Auletta’s New Yorker piece is good orientation for thinking about the DoJ case
Writing about the lawsuit the DoJ has instituted against Apple and five leading publishers is very hard. It’s a big issue and doing it justice requires navigating two very large and complex bodies of knowledge: anti-trust law and the trade book publishing business. Whenever I write about it, I feel handicapped because I don’t know much except what I’ve read lately about anti-trust law.
I just know the industry. And I know the arguments for “collusion” or “conspiracy” are mostly built on illogic or misunderstanding of what is called “evidence”.
And I know that all prosecutors have the right and responsibility to decide what cases are worth making. It is on that basis that I think the DoJ is terribly wrong in pursuing this case, that the consequences of doing this will be dire for the industry and the reading public, and — again apologizing for not knowing anything about anti-trust law — that this action will lead directly to a real and obvious monopoly which will have to be addressed at some future time.
Except then it will be too late to undo the damage or to rebuild what will have been destroyed.
The June 25, 2012 issue of The New Yorker has an article by Ken Auletta called “Paper Trail” which is a sympathetic synthesis that untangles and clarifies a complex web of law and behavior. Except for a single sentence where Auletta attributes Microsoft’s investment in a new venture jointly owned with Barnes & Noble to be primarily driven by the desire “to produce a more popular tablet computer” (I think there were other motivations that were more important), I don’t take issue with his presentation of the facts.
(Bob Kohn, the founder and CEO of RoyaltyShare, who is a lawyer experienced and knowledgeable about the issues and who filed his own comments with the DoJ, provides an alternative view to those of the legal experts chosen from academia by Auletta. He is surprised that Barry Hawk of Fordham Law School failed to come up with the well-known 1979 BMI v CBS case, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, as a relevant precedent, and that Tim Wu of Columbia Law School could not understand the obvious point that Amazon was selling the ebooks at a loss to lock people into their ecosystem, where prices could obviously be raised later. But I’ll leave it to the lawyers to argue the law. On the business side, Auletta’s facts were solid and his choice of interviewees on all sides, quite aside from yours truly, was excellent.)
Reading Auletta inspires me to extend or re-emphasize a few things he said or touched on, some of which I learned from his piece.
I perhaps should have known, but didn’t, that Hachette USA had lobbied the Justice Department to examine Amazon’s predatory practices. (And frankly, had I known, I would never have reported it. I’m not a reporter; I’m an independent synthesizer, analyst, and articulator. There’s a difference.) Auletta reports that Hachette made what should be the very powerful argument that their copyrighted material was being used to sell Kindle devices and “drive bookstores out of business”. The point is accurate (and since Auletta’s reporting on an appeal that was made in 2009, also prescient) but elides an even bigger one.
Kindle was locking people into the Amazon purchasing ecosystem. What publishers saw, very early in the game, really, was that Amazon was aggregating customers that would soon find it difficult to get an ebook from any other source. In the parlance: their switching costs would be high. And they were the industry’s best customers.
(I mean, imagine this! “They’re locking customers into their platform with our books by selling them at a loss!” How would any business react? And do you think you need to “collude” with your competitor to come to the same conclusion? Give me a break.)
I was at the least reminded by Auletta’s piece, though perhaps I should already have been aware, that Apple had stipluated to all the publishers that they wouldn’t open iBookstore unless four of the Big Six were on board. That fact gives rise to a series of obvious observations that surely haven’t been mentioned often enough.
1. If that’s true, then all the chatter about publishers discussing their intentions to proceed is one very large and very red herring. Apple had made it clear that there would be four or no store. That’s all any of them needed to know.
2. How could Apple have proceeded any other way? As it was, the biggest of the Six (Random House) holding out really handicapped iBookstore and the Agency Five. Not only did it give Random House (and Amazon) a whole lot of price-advantaged brand-name-author books (with Random House also collecting the higher wholesale-pricing cut from the retailer), it kept those many desireable titles out of the iBookstore.
Most of the other publishers seemed unimpressed with the share iBookstore took of sales in 2010 even though the Random House books weren’t competing. But everybody was delighted with the additional reading screens delivered by iPads that brought them, as well as Random House, a lot more ebook sales through the other ebook retailers.
I don’t think that iBookstore would have been viable for Apple without four of the Big Six. It was perfectly reasonable for Apple to have made that business determination. It would have been irresponsible of them not to have done the calculation. Is Justice saying that, knowing that, they shouldn’t tell a potential trading partner if they were asked?
If the law actually prohibits this, which seems impossible, please change the law. And if you can’t change the law and if you have to choose which one is a smart one to enforce, this is a good “skip”.
3. A lot has been made of the fact that Apple has required the publishers to let them price-match. Now we know that Apple drove the deal. They said to the publishers, “we’ll let you set the price. as long as you don’t make us look like monkeys in relation to the print book price. But, of course, you can’t require us to sell at a price disadvantage, so you have to allow us to match any lower price.” How could Apple, or anybody else, do it any other way unless they were fools? They couldn’t allow themselves to be locked into a price that made them look extortionate to the consumer. They were proposing the terms on which they’d provide their proprietary access to their devices. Isn’t this a reasonable demand?
If the law prohibits this, please change the law.
I really liked the fact that Auletta emphasized, for the first time in any widely-distributed story I can remember, that the publishers going to agency sacrificed significant revenue by doing so. He quoted agent Simon Lipskar praising them for being far-sighted, willing to accept a hit on their watch to build a sustainable ecosystem. He quoted a CEO who estimated that $100 million was the aggregate hit to profits in a year.
Part of the $100 million that publishers lost provided some of the $200 million that Auletta reports Nook invested in delivering and launching the Color Nook. That’s a consumer benefit provided by the competition that is provided by agency pricing. The same is true of Kobo devices and Amazon devices, which are getting better and better and cheaper and cheaper thanks to the subsidy provided by the sale of publishers’ content.
If the law prohibits this, please change the law.
The most poignant part of the piece to a relative insider was Auletta’s reporting on the much-derided Picholine dinner in September, 2008. David Young of Hachette is reported to have organized it to welcome Markus Dohle, the new CEO of Random House, to New York. Anybody who knows David Young, as I am very pleased to have done for years, will recognize this immediately as the friendly and gracious behavior that is entirely characteristic of him.
As Auletta makes clear, this dinner took place before Apple had even announced it was going into the book business. In fact, I think it was still in the period when the Jobs pronoucement that “people don’t read books” was the prevailing wisdom from Silicon Valley.
And if the law prohibits this, and makes it part of a conspiracy, you’re making me happier than ever that I wrote a book on the New York Knicks instead of going to law school.
Auletta’s piece concludes on a telling, and chilling point. John Sargent spells out how small publishing is in relation to the giants now influencing its fate, which Auletta identified as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. Their strategies all involve the book business in some way. Sargent’s observation that books, by which he means the book publishing ecoystem that has built up around paper over the past 300 years, could become “roadkill in a larger war” gives pause.
It is increasingly easy to imagine. And it is worth considering seriously before it is a fait accompli.
It isn’t Amazon’s job to figure out what the book business needs to look like. They’re doing their job, which is to maximize the opportunities for their business as they see them within the rules of the game and the limitations imposed by competition and their trading partners.
Seeing that it isn’t their job means recognizing that it is everybody’s job. A lot of people need a better understanding of what publishing does and is for that to happen. I think the DoJ is making it very clear that smart people with a lay knowledge of the publishing industry routinely misapply what they think they know from other places.
Publishing one book is complicated, although a bit simpler if digital only. Publishing 200,000 books a year, which is what the industry does, is infinitely more complicated and made only more so by digital opportunity. Nobody from some other place — any other place — has entertained equivalent workflow, operational, administrative, and financing complexity.
I think the Auletta piece is valuable because it exposes the lie in the cartoon picture of “Greedy Big Publishing” stiffing the poor novel-reader while the selfless heroes at Kindle fight to save them two or three bucks a book. (And never mind that the price of your reader dropped by 50% because the guys across the street are offering one too.)
It isn’t Amazon’s job to do the PR for the other guys either.
I am speaking on approximately this topic at the 5th Annual GW Ethics & Publishing Conference at George Washington University on Monday, July 9th.