NEWS: In a Battle of the E-Readers, Booksellers Spurn Superheroes

Compliments of the fine folks at The New York Times

The tablet wars have begun. Superheroes are the prize — or perhaps the victim.

Amazon, seeking to make its coming Kindle Fire tablet as appealing as possible, negotiated a deal with DC Comics for the exclusive digital rights to a hundred popular graphic novels. Among the series: Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, the Sandman and Watchmen.

Barnes & Noble, with a tablet of its own to nurture, did not like this one bit. Two weeks ago it removed all the copies of the physical volumes from its 1,300 stores, saying it would not carry any book if it were denied the right to sell the digital version.

Books-a-Million, the third-largest bookseller with 231 stores, followed suit last week, making the same argument.

Booksellers of all sorts used to pride themselves on never removing any book from their shelves, but that tradition — born in battles over censorship — is fading as competitive struggles increase. Last year, in a sort of foretaste of the present conflict, Amazon temporarily removed the “buy” buttons for the publisher Macmillan as part of a struggle over e-book pricing.

This time, the stakes are once again high. The two chains are desperate to avoid becoming showrooms for Amazon’s digital warehouse, which would quickly send them to the bookstore graveyard like their former colleague Borders. DC Comics must stay relevant in a world where many of its young male fans read everything on mobile devices — not the most congenial medium for comics. And Amazon must preserve and extend its dominance.

In online comics forums and other places where the issue is being debated, everyone is unhappy with someone. Amazon is being accused by some of throwing its considerable weight around to the detriment of readers and the larger culture. DC Comics is being criticized by others of placing greed over its fans. Barnes & Noble is alternatively being accused of throwing its own weight around and of cutting off its nose to spite its face. Even the comics’ writers are getting some heat.

As Amazon seeks over the next few years to expand its tablet line, these collisions over content are likely to become routine. “It looks like content providers and online purveyors have a few more rounds to go before the Wild West is tamed,” said Lorraine Shanley, a publishing consultant.

DC Comics, a division of Warner Brothers, says it is being misunderstood. But on its own Web site, it said the books would be available “exclusively to Amazon’s newly announced Kindle Fire,” with no qualification. Even the possibility that fans could have access to the books on their iPads through the Kindle app seemed disallowed.

DC now says the books will be available on other e-readers through the Kindle app. “Just because we’re starting with Amazon, this is not the be-all and end-all of our digital strategy and distribution,” said Jim Lee, co-publisher of DC Entertainment, the parent company of DC Comics. He added, however, “We are not at liberty to discuss exactly when” the comics would be available on other e-readers, citing the company’s nondisclosure agreement with Amazon.

Amazon declined to comment about the deal.

DC executives seemed surprised at the speed with which they had alienated some of their devout fans. Some threatened piracy, like NinjaZilla, a poster on a comics forum who wrote: “What will me and my poor iPad do? I’m so sorry DC! Because it is not like I can download all those comics for free, oh wait yes I can, and now I guess I will and maybe I will download every comic DC produces while I am at it!”

Mr. Lee said, “We say to our fans, have a little patience.”

A lot of patience might be required. DC says it took two years of work with Amazon to complete the process of converting the comics into something that could be read and appreciated on the Kindle Fire.

Independent bookstores, which are rarely offered exclusives by publishers, argue that they are bad for consumers.

“A competitive retail market where products are available from lots of different places creates greater choice and a competitive pricing environment,” said Oren Teicher, chief executive of the American Booksellers Association. “Choice is better than no choice.”


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