Battle Brewing Over Electronic Books The race for dominance in the electronic book market is heating up. But as Amazon unveils its updated reader, some booksellers are saying A.B.K. — anything but Kindle.
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Battle Brewing Over Electronic Books

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Battle Brewing Over Electronic Books

Battle Brewing Over Electronic Books

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block. The market for e-books is still a niche market, but it's growing. and the folks at Amazon hope the idea of flipping virtual pages on a screen is taking another step forward this week.

In an effort to stay ahead of its competition, Amazon has unveiled the Kindle 2, the next generation of electronic book reader. Publishers and booksellers, on the other hand, don't want just one company calling all the shots in this potentially lucrative new area. They're hoping competitors, like the Sony digital reader, will give Kindle a run for the money. NPR's Lynn Neary reports.

LYNN NEARY: When some people in the book industry were running scared from the very idea of ebooks, M.J. Rose was embracing the concept. Now a best-selling author, Rose self-published her first book as an e-book almost 10 years ago. So it's not surprising that Rose is an enthusiastic owner of Kindle.

Rose chose the Kindle because its wireless technology makes it easy to download books from the Kindle store from anywhere. A longtime Amazon customer, she thinks the Kindle is well positioned to dominate the market for a long time to come.

Ms. M.J. ROSE (Author): I think it's going to be very hard for anybody to get away from the Amazon thing. There does seem to be something in our culture that the person who comes in first with the glitziest thing does seem to last the longest. I mean, think about an iPod.

NEARY: Few doubt that Amazon would love to see the Kindle play the same role in the book business as the iPod does in the music business.

Mr. JAMES McQUIVEY (Media Technology Analyst, Forrester Research): That may be their option or their desire, but it's going to be a lot harder to replicate that success than it was for Apple to pull off.

James McQuivey is a media technology analyst at Forrester Research. He says the Sony digital reader, riding on the tailwind of the Kindle, is doing well on the market. And new competitors are waiting in the wings.

Beyond that, McQuivey says, the media landscape has changed since Apple introduced the iPod - with its iTunes store - and forever changed the music business.

Mr. McQUIVEY: The book publishing industry has one thing going for it that music didn't. The book publishing industry has looked, over the last few years, and watched what Apple did to the music industry. And so they're saying: Huh, if Amazon wants to do that to us, we're not so sure we want to go along for that ride.

NEARY: Just as Apple set up iTunes store, so Amazon has its own store, which Kindle owners must use to buy their ebooks. Richard Sarnoff says that kind of business arrangement can lead to problems. Sarnoff is co-chair of Bertelsmann, Inc., the parent company of Random House.

Mr. RICHARD SARNOFF (Co-chair, Bertelsmann, Inc.): You know, there are some dangers at having one player in the chain be truly dominant - or even monopolistic - in that they tend to have more pricing power. And more of the profit in the industry tends to, you know, gravitate toward that player as a result.

NEARY: No one expects that e-books will overtake printed books as rapidly as digital music overtook CDs and albums. For one thing, many readers are older and more attached to the traditional book. Perhaps more importantly, Sarnoff says, the book industry doesn't have some of the problems the music business had when the iPod came on the market.

Mr. SARNOFF: The consumers don't look at every book they buy and say hey, I'm being ripped off here. And in the same way, our authors don't, you know, look at us as publishers and say, you know, hey, these guys are, you know, finding a way to rip me off as an author. There's a fair amount of trust in our business. And we think, you know, that will provide a reasonable basis to find, you know, the appropriate levels of pricing - all the way up and down the chain - for digital books.

NEARY: Perhaps those with the most to lose, as digital books become more popular, are the booksellers.

Mr. DANIEL GOLDING(ph) (Bookseller): My mantra going forward is A.B.K. - anything but Kindle.

NEARY: Daniel Golding, a bookseller in Milwaukee, says bookstores realize that digital books are here to stay. But unlike the Kindle, the Sony reader has an open platform which allows users to download books from multiple sources, including bookstores. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In fact, Kindle supports a wide variety of formats, and its e-books can also be downloaded from various sources.]

Mr. GOLDING: You know, every time a customer of mine comes in and says they bought a Kindle, we know that we are now, sort of, locked out of a certain amount of their purchases. So that's why we need to make sure if we want to get a piece of that business and make sure that we still have a connection with the customer, we need to be on a different platform. We need to be on the Sony e-book reader.

NEARY: While the iPod has become a part of everyday life, digital readers are really just starting to catch on. And as the market grows, it's expected that people will have a variety of platforms to choose from when they want to read -from digital book readers to PCs to cell phones, even the printed page.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

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