Amazon vs. Barnes & Noble: The Battle for E-Book Supremacy

How would you feel if the only way to read the works of Shakespeare was on a Kindle?

Want the next great David Mitchell novel? What if it were on Barnes & Noble's e-reader but not on Amazon's? Get set for this season's holiday favorite: It's the Great E-book Debate, Charlie Brown!

Ever since Gutenberg, books have been a universal format. You can read them anytime, anywhere. But with electronic books, you need a device to read them on, which has given rise to the temptation to tie the e-books to e-readers based on their digital format.

It would be an ingenious business plan, after all: Not only could one company (like Amazon's Kindle) dominate the e-reader market, but by tethering the books to the devices, it could also dominate the publishing and retail business. (Sound familiar?)

Enter the color Amazon Fire, which will debut around Thanksgiving and be the exclusive source for about 100 graphic novels from DC Comics. The e-book versions of the graphic novels, which are ideally suited to the color tablet format, include popular titles like The Watchmen, The Dark KnightReturns,and V For Vendetta, and will be sold only through the Amazon online store.

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In an understandable fit of pique, Barnes & Noble yanked those very same physical titles from the shelves of its bookstores last week. It seemed childish at the time, but Barnes & Noble does have a point: If publishers are going to enter into a format war based on exclusive arrangements with specific booksellers, why should the company dedicate its valuable shelf space to books that its own customers can't buy on its Nook device?

But is this really a nascent format war? Amazon will argue that it isn't, because the Kindle reader software is available on Apple and Android devices. In this case, however, readers still are stuck with only one retailer for the e-books -- and one price. (Never mind the problem of figuring out which e-book, in what format, to buy your mom for Christmas.)

On the other hand, this isn't the first case of e-book exclusives.

Barnes & Noble has had exclusive deals for other titles, such as interactive Peanuts books, including "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown." And Amazon has become an exclusive publisher of sorts, not only for unknown first-timers, but also for foreign writers looking to expand their success with English translations. If a company, even a major retailer, invests in a title, why shouldn't it restrict where you can buy it and in what form?

Furthermore, it's not clear how long these exclusive arrangements will last. Amazon did not respond to requests for information on the latest deal, but it has been reported by several outlets that the DC Comics contract may last only four months.

Publishers certainly would be ill-advised to sign permanent e-book exclusives. Indeed, the market is so volatile that some authors are still holding out against e-books, and some publishers are extremely skittish: Macmillan and Simon & Schuster, for example, don't let libraries lend their e-books.

In fact, it was only recently that Amazon allowed its Kindle readers to borrow e-books from libraries. The company was holding out, no doubt because such borrowing could cut into sales. And in the end, library e-books could be the great leveling force in the market. They can now offer e-books in multiple formats for any device. So much for the format war.

Approximately 67 percent of libraries in the U.S. offer some e-books -- a 55 percent jump from 2 years ago, according to the American Library Association. Furthermore, readers are starting to learn about e-book availability at libraries. E-book lending has vaulted 75 percent at the New York Public Library compared to last year.

So ultimately, the format war in e-books may be over before it gets started -- graphic novel skirmishes notwithstanding.

In fact, your biggest problem this holiday season may not be whether to buy a Nook or a Fire, but rather how you're going to wrap those e-books for Christmas.

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