An American Editor

April 4, 2012

eBooks: Is Agency Pricing Good or Bad?

Recently, there has been a lot of focus on the “conspiracy” between 5 major publishers and Apple regarding agency pricing and whether these 6 entities have violated antitrust law. The focus is not on whether agency pricing is good or bad, but whether the parties colluded. That question I’ll leave for the US Department of Justice.

I’m more interested in whether agency pricing has been good for me as a consumer. Various forums have been discussing this and Mark Coker, president of Smashwords, has written an excellent piece defending agency pricing (see Does Agency Pricing Lead to Higher Book Prices?) Mark Coker makes several salient points, but they are points from the author and distributor perspective, not the consumer perspective.

(Mark Coker does make, however, one interesting observation: Before agency pricing, there was the wholesale pricing model. A publisher would set a book’s list price at say $30 and wholesale to booksellers for $15. The booksellers were free to sell the book for any price they wanted, be it $5 or $10 or $25 or $30. The reality was, however, that no bookseller could sell all books at less than cost and survive, not even Amazon. At some point, a bookseller has to turn a profit or at least cover costs. Consequently, the wholesale price was, in effect, an agency price; that is, a minimum price at which a book could be sold without putting the bookseller out of business. In other words, there really isn’t much difference in effect between the wholesale scheme and the agency scheme as far as consumers are concerned. For retailers, the agency scheme ensures that the retailer makes a profit on every ebook sold.)

But what about from the consumer perspective, and even from the indie author perspective?

In the days before ebooks (i.e., my participation in the ebook marketplace), I spent, on average, $5,000 a year on pbooks, mainly hardcover. I am now into my fifth year of ebooking and each of those years has seen a steady decline in the amount of money I am spending on books overall. Combined, my pbook and ebook spending doesn’t exceed $2,000 in a year, and is often quite a bit less.

One reason, if not the major reason, for this is agency pricing. The traditional publishers, namely the Big 6 (Random House, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, Penguin, Macmillan, and HarperCollins), are overpricing their ebooks via the agency pricing. Consequently, I am simply not buying agency ebooks published by the Big 6. The newest James Patterson novel simply isn’t worth $12.99 or higher to me. They are good reads, but let’s face it — classic literature that I would read again and again and savor each phrase they aren’t. They are formulaistic books that provide entertainment but do not evoke a lasting passion.

Consequently, I consider agency pricing to be a positive for the consumer. It helps dissuade ebookers from spending excessive amounts of money on books that in an open marketplace, and without publishers setting a retail price that bears no correlation to the true value of the book, would not command such high pricing in perpetuity. It might command it for weeks or months, but not years.

Agency pricing has had another benefit for the consumer. It has made the rise of the indie ebook distributor, like Smashwords, possible along with the rise of the indie ebook author. It is not that these entities didn’t exist before; they did in the form of vanity presses for the pbook crowd. Rather, they have become legitimized, something the vanity presses never were able to accomplish.

Because the Big 6 agency pricing is so high, readers like me began to explore alternatives. And now I buy primarily indie authored ebooks at places like Smashwords. The competition among indie authors to get noticed and read has been such that ebooks are often priced at $2.99 and less, all the way down to free. Even here, however, agency pricing is beneficial because I can buy those books at Smashwords or Barnes & Noble or Books on Board or any number of outlets and not worry about price — it will be the same at every store.

I’ll grant that if my only interest in reading is today’s popular books by big name authors, what we used to call the New York Times Bestsellers but which name is no longer appropriate, agency pricing is a problem. After all, Amazon demonstrated that it was willing to sell those ebooks at a loss in order to gain market share. (Which raises another interesting observation: When Amazon was able to sell the bestsellers as $9.99 or less ebooks, it cornered nearly 90% of the ebook market. With the advent of a more level playing field, introduced by agency pricing, its market share has dropped to about 60%.) Amazon had the fortune to be able to sell at a loss because other product lines were making a profit and could support the ebook losses; most ebook sellers did not have that option if they wanted to remain in business.

Agency pricing doesn’t ensure the lowest price; the Big 6 demonstrate that daily. But from my perspective as a consumer, the advent of agency pricing has made ebook selling more competitive. Not because the ebooksellers are being price competitive but because the indie authors are being price competitive. Agency pricing has also ensured that there won’t be one supplier of ebooks, which is also important to me as a consumer.

In balancing the scale of good or bad, I think agency pricing is good for me as a consumer. It has saved me scads of money by limiting the number of expensive ebooks that I buy to a handful. It saves me money because I no longer spend as much on pbooks; I have too many ebooks to read in my to-be-read pile, so I buy fewer pbooks. It has broadened my reading. Before agency pricing I did as many readers and bought reasonably priced ebooks by name authors. Since agency pricing, I browse the indie author ebook offerings and buy indie ebooks at very reasonable prices.

One last observation: Even if the Department of Justice pursues the collusion matter, there appears to be nothing inherently wrong with agency pricing. I expect that at worst the 6 parties being investigated will pay large fines but I think agency pricing is here to stay.

What do you think? Is agency pricing good or bad for the consumer?

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