Amazon and Hachette have settled so there will be no big bang change in the publishing business model
It looks like Big Publishing will maintain its grip, which the most zealous of the indie author militia refer to as a “cartel”, on major authors and big books for another several years. What looked from the outside (where we all are if we’re not involved in the negotiations) to have been an attempt by Amazon to largely reset the terms of trade between publishers and the world’s dominant book retailer appears to have been postponed for a few years.
We don’t know — or certainly I don’t know — precisely what Amazon wanted from Hachette in the negotiations that became a public spat last Spring. All we know is that whatever they asked for (or demanded) was sufficiently onerous to make Hachette take an enormous amount of pain to resist it. The standoff held for six months.
The standoff wasn’t pain-free for Amazon either, although it certainly didn’t have nearly an equivalent commercial impact. Amazon could have expected when the dispute started that Hachette authors would pressure their publisher to settle. They could also have expected public attention to focus on Amazon “fighting for lower prices”. Neither of these things happened and, in fact, Amazon was demonized for their tactics by some pretty high-profile writers. And, although it was almost certainly unrelated to the impact of the Hachette fight, Amazon themselves had some tough financial reporting to weather during this period.
In any case, there was no way Amazon could use the same set of tactics they used on Hachette with another publisher at the same time, and it would appear they didn’t try. Simon & Schuster and Amazon came to a deal last month which both sides suggest they’re pleased with. When that deal was announced, it seemed likely to me that anything S&S would accept, Hachette probably would too (and would have at any point). With the announcement yesterday that Hachette and Amazon have now come to terms, and with the wording of the deal announcement being so similar (but not precisely the same) to what was said when the S&S deal was announced, it would appear that surmise has been justified.
Where the announcements diverge is that it was suggested that S&S has ceded Amazon some limited rights to “discount” from the publisher-set pricing but that suggestion was absent from the Hachette announcement. The more limited the discounting allowed, of course, the more the new arrangement constitutes “agency as it was intended to be”. But forbidding discounting is a double-edged sword. It “protects” print-in-bookstores from price competition from ebooks, but it also potentially disadvantages those price-protected books in the ebook market against other ebooks.
(Of course, an agency publisher can lower prices themselves, but if they do it that way, they reduce their share and the retailer’s share proportionately. If they “allow” discounting, the retailer does it entirely out of their part of the sale price.)
I would now expect that Macmillan, which is about the same size as Hachette and Simon & Schuster, will be offered and will accept a similar deal and probably so will HarperCollins, although they are more than twice the size of these others. How each of these houses will view “strict” agency versus “looser” agency is an open question.
But Penguin Random House is in a different position. Now that it has been demonstrated that Amazon’s most muscular tactics didn’t bring Hachette to heel, why wouldn’t PRH, which is several times the size of Hachette, look for a contract that gives them some real separation from the rest of the pack either in terms of their margins or to get more aggressive with discounting through publishers’ biggest account? Let’s remember that Random House originally outflanked the others tactically in 2010 by sticking with wholesale when everybody else went to agency, putting their ebooks in a price-advantaged position and scoring millions in extra sales as a result.
The overall direction of the book market continues to tilt toward Amazon. Although the dual shifts to ebooks from print and to purchasing of print online rather than in bookstores have slowed down sharply in the past couple of years, the chances are those trends have not yet run their course. It is not a guarantee that those shifts will continue to grow Amazon’s market share but they certainly favor them. It would seem somewhat more likely that Kindle will suffer some competitive erosion as multi-function devices gain more of the ebook share than the online bookstore will, but the chances are that both will continue to grow their share. And, at the same time, the self-published share of the market will continue to grow, mostly to Amazon’s advantage, and so will the impact of other Amazon initiatives including their lending library and subscription service.
The reset ambitions that might have been somewhat premature in 2014 may be achievable in 2018.
But a lot can happen between now and then. Four years is a long time. Four years ago, Random House was still gaming the agency system and Nook was gaining market share by leaps and bounds. Four years before that, there was really no ebook business at all.
Assuming that Macmillan and HarperCollins make a deal similar to what Hachette and S&S have done, the big publishers have little to fear from their biggest trading partner for the next few years. But how they’ll cope with their biggest competitor, particularly if PRH gains either additional margin or greater flexibility around discounting compared to the others, might move to the top of their list of concerns.