Apple’s disruption of the ebook market has nothing to do with the tablet
If the reporting by Publishers Lunch today is accurate (and I’ve never known it not to be), publishers may have used the entry of Apple into the ebook arena as an opportunity to change the entire paradigm of ebook distribution for major books. And while the great excitement about Apple and ebooks has been based on hopes that the new Apple Tablet that the world expects to be announced next week will add a lot of new ebook consumers, the change in the sales protocols will probably have a much more profound impact on the ebook market than the device. Or at least that’s how it looks from here.
Sorry, I can’t link to this story because it is only in the subscriber version of Lunch and a link would just send you into a pay wall. If you’re paying, you’ve got the story in your email version of Lunch.
What Michael Cader reports in Lunch is that publishers have worked out agreement with Apple to switch from a “wholesale” model to an “agency” model for ebook sales. The wholesale model imitates the physical world: the publisher “sells” the “book” to an intermediary (could be a retailer like Amazon or BN or a wholesaler like Ingram) based on the publisher’s established retail price and a discount schedule. Then the purchaser will re-sell that ebook at whatever price they like. When publishers offered discounts that were the same as the physical world discounts, they partially subsidized retailers who wanted to offer much lower ebook prices to consumers.
The “agency” model is based on the idea that the publisher is selling to the consumer and, therefore, setting the price, and any “agent”, which would usually be a retailer but wouldn’t have to be, that creates that sale would get a “commission” from the publisher for doing so. Since Apple’s normal “take” at the App Store is 30% and discounts from publishers have normally been 50% off the established retail price, publishers can claw back margin even if they don’t get Apple to concede anything from the 30%.
So making this change, if it works, accomplishes three things for big publishers. The obvious two are that they gain a greater degree of control over ebook pricing than they ever had over print book pricing and they get to rewrite the supply chain splits of the consumer dollar.
But the third advantage for the big guys is the most devilish of all: they may gain a permanent edge over smaller players on ebook margins. That is one that, truth be known, was already playing out as Amazon used its leverage to reduce the share smaller publishers got from Kindle sales. But this could institutionalize it.
Cader reports that the conversations between Apple and publishers have, so far, been confined to the Big Six (Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette Book Group, Simon & Schuster, Penguin, and Macmillan.) Obviously, these are separate conversations and they might not all come up with the same splits. (One can only imagine how hard publishers are fighting for “most favored nation” clauses. What a nightmare it would be to find out two months from now that you’re paying 5 or 10 points more commission than your competitors!)
To say that this news leaves us with more questions than answers would be a major understatement.
How will this work, mechanically? Will the publishers actually serve the titles, or will Apple or the other consumer-connected entities making the sale? Well, of course, we don’t know, but Brian Murray of HarperCollins, extensively quoted by Cader and, after all, the publisher whose discussions with Amazon were the first to break in a Wall Street Journal story, has long championed the idea that publishers should maintain control of their files, not distribute them to many intermediaries. The agency concept fits neatly with that paradigm. On the other hand, one would presume that Apple has to serve what comes from the App Store and, certainly, that Amazon would have to deliver what went into a Kindle. So departures from executing a pure agency model should be expected. Call it a “virtual” agency model!
How will retailers not named Amazon react? Presumably this will make players like BN.com, Kobo, and others very happy because, with publisher-set pricing, they no longer have to lose money on every sale to compete with Amazon. On the other hand, retailers really like to control pricing; it’s one of the main weapons in their arsenal. And if Amazon doesn’t play along (yet another question), then these other retailers could have a temporary advantage because they’ll have hot titles that Amazon would not.
How widespread will be the implementation, across publishers and across lists? One has to assume that the hidden hand of the agent community is present in these decisions. For one thing, agents have been as concerned as big publishers with the market and pricing power being concentrated at Amazon and this tactic addresses that directly. Since big publishers are even more responsive to agents than they are to major accounts, that would suggest a) that all the Big Six will play and b) that they will implement this strategy across their lists. And, as Cader points out, having some books handled as Agency and others as Wholesale is a potential management nightmare.
What will Amazon do? The question might be “what can Amazon do?” It is relatively easy for Amazon to pressure one publisher at a time, using their control of buy buttons and marketing recommendations. Nobody I know can say how extensive that kind of behavior is from them, but we know they engaged in a public spat with Hachette in the UK and threatened publishers a few years ago that they wouldn’t sell their POD books if they were at Lightning and not in Amazon’s own POD repository. And there are stories told privately — never publicly — of pressure tactics of a similar kind aimed quietly at particular recalcitrants at particular times. But if all the Big Six publishers do this with widespread support from the agent community, it is hard to see exactly what Amazon can do. Certainly, not having high profile titles available that are being sold at competing retailers for competing platforms would not be an acceptable situation, even for a fairly short time. But Amazon is resourceful and creative, they have a lot of power, and they are being faced with the first real threat to their marketplace power.
What does all this mean for enhanced ebooks? Frankly, if this works, I think publishers may find enhanced ebooks (except in very standardized ways such as I suggested in one, two, three blogposts many months ago) losing their allure. As I wrote last week, nobody has really invented an enhanced formula that has gained widespread public acceptance. The attraction of enhanced ebooks was their potential for keeping ebook prices up for branded authors. If the agency solution works, that mission might be accomplished with a lot less investment and risk, and delivering a product we know the public wants: books in the creative form that they have enjoyed for years.
Although I’m as excited as the next guy by the coming Apple Tablet, I really don’t think it will change the world for ebooks. It’s too big, too heavy, too expensive, and likely to be too consumptive of battery power to be a better ereader for most people than a Kindle, a Sony Reader, an iPhone, or one of the many other devices announced last week at CES. My own hunch is that the Tablet won’t be as powerful a catalyst for ebooks as the Kindle was or the iPhone has been. (That’s okay: year-on-year ebook sales are up 300% through November so they don’t actually need a lot of extra impetus…)
But Apple’s entry into the market, if it was the tool to get this Agency model off the ground, might have a very profound effect on the ebook world going into the future. I wonder if this is the last big disruption before Google Editions. And I the next thing to ponder, although we have a bit of time, if this will in any way disrupt that.
All of this just makes me glad that Michael Cader is one of my panelists on the Ebook Tipping Point panel next week at Digital Book World! And that I’ve got a powerful agent, Larry Kirshbaum, joining Michael, Ken Brooks, Evan Schnittman, and me on the stage for that discussion.