Trans-Atlantic Rift Widens. Is The Amazon Ascendancy Over?

It’s been quite a week for epublishing.

The new KindleFire and the new Nook are out at last, and selling like proverbial hot-cakes. Rumor has it Amazon have five million KindleFires ready for the Holidays bonanza, and the new Nook device won’t be so very far behind.

Publishing giant Conde Nast is making its entire line-up of magazines available on the Nook. Similar colourful deals are pending for the KindleFire, and it cannot be long before the magazine market in the US starts heading the way of commercial paperback print books. Newspapers will follow. It’s just a matter of time.

And most telling of all, the Luttrell Psalter is now an ebook.


I’ve spoken variously about the future of ebooks, both here on MWi and on WG2E.  About how enhanced ebooks will be the big thing for 2012, and why Amazon is now in serious danger of losing its supremacy.

This week Amazon took another giant two steps forward, one step back, and in doing so the trans-Atlantic rift widened even further.

Where will Amazon be in five years time?

Still strong in America, inevitably. B&N can only seriously compete if  it’s bought out by a major player like Apple or the now Japanese-owned Kobo. But Amazon is so well entrenched in the US it really cannot fail.

Maybe it will hold its position in the UK. It’s by far the strongest at the moment, but already showing dangerous signs of complacency and indifference to its customers.

As for the rest of the world I suspect it will be just another bit-player.


To clearly see the future we need to go back a few years into the past. In fact, almost seven hundred years into the past, to the time of the Luttrell Psalter.

For those who have never had the pleasure, the Luttrell Psalter is a book. A monastic production commissioned by Sir Geoffrey Luttrell around 1330 in sunny England, back when England wasn’t Britain, let alone a united kingdom, and America hadn’t even been invented.

The Psalter is an exquisitely illustrated portrayal of daily C14 life. For those Americans who were taught history began in 1776, just play along and accept that the Luttrell Psalter is a masterpiece of art and literature from pre-history.

Over in the UK the much-revered British Library has just released this medieval text as an ebook. It’s not the British Library’s first ebook release, but unquestionably the best.

It’s not just an ebook, either. It’s an enhanced ebook. And by enhanced I don’t mean it has an excerpt from the latest James Patterson novel in the back. This is a 2012 enhanced ebook, that contains additional written and audio material, and a 20 minute film. In bringing us the past, this ebook is very much the future.

Whether you’re an history obsessive like me, or couldn’t care less about yesteryear, this is a momentous event, signifying all that is great about the e-publishing revolution – that beautifully crafted ancient books like these, just like beautifully crafted modern books, can now be in your hands at the click of a button, and at negligible cost.

The future for publishing just gets better and better. As I’ve said many times, the epublishing revolution herald a New Renaissance in literature the like of which we have never seen.


Yet the trans-Atlantic gulf that separates America and Europe has just widened hugely, and looks like it will get a lot worse before (if at all) it gets better.


B&N’s new Nook tablet looks wonderful, and by all accounts is a better ereader than the KindleFire, but in their infinite wisdom B&N do not sell to buyers outside the US, and do not let authors outside the US upload, except through third party distributors like Smashwords. The new Nook is no more use to readers in the UK, Europe and the rest of the world than the old Nook. It is utterly useless.

Which of course has been Amazon’s strength so far. Amazon download ebooks to a fair portion of the world (by no means all – see my previous post on this subject) and for the lucky few in the Kindle nations and a few lucky English-speaking countries that meet Amazon’s approval they don’t rip-off readers with a $2 surcharge.

Amazon now have operational Kindle sites in the UK, France and Germany, and pending launches in Spain and Italy. Rumors abound of Kindle sites to come from as far apart as China through Chile. It all seems very exciting.

But is the future with Amazon really that bright?

The proposed Chile site, if indeed there is such a thing planned, is scheduled for eighteen months time. Eighteen months away may be next week in the old publishing world, but in the new paradigm eighteen months away might as well be next century. Sorry, guys, but in eighteen months time Chile won’t need a Kindle site. The world will have moved on, leaving Amazon in its wake.

I said here on MWi two weeks ago that Amazon was in danger of being eclipsed as it lumbers round the globe, over-confident and full of bluster, yet myopic in its vision. A blinkered bull in a china shop.

The Luttrell Psalter really brings that home.

As all you Americans shove your old b&w Kindles in a drawer to gather dust, along with last year’s must-have smartphone, last year’s games console and whatever else it was impossible to live without last year,  and you enthusiastically embrace the new Nook and KindleFire tablets, spare a thought for the rest of the world.

For most of the world the Nook doesn’t exist, and any Kindle is unavailable, let alone the KindleFire.

For us in the UK, France and Germany the ancient, creaking steam-driven b&w Kindle is the only option we have from Amazon.


You don’t need to be a history major to understand that an ebook like the Luttrell Psalter will be utterly pointless on the old b&w Kindle.

Anyone who has tried a magazine or newspaper subscription on the b&w Kindle will know it’s utterly useless for those too.  Children’s illustrated books? Useless. Illustrated text-books? Useless. In fact, for anything except a bog-standard narrative text it’s useless.

Which was fine.

Last year.

But it’s not last year. It’s almost next year.

Back at Christmas 2010 it was a different world. Although colour ereaders existed, the Kindle took the world (or at least the US and UK) by storm. Ebooks were essentially narrative text fiction books, and apart from viewing a pretty cover why pay more for a colour ereader?

As we approach 2012 readers outside the US have exactly the same Amazon and B&N options as a year ago. No Nook or KindleFire here. Yet ebooks have been transformed this past year. And the new ePub software is going to transform things beyond all recognition through 2012. Yet the UK / Europe Kindle has had nothing more than a lick of paint.

Who in their right mind will spend £89 GBP ($140 USD) on a b&w Kindle that can’t do anything beyond read b&w text when there are alternatives? Who in their right mind would buy someone a b&w Kindle for a present this Holidays season when there are alternatives? Who’d be seen dead in public with a b&w Kindle next year?

There are dedicated color ereaders available in the UK for much less than that, and you can buy a basic tablet for less too. Needless to say there are plenty of decent tablets about for those with more cash to spare, quite apart from the venerable iPad itself.

As we go into 2012 British, French and German Kindle owners are going to be increasingly frustrated as ebooks improve week on week, month on month, and their once wonderful Kindle becomes increasingly obsolete.

How long before authors have to start labelling ebooks as suitable or unsuitable for the old Amazon equipment?

How many authors will be happy to upload enhanced ebooks to Amazon next year and risk permanent negative reviews from disgruntled b&w Kindle owners who spend money in good faith and then find they can’t use the enhanced features? Will US authors with enhanced ebooks stop uploads to Kindle UK, France and Germany? What point British, French and German authors even bothering with enhanced ebooks on Amazon if their primary home audience can’t view them?

For the countries where the Kindle isn’t available, including Chile and China, readers are already busy buying other devices. As loyal Amazon users in Europe get left out in the cold they’ll be looking at other options too.


There has been no big take-off with the French and German Kindle sites, comparable to what happened in the UK a year and a half ago. But don’t fall for any crazy idea that the French and Germans don’t care for ebooks. It’s simply that, until these sites launched, just months ago, the Kindle was not available in France or Germany.

But ebooks were becoming increasingly popular. So French and German readers bought other devices, and logged into other retail outlets. Just like they are doing everywhere else, in Europe and across the globe.

You won’t see many Kindles in use anywhere in Europe outside the UK. Here and there in Paris and Berlin perhaps, but a very rare sight elsewhere across the continent.

But you will see Europeans e-reading.  Go somewhere like Moscow, or Prague or Warsaw – or beyond Europe to Beijing or Bangkok, Lagos or La Paz – and just about everyone is e-reading. On their smart-phones, tablets and other devices.

And once these readers buy another device then suddenly the Amazon site is no longer their first port of call, if it ever was to start with.

Suddenly the other ebook outlets are far more interesting. The iTunes store and the Kobo shop-fronts might not have the finesse of Amazon’s Kindle store, but you don’t get stung for a $2 surcharge for buying a book just because you live the wrong side of the French or German border.

Make no mistake, it’s not just Kobo and iTunes taking advantage of Amazon’s myopia. There are plenty of other outlets – some huge, some tiny – and there are new ones emerging weekly.

And as explained here on MWi two weeks ago, there are vast areas of the world that Amazon deliberately prevents from buying and downloading ebooks.

Amazon has isolated itself, and in turn is becoming more and more isolated.

The Luttrell Psalter, for example, isn’t available on Amazon precisely because the UK Kindle cannot handle it. Apple have it instead. The British Library do not want tons of negative reviews from Kindle owners complaining their Luttrell Psalter doesn’t work on their ereader. So they make sure it goes to a distributor where it can be read.

Thousands of ebooks that are on Amazon cannot be read properly on the old Kindle, and this time next year that number will be in the hundreds of thousands.

And increasingly authors and publishers with their new, enhanced ebooks, will be wondering if uploading to Amazon is worth the inevitable negative feedback that will result as owners of b&w Kindles find the books they buy are worthless.

Amazon hasn’t given a timetable for when the KindleFire will be available in Europe, but safe to say it will come to the UK first and France and Germany later still. Easter? Summer? Next Xmas? Who knows.

And dare I ask, who cares?

Given Amazon anyway can’t match the content provided (films, TV, etc, that won’t have European / UK rights) even when the KindleFire is eventually released here it will be inconsequential.

By the time Amazon do get round to it, those who wanted a tablet will have gone elsewhere. And those readers will increasingly be buying their ebooks, enhanced or otherwise, from other sites.

If the Kobo-WH Smiths team-up comes to fruition in 2012 Amazon could see its dominant UK position eclipsed in the next twelve months.

As for the rest of the world… Outside the US and the UK neither readers nor authors are sitting about waiting until Amazon decides to honor them with its royal presence. Authors are selling their ebooks elsewhere. More importantly readers are buying ebooks from elsewhere. These are customers Amazon is deliberately ignoring or deliberately surcharging. Customers that could be buying your books.

There’s a lot of BS talked about how Amazon will become a monopoly and how we should all be fearful of Amazon becoming too powerful.

But actually, the worry should be quite the opposite. Just how much longer can the Amazon ascendancy last?

  1. Yet another good one, Mark! Shared and tweeted.

  2. Goodness! I just hope MWiDP can keep my books right where they should be then, to maximise exposure and sales. It feels as if the market has quietened, as though readers are waiting for Christmas specials and also to see which way the market will turn.

    • There are major tech issues with the UK site just now, Prue, which may explain why things are quiet there.

      W’re in discussion with various non-US retailers to get the MWiDP books out further afield, and our own ebook store launches next month specificaly aimed at the markets Amazon doesn’t want to know.

      2012 will be interesting!

    • Cathryn Leigh
    • November 19th, 2011

    This makes me so confused, not only as someone who’s looking to publish herself one day, but even more importantly as one who has e-reader on her Christmas wish list. Normally I’d leave it up to my hubby to figure out the best product, but all this stuff leaves me worried.. if I get a Kindle, how can I make sure i haven’t limited my reading? After all that beautifully illustrated text (I’ve gone to Ireland, and thus discovered there’s worlds of history before 1776 *grin*) looks very intriguing… if only I had taken Latin in school…

    :} Cathryn Leigh

    • Given your location the KindleFire ought to serve you well, Cathryn, although any decent tablet will be fine.

      It’s the old Kindle devices that are of real concern, and risk creating atwo tier system for ebooks as god knows how many buyers opt for the cheaper option now, or cannot afford to upgrade from their existing Kindle. .

        • Cathryn Leigh
        • November 20th, 2011


        My hubby and I were discussing the options last night trying to figure out what I wanted. I think we sort of settled on the second generation Kindle or the Kindle Fire if I decided to get magazines on it (I have one I would, I have enough paper floating about my house with two kids bringing home art projects everyday). We decided against the whole Tablet option, because I’d probably never use it’s full abilities. I think he’s going to talk with some of his co-workers because one of them had an e-reader. for me, I just want to make sure I don’t miss out on any of the books my uber friends publish. :}

  3. Mark, as always your view are fresh, enlightening, and inspiring. The future for Amazon/Kindle certainly seems much less secure in the light of this info. I shared a post from Konrath’s blog earlier today on FB etc about the growth market in eBooks in China, which is also thought provoking. Would you recommend writers, then, to make sure their books are up on outlets like iPhones, etc? The trouble there, to me, is that they sell for practically nothing (49p for my own Belfast Girls, I believe) which at present makes them seem useless, I have to admit. But maybe it’s worth the low price to get into the market? Dunno!

    • I haven’t seen Joe’s blog yet – thanks for letting me know – but China is very much in the ascendency just now on almost every economic front, and ebooks are definitely going to be huge in China.

      We’ve been in tentative discussion with several Chinese ebook outlets, and given the whole of Asia is either blocked by Amazon or surcharged it seems crazy to sit about and wait for the Zon to smell the coffee.

      iTunes is a difficult one. They price to undercut Amazon but do authors no favors by doing so. Kobo looks more promising, but that’s a long haul.

      What’s needed is to step outside the western e-establishment with its (understandable) short-term focus on the US, and explore other options.

      We’re opening our own ebook store next month precisely to try reach the regions Amazon doesn’t want to know. It won’t be earth-shattering, of course, but it’s another string to the bow of us and our authors.

      For most western authors already in position and with a good US / UK track record Amazon will probably be the big money-spinner for the forseeable future.

      But any authors with ambitions beyond those markets needs to take a step back and look to the future.

  4. You do know the monks who had spent generations illuminating manuscripts picketed Gutenberg.

    • LOL! I sometimes half expect the trad publishers to start picketing the ebook sellers too, Virginia.

      Delightfully ironic that epublishng is now making available such beautiful works to a far wider audience than the monks could ever have imagined.

  5. Hi Mark! Interesting viewpoint. I’ve been ushering international readers toward Smashwords and iTunes for my ebooks for this very reason. it’s just flat-out silly to charge a surcharge.
    When Kindles first came out, I’d see them at the coffee shops in the hands of people waiting at the mall or in doctor’s offices. Now, I rarely see them. I see iPads, mostly.
    With the way content (books and other media) is changing, we’ll soon see ebooks go the way of music – maybe a more standard format like epub only (sorry Amazon). How long before iTunes does a matching service for all ebook files? Then, no one will be locked into a .mobi format.
    Authors are now selling their books on their own sites. Pottermore is a prime example, but it’s not just for the J.K. Rowlings of the world anymore.

    • Thanks, Michelle. No question Kindles are becoming less uniquitous in public.

      Mobi looks likely to be wound up in 2012. Amazon now accept ePub uploads, and for authors wanting to cover all bases an ePub file is now pretty much all they need.

      Mobi was an attempt by Amazon to corner the market and fight a Betamax-v-VHS battle. It lost, despite its supremacy overall in the ereading field, and was forced to accept ePub. Just one more sign of Amazon’s short-sighted approach.

  6. Great post, Mark. Lots of stuff here I didn’t know. I’m writing a post tomorrow for the huge percentage of the population who haven’t even noticed that Jeff Bezos has taken over the entire publishing industry in the last three years. (And given readers a huge amount of power.)

    And I’m only just now acquiring a b & w Kindle (hopefully for Christmas.) I’ll have to access all those other things on my laptop. I think some people may use several devices, depending on the book.

    But I think you’re right that the Zon’s supremacy will be short lived. The surcharge will be their undoing. (And the sloppy tech that has caused so many glitches recently.) Most Americans don’t know anything about it, of course. (Any more than they know history didn’t start in 1776, when George Washington rode his dinosaur through the streets of Boston to warn the British that we were going to make a surprise attack on account of they wanted to steal our guns.)

    Michelle–I’ve read a couple of blogs recently by authors who used to sell books on their own sites, but found it wasn’t cost effective. I think you have to be an industry like J. K. Rowling to make it worth the hassle.

    • The old b&w Kindle has plenty of life in it, Anne, and as you say, your laptop can handle the rest. But who wants to *read* on a laptop?

      What I find really concerning is the number of people who will buy the cheaper Kindle based on price and have no idea of its near-future limitations.

      I suspect Amazon wil pay the price long term, and many getting the “old” model cheaper Kindle now will not upgrade with Amazon next year when their Kindle becomes gradually less and less effective. They’ll go elsewhere. Once bitten…

  7. Mark, you’ve given me lots to think about. I was going to go for a b & w Kindle, but didn’t take into account that I might be missing some beautifully illustrated texts. I was thinking weight as well. The idea of toting a Kindle Fire or an ipad in my bag is another problem. I did see the Nooks when we were in the USA this past summer, but as you say, they are not available in other countries, like Canada, where I live. Thanks for the info. I’ll do more research before I buy.

    • There are plenty of decent quality ereaders about, Diana, that have full colour displays and can handle many of the extras on offer (though not the video). And many are as cheap or cheaper than the b&w Kindle.

  8. Great post Mark. That is why MWiDP and our new book store isn’t limiting itself to the mighty ‘Zon, BUT, here’s my two-penneth/cents:

    I LOVE my OLD Kindle because of how much like reading a book it is. I have an iPhone, iPad and two Macs. How many books have I read on any other device than my Kindle? = ZERO.

    Although you are correct, the future of ebooks is interactive (and we have the PERFECT partner for that with our Equilibrium trilogy – I can see the X-Box game now). There are people who never read before reading BECAUSE of the Kindle and although there will certainly be a decline in sales once other devices are available, I can’t see the worlds’ population falling out of love with the Kindle any time soon – what we have to do is write for all options.

    Hashtag ‘justsaying’

    • I find myself in perfect agreement with Saffina. I have read a book on a device other than the B&W kindle exactly three times since I purchased the kindle. All three times when I was on my bicycle and waiting to meet people. Otherwise, there is nothing that approaches the e-ink experience for me.

      That said, Mark is right that Amazon is dropping the ball in most of the world. We definitely need to target all options. Because it’s hard to predict where things will shake out. Maybe 10-15 years from now, no one will care about the e-ink experience. Or maybe we’ll see a tablet that has an e-ink mode and a bright mode, including color e-ink. The key is providing as many different places/ways to reach readers as possible.

    • The problem with technology is that is becomes obsolete so quickly. That Amazon seems to be deliberately profiting from that built-in obsolescence in holding back the marketing of the new Kindle is disturbing.

      The old Kindle may still be in use in twenty years time, just as some of us still manage to use mobile phones the size of bricks and run computers with Windows ME. That’s a choice – perhap determined by economics – but it’s a choice.

      With the Kindle Amazon ae deliberately offering better quality to some and lesser quality to others, while denying access completely to others.

      That’s not good business for Amazon, and it’s not good business for authors selling outside the US.

  9. Great post, Mark, and lots of stuff I didn’t know! Thanks for sharing. The $2 surcharge is ridiculous, and I hope they eventually scrap it. I happen to love my B&W Kindle as I only read unenhanced books and no magazines/papers but, as you say, it’s very last year. It will be an interesting year in 2012!

    • I love my Kindle too, Sibel, but would also love to be able to read magazines and newspapers.

      Given my location I’ll be sticking with my b&w Kindle a while longer.

      But my daughter has just gone back to the UK for Xmas and Santa will be getting her something she read all ebooks on, not just fuddy-duddy narative texts.

  10. As an older person I’ve lived through quite a few ‘revolutions’: the ‘sexual revolution’; the ‘computer revolution’; the ‘internet revolution’; etc, and I noticed one common thread through each.
    For the most part, the pronouncements by the pundits of the demise of one technology or idea, and the ascendancy of another technology or idea were wrong, and they were wrong with a depressing frequency.
    I’m sure that interactive media has a place in the market, but one has to wonder how this affects the Indie author. It’s hard enough struggling with the learning curve associated with the production of a standard ebook, but add media to the mix, and it will leave most of us in the dust. The costs associated with the production of high quality videos or other types of media are completely out of the reach of Independent authors.
    There was a time that two struggling entrepreneurs working out of a garage could create a giant computer company, or a fourteen year-old wiz-kid could create a computer game by himself and make a lot of money from it. Now it takes a large company with hundreds of graphic designers to produce the next version of “Metal of Honor”. And Steve Jobs is no more.
    So, assuming that interactive media takes the world by storm, only the big six can afford it, and we’re back to the old paradigm of submission, rejection, and submission again.
    Let me propose an alternative and it hinges on the question of why do people read? In my opinion, based based solely upon personal experience, people read fiction because they want to use their minds to create imagery. The same black and white words will create widely different images in different people. Reading is in itself an immersive experience. Viewing a video is passive. no one can disagree upon what your eyes reveal. It doesn’t require that unique human experience that reading does. Therefore, black and white will suffice for quite some time.
    But why stop at immersion? Perhaps in the future the whole fiction experience will be delivered directly to the human brain, bypassing the eyes and allowing the participant to live the book. Who knows? (Hmm good idea for a new story)
    However, as for me, I’m going to keep writing and creating black and white worlds.

    • Absolutely right about the reading experience, especially for mature adult readers.

      I think there will always be demand for straight-forward narrative text. But the new generations are being brought up in a different world, where reading b&w narrative text wll be as archaic as writing a letter by hand.

      And while the old Kindle may suffice for many, my main point is that it is already obsolete for the new books, magazines, etc, that are coming out.

      There may well be a limited market for a Kindle-like device for the next decade or so, just as some people still buy fountain pens to write with.

      But it is crazy of Amazon to provide one level of hardware in one country and another elsewhere when the same software products are to be used in both, but won’t work in both.

  11. Very interesting post, Mark. You raised some very valid points that I hadn’t even thought of. I guess living in the US you do get kind of isolated from the rest of the world. Amazon is so big here, but the world is much bigger. They will lose out if their thinking is too insular.

    • Precisely so. Alison.

      No question Amazon is huge in the US and its size alone should ensure its success, espcially give the feeble competition at home. But elsewhere…

  12. It is my understanding that there are dozens of knock off ereaders in the Asian countries and that they can all access the Apple list through iTunes. I have also “heard” that Apple sells more ebooks than anyone. It sounds a little questionable to me, but that could be the reason. Smashwords puts you in the Apple bookstore automatically.

  13. Now, I am always linking to this Mark Williams thing through David’s blog. Are you an epublisher? What is the deal? I have one more to go up.

  14. Very interesting post, Mark, thanks! I live in Italy and suffer from the damn $2 surcharge (plus an incomprehensible VAT tax) and of course there’s no way to get a Kindle here other than buy it direct from Amazon in the US and pay for the shipping, taxes etc – thus adding some $100 to the bill!

    I notice some of your readers were coming to the defense of the old B&W Kindle (that I own too and love) because electronic ink provides an experience so close to reading from a printed book. Very true and something to keep in mind before shelfing our old Kindles for good.

    The other aspect (that no one seems to have noticed) is that the boom in the reading market came to the US BEFORE the Kindle revolution: some 17 million MORE Americans read literature according to the latest NEA survey (which covered the 2002-2008 period) and most of them are young adults between the age of 18 and 24!

    17 million, wow! That’s quite a lot of new readers quite independently from any effect from the Kindle and other e-readers – and this may come as a surprise to a lot of people who’re convinced the reading market has increased because of e-readers (it certainly has done that) – but it’s not the only reason. Obviously there are others, society’s culture is expanding and it is very comforting that in spite of the incredible rise in vide games etc, good old traditional reading of literature and poetry still is something that is GROWING. I blogged about it here:

    So Amazon is surely riding that particular beast and can do that with its old-fashioned Kindle for still a long time to come. But Mark, I agree with you completely: in the rest of the world, Amazon seems to have fallen asleep and could very well find itself bypassed.

    One small comment: I don’t think China will ever enter the game. They’ve got their own market (including their own version of Twitter) and won’t let anyone else come in. Government control…Yes, it’s still a Communist system…

  15. I publish mine first on smashwords and Kindle very late in day because I have an inherent dislike of the big boys always limiting our choices – When I bought my e-reader I bought a sony because I have no intention of encouraging amazon in their quest for ‘world domination’:) your post brings hope to this old ladys heart that sense will be seen – the new kindle apparently also doesnt have the speech so cutting of huge swathes of readers with poor or no sight as a care of a blind lady i find that a shame i cannot beleive the technology for that is so expensive (mind I didnt know the old kindles had the facility!)

  16. My Kindle with a keyboard and 3G and wifi has the audio option. $i39.

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