There are no links in this post. I refer to searches done in several ebookstores, but the pages reporting results would be dynamic, so creating a link wouldn’t assure you’d see the same results as I saw. You can replicate the searches and you may or may not see the same thing because the facts might change.
Here’s what the ebook marketplace looks like without agency pricing.
Having just polished off Phil Pepe’s “61” about Roger Maris’s great home run season of 50 years ago, I was ready for my next read. No book has gotten more press on my radar over the past week than the new memoir from Jacqueline Kennedy, transcriptions of interviews she did with historian Arthur Schlesinger just a few months after JFK’s assassination. That looked like a good next choice for me.
(I have learned through the exercise described herein that the book is actually billed as “by Caroline Kennedy”, who controlled the property, edited it, and contracted for its publication and also “by Michael Beschloss”, the historian who wrote the introduction.)
Although I have several readers loaded on my ereading device (the iPhone), I have found myself recently defaulting to the Kindle store because it is the best place for me to browse. It allows me to search very granularly by category and sub-category (which the others don’t) and to array the choices in inverse order of publication (which the others don’t, or if they do, they don’t make it obvious enough how). That’s how I found “61” and “The House That Ruth Built”, my two most recent reads in baseball history (my favorite subject.)
However, when you know you want a very specific book, all the ebook services are pretty much equivalent. They all let you search by title or author and deliver what you’re looking for. Since I like to spread my reading around to keep up with what the various experiences are like, I decided to search Nook first for “Jacqueline Kennedy”.
And the search engine found 22 items matching my search, the first two of which were what I was looking for.
Match number 1 was the book I wanted (“Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy” by Caroline Kennedy), but only available for pre-order, delivery taking place on January 3, 2012. The list price is $29.99 and the NOOK price is $9.99. Obviously, not agency, Apparently B&N will accept about a $5 bath on each copy, presuming they get these $29.99 ebooks at 50% off from the publisher, Hyperion.
But I want to read it now!
Match number 2 is the same book. However it is a “NOOK Book Enhanced (eBook)”. It is available right now. The list price is $60.00 and the NOOK price is $32! That’s thirty-two dollars! List price of SIXTY dollars? WTF?
Let’s note here that B&N is apparently making very little margin on this, if they’re paying 50% to Hyperion. But since I’m the biggest spendthrift I know on ebooks (I happily bought and read both “Fall of Giants” and “George Washington” from Penguin for $19.99 without blinking; some years ago I bought an ebook bio of Grover Cleveland for $28) and this price stops me, I wonder if anybody would buy it.
So I kept shopping.
My next stop was Google eBooks. The book I’m after was not in the first two pages of results returned in a search under “Jacqueline Kennedy”. (However, there was one book called “Inventing a Voice: The Rhetoric of American First Ladies of the Twentieth Century” that is on sale for $42.36 and another called “The Kennedy Family: an American dynasty, a bibliography with indexes” for $55.20).
So I tried Kobo. By the time I got to the bottom of the first page of results, we were on to other Jacquelines. And the book I wanted, the one getting all the publicity, wasn’t shown.
I almost never use the iBookstore because the selection is more limited. But I decided to try it for this. I found something cool immediately: it gave me an auto-complete choice for “Jacqueline Kennedy” when I had typed a few letters of her first name. Helpful on an iPhone.
Here I found a variation of what I’d found on NOOK. The first listing was for the plain vanilla ebook, only for pre-order for January 3, 2012 delivery, for $14.99. (iBookstore, unlike NOOK, doesn’t list a publisher’s list price.)
The second listing labeled “Jacqueline Kennedy The Enhanced Edition” offered that book for $19.99, also without telling me what the publisher’s list price was.
One thing was odd. iBookstore says that the “print length” of the enhanced edition is 400 pages and the print length of the vanilla edition is 256 pages! Since I thought most of the enhancement was video and audio, that’s a bit of a headscratcher too.
So, finally, I went to Kindle. The number one listing there, available now, was “Jacqueline Kennedy (Kindle Edition with Audio/Video)” for $9.99. The book’s page says the list price is $60 and the Kindle price is a saving of 83%. (Of course, I bought it, and I can tell you that my iPhone progress bar says there are 349 pages in the book!)
What that suggests is that Amazon could be subsidizing sales of this book to the tune of a massive $20 per copy sold! (Next time I’m with a person from Amazon, the cup of coffee is on me.) I’m assuming that Amazon is paying half that $60 retail price to Hyperion.
People’s deals are private and I don’t claim inside knowledge, but my understanding is that all publishers sell to Apple on what amount to agency terms (publisher sets a price with Apple and Apple remits 70% of it) but that part of the commitment is that iBookstore can lower its price to meet competition and adjust remittances accordingly. Perhaps what happened here is that Hyperion set its Apple price at $19.99, figuring that nobody else (meaning Kindle or NOOK, in this case, since apparently Google and Kobo don’t have the enhanced book and aren’t listing the vanilla one for future sale) would drop the price more than that. But Kindle did. So, if I’m right about terms, iBookstore will shortly see this, cut its price to $9.99, and Hyperion will find themselves getting 70% of $9.99 from Apple rather than 70% of $19.99. And still Kindle and NOOK will be paying $30 a copy with Amazon Kindle choosing to lose $20 a copy to sell them and B&N NOOK choosing not to subsidize and probably hardly selling any.
Amazon’s strategy before agency was to aggressively discount the most high-profile books, the ones that the reading public would most often search for, in order to send the strong signal that their prices are the lowest and to force less-affluent competitors to engage in costly price competition. In this case, that strategy is being applied successfully, although both iBookstore and NOOK can respond. Whether one thinks it is a good thing or a bad thing that the deepest-pocketed retailer can spend $20 a copy on a big book to promote a price perception depends on your point of view but this clearly demonstrates what the publishers, the retailers, and the consumers face when a high-profile, high-demand book is sold without the price discipline of agency terms.
Clearly, something has to change here. Perhaps Google and Kobo aren’t listing this title because they can’t or don’t want to sell an enhanced ebook. Perhaps Hyperion didn’t offer it to them. We know that Apple insists on agency-like terms and Amazon is just as determined to stick with wholesale terms. My understanding is that B&N will work either way although they have made public statements that seem to support agency. In cases like this, though, I’d expect B&N to pursue the same terms as Apple gets (which, because it includes publisher price control, Amazon doesn’t want). B&N certainly doesn’t want to be selling an ebook for $32 their competitors are selling for ten and twenty dollars less than that and they also don’t want to lose $20 a copy on a high-volume title. (Perhaps by the time you read this, there will have been price adjustments already made.)
But if B&N and Apple both had terms that allowed them to cut to Amazon’s discounted price and just pay less for each ebook, it is hard to see how Amazon could accept that!
I am sorry there is no way to present this as anything other than confusing. Maybe one of the service providers or experts at our “eBooks for Everyone Else” show will be able to explain it better!