Amazon Buys Lexcycle/Stanza Reader

April 27, 2009

Lexcycle has been acquired by!

The news showed up in my Twittersream via a re-tweet from someone I don’t know.

I thought it was a poor joke.

Within minutes, Techmeme had the item.

Moments after that, I had the above link.

What does this mean?

1) Less choice. Although Lexcycle states:

We are not planning any changes in the Stanza application or user experience as a result of the acquisition. Customers will still be able to browse, buy, and read ebooks from our many content partners. We look forward to offering future products and services that we hope will resonate with our passionate readers.

The key word there is “plan.” Amazon is the Boss now. They call the shots.

2) The further fracturing of eBook formats. It doesn’t matter if Amazon “embraces” ePub now. That embrace would take the form of hands around a neck. So far we’ve had the “illusion” of a universal eBook standard with ePub — because Adobe’s hands were the only ones around its neck. Adobe’s DRM is what made it possible for ePub to be embraced by the pearl clutchers of New York publishing. If Amazon adds ePub, it will have Amazon DRM. So while people can say it’s ePub, it’s really Amazon ePub. Incompatible with, for instance, the Sony Reader or any other device that licenses Adobe’s ePub rendering engine and DRM scheme.

3) I doubt we’ll see “Adobe ePub” on Stanza reader now. Check the very careful vetted-by-attorneys language in that original announcement:

announced that it has entered into a definitive agreement

Emphasis added by me.

An agreement is far different than saying “we have contracted to license.” Ask any attorney. I suspect no contract was ever signed. If one had been presented to Lexcycle for signing, its completion was stalled by whatever acquisition discussions were concurrently taking place with Amazon. As Samuel Goldwyn famously said, “A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.” Stanza could agree to a license — but until the papers are signed, it’s meaningless.

4) Less choice for eBook buyers. Does anyone really expect Fictionwise and other stores to remain available on Stanza Reader now? Does anyone really think Amazon would permit competitors? Amazon doesn’t even permit customer dissent.

5) Fewer sales outlets for independent writers. Lexcycle once stated it would create a way for such writers to easily create ePub to sell via the Stanza app. That won’t happen now. Writers will be fobbed off to Amazon’s Kindle Store, where they will be ordered to drop pants, bend over, and take the confiscatory financial arrangement Amazon (grudgingly, I’m sure) offers.

6) The end of Stanza Reader. Come on. Amazon is going to have two apps, one for Kindle and one for competitors? It will become the Kindle application, period.

And what of everyone else?

Sony: Its strategy is eventually to release a wireless Sony Reader that will allow publishers to independently sell their eBooks. Sony does not intend to centralize everything in its current eBook Store. Sony, however, causes me to lose more faith in its ability with each passing day.

Fictionwise and others who were available via Stanza Reader: This is not good news, contemplating that over sixteen million potential customers will at some point be taken away.

Other devices: Most device manufacturers intend to license the Adobe ePub rendering engine and DRM scheme. That was when they all believed there was finally an “ePub standard.” That game has now changed. Given that Amazon did an iPhone Kindle app, could the company’s intention now be to openly challenge Adobe’s grip on ePub? Will it now license “Kindle ePub” to device makers? Will we see “Kindle Inside” stickers on future devices? ECTACO’s jetBook remains the odd man out in all this, using FBreader as its ePub rendering engine and not supporting any form of DRM whatsoever. (If the assertion of @kirkbiglione is correct, that, like music, DRM-free ePub is the future, then one could argue that jetBook is the future of eBook devices right now.)

Pearl-clutching New York publishers: Amazon has just pushed you back into a corner again. A consequence you invite when you let the future happen to you, instead of creating it.

Writers: Screwed, screwed, screwed. As usual.

It’s time for me to to educate all of you about just how important all of this is.

Look at how much time all of you spend reading from a screen. The future of reading is electronic, period. And I don’t mean simply books. I mean everything.

This battle over eBooks and standards impacts everyday life in ways few of you have yet to realize. Until eBook reading devices entered the consciousness of everyday people, eBooks were thought to equal reading off a computer’s monitor. I recall a hilarious and horrifying New York Times article where the columnist decided to “try eBooks” and did so by printing out a text version of a Project Gutenberg file.

Look at how far we’ve come since then: eBooks on Oprah. (Don’t argue about whether that’s good or bad, simply acknowledge it’s now in the mainstream.)

At some point, all levels of government will realize that offering paper is costly and inefficient. Back in the 1980s, the U.S. government mailed to every household a pamphlet about AIDS.

These days, we’d be told to go a website for such information (as we are, right now, being told to go to websites for information about a deadly flu outbreak).

But what about information in longer form? What about Congressional bills, agency manuals, Requests For Proposals, and the like? People won’t want to read such lengthy things off a computer screen, seated uncomfortably in an office-like chair at a desk.

It’d be better to publish them in eBook form. A quick download is far better than tying up servers with page requests.

And so, when the government wakes up to eBooks, all of this is going to finally start to become very, very important. Because the government can step in and mandate standards. The government is going to demand a universal standard — a truly universal standard. One that can be used internally as well as externally. And “externally” doesn’t simply mean to us, the population — for breaking information or even for public school books — but globally.

The government stepped in twice with television, first giving us the analog NTSC, and then the digital system in use today.

You see, we don’t need an “iPod of eBooks” — we need, cringe at this phrase if you must, a television of eBooks.

At some point, all of this is going to lead to Congressional hearings. You can put money on that. eBooks — the future of reading — is too important to be left in the hands of an allegedly “free” market.