An American Editor

June 22, 2012

Worth Noting: Paper Trail — Did Publishers and Apple Collude Against Amazon?

In the current issue of The New Yorker, Ken Auletta writes about the Department of Justice’s collusion lawsuit against Apple and the Agency 5 publishers. The article makes for interesting reading and is highly recommended:

“Paper Trail: Did Publishers and Apple Collude Against Amazon?”

April 23, 2012

The Department of Justice vs. eBooks II

As I noted in the first part of this article (see The Department of Justice vs. eBooks I), the settlement proposed by the DOJ raises a lot of issues but doesn’t attack the central premise that agency pricing is okay.

I mentioned in part I that publishers could raise the list/wholesale prices of not-yet-published ebooks. But there is another option that could prove to be even more effective: Publishers are not obligated to give ebooksellers a 50% or higher discount as the wholesale price. Publishers could limit the wholesale discount to 30%, which would reflect the current 70-30 split that comes from agency pricing.

And there is nothing preventing publishers from limiting the format that an ebook can be sold in.

The point is, publishers do not have to think of themselves as helpless. I expect publishers will look at the situation as if they are helpless. They aren’t, but they need to be creative, something they are not known for. As the current debacle demonstrates, publishers are being led, they are not leading.

Let us not forget that the settlement proposed by the DOJ effectively separates book sales into two distinct markets: pbooks and ebooks. This could be important because one of the reasons the publishers gave for agency pricing is that they want to keep the brick and mortar stores alive. (It is worth noting that recent data show that even with the growth of ebooks, pbooks sales still account for 80% of all book sales.)

Well, the b&m stores rely on pbook sales, not ebook sales. Even Barnes & Noble relies on pbook sales. The only major bookseller of pbooks that doesn’t have b&m storefronts is Amazon. If publishers want to help ensure that the b&m stores continue to be competitors to Amazon, the simple way to do so is to not only insist that every bookseller get the same wholesale discount (there is no law that requires volume discounting) but then to supplement the b&m stores with higher co-op payments for displays, which would enable them to have additional funds for discounting to compete pricewise with Amazon.

The law requires that similar parties be treated similarly. So if Amazon wanted co-op money, it would have to open b&m stores. In other words, publishers could help level the playing field without straying from the requirements of the DOJ settlement.

It has been stated on numerous blogs and forums that the key to fighting Amazon is to do away with DRM. Without DRM, people would navigate to the ebookseller with the best pricing and service. I do not think that is true in the absence of devices that can handle different formats. Most Kindle owners will continue to shop at Amazon because Kindles can’t handle ePub in the absence of conversion and side loading. Similarly, Nooks can’t handle Amazon’s proprietary format without conversion and side loading. The question isn’t whether converting and side loading are hard to do — they aren’t — but whether most ebookers would do so to save a dollar or two. I think not.

What Kindlers and Nookers always cite in defense of buying from Amazon or B&N, respectively, is the ease of buying and then seeing their purchase appear on their device effortlessly. Right now they could buy a lot of the indie books that they buy at Smashwords in the DRM-free format of their choice. But they don’t because then they would have to side load the ebooks; they aren’t automatically loaded onto their device. Why would habits change?

Ultimately, the real keys to ensuring competition remains are a single, uniform format that is device agnostic (and if DRM must be, then the DRM also be uniform) and agency pricing.

I can hear the uproar as I write about agency pricing, but consider that many of the electronic items we buy are either agency priced or have the same effect through resale price maintenance agreements. Every ad I see for an Apple iPad gives the same price. Every ad I see for a Kindle Touch lists the same price. Yet no one complains that there is no price competition for these items (where is the DOJ’s proconsumer department in these cases?); the complaints are all directed at ebooks.

Of course, the answer is that Kindles don’t compete with Kindles, they compete with Nooks and each vendor independently decided to set the prices. But it is the blind person who fails to see that there is really no difference in effect for the consumer and the purpose of the antitrust laws, ultimately, is to protect competition for the benefit of consumers. Whereas the DOJ recognizes that the Kindle and the Nook are not the same, it insists that the Stephen King and the Dean Koontz novels are the same, at least in book form.

And if the DOJ were really focusing on the effect on the consumer, it would take a look at the various formats and DRM schemes that lock most consumers into a particular eco system. How much more anticompetitive can one be than to capture an audience and make it difficult for them to stray elsewhere?

Here is another question: Where are the authors in this dogfight? The Author’s Guild has come out against the DOJ settlement, but where are the indie authors? Based on comments I read elsewhere, most indie authors are pleased by the settlement because it will make Amazon even stronger and the majority of their sales are at Amazon.

In the short-term view, the stronger Amazon is, the better it is for the indie author. But is that true for the long-term? I can only speculate, but based on Amazon’s attempting to squeeze publishers for more money, I think it is fair to expect that eventually it will turn to squeezing indie authors. The more dependant an indie author is on Amazon, the less the indie author can refuse whatever terms Amazon wishes to impose. And it must be remembered that Amazon owes its obligations to itself and its shareholders, not to its suppliers. Amazon is the Walmart of ebooks.

There is also one other potential negative effect to the settlement. If Amazon succeeds in establishing the $9.99 price point, indie authors who have not yet found a large audience for their books will be squeezed into even lower pricing than currently. More of their ebooks will be priced at 99¢ and free because the reading public will not see them as being worth more when one can by the well-established and well-known author for $9.99 or less.

How this will all turn out is of great interest to me. I am pleased that Macmillan and Penguin have the moxie to fight the DOJ settlement, as I do not think the settlement is in anyone’s best interest over the long-term. It may be of benefit over the short-term, but somewhere along the continuum, in the not-so-distant future, publishers, authors, and consumers will face a different reality.

What do you think?

April 18, 2012

The Department of Justice vs. eBooks I

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.

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