Almost two years ago, I wrote a post which continues to be one of the most-read in the history of this blog, the point of which was that the business model disruption (called “agency”) prompted by the iPad would have more impact on the ebook ecosystem than the device itself. I’m happy to repeat that statement today because I think events have proven that hunch to be correct.
This week Amazon announced their new tablet, the Kindle Fire. (Mine’s on order. I gave the original Kindle I had to my wife, who still uses it. I also own an iPad but never read books on it. As everybody who reads this blog regularly knows, my ebook consumption is all iPhone, largely purchased through the Kindle store, sometimes through Nook, Kobo, or Google, but never through iBookstore.)
The Kindle Fire announcement has unleashed a spate of stories in the tech press about the battle between Apple and Amazon. Who knows what Apple’s rejoinder will be, but it would seem that Fire offers much more than half of what an iPad delivers to a media consumer for much less than half the price and about two-thirds the weight. It appears it will fit in the hip pocket of a man’s suit jacket. That sounds like a competitive formula. It already was for Nook Color, and Amazon seems, at least for the moment, to have done them one better.
Books are not the central focus of this Amazon-Apple battle even from Amazon’s point of view and they are certainly are not from Apple’s. Apple is a device company and their content offerings, and their control of their content offerings, are intended to reinforce the unique experience their devices deliver. Amazon certainly knows from their Kindle experience that offering the right device can propel content sales and secure the content customers’ business (a lesson B&N has both learned and demonstrated quite successfully with Nook as well). The Fire is as much about video content as it is about books.
But in the book business, we look at these two titans in a different way because they force publishing into managing two completely different commercial models simultaneously. That’s not something most of the tech community has paid any attention to in the prolific “Amazon versus Apple” commentary following the Kindle Fire announcement. But it reinforces the point made in the post from two years ago: the fact that Amazon and Apple have different approaches to acquiring and pricing content offerngs is the most important aspect of the battle between them to the book publishing community. Who “wins”, as in “who sells the most devices?” (or even “who sells the most ebooks?”), is really quite secondary since both are significant and neither is going away.
Amazon wants to acquire its book content with the ability to control the selling price so they can continue to burnish their reputation as the lowest-cost provider and exploit other advantages that their huge customer base and extraordinarily deep pockets provide them. Apple wants a margin-guaranteed commercial model that also assures them that they won’t be embarrassed by having their customers see the same content for a lower price elsewhere.
Apple assumed they’d be able to move the most devices and, with price neutrality, create enough advantages to their device owners to shop in the device’s “home” store to satisfy their competitive requirements. That is, Apple’s content-selling strategy was to maximize their market share among their own device owners. They do nothing to move the content onto other companies’ devices.
But Amazon is a store first; the devices are in service to the store, not the other way around. Price competition is a key component of their competitive toolkit. And they are relentless at using their tools to take market share and margin away from their retailing competitors.
Publishers see their interests more closerly aligned with Apple’s strategy than with Amazon’s. After all, Apple is perfectly comfortable with the idea that others will need to provide content to whatever non-Apple devices are out there. Amazon wants to dominate content sales to all devices. Publishers want an ecosystem with as many contact points for consumers as possible to protect them from being disintermediated by somebody downstream (namely Amazon). And they like the necessity of managing a lot of resellers because it protects them from being disintermediated by somebody upstream (the agents or authors).
Amazon found out in a battle with Macmillan very shortly after I wrote the piece cited at the top that they couldn’t bully the Big Six publishers into abandoning agency pricing. So they gave up the effort to do that, and the Big Six now apply agency across the ebook supply chain, creating uniform prices through all outlets for most of the biggest commercial titles on offer.
But Amazon did not find it necessary to back down from their insistence on wholesale for everybody else. And that means that, except for the Big Six, all publishers that want to offer their ebooks through both Amazon and Apple are forced into the “hybrid” model: agency with Apple, wholesale with Amazon, and a choice between the two for everybody else.*
The models are ultimately incompatible and create anomalies (an example of which with a high-profile title not published by one of the Big Six we reported on recently.)
And that, not the device war itself, is the most important component of the Amazon versus Apple battle to the book publishing community. With the recent move by Apple to end direct-linking to their proprietary stores out of the apps of other ebook sellers, they are undoubtedly increasing the market share of iBookstore (even though their title selection still lags way behind their competitors.) There’s a price in lost sales to pay if an ebook isn’t available in all the places customers might shop for their next read.
But to make an ebook available through both Amazon and Apple, a publisher must set two retail prices: one to sell to consumers at through Apple and one to base a discount on for sales through Amazon. Publishers will continue to see titles flagged by Apple on a weekly basis because they were on sale somewhere (presumably Amazon) at a lower price than the publisher set for Apple, allowing Apple to lower the price (and to proportionately decrease their payment to publishers for sale of that ebook.)
The advantages of agency, including the ability to raise and lower prices to generate promotion or to take advantage of stronger demand, will continue to be reserved to the Big Six. So will the potential advantage (not yet realized, to our knowledge) for the Big Six of being able to sell from within apps or off their own web sites because they have the ability to do that without competing with their retailers on price. And so is the protection against the possibility that an agency reseller will lower the price to meet a wholesale reseller’s competition, thus cutting the revenue delivered to the publisher and, ultimately, to the author.
I have not yet explored the ramifications of agency versus wholesale or hybrid with an agent from the author’s commercial point of view, but it would seem to be an advantage for the Big Six publishers in signing up major authors that they alone can enforce agency. And with the device battle now joined and bound to be going on for many years to come, it would appear that the division between Apple and Amazon will perpetuate a division between the Big Six and all other publishers which will last for the foreseeable future.
* Writing that asterisked sentence (several grafs above) made me realize what I didn’t know. How do publishers set their two different retail prices, one of which is the basis fo 50 off and a retailer-set customer price and one of which is the basis of 30 off and that is the price? Who decides on which basis the other ebook retailers — B&N, Kobo, and the rest — do their purchasing? (I know they all benefit from agency, so presumably they buy agency with the same assurances of price-protection Apple takes, but do they have a choice?) And how many publishers just refuse to sell to Apple so they can put all publishers on wholesale and let the discounting occur as it will?
I know people to ask about all this, but not on a baseball playoff weekend. It will likely be the subject of a future post.