How Amazon Underground will affect content pricing and business models

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 9.29.05 AMAs interesting as the all-you-can read models from Next Issue, Oyster Books and Scribd are, I believe Amazon just introduced a new model that’s likely to be much more disruptive in the long run. I’m talking about Amazon Underground, where paid apps go to be free.

If you haven’t heard about Underground it’s a collection of paid Android apps that are now available free if you download them directly from Amazon. The initial collection is mostly games but it will undoubtedly grow over time. It’s also important to note that the catalog includes paid apps as well as those with in-app purchases (e.g., additional levels for a game); those in-app options also become free in the Underground world.

App developers get paid for engagement in the Underground model. So if their app gets downloaded but never used they earn nothing. On the other hand, if their app is wildly successful and used extensively, Underground represents a whole new developer revenue stream.

Any app developer will tell you there’s an enormous difference between the number of downloads of a 99-cent app and that same app as a freebie. Amazon gets that and may have cracked the code in leveraging free while also driving revenue.

It all has to do with advertising revenue. You may not see much (any?) advertising in some of these apps today. For example, I haven’t seen a single ad in a casino game and Office app tool I downloaded. That will undoubtedly change in the future. After all, in order to keep investors happy, Amazon’s losses today always need to point to profits and other benefits in the future.

What are those benefits?

First of all, it’s an interesting way to co-opt the Google Play store. Remember, you can only get these Underground apps direct from Amazon, not Google. I’ve got to believe Amazon’s own app store isn’t exactly thriving, so this is a great way to give it a gentle boost.

Second, all those Underground apps you download ultimately pull you deeper and deeper into the Amazon walled garden. This too might not be apparent today but it will become crystal clear when those ads start popping up. And don’t forget that you’re opting into a model where all your app usage is closely tracked. After all, that’s how Amazon determines how much to pay developers. If you’re a privacy freak, Underground is not for you.

Why should publishers care about Amazon Underground? It sounds like an interesting model for game developers but not all that applicable for books, newspapers and magazines, right?


I’ve been talking about advertising in books for quite awhile now and I think Underground represents a viable, incremental business model for this vision. It’s obviously not the best option for some content but I’m convinced enough publishers and authors will embrace it, so much so, in fact, that naysayers will even have to consider it.

Let’s be clear about this though: I’m not suggesting an ad-based model will generate the same amount of per-unit revenue as the paid edition. That’s simply not going to happen. If a publisher is earning $5 per copy sold of an ebook today they might only earn ten or twenty cents (at best) from each download of the Underground version.

So why would any publisher ever agree to this?

It’s all about extending reach. Sure, nobody wants to trade a $5 sale for one netting ten cents. But what about all those readers who aren’t going to buy the book, newspaper or magazine to begin with? You’re netting zero from them today and possibly ten cents from each of them in the future. All that, with no cost of goods, btw.

Here’s another interesting use-case: Underground becomes a better sampling solution. Once the service is loaded with a bunch of ebooks, readers will be able to download the entire catalog without paying a penny. Amazon won’t be on the hook for any payment till pages are read. Consumers who like what they see but get frustrated with all the ads will always have the option to go back and actually pay for the original, ad-free edition. The rest of us will simply deal with the ads and enjoy the free ride.

That sounds like a win-win model for quite a few books, newspapers and magazines.

FanNation: A Sports Junkie's Dream

FannationWhether you're a Sports Illustrated subscriber or not, all sports fans need to check out SI's FanNation website. They tout it as "The Republic of Sport" and I think they've built a winner; judging by this Alexa graph it's fair to say they're making a splash.  It's an all-in-one sports portal where you can not only follow your favorite teams/players but also join in the dialog with other community members.

Yes, there are loads of other sites out there like this, some of which only have a few pieces of what FanNation offers; I've never found one I like that much but I can definitely see becoming a regular visitor to this one.  I'd still like to see them add a couple of other features: First, a widget system that would allow me to pull the feeds for my favorite teams/players onto my desktop.  Second, and more importantly, I'd love to see them add the smackdown feature I lobbied for in this earlier post...

This site definitely has the potential to fuse together the best of professional sports reporting with community perspective, creating the so-called "ProAm solution."

Our 8th Hit of 2007: Pro XNA Game Programming

Pro_xnaOur editorial team continues to produce bestsellers.  I mentioned in earlier posts here and here how we've had 7 new books hit Amazon's Top 25 Computers & Internet list in calendar 2007.  Our total has now reached 8 with the new WROX book, Professional XNA Game Programming.  The book is just hitting stores but it's currently #22 at Amazon and has been climbing fast all week.

Congratulations to executive editor Chris Webb and the rest of the editorial team on this latest hit!

Warcraft Legal Battles

Here's an interesting story about a fellow named Brian Kopp and his battles with the makers of World of Warcraft.  It seems Mr. Kopp has been trying to sell an unauthorized guide to the game, upsetting the game's publisher, Blizzard Entertainment.

For what it's worth, if the book does not include any copyrighted text/storylines from the game and makes "fair use" of some screenshots, as Kopp's complaint says, it seems as though he should be able to sell the book without being hassled.  I'm curious to see how this one plays out...

Why I Love This Job…

Seeing the results is the best part of the job. That’s why this has been a very fun week. Yesterday I got my advance copy of Sybex’s latest game book, Age of Empires III. We’ve got a boatload of orders for this one and it should be on shelves next week. Kudos to Willem Knibbe for pulling off a miracle by signing and publishing this book in record time.

Although that would normally be enough to completely make my week, I got another great treat today: My galley copy of Robert Scoble’s and Shel Israel’s Naked Conversations hit my desk. I’ve already read a few of the chapters over on their website, but now I can read the whole book from start to finish.  Look for this one in stores in January.