesn’t make Amazon’s Kindle Fire even more attractive to DC’s and other publishers’ readers. “Gosh, I can’t get the new Batman for the Nook or at the B&N brick-and-mortar store? Guess it’s time to buy one of those snazzy new Kindles!” B&N is now stuck in that part of the commercial end-game in which every move it makes hastens its own demise.

Here’s my takeaway about the matter. There’s been a lot of hand-wringing and moaning lately from indie writers and e-publishers, fearful of an increasingly dominant Amazon turning into a monopolistic e-publishing “Sauron,” capable of cramming less attractive terms down the throats of writers and e-publishers. My own opinion is that this is pointless fretting: 1) it’s not happening now, with Amazon already able to ignore whatever terms are offered to writers and e-publishers by B&N, Smashwords, et al; 2) for sound business reasons, it’s not likely to happen in the future — Amazon makes its money by having a lot of inventory to sell, and the terms it offers to writers and e-publishers are designed to encourage them to create lots of inventory for Amazon to sell; and 3) even in the unlikely case that Amazon were to unfavorably change its terms, there wouldn’t be anything that indie writers and e-publishers could do about it, except swallow the new terms — this is a point that’s already been discussed by J. A. Konrath and others, recognizing the value of the Amazon marketplace to writers and e-publishers.

What’s particularly notable in this regard about this latest DC/B&N fracas is that it illustrates the absurdity of indie writers and e-publishers hoping that B&N or any other electronic bookseller operation could somehow be a plucky little hobbit-like competitor to Amazon’s evil, monopolistic Sauron. That hope being, of course, that if Amazon were to unfavorably alter its terms, then indie writers and e-publishers would be able to gather up their ebooks and stomp off with them to B&N, which would supposedly offer them better terms. Frankly, this is nonsense, and it displays a rather naive trust in B&N and others treating indie writers and e-publishers in a nicer way, simply because they’re smaller than Amazon. What the DC/B&N fracas shows is that plucky little B&N, the Frodo against Amazon’s Sauron, is just as prepared to ignore the interests of writers and publishers as the hand-wringers fear that Amazon might someday be. B&N didn’t care what effect its pulling the physical comic books off its bookstore shelves would have on the revenue of those writers and artists; all it was interested in was sending a (futile) message to others: “See? If you cross us on electronic distribution rights, we’ll attempt to punish you just as we’re attempting to punish these people. Fear our wrath!”

Frankly, rather than hoping that Amazon’s “competitors” will save them from the bogeyman, indie writers and e-publishers would be better off anticipating that Amazon will continue to recognize the value of its own business plan and the terms that are offered to writers and e-publishers under it. As B&N continues to get squeezed financially, it’s unlikely that the company will react in some way that’s more favorable to indie writers and e-publishers than whatever it might be that they’re getting from Amazon. And as the DC/B&N fracas illustrates, a sinking company such as B&N is actually more likely to throw writers and e-publishers under the bus, in pursuit of its own survival.

One thought on “The DC/Barnes & Noble Fracas — Who’s Sauron Now?

  1. I know of a SF publisher who sells their books both in paper and electronic formats. B&N carries the paper, but does not carry the electronic (they are carried by the publisher only). So…does this mean that B&N is selectively enforcing this policy? Or they are just doing this for show?

Comments are closed.