The ebook marketplace is about to change…a lot
Now that the DoJ’s response to the public comments has made it overwhelmingly likely that the settlement it negotiated with Hachette, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster will be accepted by the Court, it is time to contemplate the changes we’ll see in the ebook marketplace in the next couple of months.
The settlement requires the three affected publishers to inform retailers working under agency agreements that they can be released from them. Ten days is alloted from the time of the Court’s acceptance for that to take place. Then the retailers have 30 days to terminate their agreement and then the publishers have 30 days from receiving that notice to actually end it.
So the process could be almost instantaneous, if the publishers served notice immediately, the retailers responded immediately, and the publishers reacted to the response immediately. Or it could take as long as 70 days from the Court judgment, if everybody used the entire time alloted by the judgment.
Assuming that Amazon acts with competence and alacrity in its own interests (and I’d expect nothing less), the entire process could take no more than 40-45 days with them. (Each retailer can be on its own clock.) That should liberate Amazon from most pricing constraints on the three settling defendants’ books by the middle of September.
There’s a bit of confusion in the settlement language here. In the same paragraph, IV-B, that lays out the 10-day, 30-day, and 30-day requirements as described above, it also says that 30 days after “entry of the Final Judgment” (the starting gun for everything), the Settling Defendants take “each step” required to terminate or not renew or extend the agreement. Or maybe the language makes sense to a lawyer but I’m just confused. It seems like they’re asking for results before the first 30-day period would have expired.
The settlement, which ostensibly does not eliminate agency agreements (although it clearly eviscerates them), requires that any new agreements not allow publishers to dictate final sale prices by the retailers, except to cap them (in an unwieldly way we’ll consider below in more detail) and also disallows any “most favored nation” (MFN) clauses protecting any retailer from the impact of other retailers’ pricing decisions. These restrictions are specified to last for two years for each retailer, starting from the date the old agreement’s price-controlling clauses are mooted, whether by the agreement being terminated or by the publisher notifying the retailer, in writing, that the offending clauses will not be enforced.
It is back to the drawing board for new agreements. Ostensibly they can be “agency” agreements by which the publisher sets a price and pays a commission for sales based on that price. But since agency agreements were actually attractive because they achieved what is now deemed illegal price parity across the marketplace, these publishers must be rethinking the efficacy of the model. I would be.
So new contracts will be needed between the three settling publishers and all the retailers. And they’ll need to be crafted, negotiated, and signed within a maximum 70-day window.
Anybody responsible for this who remembers what a combination marathon-and-sprint these negotiations were in 2010 won’t be planning any 2-week vacations over the next few months.
There is one big fat joker in the settlement. The publishers are allowed to negotiate agreements limiting the retailers from discounting from the publishers’ (now) suggested prices. The settlement allows the publisher to prohibit discounts on their books which in the aggregate over one year exceed the margin the retailer has earned on those books.
In principle, that isn’t complicated. Retailer A sells ebooks with a retail value of $1 million in a year and would earn $300,000 in commissions. They have to charge customers at least $700,000 for those ebooks, or they’d be in violation of a contract that the settlement allows the publishers to negotiate.
In practice, monitoring and enforcing that might be a nightmare. It requires either reporting or tracking of ebook sales and the prices at which they’re transacted which is far more robust than what has been required or done so far. But even with perfect data, it’s still extremely difficult to assure compliance, particularly if a retailer is inclined to “spend” its whole allotment of discount margin. The wording of the settlement would seem to require allowing discounting that exceeded the margin earned over the course of the year, as long as the cumulative discounts were under the stipulated cap at the end.
What that also means is that retailers can’t work with price-matching bots alone. It isn’t sufficient for Retailer A to monitor Retailer B’s pricing and automate meeting or beating it because Retailers A and B aren’t selling the same quantities of each publisher’s other books and therefore don’t have the same “budget” for discounting. This is a game of three-dimensional tic-tac-toe. The retailers have to watch each other and, at the same time, watch how their discounting to consumers stacks up against the allowances they are earning through above-cost sales for each of the three settling publishers.
And the publishers need to watch the sales of each of the retailers, presuming they are provided with data they don’t now get to allow it, to make sure each one is staying under its cap.
We can’t make too many assumptions here. The settlement rules allow a publisher to negotiate a discounting cap based on total margin, but they don’t require a retailer to agree to it. And there is no acceptable punishment specified for a retailer breaking the cap, so that will have to be worked out in the negotiations about to take place (if they haven’t already started).
One thing the DoJ was completely right about is that the whole agency idea breaks down if it isn’t applied across most of the Big Six. Random House demonstrated that for the first year of agency when they stayed out and reaped an immediate double bonanza. By sticking with their wholesale pricing model (by which the retailer gets 50% off a wildly unrealistic ebook price that would be almost impossible to sell very many copies at), they got more money for each copy sold than they would have under agency (by which the retailer only gets 30% but of a much lower, realistic, selling price). And, at the same time, Random House ebooks benefited from the aggressive discounting (led by Amazon but matched by other ebook retailers) at which their high-profile titles, alone among the Big Six competitive set, were offered to the consumer.
In fact, it was made clear by Apple to the publishers when they were recruited for the iBookstore that the store would only open if at least four of them signed on. Apple was probably thinking that without having a critical mass of top-flight titles, their store would have no appeal and not be worth operating. What publishers may have been thinking about is that if were a lot of Big Six titles being discounted because they weren’t covered by agency rules, the ones that weren’t would be at a tremendous competitive disadvantage.
It seems that the necessity for concerted action to make agency work is a core element of DoJ’s thinking that collusion was required to implement it. But the specific allegations of collusion (the Picholine meeting that took place long before anybody was thinking about agency or an Apple bookstore and the various instances where publishers are alleged to have told each other whether they were in or out of the program) seem very weak, particularly when you acknowledge that they all knew “four or no store”.
Something that one comes away with from reading the settlement language is that we might see some very different terms in the replacement contracts. DoJ’s suspicions were aroused by the great similarity among the agency contracts and they seem to be asking that they not look so similar when they are renegotiated.
This could drive any number of changes. Publishers could return to a wholesale model. Publishers could try to change the agency commission, now uniformly fixed at 30%. It even seems like publishers are being told that the commissions don’t have to be uniform across retailers (although negotiating different terms would seem to violate the spirit of the Robinson-Patman Law that a previous generation of publishers grew up believing required them to give the same terms to all like sellers. There is a R-P exception for contractual relationships, however.)
In fact, there is language in the settlement agreement which seems aimed at stopping publishers from even revealing the details of these agreement in case one of their competitors could find out. (One might assume an agent with clients at more than one house would be able to figure out the commercial terms from their royalty statements. Actually, one would assume that a responsible agent wouldn’t be waiting for a royalty statement to find out.)
So the settling publishers have to negotiate new deals. The other agency publishers (Macmillan and Penguin who are fighting the legal battle and didn’t settle and Random House, enjoying one more big delayed benefit from having stayed out initially which is that the collusion argument certainly can’t be stretched to cover them) will have to rethink their pricing as they see what happens in the changed marketplace.
It is a safe prediction that one of the stories of Christmas 2012 will be the extent to which the agency publishers dropped prices from what they were permitted to charge to meet competition, driven by Amazon.
Remember that the permissible discounting constraint is an annual number. There are any number of strategies Amazon could pursue (and I wouldn’t presume to be smarter than they’ll be about choosing the right one), but if they chose to press their opportunity to the max this Christmas, they could cut prices to the bone – way below “cost” — and figure to make up the margin in the 9 months that will remain the first year of the contract.
Whatever they do, the agency publishers will have to respond in their pricing too.
It’s an equally safe prediction that a consequence of that will be that fledgling authors living at the lower price points will lose market share. That will not be obvious and nobody will actually notice.
Of course, B&N and Kobo also have to figure out a pricing strategy and a means to execute it.
Apple has to completely rethink what it will do as a retailer because publisher price-setting has been severely crippled and they never seemed to want to do it themselves.
And I have to think again about whether my conviction that publishers need to sell direct to the end consumer stands up in a world where Amazon is free to turn its pricing guns on any competitor and make them look like extortionists no matter what price they charge consumers for their ebooks.