A reporter called earlier this week focused on what he figures are the upcoming negotiations over trading terms between Amazon and Penguin Random House. I had observed when Amazon was throwing sharp elbows at Hachette during their contractual dispute that Amazon wouldn’t try similar tactics with PRH.
Since then, with HarperCollins and Amazon having announced they’ve reached new terms, deals have been done with all the Following Four US publishers. It would appear that the DoJ’s and Judge Cote’s work to stop publisher-controlled pricing across retailers has been very largely undone by the deals independently arrived at. So it is a sensible question for a reporter to ask, as this one was: can Penguin Random House do better than the others did in these negotiations?
I don’t know the answer to that. And even after a deal is announced, none of us will necessarily know the answer. But this is an appropriate time to consider the power of Penguin Random House’s position in the marketplace. It is very strong. If I were any of the other four major publishers, I would fear PRH more than Amazon as a potential disruptor of my business. When I put that proposition to a UK-based executive of one of those companies at the London Book Fair last week, he readily agreed with me.
When one considers what a segmented business publishing is, the Penguin Random House combination becomes that much more eye-catching. These five companies — PRH, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Macmillan — compete much more with each other than they do with anybody else. Cambridge competes with Oxford and other university presses. Quarto competes with Chronicle and Abrams and Running Press and outside the US with Egmont and other illustrated book publishers. Yes, a bestseller might come from anywhere: Harry Potter came to the US market from Scholastic and the UK market from Bloomsbury. But the publishers who compete for the bestselling authors and the front-of-store slots repeatedly are the Big Five, which were formerly the Big Six.
And when Penguin merged with Random House, that was not just any old merger of the Big Six. It was a merger between Number One and Number Two. It has created a single company that is, in the US market, about twice the size of its next competitor (about $2.5 billion in sales for PRH against about $1.2 billion for HarperCollins). And HarperCollins, in turn, is about double the size of each of the other three.
What that means is that PRH, like Amazon, can make its commercial decisions independently from the rest of the industry. They can take risks that would be very challenging for anybody else. Amazon could afford to get into a dust-up with Hachette that affected the supply of books in ways its customers could clearly see and make it public to try to make a point. Random House, even before the merger, could afford to stay out of the new iBookstore (they wouldn’t play ball with agency terms in the beginning) for a while, which would have seemed a big risk to the others. (Of course, the DoJ and Judge Cote didn’t see it as individually-discernible risk. Their explanation was “collusion”.) That decision by Random House paid off in big ways in 2010 with higher sales per ebook title (because they didn’t go to agency, which reduced the per-title take) and higher unit sales (because agency would have forbidden discounting, and Amazon went to town discounting Random House books against their agency competitors).
In the past year, Scribd and Oyster announced ebook subscription programs. Pretty quickly, HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster announced varying degrees of participation in the services. And then Macmillan followed. But Penguin Random House and Hachette stayed out. Hachette is the most author- and bestseller-driven of the major houses and author brands are the most likely long run casualties if subscription services succeed. But, if they succeed, Hachette will have to go back to them hat in hand. Penguin Random House won’t, necessarily.
Because if subscriptions are actually the wave of the future and the title rosters from Scribd and Oyster are sufficient to make that happen, then PRH could compete with them entirely on their own. They would have as many prominent commercial books from their own reservoir as the other services have aggregated. And they wouldn’t be sharing with a third party vendor.
When Oyster announced last month that they would now sell ebooks a la carte as well as in subscription bundles, some of the press saw more significance to the move than it warranted. Scribd started out as an a la carte document access site. Amazon itself formed a subscription service (Kindle Unlimited) the minute Scribd and Oyster announced what they were doing. If you have the capability to sell ebooks, why not sell them by whatever commercial arrangement the customer wants?
By the same token, the distinction between publishers and retailers is melting away. Amazon went into publishing very quickly after ebooks enabled self-publishing. Barnes & Noble published proprietary books for years, even before they bought Sterling in 2002. HarperCollins built a retailing capability for themselves in the past year. (The Tor.com imprint of Macmillan said they’d be selling DRM-free ebooks directly from their own site, but we have seen no evidence that they actually ever did.)
So, the reporter trying to understand the possibly-occurring Amazon-PRH negotiations wondered, would PRH become a retailer?
I don’t think so (at least not anytime soon), but I still believe — as I did when I first speculated about all this 2-1/2 years ago — that a store could have a competitive selection of books with titles exclusively from PRH. No other publisher could serve a general interest audience at retail without other people’s books as well.
How else could PRH be disruptive? They could offer a license to schools for their titles. If a school bought one of those to load its students’ digital devices with content, they wouldn’t have everything they might want but they could conceivably have all they need. How hard would it be to sell a competing license with less good stuff in it? How hard would it be to build an aggregation so that a competing license had as much good stuff in it?
The executives I’ve spoken with at PRH — and I have high personal and professional opinions of all of them — have consistently disclaimed any interest in most of what I’m suggesting. And, indeed, they haven’t started a subscription service and they’ve shown no signs of rolling out a program to create PRH-only bookstores. There are reasons, aside from altruism or short-sightedness, why they might resist these solutions. After all, PRH publishes about half the most commercial titles in the US book trade. Subscription services and retail competition would weaken the existing bookstore network, and PRH benefits from its existence in proportion to its relative size, which is to say “much more than anybody else”.
In fact, I’ve discussed the possibility that they could be so disruptive with the CEOs of two of the other Big Five, and neither executive (unlike the one I met with in London last week) expressed much concern. One said “they don’t want to do that”, meaning “they don’t want to destroy the competition in the trade” (which is a point of view that is actually supported by what the executives at PRH have said to me, as counter-intuitive as it seems). And the other one believes that having PRH in the game to negotiate with Amazon and B&N helps keep the terms of trade in check for everybody else as well. That executive likes having PRH there, with all its size and clout.
I had the conversation with the reporter that was the catalyst for this post on Wednesday morning and it was mostly drafted on Wednesday afternoon. Penguin Random House’s new consumer-centric web site was unveiled Thursday morning and underscores their support of the trade (they’re trying to push sales to retailers, not sell directly themselves). The site appears to give a page for every book they’ve got, which could well prove very useful as they build embellishments.
They refer the sales over to a robust choice of retailers for all formats. One thing I noticed was that a particular ebook I looked for — Napoleon, A Life by Andrew Roberts — is $45 in cloth, $20 in paperback, and the ebook is listed at $29.99! Running through the list of retailers to which PRH links directly, we can see that Amazon and Google Play discount the book down to an identical approximately 14.4% off $25.65 (with Amazon touting the massive saving over the hardcover price!) but the others listed — Apple, B&N Nook, Books-a-Million, and Kobo — offer it at the $29.99 list price. Close observers of the changing state of agency pricing will be watching whether the pricing or the discounting profile changes when PRH concludes that next round of negotiations.
And, incidentally, this also jibes with something we were told very recently by an ex-Nook employee, who said that the DoJ and Judge Cote effectively stopped B&N’s ability to compete with Amazon in its tracks when they opened up discounting of agency. Not only did they strip out margin that B&N desperately needed to compete, competing then effectively required price-monitoring capability to keep up with Amazon that was beyond their capabilities. Google has no problem doing that and maybe nobody else can keep up, but it would take looking at a lot more than one title to prove that.