The estimable Clay Shirky has written a lengthy piece called “Amazon, Publishers, and Readers” on medium.com saying, essentially, that an Amazon-dominated world would be an improvement over the Big Five “cartel”-dominated world of publishing we have today. This is an apples to oranges comparison. The Big Five are not nearly as broad a cartel as Amazon — which reaches way beyond the consumer books they publish — is a monopsony. Amazon touches much more of the book business than the Big Five publishers do. To make his case, Shirky recounts some very questionable history and employs some selective interpretation to get from his own impression of the current Hachette-Amazon dispute (about which he says “Amazon’s tactics are awful, the worst possible in fact”) to a completely different conclusion.
My complaint with the facts and logic start at the top: with the two paragraphs Shirky uses to set up his argument and establishes the “holier-than” context for his position. He says:
Back in 2007, when publishers began selling large numbers of books in digital format, they used digital rights management (DRM) to lock their books to a particular piece of hardware, Amazon’s new Kindle. DRM is designed to transfer pricing power from content owners to hardware vendors. The publishers clearly assumed they could hand Amazon consolidated control without ever having to conspire with one another, and that Amazon would reward them by passing cost-savings back as inflated profits. When Amazon instead decided to side with the customer, passing the savings on as reduced price, they panicked, and started looking around for an alternative conspirator.
Starting in 2009, five of the six biggest publishers colluded with Apple to re-inflate ebook prices. The model they worked out netted them less revenue per digital sale, because of Apple’s cut, but ebooks were not their immediate worry. They wanted (and want) to protect first editions; as long as ebook prices remained high, hardback sales could be protected. No one had any trouble seeing the big record companies as unscrupulous rentiers when they tried to keep prices for digital downloads as high as they had been for CDs; the book industry went further, violating anti-trust law as they attempted to protect their more profitable product.
Almost every sentence of this is subtly or blatantly wrong.
1. Publishers did not begin selling large numbers of books in digital format in 2007. Amazon started Kindle in late November 2007. Significant sales of ebooks didn’t start to occur until after Christmas and continued to grow rapidly thereafter.
2. Although an uninformed person would be led to infer from reading this that DRM was somehow created for Amazon, in fact DRM was routinely used for ebooks for their entire existence before Kindle. DRM on Kindle continued current practice; DRM was not created for Kindle or at Kindle’s behest.
3. DRM maintains pricing power for content owners as well as hardware vendors. In fact, I’d say it is more for the content owner than for the hardware owner. What it does for the hardware owner, particularly Amazon because they eschew the industry standard Adobe, is lock customers into their ecosystem. Of course, it is that lock-in that Shirky is telling publishers they can overcome by going DRM-free. (This precise antidote to Amazon was offered up by Matteo Berlucchi, then the CEO of Anobii, at a talk we put him on stage to give at Digital Book World in 2012.) In fact, it is not transparent that eliminating DRM would curb Amazon; it might fuel them. How well would the other retailers stand up to Amazon having easy access to their customers? Because that would happen at the same time.
4. Publishers did not believe — let alone “clearly assumed” — they were handing Amazon any sort of consolidated control. Perhaps that was a failure of vision, but it was a justifiable expectation since nobody had succeeded at selling ebooks before Kindle.
5. Amazon’s discounting was entirely at their own expense and was a tactic designed, at least originally, to sell devices and create captive customers. The publishers’ “inflated profits” (if that’s what they were) were not at issue in 2007 or 2008. So Amazon “sided with the customer”, but they also “sided with their own interests”. Some might say that’s not relevant; I think it is. Either way, it should be acknowledged, not elided or ignored.
6. Amazon was partly enabled to give the big discounts to consumers because publishers gave discounts too big to them, foolishly aping the print book business model even though a retailer’s costs drop much more than a publisher’s do with the change to digital. Stock turn is the key profitability metric for retailers. Stock turn on digital books is “infinity”. (I’d note that these are small points in this piece but are really really big points that go ignored in most of the discussions about ebook economics, which are almost always “fails” at understanding the core economics of publishers or retailers.)
7. The reduction in publisher revenue per book sold which resulted from Agency pricing (pejoratively characterized by Shirky as “colluded with Apple” rather than the at-least-equally accurate “using Apple’s established app store business model”) was not due to “Apple’s cut”. “Apple’s cut” was less than “Amazon’s cut” had been under the wholesale model. And, if you doubt that, you should take note that Amazon prefers not to switch to “Apple’s cut” so they don’t allow any but the biggest publishers to sell on the agency model with its lower margin. (Publishers can get 70% of net direct through KDP, but they have to stick to the $2.99-$9.99 price band and are at the mercy of KDP’s terms.)
8. It is misleading to attribute the publishers’ desire to keep “hardbacks” (really, all print) alive as a desire to protect “first editions”. It was primarily a desire to protect the brick-and-mortar bookstores. It should be said that way for accuracy but also to make the motivations of the sides clear. Publishers want to strengthen or maintain bookstores because their ability to reach them is a core competence that keeps them in business. Amazon wants to weaken or eliminate bookstores because it is clearly established that many customers of each bookstore that closes come to them. Another motivation for the publishers was to maintain a diverse ebook ecosystem, which at that time had just added Nook to its ranks and was about to add Apple. It is likely that Amazon’s discounting — thanks to the DoJ’s and court’s actions weakening agency — did as much to weaken Nook as any mistakes made by Barnes & Noble. And let’s not forget that Kobo has also abandoned active marketing in the US ebook market since then as well.
The other piece of Shirky’s screed that is misleading and inaccurate is his history of paperbacks.
Whether you date the beginning of paperbacks in the US to Pocket Books’s founding and Penguin’s establishing itself in the US in 1939 or to the period right after World War II when paperback publishing writ large discovered the magazine distribution system and really took off, there were decades between their arrival on the scene and their consolidation into the larger book business under joint ownership with hardcover houses. So it shouldn’t surprise anybody that, to the degree that the ebook disruption is analogous to the paperback disruption, the reaction would be even more extreme on the part of the incumbent establishment dealing with the lightning-quick change that has transpired since ebooks took off in 2008.
And that is quite aside from the fact that the paperback revolution was not 60-to-70 percent controlled by a single account that also controlled a substantial and growing chunk of the rest of the book sales as well. Be that as it may, Shirky is simply factually wrong to say that what happened was that the hardcover houses just bought up the paperback houses and consolidated them into the existing business. The acquisitions took place in both directions. In at least three cases, the paperback house bought the hardcover house (Avon bought Morrow, Penguin bought Viking, and Bantam bought Doubleday) in order to assure themselves a steady supply of good books.
And before the consolidation even began, real troubles had started to develop with the distribution through the magazine ecosystem. Returns were climbing (that is why prices of paperbacks went up) and paperback publishers were finding they needed to sell directly to many accounts, which made them more like the hardcover publishers. And over the couple of decades between the end of World War II and the beginnings of consolidation, almost every “hardcover” house had started doing its own “trade” paperbacks: not rack-sized and sold through the same network that sold hardcover books.
In other words, the analogy is not analogous in many important ways.
It is true that Amazon, at least in the current competitive environment, has everything to gain by pushing prices down and everybody else in the publishing world does not. And it is also true that the lower the prices of books are, the more accessible they are to more people. And accessibility is definitely a “good”.
Even so, I really resist the Manichaean view that it is “the Amazon way” or “the publishing cartel way”. It seemed like Shirky himself tried to dismiss that idea near the opening of his piece, when he attacks Steve Coll for writing “about book-making and selling as if there are only two possible modes”, which Shirky describes as maintaining the current “elites” or seeing Amazon become a “soul-crushing monopoly”. But that is precisely where he ends up. To look at things this way rejects not only what the publishers keep trying to tout as their “added values” (curation and editing, yes, but also marketing, distribution, and rights management) but it also ignores the interests of academic and professional publishing, textbook publishing, bookstores, and a diverse book retailing — and therefore book recommending — ecosystem.
There will be many Hachettes fighting their version of this battle over the next few years. But there will only be one Amazon.
Russ Grandinetti of Amazon.com is joining us for an interview by Michael Cader of Publishers Lunch and me at Digital Book World 2015, coming up next January 14-15.