If you like irony, you must love the publishing world of today
Anybody who doesn’t find the publishing business interesting in its time of digital change is simply not paying close enough attention. No matter what story we’re focused on, scratch the surface (or scratch your head) and you find you are pondering something else. This was a week for the press to be asking me (and many others) about the lawsuit against Apple and the publishers surrounding the implementation of agency. I have little expertise to comment on the suit’s legal merits, but a week of thinking about agency has made me (and others) realize implications that hadn’t been evident to us previously.
As I was reviewing my last blog post before publishing it, I had the new thought (referred to in a brief postscript) that Amazon was actually doing the Big Six publishers a favor by denying agency terms to everybody else. Since big authors have a common interest with big publishers in maintaining retail prices for ebooks that don’t undercut print and which deliver a per-copy revenue flow comparable to print, there is reason for a big author to prefer a publisher that has the power to maintain the ebook price across the retail network. Full-fledged agency publishers have that capability; the others do not.
A moment of explanation might be required for any readers who might be lost in the details of the agency, wholesale, and hybrid models of ebook-selling. Agency is the term for “the publisher actually sells the ebooks to the consumer, not the retailer; the retailer gets a cut but cannot change the price from what the publisher has set.” Wholesale is the term for “the publisher sells the ebooks to the retailer, based on the notional retail price set by the publisher; the retailer can then set the consumer price keeping all, part, none, or less than none — selling as a loss-leader — of the margin that the publisher’s discount provided.” And hybrid is the term for “the publisher has to agree to giving Apple a fixed percentage of the selling price; Amazon insists on a wholesale arrangement by which they set the price; therefore, Apple’s standard arrangement by which it can lower prices (and the publisher’s share) to match any other retailer on the web makes the publisher vulnerable to having its revenue from Apple readjusted downwards based on discounts offered by somebody else.”
The short story is that only under a total agency model does the publisher control price. In any other case, the price is effectively controlled by the retailer willing to offer the lowest price. That would be the retailer willing to live with the least margin and, as was amply demonstrated by the discounting that took place before agency came to publishing, that might be a negative margin. Retailers in the US (although not in all countries) can sell below cost if they think it is to their advantage to do so.
All the actors are rational here. Amazon extends agency terms to the Big Six publishers because, after the Macmillan dust-up of January 2010, Amazon has been persuaded that they could lose the ebooks of those publishers from their shop if they don’t. Losing the ebooks from one of the major houses would damage what has been one of Amazon’s main strategic advantages since the Kindle was launched: the widest selection of commercially-attractive ebooks in the marketplace. They take the gamble, which appears to be a winner, that publishers smaller than the Big Six will not want to withhold product from the world’s biggest ebook retailer, the one that still accounts for substantially more than 50% of the ebook sales for many titles.
And, in some cases, publishers have avoided the discomfort of the hybrid model — which requires them to commit to Apple that Apple will have the lowest price on the Web when they can’t actually control everybody else’s price — by not selling to the iBookstore because Apple won’t buy on wholesale terms. So Amazon yields where they think they must (to the Big Six) and continues to enjoy the advantages of price control with the rest, while at the same time discouraging some publishers from making their titles available through a competitor. This all makes sense to me as I understand their point of view.
What I noticed while writing the last piece is that there is an unintended consequence here for Amazon way upstream from the ebooks sale: the policy is strengthening the Big Six’s already powerful grip on the biggest titles from the biggest authors. Amazon wants to compete for those authors and can offer a better royalty on Amazon sales to entice them (when Amazon pays 70% to the author, the author keeps it all; when they pay 70% to the publisher, the author does not get it all, even if s/he succeeds in negotiating something better than the industry standard of a 25% ebook royalty share.) But Amazon reportedly wants ebook exclusivity, which cuts out a big chunk of the ebook market, and they are seriously handicapped getting a print sale through brick retailers.
Because print sales in stores still matter (and for as long as they do) there is a risk and a sacrifice for any author giving exclusivity to Amazon, although there are also clearly compensating considerations as well.
At about the same time I was noticing this, my friend Eoin Purcell in Ireland was noticing something else. Apple’s new policy on apps, by which you can’t sell through an app without giving Apple its standard 30% cut, also offers up a sparkling new opportunity to agency publishers that would be accessible only at some risk to any but the Big Six.
The immediate consequence of Apple enforcing this policy of theirs was to drive the direct-to-our-store connection from the Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and Google apps. Because those retailers only get 30% margin from the publishers, they can’t afford to give 30% to Apple for the privilege of in-app selling.
But publishers don’t have that margin problem. They already pay 30% for their sales, and if they put their own apps up with sales enabled through them, they’d only be paying what they already are to a retailer for the privilege. So apps for authors or genres or series of any kind could be offered as free downloads through the App Store with direct-purchase buttons inside. These could send you to the iBookstore, if the right kind of landing environment could be created, or to the publisher’s own landing page where sales commissionable to Apple could be made.
Of course, the same thing could be done as a Nook app in the B&N ecosystem, and it would be smart for the publisher to offer one, as well as a web app that constituted an Amazon version (which wouldn’t be offered through the Apple App Store but would have to get to you another way), to keep relative peace among its customers. But a publisher can only do this if it is sure its prices won’t be undercut, which would force a further margin reduction under Apple’s rules.
Like Eoin, I have no idea whether any of the Big Six publishers are working on this idea or whether any of the major agents have suggested the possibility. But we’re talking about literally hundreds of smart people here, so it would be surprising if nobody’s exploring this possibility (except if Eoin and I are both missing something that makes it a non-starter.)
The transformation of publishing is rich with circumstances to amuse anybody who appreciates irony. Cheaper ebooks, which consumers love, are making bookstores, which consumers also love, gasp for the breath to survive. The closest thing to a monopoly threat in the business, Amazon and Kindle, work to drive consumer prices down. Apple’s great success with new devices coupled with their very slow start at retailing, generates agency pricing and sales opportunities for other retailers that probably benefited Barnes & Noble the most. B&N, the brick retailer most skilled at logistics but only newly-minted as any sort of tech company, finds not one but two unoccupied niches in the eink product suite: color and touch-screen.
And now, Amazon’s policy limiting the publishers that can fully implement agency, designed to isolate the Big Six and enable discounting of everybody else’s ebooks, may be spawning a new opportunity for big authors and big publishers to work together that other publishers can’t compete with. Perhaps denying this capability to other publishers actually helps Amazon be alone as a 7th competitor, but it certainly has its ironic aspects at a moment when Amazon is putting on a full-court press to persuade big authors to work directly with them!