The Wall Street Journal reports that the Justice Department has notified the Agency Five (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster) and Apple that it plans to sue them for colluding to raise the price of electronic books. I have no standing to comment on the law here. But if this does mean the end of the agency model, it would seem to be a cause for celebrating at Amazon and a catalyst for some deep contemplation by all the other big players in the book business.
Agency pricing, for those who have not been following the most important development in the growth of the book market, enabled the publishers to enforce a uniform price for each ebook title across all retail outlets. This was Apple’s desired way to do business, and it addressed deep concerns the big publishers had about the effect of Amazon’s loss-leader discounting.
Although the WSJ article and Michael Cader’s follow up in Publishers Lunch make no “agency is dead” declaration and there are quotes from publishers and others indicating that there are a range of possible outcomes, including a version of agency that is modified to allow some discounting, everybody in the industry now has to contemplate what it would mean if the agency model is legally upended.
To Amazon, it would mean they would be free to set prices on all books again, including the most high-profile and attractive ones that come from the big trade houses. That is an opportunity they are likely to seize with loss-leader discounting of the biggest marquee titles.
To Barnes & Noble, it would mean they have to devote cash resources to ebook discounting that they might have preferred to dedicate to further development of the Nook platform, maintaining the most robust possible brick-and-mortar presence, and improving the user experience at BN.com. Unconfirmed stories abound that B&N is about to announce an international expansion. Whether that will produce cash flow immediately or require it for a while is not yet known. For B&N’s sake, it would always better if it were the former, but if they’re about to fight discounting wars, it might be critical.
To Kobo, it would mean that they also will need to devote cash resources to subsidizing price cuts to match Amazon. With their new ownership by Rakuten, they should have the capital they need to fight this battle. They must be glad that deal got done before agency was upended.
To Google, it would mean that the bookstore service piece of their ebook business will suddenly be highly challenged. Many independent stores might be pushed out of the ebook game completely; it certainly would be extremely difficult for them to support competition with Amazon’s prices. To Google itself, with their new Google Play configuration, it means they will have to both spend more margin and more management energy to be a serious competitor in the retail marketplace. There’s no clear evidence that they have the interest at the top to do that, although they certainly would have the resources.
To Apple, it would mean that their entire iBookstore model is in question. They apparently didn’t want to take on all the normal responsibilities of a merchant, which would include setting prices. Now they may have to.
To all the big publishers, including Random House (the one of the Big Six not being sued, because they stayed out of agency for the first year and therefore were not considered part of the “collusion”) it would mean that they will have to painfully reverse the re-pricing and systems adjustments they went through to implement agency in the first place.
Smaller publishers and distributors might be beneficiaries if agency is eliminated, but they might not. The agency model is a great advantage for those publishers who are able to fully implement it. But that is only six publishers — the Big Six — because Amazon has simply refused to let anybody else sell to them that way. That creates problems for the smaller publishers but an even more threatening one for distributors. All but the Big Six, if they want to sell to both Amazon and Apple, must operate a “hybrid” model, selling Apple on agency terms and Amazon on wholesale terms. The two are inherently in conflict. What is ultimately a threat to the distributors is that distributees that desire agency terms, and many would. might seek distribution deals from one of the Big Six. (It might be coincidental, but it is worth noting that IPG, the company having a fight with Amazon at the moment over terms, is a distributor.)
Of course, we don’t know how the Big Publishers will respond if they’re forced off agency. It’s long been my opinion that the 50% discount for ebooks is unworkable. It leads to ridiculous and unrealistic retail prices. (Publishers operating on the hybrid model have to have two retail prices: one on which to base the wholesale discount and another at Apple operating agency-style. It’s crazy.) Would the big publishers, if they couldn’t do agency, keep the 30% discount and their current prices? Would they go back to the 50% discount and jack the suggested retail prices back up? If they did the former and nothing else changed, the smaller publishers could be at a much greater disadvantage than they are now.
Over time, the biggest losers here will be the authors. The independent authors will feel the pain first. Agency pricing creates a zone of pricing they can occupy without much competition from branded merchandise. When the known authors are only available at $9.99 and up, the fledgling at $0.99-$2.99 looks very attractive and worth a try. Ending agency will have the “desired” effect of bringing all ebook prices down. As the big book prices are reduced, the ability of the unknowns to use price as a discovery tool will diminish as well. In the short run, it will be the independent authors who will pay the biggest price of all.
But, in the long run, all authors will just get less. They will join the legion of suppliers beholden to a retailer whose mission is to deliver the lowest possible price to the consumer.
Seth Godin has recently made the argument that this is simply inevitable. Perhaps it is. The laws of supply and demand would support that contention. But from my personal perspective, I don’t like seeing the government hasten the process along.
But what about the reader? The reader gets lower prices, cheaper reading. What the reader won’t see is that s/he’s not getting what s/he won’t pay for. Some of the best books won’t get written and the biggest casualties will be in the area of highly-researched non-fiction, like major biographies, in my opinion. Twenty years ago they used to say that a conservative was a liberal who’s been mugged. I’m not about to become a conservative, but I sure see how easy it is for the government not to understand how their decisions might affect the dynamics of a business. Or, in this case, a culture.