As most of you already know, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has filed a lawsuit against Apple and 5 of the Big 6 publishers alleging collusion in the establishment of agency pricy pricing (see “Justice Dept. Sues Apple and Publishers Over E-Book Pricing; 3 Publishers Settle”). In several of the forums I participate in, ebookers are celebrating the expected lower ebook prices.
Yet, there are several things worth thinking about and noting. First, Random House, one of the Big 6 publishers, and Smashwords, the leading indie author distributor, both of which have agency pricing, are not named defendants in the DOJ lawsuit. That signals to me that the problem is not with agency pricing, but with the collusion aspects.
Second, the 3 publishers that settled with the DOJ, which settlement, it is worth noting, is not effective until approved by a court, are restricted from instituting agency pricing for 2 years, after which they can reassert agency pricing as long as they don’t agree over dinner to do so. This, too, indicates to me that agency pricing is not contrary to the law or necessarily thought to be anticonsumer by the DOJ.
The third notable matter is that the publisher with the greatest moxie, the one that first stood up to Amazon, Macmillan, is not settling with the DOJ and intends to fight, as do Penguin and Apple. That means that the DOJ case is not so strong that it cannot fail once tested. And should it fail, so will the settlement agreements with the 3 settlers fail. It appears that in Macmillan’s case, CEO John Sargent is alleged to have attended only 1 meeting with his fellow CEOs, which means that the DOJ will have to demonstrate that it was at that meeting that the collusion occurred, not an easy task unless the settlers will testify that that is when the collusion came to fruition and that Sargent was present when the decision was made. Hachette, one of the settlers, claims there was no collusion, so it makes me wonder how the DOJ will sustain its burden of proof. Allegations are one thing, proof is another. Simply that there was an opportunity to collude doesn’t prove there was collusion.
There are other problems with the lawsuit. It has been too many years since I last practiced antitrust law (last time was nearly 30 years ago), so I’m not current on the state of the law and I admit that I’m not sure exactly what the DOJ must prove to prevail, but it is clear to me that the Republican-dominated U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t look favorably on these lawsuits. It was a Republican court that upheld resale price maintenance agreements, which has the same effect — setting a floor price below which goods cannot be sold — as the agency pricing system.
An interesting legal question, which may or may not be relevant to the DOJ lawsuit, is this: What constitutes the market? If all ebooks constitute the market, then ebooks are interchangeable commodities, an idea that is resisted by publishers and authors and even by many consumers. If the market is an individual title because you cannot substitute Dean Koontz for Stephen King, then wouldn’t the DOJ have to prove collusion among publishers to set the price for Stephen King, not collusion to set the mechanism for pricing of all ebooks? Of course, there are numerous variables to the market scenario, but they make for a fascinating legal chess game.
But all of this aside, the bottom line is that agency pricing is not illegal even in the eyes of the DOJ. Which leaves a lot of questions. For example, will Random House abandon agency pricing or continue with it? What about Smashwords? (Smashwords has already announced it will retain agency pricing and oppose the settlement agreement during the comment period.)
A more important question is this: Several of the Big 6 have — so far — refused to sign renewal contracts with Amazon because of demands made by Amazon. In the absence of agency pricing, will some or all of the Big 6 refuse to renew agreements with Amazon? Would such a refusal affect both pbooks and ebooks or just ebooks? If they do not renew the agreement, what can Amazon do about it?
The settlement agreement says that publishers cannot prevent a retailer from discounting the publishers ebooks except that it can require the retailer to make a profit across the publisher’s line. I find that an interesting proviso. Consider how secretive Amazon has been about how many ebooks it really has been selling. Amazon has only been forthcoming with broad numbers and in a few cases announcing that an author has joined the millions club. Will Amazon, who is not a party to the proceedings, voluntarily share sales information? I doubt it.
Yet the sharing of that information is necessary to make the exception meaningful. If the wholesale price, that is, the price the ebooksellers have to pay the publisher, of the new James Patterson ebook novel is $13 and Amazon sells it for $10 and sells 1 million ebook copies for a $3 million loss, somehow Amazon must sell enough other books in that publisher’s line to overcome the loss. How is that going to work?
Will Amazon offer the first 10,000 units of Patterson’s ebook for $10, the next 10,000 units for $16, the next 10,000 units for $13, and so on? Customers will be thrilled. Especially if they can buy the same ebook someplace else for $13 when Amazon wants $16.
Another problem with the settlement is that it does not — and cannot — establish a wholesale price for not-yet-published books. The DOJ could say that current agency-priced ebo0ks’ wholesale price is 70% of the current agency price, because that is what the publisher has been willing to accept. But what about future ebooks? The DOJ is not in a position to dictate individual pricing, so there is no reason why publishers cannot raise list prices to $30 and set wholesale prices at $15. The settlement speaks to discounting, not to setting of wholesale price.
There is more to say, but it needs to be said in another installment of this article, so this will be continued in my next post.