Remarkably, for a time it seemed that the book publishing industry had managed to avoid the disruption that befell its peers in music, magazines and newspapers. From the beginning, publishers approached the Internet much more gingerly; unlike newspapers and magazines, they did not just throw their content online for free; and compared to music, books were not only more difficult for end users to digitize, but also harder to consume on a computer or portable device. It’s not that the idea of e-books was unknown — the first e-book reader launched in 1998 — but rather that publishers were terrified of a world in which books were accessible to anyone, at any time, for free.
Thus, it wasn’t until 2007, a full eight years after Napster first disrupted music, that the publishers finally made their catalogs broadly available digitally on a device created by their best customer, Amazon. Over the previous decade, Amazon had become the publishers’ most important distribution channel, and now Amazon was promising that the Kindle, with its proprietary digital rights management would let publishers enjoy the benefits of digital distribution without endangering their underlying business model. Over time, the publishers would also launch their titles on other companies’ e-book readers, such as the Nook and iBooks, but always with DRM.
Fast forward to today, and Amazon is, at least from the publishers’ perspective, much more foe than friend. Over the last week details have emerged of bitter disputes Amazon has with Hachette in the United States and with Bonnier in Germany. While the specifics are unclear, it seems that Amazon is demanding more control and money when it comes to e-books; and to force the publishers to capitulate, Amazon is declining to keep many of their physical books in stock or to enable pre-orders.