:Professor John B. Thompson

Trying to explain publishing, or understand it, often remains a great challenge


I went to the In Re Books conference at New York Law School last Friday and Saturday in hopes of curing some of my ignorance about the law and publishing. I learned some things, including the facts about a very interesting case involving a book publisher, the associations of publishers and booksellers, and a large general retailer that took place over a century ago and anticipated a lot of what we’re seeing today as the other players in the industry battle the power of Amazon.

But I’m afraid my major takeaway was, once again, that the legal experts applying their antitrust theories to the industry don’t understand what they’re monkeying with or what the consequences will be of what they see as their progressive thinking. Steamrollering those luddite denizens of legacy publishing, who just provoke eye-rolling disdain by suggesting there is anything “special” about the ecosystem they’re part of and are trying to preserve, is just part of a clear-eyed understanding of the transitions caused by technology.

So perhaps we have symmetrical ignorance and will never understand each other.

The conference was lively and well organized. The speakers were articulate and well prepared. There were two panels I wish had taken place in a different order.

On the first day, the In Re Bookstores panel had an antitrust lawyer who fully supported the Justice Department’s case against the publishers, although he seemed to be attacking the Agency model itself, rather than the collusion which, as I understand it, was the core of the government’s case.

But it was only on the very last panel of the conference, on the second day, that two speakers created some meaningful context for the whole discussion. Author James Gleick made a clear and cogent case for the agency model. (Essentially: because there is no investment in inventory or shelf space by the retailers, it is more sensible to consider them “agents” of the publishers than retailing intermediaries equivalent to what we have for print, where substantial investments are required and are at risk.) And Professor John B. Thompson of Cambridge, author of “Merchants of Culture” who is, as far as I know, the single person who has spent the most time and effort learning about trade publishing and synthesizing a coherent view of it, made it clear that Anglo-American trade publishing has challenges which make it unlike other endeavors, even other book publishing endeavors.

So that gives me three things to elaborate on: the blatant misunderstandings about the industry and its concerns about the DoJ case which came from the bookstore panel; the old publishing case that is so resonant with current circumstances; and a reprise of Thompson’s cogent analysis.

The lawyers speaking on the bookselling panel (and lawyers were dominant on just about all the panels; this was, after all, an event staged by New York Law School) were dismissive of the argument that any special treatment for publishing was called for because of the nature of our business. Then they proceeded to get two things startlingly wrong:

1. They dismissed the idea that any “predatory pricing”, i.e. sales of books below cost, ever took place. There was a wee bit of wiggle room there, where they might have meant “in the aggregate” as opposed to “title-by-title”. But they never made that distinction clear and, if that’s what they meant, there was further explanation called for. One is left with the impression that they simply didn’t understand that Amazon was paying publishers $12 or $15 for ebooks they were selling for $9.99. (And, in fact, there were far more dramatic examples of loss-leading than that!)

2. They seemed to think that the concern on the part of those opposing the DoJ was that Amazon would only lower prices to gain market share and would then exercise predatory behavior by raising prices to a captured market. That, actually is not the concern. Or at least it isn’t mine.

As I tried to spell out in a talk in Washington last July, what is concerning is that Amazon will restructure the pricing of books so that the profit for publishers is squeezed out, robbing us of a publishing ecosystem that invests in unwritten books tens of thousands of times a year. My argument and fear is that a restructured ecosystem will deny us books like Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography or Ron Chernow’s George Washington. Books that take years to write and require hundreds of thousands of dollars of financing to be written will never see the light of day if publishers can’t earn a profit by investing in their creation.

This is an argument and a concern which the attorneys on the platform at this conference made explicitly clear they never entertained. I don’t think the ones in the DoJ did either. Perhaps this has no bearing on the law, but I wish they’d stop trying to tell us the concerns of the industry are just the same old crap coming from a different source when they haven’t taken on board what we’re actually saying.

I tried to inject some of these facts and thoughts from the floor, as did a woman from a Big Six house who was similarly frustrated by the twisting of the reality to fit the antitrust narrative. The moderator cut me off from pressing the argument (which was appropriate; I hate it when people use the rubric of q&a to make their case from the floor at my conferences too!) But for the rest of the conference, at every break people from publishing houses kept thanking me for making the attempt to inject reality about our business into the discussion.

The old publishing case was Bobbs-Merrill versus Straus from the first decade of the 20th century. It seems that Macy’s, the department store that sold just about everything, also sold books at at discount. Bobbs-Merrill posted a notice in its books that the retail price was set at one dollar and that selling below that price constituted a violation of copyright. The Straus brothers, who owned Macy’s, insisted on selling these books for eighty-nine cents.

Both the trade association of publishers and the trade association of booksellers supported Bobbs-Merrill’s position, but the courts did not. There was a “horizontal” as opposed to “vertical” price-fixing angle explained from the stage that I didn’t fully grasp, but we can all appreciate both the irony and distinctions between this case and our present conversations.

Clearly, Macy’s was the Amazon of the time. They saw books as commodities — nothing special — and they simply extended their business model of offering lower prices to cover books. From the perspective of publishers, they were cheapening the perceived value of the intellectual property. From the booksellers’ point of view, they were subsidizing book sales with their ability to sell other things and clearly constituting a threat to what was then a very tiny bookselling network. So the entire publishing community of the time opposed the price reductions being offered by an interloper. In that way, they were creating the same price-fixing “problem” DoJ was “solving” with their lawsuit against Apple and the publishers.

But the difference, as explained by James Gleick a day later, was that the bookstores and Macy’s were, indeed, buying these books from the publishers (and, at that time, they might not have had a returns convention to cushion them from bad buying decisions) risking — or at least tying up — capital to provide stock to the public. In the case of ebooks, that isn’t true. No capital or shelf space (which also costs money) is tied up; all the retailer does is accept and display metadata and pay for the “goods” at some point after the customer pays for them. So the justification for the price-setting in the two cases is quite different.

Still, it was interesting seeing that history was — in a way — repeating itself 100 years later.

And now to Professor Thompson. He interviewed me a few years ago for his book “Merchants of Culture”, which has been out for a few years but which I’m just starting now to read. (Shame on me.) Thompson provided two absolutely fundamental pieces of information which could have been infinitely more helpful to the audience if they had come as the first thing on the program rather than the last.

1. The trade book business is quite different from other segments of the book business and has little in common, as a business, with school or college text or academic or professional publishing. Thompson made it clear that knowing one segment doesn’t mean you know another. After two days of hearing librarians complain that publishers were dissing their “biggest customers” because of the big houses’ concerns and restrictions on ebook sales to libraries, it was good to have somebody explain that publishers were different. In fact, libraries — relatively speaking — are not very large customers for general trade book publishers.

2. Thompson also emphasized — and this was critical insight coming, as it did, from the single speaker most knowledgeable about the transition trade publishing is making from print to digital reading — that nobody knows the future course of ebook adoption. Will it remain, as it is, in the 20% range for general trade reading? Will it go to 30%? 50%? The fact that nobody knows the answer to that question means that publishers’ policies have to accommodate uncertainty about a critical component of the publishers’ future commercial reality.

A couple of other points Thompson made bear repeating. One is that he sees big Anglo-American publishers fighting off threats to their margins. But he thinks the main source of margin erosion for American publishers is the agents, who exercise their power to drive up the cost of acquisition for the most desireable books; whereas for British publishers the source of the biggest problems are the big book retailers, particularly the supermarkets. It is ironic that America’s Robinson-Patman Act, which by requiring manufacturers to offer the same terms to like customers aims to protect small merchants, is actually the shield which protects American publishers from facing ever-escalating demands for margin from their largest accounts.

And Thompson showed a chart tracking the percentage of sales that were ebooks for trade publishers, year by year. The numbers were:

2006 0.1%
2007 0.5%
2008 1%
2009 3%
2010 8%
2011 20%

So the multiple from prior year sales is:

2006-07 5x
2007-08 2x
2008-09 3x
2009-10 2.7x
2010-11 2.5x

The indications are that when we get the report on 2012, it will be about 30%, or 0.5x.

No wonder Thompson makes it plain that we don’t know what’s ahead of us. Did you think that the rate of switchover would drop by 80% this year over last? I didn’t.

The big news of the past few days, of course, is the proposed new Penguin Random House entity. I think the only surprise here is that it has taken so long for a Big Six merger to occur since the last one (which was when Bertelsmann, owners of Bantam Doubleday Dell, bought Random House in 1999). My back-of-the-envelope arithmetic says that PRH is bigger than the other four of the formerly Big Six combined. So I’d expect to see further mergers, but the title of “biggest trade publisher in the world” is secure for the foreseeable future.

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