Upon seeing this week’s announcement from Apple promoting the top titles of the year from Apple Books, along with a new Year in Review feature, I had likely the same thought as many: “Apple still cares about selling ebooks?”
Unfortunately, that case also ended up only solidifying the dominance of the market’s biggest player, Amazon. So, a decade on, could Apple still mount an effective challenge to that behemoth? Maybe. But not only would they have to be present, but the company would have to take some pretty bold steps.
Check it out
It’s somewhat of a surprise even to myself that I do most of my reading on ebook these days. As much as I love paper books, it’s increasingly hard to justify the space they occupy in my home—plus, the convenience factor of instant gratification is hard to beat.
But the thing that’s tipped me over the edge more than anything else is access to a wide swath of free ebooks—legal free ebooks available from my local library. The Libby app allows me to easily check out ebooks and read them on my Kindle or Kobo e-readers, as well as maintaining holds on a queue of books that I want to read when they’re available. (Yes, holds can take a long time, and library licensing from publishers is overly restrictive, but that’s a story for another time.)
However, Apple Books is nowhere to be found in this arena. Yes, you can read a book directly in the Libby app on your iPhone or iPad or have it delivered to your Kindle reader. You can even download an ePub file in Adobe’s awful Digital Editions copy protection format to read elsewhere, though it requires jumping through so many hoops that you’ll think you’re on an obstacle course. But the best-in-class experience remains Kobo’s: once you’ve linked your Kobo reader to your library account, books that you check out just show up on your e-reader.
I can’t help but think that Apple is missing a huge opportunity here, and I wonder if part of the struggle is the split mentality between Apple Books as a reading app and Apple Books as a revenue-generating service. The thing is, improving the former ultimately helps the latter, and not having any way to link into library loans means that lots of people—people who like to read books—will never even open the Apple Books app, much less become customers.
Take a DRM-amine
Let’s flip the page to the Apple Books store experience. Sixteen years ago, when I’d only recently started my tenure at Macworld, one of the hottest topics around was the application of Digital Rights Management (DRM) in the burgeoning online music market. Songs and albums were overwhelmingly sold with embedded encryption, which meant you could only play them on approved hardware, frustrating those who wanted to listen to the music they’d legally purchased wherever they wanted. It seemed unlikely that music publishers would loosen their grip, especially with rampant fears of piracy, even though, as I argued at the time, it was in their best interests.
Except that unlikely scenario is, amazingly, exactly what happened. Big vendors like Apple and Amazon actually did start selling DRM-free music—and, in fact, if you purchase music à la carte today from Apple, it still is. But that news became irrelevant in relatively short order with the rise of music streaming services.
Ebooks, however, have largely remained DRM-protected, meaning that customers still can’t move them between devices. So if you buy a book from Apple Books and want to read it on your Kindle, you’re generally out of luck.
The use of DRM is a choice by both vendor and publisher: most stores allow a publisher to request that its titles be sold without DRM. That includes Apple Books, but even in that case, the company doesn’t make it easy to move your books around. (Where are your purchased ebooks stored on your Mac? Why, obviously, in ~/Library/Containers/com.apple.BKAgentService/Data/Documents/iBooks/Books/ with a file name that’s just a random string of numbers.) Nor does Apple make it easy to figure out if the title you’re purchasing has DRM or not. Even once you buy a DRM-free ebook and find the file on your Mac, you still generally have to go through an extra step (unzipping the ePub using a special utility) before you can get it into a format other apps and devices can read.
This is all incredibly user-hostile and, bottom line, isn’t doing Apple any favors.
Moreover, Apple is missing an opportunity to both differentiate itself from the competition and provide a worthy competitor to Amazon by pushing publishers to adopt DRM-free and easily portable ebooks, for the exact same reasons it did so with music. (Would it make piracy easier? Probably, but ebook piracy isn’t exactly scarce now and I maintain that most people—especially book customers—will buy legally if given the option. The sheer existence of illegal alternatives doesn’t turn people into criminals.)
If you download a Kindle book, you can read it on your phone or iPad in the Kindle app, as well as on a Kindle reader and even via the web. But Apple’s books are forever locked to its own devices, which is a reason that many customers don’t even consider them.
A hardware problem to solve
This leads us to the last issue: the reading experience. Apple Books is a nice enough app, but for those who don’t want to read on an iPad, iPhone, or Mac, it’s a non-starter. Ebook readers are one of the few single-category devices that have continued to be popular in an era of smartphones and tablets, by virtue of the fact that they provide a nicer experience.
I love my iPad, but I rarely want to read books on it: for one thing, it’s much heavier than my Kindle or Kobo readers—try holding an 11-inch iPad Pro over your head in bed without dropping it on your face. (You should probably wear safety goggles.) Most ebook readers are far more power efficient; they can be left for days if not weeks between charges. They’re also significantly cheaper than iPads. And as nice as the iPad’s displays are, e-ink screens are far more pleasant to read in sunlight or at night in bed without disturbing anyone else (not to mention easier on the eyes).
Apple has generally taken to heart the old Alan Kay maxim that “people who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.” But when it comes to books, the company seems to think the iPad is good enough and frankly, it’s not. Do I expect Apple to come out with its own e-reader? Not really. But if the company is starting to get serious about ebooks again, then figuring out how its hardware can be a better reading device is at the top of the list.
The long and short of it is that Apple remains a bit player in the ebook market—a fact to which I can attest firsthand. I’ve had the dubious honor of seeing the Apple Books experience from multiple angles: as an author of traditionally published books, as a producer of a few self-published stories, and as a consumer.
My experiences are by no means universal, but for works that I’ve published myself on most popular ebook marketplaces, Apple Books accounts for only 10 to 20 percent of sales—and I expect those numbers are inflated because, well, I’m a person with a disproportionately large number of customers in the Apple ecosystem. A few of my titles have appeared in the Apple Books bestseller lists, which just reinforces the idea that you don’t need to sell that many copies to show up there.
But Apple is one of the few companies big enough to challenge Amazon’s dominance. And though it might be reticent given the legal challenges it’s faced in the past, there remains an enormous amount of opportunity here. Plus, let’s face it: with its small market footprint, what does it really have to lose?