Jane Litte at the DearAuthor blog has written a remarkably concise, clear, and cogent piece about the DoJ case. This whole paragraph is a link to it. That’s a signal.
In fact, if this is a subject of high interest to you and you are not a lawyer, I would encourage you to read Jane’s post before you read this. I am not in any way attempting to substitute for or contest anything in Jane’s piece, which explains the law and the issues in terms that really helped this layperson feel like a participant in the discussion. A number of things struck me as I read it, but there were three paragraphs Jane wrote that called for answers. I hope she and others will find this a useful addition to her mighty contribution to the discussion. Quotes from Jane’s piece are in italics.
There are two elements that stood out for me in reading the DOJ’s complaint. First, Apple set the pricing floor and ceiling for ebooks and every publisher accepted those terms. Did the publishers individually attempt to negotiate for differing floor and ceilings? Why was it the same for every publisher? No other app in the app store has a pricing floor or ceiling like the books in the iBooks store. Why were books treated differently?
No other app in the app store has a print equivalent. The pricing floors and ceilings are, as I understand them, all expressed in relation to the print retail prices. That logic cannot be extended to other apps in the app store. These restrictions, almost certainly sought and engineered by Apple, were to assure them that there would be an understood relationship between the print competitor and the ebook. Whatever that means, I find it hard to see how it constitutes publishers colluding with each other.
And the publishers chose their print prices, so, in effect, they chose their ebook prices as well. Without collusion. Publishers don’t talk to each other about what retail prices they’re setting.
Second, the David Shanks email to Barnes and Noble. In the email, Shanks urges Barnes & Noble to punish Random House for not hopping aboard the pricing agreements that the other publishers had agreed to with Apple. This type of email is evidence that the DOJ will point to as attempting to police or enforce a collusive agreement. In other words, if there is only conscious parallelism why would Shanks need Random House to engage in the same type of pricing. That is one piece of evidence that seems to rule out independent action.
There is absolutely nothing strange about this nor is there any reason to think Shanks wasn’t acting totally independently.
Remember that Barnes & Noble entered the ebook market with the Nook in November 2009. They were very explicit and clear with all their trading partners that the Amazon pricing was a big problem for them. You don’t need to have it spelled out to you or be a rocket scientist to see the unpleasant consequences of having to give away all that ebook margin: fewer brick stores, less resources to develop the Nook against the Kindle, and perhaps the need for more margin from the publishers on the print and store side. All the publishers were aware of that.
When Random House stayed out at first, some people were confused about that choice but the insiders understood that they had “gamed the system”. Now they’d sell their ebooks to Amazon at the old (higher) wholesale prices and get the benefit of the lower retail prices because they had the branded loss leader category to themselves. And perhaps they’d even get better treatment from Amazon on their print books too, because, after all, their titles were the ones Amazon could promote which would promote their ebook pricing policy at the same time.
I can tell you that this caused massive teeth-gnashing at all the other houses. But there was, actually, not a damn thing they could do about it. They had to swallow lower revenue per copy for their books as well as a price-disadvantage in the marketplace and they did it because they thought leveling the playing field on price was so critical to their futures. Meanwhile, from their perspective, the biggest player sat out the fight.
And from Random House’s perspective, they did the best thing for their owners and their authors.
At the time, all the other houses were aware that they had done all this partly for B&N and that B&N was presumably being hurt by Random House’s unwillingness to go to agency, and, dammit, why wasn’t Barnes & Noble doing something to push Random House in the right direction?
Executives from many of the other firms, although not David Shanks, asked me why Barnes & Noble wasn’t pushing Random House into line on this. In fact, I made the observation to people at Random House that the question got asked by their competitors. It would have been neither polite nor politic to push the conversation any further than that, but nobody registered any surprise.
My own read of the B&N-Random House relationship is that it has been strong for years on many levels and it therefore withstood this blow to it without disrupting most of what else was going on. I have no doubt that B&N expressed displeasure about it and that making them happy was one of several factors that motivated Random House to move to agency pricing a year later.
But David Shanks was representing a point of view that every informed executive at every major publishing company had. He didn’t need to talk to anybody else to come up with it and it is totally appropriate within the context of a frank and open relationship with a major trading partner for him to have said what he did to B&N.
The problem here is that Apple was not (and is not) a dominant player in the digital publishing market. I don’t know if iBooks has even a 1% market share. The hub in a hub and spoke conspiracy ordinarily has a dominant market share such as the two theatre houses that controlled the majority of the market in which they had first run theatres. The DOJ identified the relevant market in its petition as trade ebook market. I find that definition too narrow and wonder if it won’t spike the DOJ’s suit.
What I can tell you is that major publishers put Apple’s share of the ebook market to me at between 10 and 20 percent. Because they don’t have as wide a selection of titles as the others, it is likely that their overall share is something slightly less than that. Dominant? No. Third in the market in the US.
And these italics are me again, not Jane. I have another post just about ready that I was holding for tomorrow morning but now might hold another day.
I am going to do all I can in the next 6 weeks to encourage an understanding of the DoJ case (which I think Jane makes clear is not close to overwhelming) and the necessity of people in the industry registering their concerns with the settlement, which could be devastating if it became law. When I saw Jane’s post a couple of hours ago, I thought I could usefully add to the discussion and I want to encourage as much traffic to her as I can. I think she presents some foundational understanding here that is very important for people to have about the law. I was encouraged by her explanation and analysis that there is more hope for what we need as an industry to happen than I had previously thought.