The wild weekend of Amazon and Macmillan
Now I swear all this is true. As everybody knows, a very serious food fight broke out between Amazon and Macmillan late Friday night. All weekend Michael Cader led the way in ferreting out additional useful information and I spent most of today (Sunday) trying to write an analytical blogpost. I got it just about finished in the early afternoon, and the bottom line to what I’d written was “Amazon will not be able to sustain this.”
I decided to hold the post until after going to see Crazy Heart this afternoon and, when I came home, Amazon had already folded. But I had written a post that provided a lot of useful information, even if events had stolen my punchline.
So I’m giving it the once-over to edit it for the reality that Amazon has already announced that they will not continue to boycott Macmillan books.
It is received wisdom in Washington that when you have news you have to release but would prefer to have minimum impact, you release it on Friday afternoon. The latest tiff in the Amazon versus Big Publisher brouhaha went that idea one better; it appears to have broken in the middle of the Friday-to-Saturday night.
About midnight that evening, David Wilk alerted the Brantley list to a VentureBeat post that indicated that Macmillan titles were no longer available at Amazon.
By noon the following day, Brad Stone had posted a further explanation to the NY Times blog.
The VentureBeat post had no clue as to what was going on and even carried a link to a post from author John Scalzi suspecting a “glitch.” But Stone pinned down that the disappearance of the Macmillan titles was, indeed, retaliation for Macmillan’s move to the agency pricing model, first revealed by Michael Cader in Publishers Lunch and discussed on this blog last week.
Sometime late Saturday afternoon, Lunch posted a narrative explaining what was going on and including a paid insertion from Macmillan: a letter from Chairman and CEO John Sargent giving Macmillan’s account of what had transpired.
Which, as many people who care know by now (as I write this on Sunday morning and afternoon) is that Macmillan told Amazon about the new agency model, by which Amazon would actually get ebooks at lower prices than now but also by which Macmillan would set the prices to consumers. Amazon retaliated with what is, more or less, a “nuclear option.” Macmillan books are no longer on sale except through third party vendors (extending the ban to those dealers would open up yet another big can of worms for Amazon and they hardly need any more) and that includes Kindle. Most of the third party vendors are selling used books and no Macmillan books are being transacted directly by Amazon at all.
We have said on this blog, repeatedly, that publishers’ discounts to retailers would have to come down and that the windowing tactic (delaying ebooks from being available when the hardcover first comes out) was all about pricing control and nothing else.
What I want to accomplish in this post is to lay out clearly what is happening and then enumerate some key points about what’s going on: paradoxes and prospects.
Before the Agency Model (like “now”), publishers sell ebooks at about 50 off an often ridiculously high established price (“parity” is common; same price as a hardcover on a new book) to retailers who were setting the prices to the consumer themselves and, following Amazon’s lead, always discounting. The publishers are paying the authors royalties that are frequently 25% of net, which amounts to 12.5% of publisher declared retail. Some publishers pay 15% of retail; Sargent, in a previous letter to agents, indicated a desire to move from 25% of net to 20% of net, which would be 10% of retail.
The proposed Agency Model will have publishers setting a price lower than the established retail they had before but higher than the deep discounts Amazon led retailers to sell at. The publisher intends to pay 30% of that established price to the retailer and 25% of either the full consumer price or of the 70% “net” (still to be determined) to the author. This means that the retailer will get a higher price from the consumer and a better margin than they realize now (even though a lower percentage of the “established” price). The author’s cut per copy could actually be reduced!
The wholesalers, Ingram and Content Reserve, often get the same discount as publishers. They handle the stores and libraries publishers serve don’t want to deal with directly. So those stores and libraries get less margin than the big ones publishers handle without an intermediary. One thing that was new to me that came out on the Ebook Supply Chain panel at Digital Book World is that publishers insisted on vetting the accounts that would be selling their books to make sure they didn’t violate territorial restrictions. So Ingram (and presumably Content Reserve) has to manage a granular control by title by publisher by account.
It is not at all clear how the Agency and price maintenance protocols get applied through wholesalers. Perhaps this means that smaller accounts and libraries just won’t have the newer titles that will only be released on the Agency basis (assuming that the scenario Sargent describes is what is also followed by other big publishers.)
This is a bizarre paradox, really. Macmillan actually proposed to sell Amazon the ebooks at what is, in effect, a lower wholesale price than Amazon gets now and their enforcement of a retail price puts more margin into Amazon’s pocket on every sale made than they earn now! And Amazon is fighting it.
Sargent’s note makes clear that the discount-off-retail pricing that has existed all along will still be offered, but that newer books wouldn’t be included in that offering. Those would be available only on Agency terms. What is not clear is whether Macmillan intends to continue the Agency terms past the nine-month “window” for new books. We’d guess they will for some accounts.
But that leads to another paradox because publishers unambiguously benefit if retailers sacrifice their own margin and discount when hardcover price maintenance and NY Times Bestseller list rankings are not at stake. Lower prices to consumers sell more copies. Presumably retailers will continue to want to compete on price and will do so when sales terms allow. But what does that do to the publishers’ challenge of “setting” prices for those accounts that want that done across the entire list?
Yet another paradox is the position of the agents. On the one hand, we have seen that many of those representing big authors see the same danger the big publishers do of inexpensive ebooks undercutting valuable hardcover sales and Times Bestseller rankings. On the other hand, publishers lowering established ebook prices and reducing their take from their intermediaries could often mean lower royalties for authors. But not necessarily.
If publishers are paying on “net receipts” (and many are) and if a) retail prices aren’t cut by as much as half (which they often won’t be) and b) if the publisher doesn’t deduct the Agency “commission” from its computation of net (sure to be debated), then the basis of the author’s royalty wouldn’t go down.
Quick summary: if you have a $25 list price ebook on which the author’s royalty is 25% of net, the author is now getting 25% of $12.50, or $3.125. If that book becomes a $15 ebook with a 30% commission, the author would get $3.75 (a nice increase) if the commission is not deducted first and $2.625 if it is (a sharp cut.) Of course, the $25 and $15 prices described here are notional and with different prices (as they say) “your results will vary.” If that notional book had been priced at $30 in hardcover, the author’s share would have been $4.50 and the ebook price change would clearly cost them something on every copy.
Author Charles Stross had a very insightful post on his blog, speaking from the perspective a gored ox (he has books published by Macmillan which have been taken down.) Stross makes clear that Amazon is miffed because their competitive strategy of driving away ebook competition through aggressive discounting will be foiled by publisher price-setting. Stross says:
Amazon are going to fight this one ruthlessly because if the publishers win, it destroys the profitability of their business and pushes prices down.
I’m not sure it “pushes prices down”; I think it actually pushes (ebook) prices up, at least temporarily. But the points Stross makes about Amazon wanting to achieve ebook hegemony and the Agency model being part of the publishers’ plan to beat that back and strengthen other players seem right to me.
We had a lot of this conversation last Spring before Sourcebooks’s windowing move with Bran Hambric, followed by Hachette with True Compass and HarperCollins with Going Rogue, pushed this tussle between Amazon and publishers to the forefront. In his analysis at that time, Cader made the point that publishers were actually helping Amazon undercut other retailers with their “parity” pricing; making the ebook retail the same price as the hardcover print retail. His logic was that the high prices increased Amazon’s advantage over other retailers because they could better afford to sell high-profile titles at a loss than their competition. Meanwhile, the publishers (and authors working on “net”) continue to get higher ebook revenues than the consumer spending would really entitle them to.
My first question when all this arose overnight on Friday was “why Macmillan?” Sargent’s note may have answered that question: because John was in Seattle on Thursday officially delivering Amazon the Agency Model news that we only assume is going to come to them from other publishers as well. One presumes that Amazon thinks that taking such drastic action as this might discourage the other publishers thinking about doing the same thing (and the iPad announcement on Wednesday would lead us to think that four of the remaining five Big Six players are indeed working out the details of a similar consumer-price-controlling sales model.)
And Amazon apparently figured out, as I was writing these words, that the only brand blown to smithereens by the nuclear option would be theirs. It is hard to imagine how extensive the brand damage could have been if Amazon delisted even one more major publisher along with Macmillan for even a couple of weeks. For a brand whose principal attributes are dependability and dedication to the consumer, it would have been catastrophic.
Amazon says now that the boycott is temporary and they were candid about the fact that they have no choice but to yield. They take a swipe at the publishers’ copyright-based “monopoly” on titles. But this was a really bungled response on every level. Amazon deserves credit for being smart enough to walk this thing back within 48 hours. Amazon may have to learn something new for them in the ebook space: how to be one of a number of players, not the only game in town.