Random House joining the (formerly) Agency 5, and what it might mean
Now the Big Six are all selling ebooks on the agency model. Random House has joined their five competitors.
It is almost a year since Apple launched the iPad, opened the iBookstore, and delivered big publishers an opportunity to rewrite the rules of the ebook marketplace, at least for their books and at least for a while. As readers of this blog almost certainly know, five of the top publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster) used the opportunity presented by Apple’s arrival on the scene to implement the change to agency for all their customers. Random House, for reasons that made sense to me at the time and almost certainly delivered some competitive advantages to them over the past year, judging by the open annoyance of many of their similar-sized competitors, stayed with the original wholesale model.
The competitive advantaged stemmed from the fact that all the agency publishers “forced” a 30% selling margin in to the ebook retail channel whereas Random House may actually have drawn margin out of the retail channel.
Here’s what I get out of this change.
1. Agency has been successful in cracking Amazon’s hegemony over the ebook market. A year ago, it seemed possible that Amazon could have an enduring 75% or 80% of the ebook market. While they’re still the biggest piece, and almost certainly have more twice as big a chunk as anybody else, agency has enabled real competition to develop from the iBookstore, B&N’s Nook, Kobo, and Google. And the independents served by Google, Ingram, and Overdrive all over the world offer a lot of potential marketing leverage, if they’re not driven out of the game by price competition. Amazon is still the behemoth, but they’re no longer the only game in town. Agency delivered competitive advantage to Random House, but also to Amazon. If they had continued to be 80% of the market, you might not be seeing this switch.
2. Google may not (yet) be selling a lot of ebooks (as in having a big market share), but they are opening the business up to more and more independents. Independents talk to sales reps, and Random House has more sales reps than anybody else. I would imagine the company began to feel some discomfort about the feedback they were getting from the retail network they very much want to keep alive.
3. So far, none of the major publishers has taken the step of aggressively selling ebooks direct to consumers online. But they’re ultimately going to have to. You may recall that Random House’s CEO, Markus Dohle, told me last summer that he realized publishers needed to become B2C. He wasn’t suggesting he’d sell books direct-to-consumers then; in fact he insisted that there were other ways to manifest that vision other than selling direct. But, if it ever enters your mind to sell direct and you think about it for fifteen minutes, you realize that you either have to do it under agency terms or face complicated and very troubling conversations with your retailers.
And here’s what I’m watching for.
So far, as near as I can tell, there has been very little use made by the big publishers of their ability to manage prices in the market. I am not aware of much experimentation. I am not aware of any direct-marketing or dynamic pricing expertise (both of which would be relevant) being brought on board by major houses to help them realize the potential of the opportunities. And I can only think of one senior executive I know who takes much of a personal interest in pricing dynamics.
Maybe Random House will be different. They’ve been the traditional industry leader in operations and analytics. They do vendor-managed inventory for retail accounts; I’m not aware of any other major publisher who does. They’ve done sophisticated supply chain management for years.
Now they’ve had the advantage of seeing what their competitors have done, and not done, over the first year of agency pricing. It will be worth watching to see whether they approach the pricing opportunity more energetically than the other publishers seem to have done so far.