Please, Apple, Stay Out of the Book-Vetting Business

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Marketing guru and prolific author Seth Godin is unhappy with Apple. As he explains–in a blog post called “Who decides what gets sold in the bookstore?” — he submitted his new book, Stop Stealing Dreams, to Apple for electronic distribution through its iBooks Store. Apple rejected it — and told Godin that it was doing so because his bibliography included links that let readers go to and purchase hardcover copies of the tomes he mentioned. He thinks that Apple shouldn’t pick and choose books based on matters such as this.

(Godin, by the way, published his complaint on a site he runs called the Domino Project–which is “powered by” I think it’s important to mention that association, but it doesn’t taint his argument.)

As Godin acknowledges, merchants, generally speaking, aren’t morally obligated to sell products which they don’t feel like selling. And nobody’s going to be deprived of Stop Stealing Dreams even if Apple declines to offer it. In fact, he’s giving away a version in ePub format, which you can download and read in the iBooks app on an iPhone or iPad. You just can’t get it from Apple.

But even if Apple’s refusal to carry Godin’s book does no real harm to Godin or potential readers of his book, it does raise meaningful questions. Apple — which, as far as I know, has not commented publicly on this matter — presumably nixed Godin’s work because it doesn’t want to help iBooks users to purchase books from its competitor, Amazon.

You can come up with a zillion different metaphors for this scenario, none of which are a precise fit. Daring Fireball’s John Gruber, for instance, wonders whether Barnes & Noble would have refused to carry a book with Borders coupons in it. And Godin, in a follow-up post, points out that Barnes & Noble does sell books about using the Kindle, and grocery stores sell magazines with ads for other grocery stores.

The fact that Godin’s book included links to Amazon’s store makes his situation a bit different than any one involving coupons or ads. If you were taking Apple’s side, you might say that it’s as if Godin were pulling his minivan into a Barnes & Noble parking lot to pick up book shoppers and ferry them over to Borders.

But I’m not siding with Apple. If the situation is as Godin has described it, it’s unfortunate, and leaves me less interested in the iBooks Store than I’d be if Apple had approved the book.

Apple, presumably, sees this as being comparable to some of the situations the company deals with in the iOS App Store, where it has policies in place that prevent developers from selling stuff outside of the App Store’s own mechanisms, thereby denying Apple its 30% cut. (I’ve also heard that Apple is persnickety about App Store descriptions that mention another archival, Google’s Android.)

It’s clear, however, that Apple doesn’t think that every sort of content it distributes is subject to the same rules. For instance, it polices the App Store aggressively on matters of taste–yet the iTunes Music Store stocks songs whose very titles are unmentionable on a family-friendly site.

Books aren’t apps. If Apple starts reading the ones submitted to it by people like Seth Godin, and insisting that they contain no content that might be (very mildly) detrimental to the company’s business interests, it’s going to be bad for authors. Which means that it’s also going to be bad for readers. And if Apple is serious about the book business, I hope it concludes that things that are bad for authors and readers are also bad for Apple.

On the bright side, when it comes to approvals in its online stores, Apple has never obsessed over that hobgoblin of little minds, consistency. The fact that it wouldn’t allow Godin to link to Amazon doesn’t mean that’s the way things are going to be from now on. Quite often, the company bans one application on particular grounds, then goes on to approve others that do whatever it was that was supposedly objectionable in the first app.

Actually, maybe the minor controversy its actions and Godin’s blog post have sparked will be enough to convince Apple that it needn’t — and shouldn’t — fret over this stuff. Wouldn’t that be a happy ending for everyone involved?