“To own a certain book – one you had chosen yourself – was to define yourself,” writes Julian Barnes.
Despite his belief in the survival of the physical book and the physical book shop, some of the world’s largest companies have a similar view about the e-book industry.
Titans such as Apple, Google, Amazon, Sony and Microsoft are vying for majority stakes in digital readers and distribution.
The Big 6 Publishers, along with mammoth parent companies such as News Corp., CBS and Bertelsmann, are struggling to maintain control of content in an age where content channels and business models shift constantly.
The Muckety map above shows not only these corporate relationships, but the intervention of antitrust regulators.
In April, the Justice Department filed suit against Apple and five of the six publishers for e-book price fixing. The publishers had joined with Apple after becoming increasingly concerned about Amazon’s discount pricing for the Kindle.
Three of the publishers - Hachette Book Group, Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins - have agreed to a settlement.
Amazon has launched its own publishing division. And Microsoft, not wanting to miss out on an emerging market, has pledged to invest $605 million in Barnes and Noble’s Nook operations.
Now another giant, Google, has entered the fray, launching its own reader, the Nexus 7.
One would hope that the growing crowd at the top of our map is good news for the publishers at the bottom.
What this means for the reading public is unclear, particularly during these early phases, when it takes hacking skills to convert one reader format to another.
Once again, we’re reminded of railroad barons using different-gauge tracks in their efforts to push out competitors.
As Macmillan CEO John Sargent says in a recent New Yorker article by Ken Auletta:
“These are huge companies, who are fighting a very large game.” Books, he said, are “in danger of becoming roadkill in that larger war.”
Added note: In case you missed it, be sure to read the recent Wall Street Journal article on e-book distributors’ newfound ability to gather information about you as you read. Consumer data mining is one of the reasons major corporations are so interested in this market.