The Shatzkin Files

Inevitable consequences follow from the new hierarchy of power among publishers

The current very public battle over trading terms taking place between Hachette Book Group and Amazon has brought forth surprisingly few recollections by those reporting it (an exception here) of a similar fight last summer between Simon & Schuster and Barnes & Noble.

This is publishing’s near-term future. The two most powerful channels that deliver books to consumers — one dominant in online transactions and one dominant in physical store presence — are determined to wrest more margin, which ultimately also means more pricing control, from their publisher trading partners.

The B&N dispute becoming public was a first for them. The only prior disputes between a publisher and a trading partner that had ever leaked beyond the buyer-and-seller that I can recall involved Amazon, and they were rare. The first was when Amazon took the buy buttons off Macmillan books in 2010. That was a vain attempt to stop the industry from going to agency pricing and it lasted only a few days. They pulled back so quickly from that effort that I concluded that their famous customer-centricity made punishing publishers in ways that were evident to their shoppers (which this one, which also became public, really was not) something they’d decided was not in their best interests.

Drawing that conclusion was apparently a mistake.

What B&N did with S&S, apparently, was simply to stock less of what the publisher was selling and to deny them promotional opportunities. That’s not obvious in a retail store. Books that aren’t there, or which aren’t there in quantity, are not apparent. Bookstores can be out of any particular book at any time without surprising anybody and it would take a uniquely aware book consumer to notice that something new and hot wasn’t displayed as prominently as would be expected.

But Amazon’s action against Hachette was much more visible. Marking Hachette books, which include titles from many very prominent authors, available only with substantial delivery delays, was bound to be noticed by customers and by the industry at large. And, on top of that, pushing customers to consider alternatives to Hachette authors based on price is particularly inflammatory. Authors have reacted publicly. One also has to believe that there must be a substantial overlap between Prime customers, Amazon’s best, and readers of the illustrious Hachette author list, led by James Patterson for fiction and Malcolm Gladwell for non-fiction. But Amazon felt the fight was worth whatever pain they inflicted on their best customers.

I had thought the immediate catalyst for this conflict was that Hachette was the first publisher negotiating a new deal to replace the court-imposed agreements following the agency collusion case. Apparently that is not the case. Nobody is telling me what Hachette is trying to achieve in these negotiations. One would expect that print book margin, ebook margin (often affected by various co-op fees), and ebook pricing flexibility are probably the key moving parts in the negotiation.

But the details don’t really matter. What is important to understand is how, with one exception, the power has passed from the publishers who control the distribution of copyrighted material to the retailers who control the customers. In the past, the pain for the retailer living without ready access to the most commercial books was much greater than the pain for the publisher without ready access to one retailer’s customers. Not any more.

But there is that one exception: Penguin Random House.

One former executive from a big house in a private conversation attributed the fact that PRH doesn’t ever seem to be subject to Amazon’s bullying to the fact that PRH’s second-ranking executive, Madeline McIntosh, had a brief interlude as an Amazon executive between her former and present tenures at PRH.

But I doubt that’s the answer. There’s a simpler one. PRH is too big to bully and nobody else is.

Roughly speaking, PRH has 40-50 percent of the commercial trade books (very few of which are not published by the Big Five). The other four houses divide the rest, with HarperCollins substantially bigger than the other three: Hachette, S&S, and Macmillan. The high-profile books that people would expect to find readily available break down along the same lines, so approximately 50% PRH, 20% HC, and 10% for each of the other three. That means that punishing HC the way Amazon is now doing with Hachette or that B&N did with S&S is about twice as painful in disappointed customers, and punishing PRH would be five times more painful. I suspect that will be the difference between doing it and not doing it.

In the ebook world, where the author royalty is normally a percentage of the publisher’s receipts, giving more margin to channel partners directly affects the authors’ cut. In the print world, most contracts with big publishers are still based on the publisher’s suggested retail price, so the impact is cushioned. But any change that reduces publisher margins is likely to have an impact on authors sooner or later, leaving less in the pot for advances or promotion. I thought a couple of years ago that perhaps it was unwise for publishers to keep so much margin rather than giving it to authors because it made them a fatter target.

Of course, both Amazon and B&N have plenty of reasons to feel justified in pressing for more margin. Amazon, with its low returns, has historically been many publishers’ most profitable account. B&N knows that their stores are “showrooms”, driving sales at Amazon as well as in their own stores. Amazon has no reason to want to be the most profitable account for publishers on the back of their own investments, efficiency, and customer loyalty. B&N wants the publishers to pay for the value they reap from being on B&N shelves that is not resulting in B&N sales.

And both companies have ample reasons to feel financial pressure of their own. Amazon is historically unprofitable and riding a stock price that depends on confidence in their future that they both must continue to justify and maintain a healthy fear of losing. B&N is dominating a shrinking sector and its own vaunted supply chain efficiencies are bound to diminish as both the number of stores and the sales per store continue to decline. Neither of them feel they can afford to subsidize publishers. Both are perfectly comfortable using their marketplace leverage.

So the squeeze on Penguin Random House’s most immediate competitors — the houses I call the Following Four — will continue to tighten. (As will, of course, the squeeze against their less-direct competitors among small and mid-sized publishers.) It seems inevitable that a margin gap between what PRH earns on sales to the industry’s biggest customers and what the others get will grow with every new round of negotiations on terms. I have thought for some time that PRH would create an advantage in proprietary distribution that, combined with its bigger-than-all-others checkbook, would enable them to pluck authors away one by one. Now we see the likelihood of another, more immediate advantage: better margin on every sale from what are already the industry’s biggest accounts.

Over the past decade, we have seen online sales consolidate in one big account and bookstore shelf space consolidate in another. Unless something changes the negotiating climate, the next ten years is going to see similar consolidation on the publishing side.

Amazon is a global company and the tactic of pushing for more margin is not confined to the US. And being the “Penguin Random House of Sweden”, which Bonniers is, apparently does not insulate them from facing the same tactics Hachette is currently coping with.

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