Will Apple Be Censoring Books, Too?

We think of Apple as a lot of things. Maker of iPods, iPhones and iPads. Purveyor of music, videos and apps. But how do we feel about Apple as a publisher?

OK, so Apple isn't a publisher in the most traditional sense, but it is very much in the business these days. Apple's heavy promotion of News Corp.'s iPad-only don't-call-it-a-newspaper, the Daily is a testament to that. It's not only taking a cut of the sales, but of the subscriptions—30 percent, though News Corp. hopes they can negotiate it down after a year. This long-awaited (and contested) subscription service that's currently exclusive to The Daily is expected to be open to every publisher soon, allowing iPad readers to legitimately subscribe to their favorite newspapers and magazines, rather than purchase them on an issue-by-issue basis.

Yet Apple does not take a cut of the Kindle books that you can read on the iPad. Or the ones from Barnes & Noble's nook, or Kobo. Purchased through the web on Amazon or their respective websites, the books are accessed through free apps for the iPad and iPhone. This is how it's always been: If you try to buy a Kindle book on the iPad, you're kicked out to the Safari web browser, to Amazon's site. After the purchase is finished, you close browser, the book syncs to the app, and you can read it. Apple doesn't touch any of the transaction.

It puts Apple in an interesting position. Amazon, who's pushing the Kindle ecosystem, profits freely from selling books for Apple's platform. The Kindle sell is a pretty good one too—buy a Kindle book, read it basically anywhere. It's better than Apple's, which is buy an iBook, read it... on an Apple device.

But that's all about to change. After blocking Sony's Reader application, Apple says "We are now requiring that if an app offers customers the ability to purchase books outside of the app, that the same option is also available to customers from within the app." The deadline is apparently March 31. In other words, Amazon—and anybody else who sells books or digital subscriptions outside of the App Store, like B&N or the Wall Street Journal—is going to have to offer in-app purchasing of that content, effectively routing all content through the App Store. Ensuring Apple a shot at their 30 percent cut of every book and subscription in the process.

While we could care less about Amazon's profit margins, if Apple were to take a 30 percent cut of every Kindle book, that would wipe out every penny Amazon makes on them. Leaving Amazon the options of eating the cost to stay on the iPad, raising prices to make up for it or ditching the App Store entirely. That's the immediate set of concerns for readers using their iPad as a Kindle device (like I did).

Speaking in broader strokes, it's interesting that Apple's now trying to direct as much published content through itself as possible. I'm not saying Apple is definitely going to censor books and published work, or reject what's written. It sells explicit music for a profit in the iTunes Store, after all. But it's hard to forget the very recent past, when Apple pulled books and political cartoons out of the App Store because it thought the content was inappropriate. Under the new system, Apple may well treat published differently and more leniently—basically hands off—but it's worth asking what it would take now for Apple to pull a book or a magazine out of the iBooks or App Store? More or less than what it took for Amazon to pull The Pedophile's Guide to Love and Pleasure: a Child-lover's Code of Conduct from Kindle? Amazon erred on the side of selling the book and reconsidering versus banning and reconsidering. I don't think Apple would err on the same side.

It's a funny thing to consider that the future of publishing—according to the single most powerful media executive in the world who says the iPad essentially asks journalists to "completely reimagine our craft"—rests in part on a device and platform as tightly controlled as the iPad. A platform controlled by a company which could very conceivably ban books—because it has.

Though maybe it won't! You know, again.