Why I'm glad Barnes & Noble is punishing its customers

There are a lot of stories about how Barnes & Noble, now joined by other chains, is “boycotting” print books published by Amazon.

Nearly all of these stories carry the implication, at least, that Barnes & Noble just doesn’t want to carry these books on the general principle of not helping out your competition, or because Amazon’s move into publishing is somehow dangerous to the publishing industry.

I don’t know what is motivating the other chains who are boycotting Amazon, but this gloss mischaracterizes Barnes & Noble’s motivation and in the process obscures a more interesting issue. It’s not just lashing out at Amazon. It’s fighting to make sure the Nook, its ebook platform, remains relevant.

Barnes & Noble has drawn a line in the sand–it will not stock physical books belonging to any publisher that enters into ebook exclusives with Amazon. (Or that is Amazon.) Since Amazon-published ebooks are going to be available only on the Kindle, it won’t stock Amazon print books. This is consistent with what Barnes & Noble announced back in October, that because DC Comics are going to be Kindle exclusives, Barnes and Noble stores won’t stock print DC Comics books.

If Amazon made all of the ebooks it publishes available on the Nook as well as the Kindle, then Barnes & Noble would stop its “boycott.” It’s managed to compete for years against Amazon the physical book seller. Amazon the ebook monopolist is much more dangerous to its future.

Most of the online commentary has been against Barnes & Noble’s actions. After all, it’s making its physical bookstores less attractive places to shop in the name of helping out its much-smaller ebook platform. It’s punishing its customers over some arcane business dispute they care nothing about. This amounts to Barnes & Noble paying a “strategy tax”–taking anti-customer actions for longer-term strategic reasons.

But it’s not clear what else Barnes & Noble could do to keep Amazon from locking up ebook exclusives. What leverage does it have? Without its firm stand, more publishers might be tempted to sign over the future of electronic publishing to Amazon in exchange for some short-term gain. Refusing to stock some print books might be a strategy tax worth paying.

Ebooks are not like physical books because of their DRM and platform lock-in. Each additional ebook someone buys from Amazon increases his likelihood of buying his next ebook from Amazon, because it is difficult (and arguably illegal) to move ebooks from one platform to another. Even though on some devices you can run multiple ebook apps–for example, the iPad can have iBooks, Kindle, and Nook apps installed side-by-side–most people don’t want to have to keep track of multiple locked digital platforms.

Because of this, ebook exclusives are much more of a problem than physical exclusives. It didn’t matter when Starbucks exclusively sold certain CDs since those CDs could play anywhere, not just in Starbucks-brand CD players. But a Kindle book requires Amazon hardware or software to read, and each additional Kindle exclusive makes a Kindle monopoly that much more likely. If you have to use Kindle products to read Kindle exclusives, why not just use Kindle for all your ebooks?

I’m glad Barnes & Noble is at least trying to keep ebook distribution competitive. Now that most digital music is sold DRM-free and from more than one source, people can purchase music from Amazon, Apple, and artists and labels directly, shopping around for a good price and without worrying about lock-in. We only have this competitive marketplace because labels saw that an Apple-dominated future wasn’t in their best interest. Publishers and many writers see that an Amazon-dominated future isn’t in their interest, either, but they’ve haven’t done much to actually counter it. (Of course, an Amazon-dominated future might be better for writers than the status quo–but I’m comparing it to an imaginary competitive future.)

The ebook market won’t be competitive or healthy as long as DRM locks people into platforms. Amazon’s dominance is not likely to go away, since most Kindle users have little reason to switch and are already locked in. But in the long run an ebook distribution monopoly can’t be a healthy thing. Barnes & Noble is doing the right thing by doing what it can to keep that from happening.