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How Apple iBooks needs to compete with Amazon: Cross-platform support

Amazon has trailblazed; Apple has followed. Apple's iBooks program currently allows authors to self-publish ebooks. Authors create their own business built around iTunes Connect, just as they do for self-published apps.

So where does Apple have room to improve? What follows is one of several posts about how iBooks can improve to better compete with Amazon. In this post, I discuss Apple's lack of iBook platforms, and what they can do to improve outreach.

Imagine you've just bought a book. If it's a print book, you can stick it into your backpack, your purse, or even your cargo pocket -- take it anywhere, read it anywhere. When you're done, you can pass it to a friend.

If it's an ebook from Amazon, chances are likely you can read it on nearly any platform you can think of. You can read it on a web browser, on your Windows PC, on your Mac, on your Kindle, your Android Phone, iOS device, and so forth. There is nothing standing between you and your book. And, when you're done, you can loan it to a friend.

Now imagine you bought it from iBooks. You've got all the beauty and pleasure of the iOS deployment, but little beyond that. Apple hasn't released an iBooks reader for the web, let alone for its home Mac OS X platform. And there's no loan ability at all.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, "We love our iPhones and iPads, but we have lots of books we'd like to read on our personal computers as well. That whole iBooks DRM thing means we can't use any of the (admittedly subpar) readers currently on the market like Adobe Digital Editions. So Santa, won't you please ship us iBooks so we can read in as much style at home as on the road?"

That iBooks are limited to iOS doesn't just affect where we read books, it also greatly influences buying decisions. Many iPhone owners have Amazon accounts as well as Apple IDs. To think they'll buy iBooks exclusively out of brand loyalty is to ignore the reality of families with multiple devices as well as the use of books for business and pleasure.

From a consumer's point of view, Amazon also offers both catalog and financial incentives. Amazon's book listing is far more substantial than Apple's. Leaving aside any issues about exclusive homegrown independent books, Amazon lists more niche titles as a general rule. For example, if you're looking for TV tie-in novels to BBC franchises, you'll find them on Amazon but not on iBooks. The newest Doctor Who novels, for example, aren't available in the iBooks store.

Financially, Amazon automatically matches the lowest price available for a product, regardless of where that price is offered: iBooks, B&N Nook, Smashwords, etc. When you shop at Amazon, customers know they won't experience sticker regret when they later find a better deal at a major outlet.

A lot of this is tied up in the ongoing war between agency and wholesale pricing. Under agency pricing, publishers set a price and then receive a fixed percentage of sales. The MSRP they specify is the sale price. Under wholesale pricing, items are sold to the reseller at a fixed discount (something like 55% of MSRP), and then the reseller sets whatever price they desire.

iBooks does no real-time price negotiation, and books are listed at full retail price set by the publisher. For publishers to update that price, they must log in and change the settings for each and every market. They can do this through Apple's abysmally slow web interface or through their slightly more effective offline iTunes Producer tool.

I can't suggest any remedies on the agency-wholesale battle -- it's out of my area of expertise -- but I know as an independent author, I'd deeply love to see the pricing tools through iTunes Connect updated to be responsive and territory-savvy. Setting prices a few dozen times is brain-numbingly dreary. Let me emphasize that tip about using iTunes Producer. It lets you perform a lot of these tasks more effectively, without having to deal with iTunes Connect lags.

Apple should take careful note of Amazon's device reach and consumer-friendly price points. iBooks needs to carefully address these matters in its future planning.

Posts in this series:

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