A Thought on the Shifting Ideal of Value and Price

I read this piece in the Bookseller today and there were a couple of comments I’d like to address. First, here’s one from everybody’s favorite literary crusader, Doug Preston:

“I think Jeff Bezos is an evangelist as much as he is a businessman. He believes he’s making the world a better place and I think he’s less concerned about making a profit. Now that might sound like a nice thing but if you study history you’ll realize it is the people who believed that they were right, believed it absolutely, who are the ones who do the most damage.”

Can’t disagree with him there. It is very true that people who believe that they’re right even in the face of mounting contradictory evidence, are capable of doing the most harm. All I can say is, as such, Preston himself needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror.

But his relative cluelessness and lack of self-awareness notwithstanding, there’s another quote in the piece that I find far more interesting. It’s from author Germaine Greer:

“Amazon wants to sell e-books at less, so they should. They should cost less because they don’t have to be put together, stitched, printed, designed, blah, blah, blah. If you skip all that and all you have got is a ribbon of text on a Kindle, then it should cost you pennies, frankly.”

Now this is obviously going to set some people on edge. I, for one, am not down with the pennies assessment, but I do agree that the pricing for ebooks should reflect the far lower production costs. As a side note, does anyone else find it kind of ridiculous that many publishers are now openly dismissing production costs as not that big of a deal yet at the same time arguing royalties need to stay low to cover those expensive costs? Which is it? I think it’s pretty obvious that they’d like it to be both, depending on the question they’re answering, and who they’re answering it to. Remember, just a couple of years ago, these same publishers were swearing up one side and down the other that ebooks weren’t cheaper to produce than print, and some even went so far as to suggest they might actually be more expensive. The massive profits publishers are pulling in from ebooks today shut that line of thought right up, exposing it as the lie it always was. Anyway, back to the quote…

Here’s a tweet I found in response to it:

“Ebooks should cost what readers are willing to pay for good writing, editing and design. Many readers value those far more than pennies” — Caleb Woodbridge @calebwoodbridge

Here’s where I have an issue. The word “should” in respect to what readers want to pay is out of place. There is no place for should there. Readers will pay what they want to pay, be it $20 or just the pennies that Greer suggests. There’s no should involved, only what the market will bear. But this got me thinking about the notion of value and how that relates to price. Sure, it would be nice if readers were interested in paying high dollar for concepts and ideas within a story but, and here’s the kicker, they never have. Nobody in the industry had a problem with that, either, up until they lost control of pricing and fell behind the curve on reader expectations.

I’ve found myself comparing newspapers and book publishers a lot lately, mostly because the Amazon/Hachette dispute has exposed more of the underlying strategy of the publishers. It’s a strategy that appears, on its surface, to mirror the strategy that newspapers used to decimate their own business. This is another example of that, I think.

Contrary to what you may have been told, newspaper readers never paid for the content in the paper, they paid for the bundle of services including coupons, circulars, classifieds, etc, etc. The bundle they bought wasn’t even priced to reflect the value of the content. It was done so to maximize the audience to better support the exorbitant ad rates because that, and not selling content to readers, was where most of their revenue came from. But as the value of their bundle declined, the industry decided people should pay for the content. Not only that they should, many believed almost religiously that they would. They were wrong. Some have but most won’t, principally because they were not paying for that content in the first place. Nobody in that industry segment had any problem with it, either, so long as the ad sales kept flowing. Once that dried up, though, their argument switched to one of value and what readers should do.

Books are having the same problem. It’s popular in some circles to claim books aren’t commodities but that’s disingenuous. People have always paid for the container not the content. Pricing for books of similar form have always been eerily consistent based on the form. There was never any kind of premium pricing going on between similar books that I’ve ever seen. In fact, the more popular books were usually subject to more discounting than others. Oddly, ebooks are exhibiting a far greater range of pricing relative to its form than almost any other type of book, yet that’s hardly ever mentioned when folks start discussing the issue of pricing. Funny, that.

Now that the value of those older containers have diminished somewhat, and ebooks have emerged as a potentially very cheap type of container, the discussion is starting to turn to one of the value of the content. Just like newspaper readers never paid for the content but the packaging, book readers have never paid for the content, just the packaging. And that’s leading to suggestions about what readers should do. According to some, they apparently should now pay for something they’ve never paid for in the past. That argument simply doesn’t fly and, unless you’re interested in watching book publishers piss away their business like newspaper publishers did, it’s not one anybody should be interested in pursuing.

The difference here is that should absolutely applies to people producing and selling books. People buying them, however, are under no such requirement, nor will they ever be. The pricing structure for newspapers was to sell to a mass audience to support ad rates. Pricing in books was to sell mass numbers of similarly commoditized books in total to stores and other retailers. There was never any point that the value of the content inside was the principle driver of the price, except to the people buying them. Even then, that value has been established by the practice of commoditizing book prices based on their form. As newspapers learned the hard way, you can’t just shift gears and expect people to pay for something they’ve never paid for when it’s convenient for you to do so. There is no such word as should when dealing with the choices readers will make for themselves.

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

Breaking the Scale: Bigger is not always better

A couple weeks or so ago, I left a comment on The Passive Voice under an article about Hachette’s CEO and his response to Amazon’s late night call to give him hell…er, politely inform him of your desire that they think critically about their pricing decisions, and seriously consider dropping the push for higher prices. Anyway, I got into a little bit of my experiences in dealing with large consolidated corporate accounting departments and the thinking I’ve run into about higher prices in days gone by. It got me thinking about a couple things and how this might relate to further understanding Hachette’s position and what the possible consequences could be, even if they get what they want.

Here’s the first comment I left:

“It may even be simpler than that. It reminds me of something I called the bean counter effect at a couple of magazines I worked for. They just couldn’t conceive of the notion that a higher price didn’t automatically mean more money. They wouldn’t recognize any kind of multiplier effect of more for less, no matter how many times we showed it to them on paper. It was a risk, unquantifiable (at the time) and all they knew was the difference between what we were selling at and the increase they wanted. We were selling print ads but it’s the same principle.

“Amazon could have said each sale at $9.99 generates a thousand extra sales and they wouldn’t have recognized it. They simply can’t see past “If I sell this for $13, I make $3 more than if I sell it for $10.” What I could never get across is that it’s not the difference between $13 and $10 that’s at issue, it’s the difference between $10 and the $0 that a not-insignificant number of people will choose instead $13. In this case, it’s the difference between $17.50 and $0 with Amazon’s multiplier data, which makes it an even dumber choice, I think. You’re not gaining anything at $13, you’re losing all the people who would have bought at $10. Essentially what you’re doing is making your customer base smaller and milking your best customers for extra money.”

Later on in the thread, I related a second instance of what I considered overly simplistic thinking involving money we paid out in this case. Here’s that second comment:

“At the same time though, you can’t always trust what they’re telling you about marginal cost. I was the managing editor of a free distribution magazine several years ago for a publisher who’s name would be instantly recognizable (not any of these folks). We were strictly ad supported and we operated on a 60/40 ad to editorial ratio, meaning we basically added up paid ad space and that number would represent 60% of our page count.

“Now I was a huge proponent of trading out ad space for various kinds of work we needed whenever possible. These trades were not counted as paid space so that added no cost outside the simple real price of what we paid to produce that space. Say I needed a delivery route run, something that would take a couple hours. I might pay someone $100 to handle it. Or I would offer them an 1/8 page ad for their business or whatever that’s listed at $150. They always took the ad, every time. Our real-world cost for that space across the entire print run was something like $20. And coming from non paid space, that $20 was a total sunk cost. So I traded $20 worth of sunk cost in exchange for not laying out $100 in real cash, effectively adding $80 to our bottom line. (You could argue it was adding the full $100 to the bottom line considering that $20 was being paid no matter what.) I was saving us somewhere between $2,000-$3,000 an issue with this stuff, if not more.

“Well our accounting department threw a fit. They insisted that we were actually losing $50 on this transaction. (Actually, they started out saying we were losing the full $150 price of the ad but I did manage to convince them the $100 was going to be outlayed in any case.) No matter how many times or how simply I laid it out for them, they would not move off the position that we were losing $50. It turns out their accounting systems had no mechanism for quantifying this because there was no revenue coming in but when they audited the paper, they recorded these ads as paid space, so we showed a deficit between the revenue they said we should have and what we actually produced.

“Eventually, they forbid me from making any more trades rather than adjust their accounting systems to record these gains. To make matters worse, our bottom line actually looked better on paper after they banned trades despite the fact that we were now spending a few thousand more per issue than we had been. That’s when the light bulb went fully on for me. If their standard accounting practices can make a real world $80 gain look like a $50 loss, and do it in such a way that it’s actually defensible and looks like it makes sense, can any of the figures they produce be trusted? How many other gains are showing up on the budgets looking like losses?

“Now this is a little simplified. There are tax issues and time a designer spends getting the ad together and such. But generally, we would get about 4 times the value back on a trade than we would paying out for it, and they banned me from doing so.”

I’ve found myself recently re-asking the two part question I wondered about back then, why in the world would you throw away essentially free money (in the instance of trades) and how do they not see that a much broader customer base at lower prices makes a far more stable longer-term revenue stream than a smaller base with higher prices? I also spent a not-inconsiderable amount of time worrying about the fact that I knew absolutely that the budget sheets we were getting from them were showing an artificially better bottom line than what actually existed. The disconnect between reality on the ground and the faux reality of their accounting systems was an insoluble issue simply because they wouldn’t even admit there was a problem.

I’m watching book publishers and their supporters today making arguments that are just as inexplicable to me as those were then. Do they not understand what’s really going on out here? Can they really be deluded enough to believe that readers will be supportive, even in the short term, of a strategy that gives them less choice, more restrictions and a higher price? Were they being taken in by comments from some readers supporting such a position? What I knew, from lots of experience, is that there’s often a hell of a difference between people speaking in high minded pronouncements about paying a premium to support their “culture” or what have you, and the choices they actually make when it comes time to break out the wallet.

I’m starting to believe the problem here is scale. Larger and larger companies require higher and higher outlays of resources just to keep the lights on, meaning the proportion of price needed for simple infrastructure that has nothing to do with actual production expenses grows near exponentially with the size of the entity. We’ve had it drummed into our heads that scale is beneficial because it provides greater negotiating leverage and greater purchasing power at lower prices from larger levels of bulk buying. This may have made sense at some pre-internet point, but does it still make sense in the current atmosphere? Does it even apply to something like ebooks that requires no physical materials to produce or distribute, making the notion of bulk buying power completely irrelevant? Certainly, Amazon is a large and growing company, their scale does have decided advantages, but is there a similar advantage from scale for publishers in dealing with them? It certainly doesn’t appear that Hachette’s size is any kind of advantage. If it were, there’d be no dispute going on.

Penguin Random House is often pointed to as the direction of things to come, but should it be? Consolidation in the periodical sector, looking back now, clearly did considerable harm to those publications siphoned up in it. It looks like efficiency on the surface but in practice turned out to be just the opposite. The question I have now is does the counter effect of increased infrastructure costs of consolidation counteract any bulk savings? I say yes, and then some.

Hachette’s not arguing for profit so much as arguing for maintaining revenue to cover sizable infrastructure costs. The obvious counter of why aren’t you decreasing your infrastructure costs to support those margins doesn’t seem to be a very popular one. It is, however, a needed question to ask and answer. There’s a line of thought going around that the lower production costs for ebooks and POD should have no bearing on the end retail price. I find that as inexplicable as not understanding a multiplier effect from lower prices or the savings from trades based on actual out of pocket expenses. Of course those lower production costs are a factor in price. Not only that, they must be.

Smaller entities are currently taking full advantage of these lessened costs. The problem for large publishers is their sheer size changes the equation. For an independent, the lower costs are directly tied to both lower prices to readers and a higher margins to themselves. For the larger entities, the lower price is threatening because of the sizable portion of the cut must go to the infrastructure costs associated with such scale. They can’t risk the multiplier effect not taking place because they need the raw revenue stream to be somewhat constant to keep meeting payroll and keep the lights on. The conventional wisdom that bigger is better is increasingly looking to be just flat wrong in this atmosphere. And if you’re doing it as a publisher to “compete” with Amazon, you’re making an even bigger mistake, as well as displaying a fundamental misunderstanding of the word compete.

There are numerous reasons to believe that, in the current environment, it’s better to be a smaller entity. One is that your accounting doesn’t have to be so complex and standardized as to be inflexible. Really, the problem I had with trades was that what I was doing didn’t fit into the parameters of their accounting software, so instead of adapting the software they just stopped me from doing it. Admittedly, changing that software is a pain in the ass on a much smaller scale. On a giant corporate one, I can understand why it wouldn’t be your first choice. But that’s stupid! I was one magazine adding an extra $50 grand a year or so to our bottom line doing what I was doing. This company had dozens and dozens of publications. They chose to throw that away because of inertia. It was a big enough amount to be a pain but not a big enough amount to force any accomodations. And they somehow managed to make the budget sheets look better than they had when they were in reality, worse.

Another is that the costs of the bundle of services publishers offer are inflated well beyond what those same (or better) services cost in an open market. That’s why you see some trad writers, when discussing the costs of publishing on their own, will cite numbers anywhere from $15k to as high as $40k for those services. It’s what they’ve been told these things cost. The knowledge of the reality that this work actually can cost at least 10 times less outside the gated publisher world isn’t even available to them. My lower prices/higher margin sales can relatively quickly cover those costs where your lower royalties require many, many times the number of sales just to cover the overly-inflated expense figures. Publishers costs in this regard are inflated for the same reason they want to maintain higher prices on the books themselves, their huge infrastructure costs have to be paid from somewhere.

In the present environment, scale isn’t some kind of competitive panacea for suppliers to retailers. It’s an albatross of expense and inefficiency hanging about their necks that necessarily limit their ability to fully exploit emerging markets and bring costs down in flattening if not outright declining markets. Scale, which may have been useful in the past, is increasingly suffocating now.

It’s really a matter of intetests. Is it in a writer’s interest to sign on with one of these increasingly consolidating publishers? How much does their sheer size, and the need to pay for that, change the dynamic between their interests and yours? How much longer will it be before a critical mass of writers realize that they’re bearing much of the weight of paying for many of elements of the publisher that have nothing whatsoever to do with producing, marketing and selling their books? They’re paying their expenses using you for pennies on the dollar, while pocketing the gains from the diminished to near nonexistent ebook production costs. Just on a simple dollar for dollar examination, the publisher’s interests run almost completely counter to my own and that’s moving more into the publishers favor as each day passes.

When the print ad revenue collapse hit newspapers, the companies with the largest scale responded the only way they could, tens of thousands of people losing jobs in round after round of layoffs. This not only hurt their ability to handle the size they had become, it further handcuffed their digital growth, which is now evident in the fact that their digital revenues are also declining and managing little to no separation in the rate of loss as the decimated print sector. Their scale forced the cutbacks which in turn left them understaffed to handle the essential tasks and woefully short on money for experimentation and growth in digital or keeping forward-thinking folks in their employ. Their scale became a self-defeating necessity to maintain itself rather than the advantage it had initially appeared to be.

What happens if we have a bad holiday season in print books sales this year? Can Barnes & Noble even sustain through another massive hit? Publishers are already squeezing writers both with deep discount clauses on print books and low ebook royalties (not to mention shrinking advances). If a round of layoffs or two end up a reality, the value of their bundle of services declines even more than the over-inflated costs we’re already experiencing. In turn, these companies become even less efficient, and less productive as they become understaffed to handle their sheer size. And raising prices to recoup print declines simply is not going to possible.

In the future, bigger is better may no longer be true, even for Amazon. People seem to be under some impression that it takes a giant to slay a giant. But that’s not altogether accurate. As Amazon continues to grow and expand, it’s own scale is adding massive infrastructure costs by the day. It’s not going to be one big company that gets them (certainly not one big consolidated publisher). They’ll suffer the death of a thousand cuts as many small, nimble entities target various bits and pieces of what they do, undermining the whole by eroding key components of it wherever possible. And Amazon is in a position where it simply cannot raise prices to compensate. Trying to do so will drive customers away in droves which will, in turn, further exacerbate the infrastructure cost problem. It can try to further squeeze suppliers but there are limits to how far that kind of strategy can take you, too. If they get complacent and anything is going to get them, it will be their scale that’s they’re undoing.

Smaller Is Better appears to me to be the approaching mantra of the 21st century. As huge consolidated corporations fall by the wayside under the weight of their own infrastructure, the only question I have left is how long it will take for Wall Street and business schools to catch on. Consolidation and ever larger entities may seem like something beneficial to those businesses today but, ultimately, they might only be serving to break the scale.

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

A Letter to the New York Times Public Editor

So I just sent off a letter to Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of the New York Times, asking some very pointed questions about their journalistic standards and the ethics involved in yesterday’s piece on Douglas Preston, especially with regard to its one-sided nature, the timing of its appearance and the sizable ad buy from Preston set to appear tomorrow. I did get an automated reply from them, so they have received it. Hopefully, some answers to my questions will be forthcoming. Here is the letter in its entirety:

Hello,

I’m writing in reference to the article that appeared in yesterday’s Tech section of your paper featuring author Douglas Preston and his Authors United effort by writer David Streitfeld. I have to say I’m extremely concerned and disappointed. The article itself was very one-sided and dismissive of a great number of authors who have differing opinions on the matter. When the subject in question is also reportedly paying your paper over $100,000 for an ad in tomorrow’s paper, this not only is unseemly but gives the appearance of a quid pro quo arrangement.

You are the New York Times, The Grey Lady, what should be a well-respected voice in journalism. I believe we deserve some answers to how this article came about. Here are several points I believe you have an obligation to explain:

1. Who initially pitched this article? Was it Preston himself?  Was it Streitfeld? Was it someone else within the Times staff assigning it? What was the thinking behind it?

2. Who was responsible for the timing in which it appeared? Was that timing in any way connected to the very expensive advertisement taken out by Preston in your pages? If so, what is your justification for that? And if not, how do you excuse the ignorance of how this would appear, especially considering the article itself specifically references the ad and when it would run?

3. At one point, Preston makes reference to asking Hachette for his recent sales numbers and apparently received accurate, up to date figures very promptly. Did this not raise any eyebrows with either the author of the piece or any editors at the times? Did anyone think to question the validity of those figures or why a company such as Hachette was so quick to respond in a manner totally inconsistent with their history?

4. What editor approved this article and what justification was used to allow the clear bias within to appear in your pages essentially unchecked? Was this editor aware of the large ad buy connected to the subject of this piece and did that play any role in its treatment?

5. What is your standard policy for editorial coverage of people or organizations who also happen to be advertisers?  Do you have one?  Are you or anyone at the Times concerned with the appearance that this was simply a value add in exchange for the ad buy?

6. Why was there no effort to present the opposing point of view, one which is clearly supported by a large number of people both inside and out of the publishing industry? Did the editor who green-lighted the piece show any concern that it was offering only one side of the debate, in a completely uncritical manner while being openly dismissive of the other? Did the ad buy play any part in the tone of the piece or its content?

7. Did the editor in question voice any concern about the reference to the whale meat petition to dismiss a petition opposing Authors United on this specific matter that has collected 9 or 10 times the number of signatories? Did no one see this as disingenuous?

I believe it is important that you explain to your readership exactly what thinking and actions went into the article in question. The Times should be above simple pandering for ad dollars, and given the fact that Preston and Authors United have already had significant coverage within your pages, an explanation should be required as to why this latest piece was needed at this specific time given the large ad buy connected to the subject. The position you hold within the journalistic world demands it. Many people look to the Times for important news and information every day and expect that you will apply a high standard of journalistic ethics to your coverage. This is crucial, I believe, not just to the state of journalism in this country but to your continued reputation as a trusted news source.

Thank you for your time and I look forward to your prompt response.

Dan Meadows

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

Publishing Industry Action…It’s Fan-tastic! Three-team deal falls through

First off, everything that follows here is idle speculation. I don’t know anything that wasn’t reported in the coverage of this attempted merger. But since this is America, and our media was built on unfounded speculation, I’m going to engage in a bit of that age-old tradition.

The deal the publisher Hachette was trying to consummate for Perseus Books with the involvement of the distributor Ingram fell apart yesterday. No specifics were given but a few subtle hints were dropped. Now I’m going to use the parlance of the NBA to describe how I think these conversations went down because this looks very similar to a failed attempt at a three-team trade to me. Keep in mind, while I’m speaking in terms of players, just consider the dollar figures as straight cash except for the two Perseus assets (their catalog and distribution business). Also, there is no correlation between the amounts I’m using and what was actually discussed. I just picked some nice even numbers to illustrate my point. Here we go…

Hachette, a capped out team with no space to take on any extra salary, approaches Perseus about one of their players (their catalog of titles), and makes them an offer.

“We really like that guy. We’ll give you this $3 million guy here for him.”

“Well, we don’t really want to move that guy,” Perseus responds, “we like him, so we’ll have to say no.”

“What about if we gave you this $5 million guy over here?” Hachette comes back.

“We do like him a bit better but, really, we’re not inclined to move him. No thanks.”

“Is there any way we can reach a deal?” Hachette asks.

“If you really want him, we’ll take the $5 million guy but you also have to give us $10 million in assets for this other guy here (distribution business). It’s the only way we’ll make a deal.”

To which Hachette responds, “We’ll get back to you.”

Hachette does have an $8 million guy to pair with the $5 million guy but they’d still have to come up with $2 million more in assets to meet Perseus’ price and there’s nobody on their roster that meets that description. Not doing so would leave them $2 million over the cap. And they don’t really want the other guy anyway. So Hachette calls up another team they think would want him, Ingram.

“So we’re working on a deal with Perseus and we’re going to take on this guy here. We know how much you’d like a player like that on your team. We can send him to you for in exchange for that $8 million guy and this other $2 million guy you have.”

“We do really covet that guy,” Ingram replies, “but we think that’s a little steep. Plus, you need us to finish this deal or you wouldn’t be calling so we’ll give you the $8 million guy only.”

Now this wouldn’t work for Hatchette either because it would still leave them a $2 million asset short and still that far over the cap. So they go back to Perseus.

“Ok, we’ll take that other guy back but we’ve only got this $8 million guy here we can give you for him.”

“No,” Perseus replies. “We want $15 million coming to us for those two guys or nothing. We’re happy with where we are. We don’t have to make a trade.”

To which Hachette finally says “Fuck.”

Basically, Hachette was in a position with limited resources and no leverage trying to pry a guy away from a team that didn’t want to move him and trying to convince a second team to take on the part of the trade they didn’t want at full cost. The problem here is the approach. Hachette needs to understand that in order to pry something loose from an unmotivated seller, you’ve got to make a Godfather offer. Overpaying in a situation like that is simply a necessity. If they weren’t prepared to go there, don’t make that phone call in the first place. Both Ingram and Perseus seemed to understand that, and understand that Hachette had to pay the freight if they wanted their assets and cooperation. Hachette didn’t seem to.

This makes me wonder if they’re doing the same thing with Amazon, over playing their hand. Their leverage with Amazon isn’t very overwhelming, and shrinking by the day, and they seem to be asking for a return on a deal Amazon is neither motivated to nor terribly interested in acquiescing. This failed acquisition smacks of a company that thought it was going to quick and easy add a big catalog of new titles, simply flip the distribution biz out at full cost to someone else and position itself better to fight Amazon, all while talking other companies into doing what it wanted without having to sweeten the deal for them.

What kind of return you get on a deal like either of these, or if you can even make one at all, depends on the leverage and/or money you have at your disposal. Hachette doesn’t appear to have much of either but they’re negotiating like they have the whole world in their corner.

If I had to make a guess right now, we’ll see one of two things happen in the immediate future. Either Hachette will quickly and quietly cut a deal with Amazon and put out a press release pretending like they won or the struggling publisher will be split off from its parent and sold to someone else before a deal with Amazon ever gets made. Hey, maybe Amazon will buy them. They do like low prices and Hachette’s value is sinking like a stone.

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

Print Protectionism Rules The Day…For Now

So Amazon came out with a statement a week ago detailing its position on ebook prices and, not insignificantly, it’s belief that authors are being short changed on royalties by publishers. Not surprisingly, it was met with a collective shrug by the mainstream industry, if not outright contempt. One thing this has done, however, is bring the belief that publishers’ actions on ebooks are all about protecting print out of the implied shadows. Here’s a variety of quotes from various sources critical of Amazon in response to their statement. Read on:

“Amazon doesn’t quantify what lower e-book prices would mean for sales of physical copies of the same books. Authors who work with traditional publishers like Hachette tend to make more, per copy, from hardcover sales than from e-books. If cheaper e-books draw people away from hardcovers, that could hurt these authors financially.”

“If lower e-book prices were to eventually destroy the market for physical books entirely—or even shrink it enough so that it wouldn’t make financial sense for traditional booksellers to publish them—that would help Amazon consolidate its power, which would ultimately be dangerous for authors.”

Literary agent Brian DeFiore in The New Yorker

“Lower e-book prices aren’t necessarily the best thing for writers. We get a percentage of the price as a royalty. You also have to take into consideration the price of the hardcover. Yes, it’s cheap to make a digital book but it’s expensive to present a book in hardcover.”

Roxana Robinson, Authors Guild President in Wall Street Journal

“Amazon’s assumptions don’t include, for example, that publishers and authors might have a legitimate reason for not wanting the gulf between eBook and physical hardcover pricing to be so large that brick and mortar retailers suffer, narrowing the number of venues into which books can sell.”

John Scalzi from his blog

“It is true that ebooks live in a world where they compete with other media. It is also true that the they live in a world which includes print, also an important component of a publisher’s and an author’s economic world. This analysis is very short on measurements of the impact on print sales of lower ebook prices.”

Michael Shatzkin from his blog

“Their figures consider a world of ebooks only. Their “total pie” is really just a piece of the pie. But publishers and authors are looking to maximize revenue across all formats. “Total revenue” on an ebook is only part of the “total revenue” for a new release book, and the hardcover edition still generates substantially more revenue per unit.”

Michael Cader from Publishers Lunch via Joe Konrath

“Even if ebook prices are the focal point of the dispute, that does not mean (Hachette) should not be looking at the effect across their total business, and their total account base.”

Michael Cader from Joe Konrath’s blog

What do all these have in common? The belief that the ebook is not only inextricably tied to print, but must, in some way, be handicapped to shield the older, more expensive and inefficient model. So what we’ve got here is the key issue in modern publishing, do you believe that digital must necessarily be hamstrung in some way to the benefit of print?

If you’re a Patterson or King or someone who gets the benefits of large numbers of hardcover sales in physical bookstores, that answer seems to be a resounding yes. But if you’re not one of those very select few, the question becomes much more difficult to answer. How does it benefit the midlist author or the debut author to have your ebook prices placed higher to support brick and mortar hardcover sales that benefit a much smaller number of superstar writers almost exclusively, and very likely, not you? As for the indie authors, it clearly doesn’t seem to benefit you to link print and digital in this way at all.

There appears to be two schools of thought on this. One is that print must be protected from lower priced ebooks because they will hurt physical stores, shelf space will decline and Amazon will reign hellfire over the industry forever and ever, which will result in damage to all authors in the long run. This is a call for all but the publishers and most fortunate authors to sacrifice in order to preserve an ecosystem that doesn’t really help them. You must sacrifice now in order to prop up a network where, unless you’re extremely fortunate, you must sacrifice in perpetuity, essentially.

The second school of thought is that ebook prices must necessarily be higher (and royalties lower) because the revenue generated pays for the totality of the book. This line of thought is that profits from ebooks aren’t really profits at all but a portion of the total revenue of a book that includes high print expenses that must be paid. This is a call for authors to sacrifice on ebooks to pay for the publishers’ print expenses even though they’re already being paid for that with a royalty structure on print that was designed and implemented to cover all the costs of bringing the book to market. You’re basically donating 75% or so of your digital proceeds after the retailer’s cut to your publisher for generating and uploading an epub file.

Either way, the presumption is that ebooks can’t be allowed to grow independently of print. They must either be restricted to prevent the erosion of print sales or a large portion of their revenue must be siphoned off to pay for the print infrastructure. There is also the assumption baked into this that the future of bookstores depends on the continued furtherance of $25 or $30 hardcovers. Also that any contraction in the print market (and conversely any unchecked growth in ebooks) will lead to Amazon consolidating even more power. Both assumptions rest on the belief that ebook and print revenue exist in the same continuum as hardcover and paperback revenue did in the past.

Here’s the thing about that, paperbacks didn’t undercut hardcovers because they were windowed. Windowing doesn’t work with digital. So the only means they see to prevent hardcover sales erosions is to actively lessen the sales of ebooks. Presumably, I would think, once the hardcover cycle runs it’s course, the high ebook price should come down to old mass market paperback levels, if not less, but that’s not really what we’re seeing.

All of this rests on the belief that digital sales can be essentially capped at 30-35% of the industry. And further, that print, particularly pricey hardcovers, won’t erode anyway due to other factors irrespective of ebooks or that the large and growing segment of the industry that simply doesn’t care about the hardcover/bookstore ecosystem they’re essentially locked out of won’t undermine the higher ebook prices to the point that publishers lose out on both print and digital sales.

Protecting physical bookstores is also a tenuous ideal from this two-pronged perspective. One, ecommerce is not going away. In fact, same day delivery is being rolled out by multiple players, not just Amazon. That has nothing to do with the price of ebooks but a more existential question on the nature of consumer shopping choices. Two, print on demand technology will become better, cheaper and more pervasive, possibly even resulting in kiosks that have the potential to do some of the same things Redbox did to video stores. When was the last time you visited one of those?

Are publishers going to withhold books from these kiosks? Will they demand near-hardcover prices for the trade paperback products they produce? Are they also going to demand higher prices for print books sold online? All of these elements will eventually erode bookstore sales and if publishers’ interests rely on protecting those stores, then these acts would be totally consistent with the higher ebook price strategy. It also means that publishers would be intentionally harming virtually every new publishing technology that increases efficiency, lowers prices to readers and increases sales in favor of their one preferred sales channel and format. One that, it can’t be understated, makes books more expensive, more inconvenient for readers to buy and less lucrative for writers overall.

If you’re James Patterson, Stephen King or Douglas Preston, these strategies may make some sort of sense in the immediate term. If you’re any of Hachette or any other large publisher’s thousands of non superstar authors, however, this doesn’t make a whole lot of long-term sense. Remember, you’re not just making less money on a contracting print market, you’re covering the publishers’ revenue declines in that respect through lower ebook royalties. The only way declining hardcover sales and rising ebook sales harms these authors is if the publishers are saddling you with a much-too-small cut of ebook proceeds. Amazon is right in this respect. If publishers were paying writers fairly on ebooks, then you stand to make more money on more sales at cheaper prices for readers. Their strategy is going to make you less money on fewer sales at higher prices to readers. The fact that there’s one single non-superstar writer who signed on to that Authors United letter is another illustration that, much like politics, dogma can and does lead some people to make choices that run counter to their own economic self interest.

Also consider, much like ebooks, independent authors will jump all over POD kiosks and the opportunities they bring. After all, when you’re looking at a physical store ecosystem that actively discriminates against you, protecting their margins or even their very existence is likely a non-factor in your choices if not a potential negative to you to do so. This is something bookstores would do well to keep in mind. Continuing to block, ignore or alienate indies is creating an entire giant class of increasingly successful writers who are ambivalent to your problems if not outright hostile to you. You might want to knock that off.

Basically, this strategy that the big publishing houses are engaging in is not in the best interests of readers or the vast majority of authors. The concern that Amazon will dominate everything is a very real one, but this isn’t a particularly practical way of dealing with that. I want a diverse ecosystem as well but asking me to sacrifice to the benefit of organizations that aren’t willing to do so in return isn’t going to work for me. Amazon’s market force is a different problem in need of a solution as innovative as the ones Amazon has used to gain that position. I think it’s fairly safe to say any such innovative competition is not going to be any more friendly to the publishers’ 20th century business strategy.

Let’s say I self publish a few books and my sales take off. A publisher comes to me with an offer. Ignore for a moment that the advances being offered barely cover a few weeks worth of sales in some cases, let alone life of the book. Let’s say I sign it anyway. That offer would require me to pull currently good selling material from the market for months in some cases. When they do return, my ebooks are now two or three times the price, the share of which I receive is less that what I was making per book on my own. I’m locked out of doing anything about it. I’m also hoping that bookstores stock my books in a way that generates sales rather than just another title on just another shelf and that declining physical sales doesn’t cost me even more money. I can’t get my books into libraries without the crazy high prices and restrictive terms publishers impose on them. I can’t take advantage of POD opportunities without my publisher’s approval and even then only on terms they set. On top of that, I have little means of having a viable route to rights reversions should everything go south. I have to hope I get lucky enough to generate hardcover sales (if I even get a hardcover print run) at a high enough volume that my next contract can get more favorable terms or a bigger advance, if there’s a next contract at all. The icing on this particular cake is that my material that was finding a foothold on my own may now be stagnant and trapped with that publisher for at least 35 years unless I can afford a good lawyer and a drawn out legal battle to get my rights back. And all because my publisher chose to emphasize its most difficult, expensive and inefficient product line for a litany of reasons that have little to nothing to do with benefitting me. Why would I sign that? Why would anyone?

I’m of the opinion that, if I were to sign on with a publisher to handle my print business, I absolutely do not want that same entity to also be in control of my digital business. They will almost inevitably do just as these publishers are, handicapping the digital to prop up the print. What should be happening here is another round of disintermediation, this time separating the print and digital products entirely. Focus on finding a way to maximize print that doesn’t involve sacrificing digital. That could mean exploiting POD technology and finding ways to actually cut the cost of physical books to readers (and bookstores), not raise the cost of ebooks. Can it be done? Maybe, maybe not. But what you won’t be doing is handicapping the emerging market that customers’ dollars are flowing toward. $30 hardcovers of mainstream genre fiction is not a long-term growth market, just as $20 compact discs weren’t for the music industry and multi-thousand dollar print ads weren’t for the newspaper industry. Their respective businesses may have been dependent on those things at one point, and they may have seemed reasonable at the time, but they weren’t a strength, instead a major weakness making them extremely vulnerable to technological change and shifting consumer habits.

The music business lost nearly half of its CD sales revenue in a just few years. Newspapers lost near half of their print ad revenue in just a few years. Sometime in 2025, will this paragraph be finished off by saying book publishers lost nearly half of their print revenue in just a few years? Those other two businesses refused to adapt, engaging in protectionist strategies under the mistaken belief that digital alternatives would top out at a lesser market share and the physical product would still retain primacy. Sound familiar?

Ask yourself this: if I sign on with a publisher whose entire strategy is to use digital to support the furtherance of print, what happens to me if print drops precipitously anyway, as there is clear precedent for? How you answer that question may well determine which writers still have a career a decade from now.

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

Stratego

I’m developing a little theory on publishing. Here’s how it goes: In 2009, book publishers, fresh from watching the music industry and their newspaper brethren get hammered when digital competition struck hard and fast, decided they needed a different approach. Part of that was the collusion for Agency pricing, essentially to fix retail prices of ebooks on the high side and slow adoption to protect their brick-and-mortar print interests. Most people believe that was the extent of it.

But consider, at the same time they colluded on Agency, more restrictive contracts, 25% of net ebook royalties and ebook rights grabs on old contracts proliferated across the entire industry. Many people presume the publishers wanted to preserve brick-and-mortar for the long haul and more than a few opinion pieces were written calling them out for futility and lack of vision. After all, ebooks were a problem for physical stores but the real problem was online commerce. Every without ebooks, sales were moving away from stores to the internet. Borders died partially because of this.

But what if this isn’t about the long term future of physical bookstore sales at all? What if the publishers were playing a different game entirely? Other creative industries suffered when digital adoption grew at rates that decimated their physical business while not yet bringing in the profits to counteract that. Publishers have acted, in explicit and seeming concert, to both slow digital adoption (not stop it, mind you) and to shore up better margins on ebooks. This point, that much of those profits are coming directly out of authors’ pay, seems to be largely ignored in press reports touting publishers’ higher profits, by the way.

In this theory, the publishers knew full well ebooks were potentially far more profitable, despite their illogical protestations of that point, and they knew that the brick-and-mortar segment was inevitably going to continue to shrink in importance. The point may not be to save the physical market but to slow it’s death to a manageable pace, while locking in increased profits from the digital growth on the other side.

We’ve already reached two interesting points that may support this. One, more books are sold online now that in physical stores, a rate that keeps growing steadily in online commerce’s favor. And the report from ALCS about the UK market tells the story of writers having their incomes squeezed while their very publishers are increasing margins and improving profits. It my theory, this wouldn’t be accidental or an unintended consequence, but absolutely intentional.

In a few years, if everything goes according to plan, we’ll reach a tipping point where online sales and the higher margins that go with them will exceed any justification to slow their adoption to protect dwindling physical store sales. At that point, these protective actions (prices too high, DRM, maybe even Agency itself) will be systematically abandoned. But by then, they’ll have most all of their writers locked into low paying ebook contracts that will look even more egregious after they shed large portions of the expense of serving brick-and-mortar stores. They’ll also have effectively wiped out every possibility of reversion except the 35 year rule (and just wait till Mickey Mouse is faced with public domain in a couple years. I can almost guarantee that’ll either be eliminated or pushed back to 70 years or so). Many of their writers will have non-competes that encumber their ability to fully leave them behind, if at all. And they’ll have locked down ebook rights on their entire backlist of titles, even in contracts signed decades before this market was even someone’s random fever dream.

In this model, they’re not protecting print or defending the culture of print, they’re transitioning away from it, and in the process grabbing a much larger slice of the pie from authors than the already too damn large one they take.

Am I right? Who knows? But if we’re going to sit around tossing doomsday scenarios for writers under Amazon’s bootheels, there’s one hanging right there in plain view, possibly being perpetuated by the very entities many of their supporters think are nurturing them. And, given that ALCS report, looks like may actually be happening right now.

Choose your friends wisely, but choose your enemies even more so.

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

Pissing Contests Can Be Fun, Just Not Into The Wind

Here’s something I’ve been wondering lately. Amazon’s a monopoly, right, so we’re told? They had a 90% market share in ebooks 5 years ago. Today, estimates of their market share in ebooks range from 55-65% or so. Do monopolies typically lose 25-35% of their market share over 5 year periods? Yet we talk about Amazon today as if they’re more dominant than ever. Maybe they are, but something about that doesn’t seem quite right. It looks to me like that 90% was, as the sports analytics guys like to say, the result of a small sample size (very young market and they were the only player going all out after it). But that would mean they’re not actually a monopoly but a highly competitive company who grabbed a commanding lead in the market. And a commanding lead is a far cry from a dominant monopoly. Just ask Barnes & Noble.

What I find interesting is this assumption that Amazon will become abhorrent, they’ll destroy publishing, tear the fabric of time and space, and we’ll all suffer with no recourse forever. Anybody actually watching the lifespans of these tech companies? The pace of everything has sped up. We’re in a world where an unknown startup can become a beast in a few short years. But it’s also one where the beasts can fall on their faces just as fast. Nobody is afraid of Microsoft’s market power anymore. I hear Yahoo is getting into TV shows these days. In fact, that’s the first thing I’ve heard about Yahoo in months. AOL still exists, apparently. At least they pop up now and then to piss away money on some new acquisition they’ll proceed to run into the ground. When was the last time Google did something truly innovative that didn’t turn out to be all hype? Even Apple just dropped billions on a questionably-profitable headphone maker to get their hands on a flailing music store and seems more interested in protecting what they have rather than continuing the innovation they earned it with in the first place.

I think this reflects a bit of the problematic thinking that’s infecting the industry. Self published writers aren’t real writers or they’re disgruntled trad rejects or they’re a substandard slush pile gumming things up with bargain basement prices. They don’t truly believe any sizable numbers of indies can produce work as professionally or more so than they can. It’s unthinkable to them. They have the same problem with Amazon. They don’t understand where Amazon came from and they have no idea how to deal with them. I feel extremely safe in saying that when real competition comes to Amazon, and it inevitably will, it’ll be another publishing outsider that brings it, someone who can and will find weaknesses in Amazon to exploit when they appear. I’m also certain that publishers won’t like them any more than Amazon, either. Publishers would clearly rather force all retailers into the party line that’s escorting B&N on a slow walk to the bankruptcy judge. They don’t really want genuine competition with Amazon to emerge because what that requires isn’t going to bring back the good old days for them, either.

I watched (most) of that Amazon hate panel at the New York Public Library the other day. The most telling comment of all, I think, was when one of the panelists said that tech companies needed to learn manners. By that, I took it to mean why aren’t they acting like everyone else? Don’t they know they’re supposed to be making as much as they can squeeze out of readers, not us? And it’s just rude of them to undermine our leverage with writers by giving them real options and a sizable cut. Where are your manners? Get with the program, already!

Which brings me to the dueling petitions circulating, one from traditionally published writers “not taking sides” by bashing the hell outta Amazon and a response to that by independent writers. The former was ridiculous and embarassing, I thought, and it showcases either the ignorance of these authors to actual business dealings above their station or is simply a disingenuous attack designed to protect their personal paychecks. Either way, I thought it was unseemly. How can you claim to not be involved in the dispute in a document specifically designed to inject yourself into the matter and pressure one side over the other? It’s dishonest.

The latter petition, while I agree with much of what it said, did come off a bit preachy to me. I totally understand the desire to counter what you (and I) see as the slanted misinformation and fear-mongering going on out there. It’s hard to understate the freedom writers have now. We can literally do anything we can think up, produce it and distribute it to a wider audience than ever before and not have to sell our souls, rights and most of the proceeds to a middleman. It’s so obviously beneficial that I often wonder how there are writers who don’t see this or worse yet, seem to actually be afraid of it. We now live in a world where it’s possible to make money directly on our copyrights without being forced to give them up in perpetuity. That’s a huge development, and something that was very nearly impossible to consider a decade ago.

It probably shouldn’t be surprising that some writers haven’t grasped the full implications of this yet. It’s a major change in conditions that had been static for decades, if not longer. How much longer they can continue to ignore it is the question. I suspect many of these writers have the unfaithful girlfriend or boyfriend problem, with their publisher playing the roll of significant other. They suspect he or she is cheating on them, have bits and pieces of circumstantial evidence that something isn’t right but they don’t want to admit it to themselves because admitting it means a necessary major upheaval in their lives. So they rationalize away the concerns staring them right in the face. Given the sometimes irrational and conflicting nature of that petition, and other similar sentiments I’ve seen recently, I suspect many are at the point where they’re going to come home from work early one day soon to find him/her in bed with someone else and not be able to avoid that particular elephant in the room any longer.

As far as the indie petition goes, while I like and appreciate the sentiment behind it, I just don’t think it needed to be done. I’m all for calling out bullshit, but to do it in a similar format with a bit of a rah rah attitude, even if it’s totally justified, gives the people who ought to be paying attention a ready excuse to dismiss it. To rationalize away finding a pair of panties that don’t belong to you under the passenger seat of your boyfriend’s car, as it were. “They must be his sister’s.” Uh huh. The original letter was a back patting exercise, preaching to a choir that’s not currently going to be convinced of anything other than what they already believe. Unfortunately, I think the indie petition is the same sort of thing. My opinion is who gives a damn what those other authors think? Let ‘em look foolish, let ‘em slap their names on something that’s fairly easily refuted and, frankly, not particularly well written. When the entity you’re yelling at is more responsible for making you money than the one you’re giving most of the proceeds, you’re in for a sizable wake up call in short order. I’m not convinced slapping them in the face with their own format will do anything but make them more entrenched in their beliefs, no matter how well intentioned or how clearly we see they’re setting themselves up to be burned.

You can’t stop people from making their own mistakes. Our copyrights have direct benefits to us now, something they essentially never had before, and that alone makes them more valuable than ever. Yet royalty rates are anywhere from “meh” to outright terrible. All reports also indicate advances are shrinking as well. At what point does it become obvious that what you’re giving up far exceeds what you’re getting in return? The man who hired me at my very first job in publishing used to talk about the law of diminishing returns all the time. He was usually talking about circulation, the point where the costs of increasing it would outweigh the return you got from it. That’s where we’re heading with publishers, I think. The cost of doing business with them is outweighing the return. A much larger cut of the proceeds should be the very least we should expect from publishers but we’re getting the opposite with threats of even harsher cuts in the future. And by much larger, I’m talking double or triple what they pay now, at least. And none of this lifetime copyright, or non compete, or discount clause nonsense anymore. It’s not my or any writers’ job to leave money and control of my career on the table to lifeline your business infrastructure because you can’t afford to pay the freight. Writers’ offer more value than ever, Amazon’s retail platform offers more value than ever. Publishers’ problem is that they’re one of the few in the loop who’s bringing less value today than a decade ago. Basic rules of business would dictate that when you become less valuable, you can no longer command as big a paycheck. What’s at issue here is that publishers and some of the writers still being paid by them as they always have, don’t truly understand their value has fallen off and continues to do so. Look no further than the fact that ebook profits (built on low standard royalties to authors, btw) are the only thing keeping many of these publishers out of the red. If the traditional business model is so valuable, then why are your profits basically gone without the contributions of the non-traditional?

Writers on the whole were never really compensated for giving up our rights anyway. For most, they had no value at all without a publisher, and you giving them up was a required condition. Writers were paid based on sales. The rights were a necessary toll basically sacrificed for access to the market. The value of those rights to us have increased while the rewards of signing them over have gotten smaller. Yelling at Amazon isn’t going to change that. Do you think if Hatchette gets higher prices, you’ll see any more of that money? Will they up standard royalties? Chances are you’re on a contract where the more successful your book is, the more money you’ve left on the table. Go back and do the math. If Hatchette gets what it wants and mitigates the competitive impact of Amazon, do you think that makes them more or less likely to improve writer compensation? And given the nature of these publishers, generally working in lockstep, what one settles into, they all likely will shortly thereafter.

The question in my mind isn’t why aren’t indies rooting for Hatchette, it’s why aren’t trad writers rooting for Amazon? (Well, the question after “why should we be rooting for either?” anyway. What we should be doing is advocating for the best possible treatment from all sides.) I’ll tell you why, because Hatchette owns your rights. If they run themselves into the ground, you’re contractually obligated to eat a face full of dirt with them. If Amazon (or any other retailer) destroys themselves, I just move on to another one. Amazon doesn’t own me. Hatchette (and other publishers) do own you. If you can’t see the inherent long-term danger in that, and you obviously can or else you wouldn’t be bitching at Amazon rather than your own publisher, then no petition, no logic, no facts, no amount of fisking is going to help you.

By the way, your letter basically demands Amazon cut a deal immediately and go back to discounting your books. Do you realize it’s highly likely Hatchette wants the ability to restrict Amazon’s discounting as part of any kind of agreement? How’s do you expect that’ll work out for you? “You should settle so you can go back to doing what a settlement with my own publisher will prevent you from doing.” Good luck with that.

One part of the indie petition I liked very much was the thank you to readers. We should all do that far more loudly and often than we do. But readers don’t care about this conflict. Most don’t know Hatchette from Heineken. They do know Amazon and seem to like them in overwhelming numbers. No petition from a handful of best selling and/or famous authors is going to change that, especially when the argument behind it is higher prices for them. Supporting culture and literature against cold corporate business sounds great until you say, “Oh, and all our ebooks are going to be $12.99 from now on.” Good luck with that, too.

I believe very much in the “look where your bread is buttered” school of thought. Amazon offers a fair retail platform at a fair rate. Publishers may offer you the butter but you have to lease the bread from them. And the knife you need to spread it, well, that’ll cost extra, too. Maybe Amazon ends up like them someday, but that day is not today. And it also discounts the idea that, hey, maybe they won’t because, as a tech company, they know better than most the second they do, someone else is going to pounce. “We want competition by preventing the circumstances where competition can actually develop” is not a viable plan.

Everyone is ultimately going to make the choices they’re going to make, and they’re going to face the consequences of those choices; good, bad or some of both. I’m not sure dragging readers into the middle of a pissing contest between two groups who really should be in agreement on most things furthers anyone’s ends, regardless of who started it. And that’s what I think about that.

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

A Wolf in Agency Clothing Is Still Vertical Price Fixing

First off, I’m not a lawyer but with all the talk about monopolies, abuse of market power and antitrust violations going on in publishing these past few years, I thought I’d dig a little into the laws themselves and see if I can make sense of what’s what. Again, not a lawyer. This is an enormously complicated and often contradictory issue that’s bounced back and forth between various stages of legality and illegality, the enforcement of such dictated by a convoluted mess of legislation and court precedent. So here goes, down the rabbit hole as I best understand it.

Agency Pricing is basically a Resale Price Maintenance agreement where, in this case, the producers (publishers) want to take control of the pricing of their products at retail (Amazon, etc). It’s vertical price fixing because it occurs between layers of the chain, suppliers controlling prices at the retail level. It was banned in a Supreme Court decision in 1911, as the ruling stated, because these types of agreements are “economically indistinguishable from horizontal price fixing by a cartel.” Horizontal price fixing being sellers fixing prices amongst themselves to their collective benefit.

A series of laws and exemptions to The Sherman Antitrust Act were passed in the ’30s that allowed resale price maintenance agreements to again be legal, but that ended poorly as the results were so unpopular, they were later repealed. These agreements were then per se illegal (inherently illegal) from about 1980 until 2007 when another Supreme Court decision found that they could be allowed under the Rule of Reason and the circumstances surrounding their use are considered. Basically, the business justification and resulting economic consequences play a role in determining if they’re allowed, not simply outright banned automatically in all cases. As such, Agency agreements can happen. The DOJ settlement with the publishers in the ebook case openly admitted as much. But as SCOTUS ruled, only if the Rule of Reason is applied.

A big component in imposing the Rule of Reason standard was the notion that the absence of Resale Price Maintenance agreements could allow free riders, or some sellers to piggyback unfairly on the benefits of promotion done by larger sellers. I think this point is a particularly important one to make. Keep it in mind.

The above is just a summary, somewhat simplified, of what I think are the pertinent points in the background of Resale Price Maintenance agreements as it relates to the current state of things in the publishing industry as I understand it and am about to speculate on. It didn’t happen in giant leaps, but fits and starts; laws passed and repealed, court rulings made, overturned and overruled again. SCOTUS has weighed in on these matters more than a few times, and likely will again, maybe even in the Apple case. So before I do a little extrapolating, here are some links to some relevant readings. Look for the various links to the actual court rulings and texts of the laws involved if you really want to dive in deep.

Resale Price Maintenance
Sherman Antitrust Act
Price Fixing
Rule of Reason

First two disclaimers: Everything that follows is strictly my opinion as a suspicious, cynical guy who’s read too many Agatha Christie novels. And we have no idea if Hatchette or anyone else is pushing for another Agency-type deal. Everybody and their brother seems to be assuming it is, on both sides of the issue, including me to a point, but I think it’s important to remember that we just don’t know. Amazon’s statement a few days ago referenced a lot of things that implied the dispute was, at least in part, about co-op fees and such. And Hatchette’s kept repeating the matter as “Amazon’s demands for better terms.” It could just simply be a fight over co-op, much like the S&S/B&N dispute a while back.

I couldn’t find any direct info anywhere on who actually won that battle, but I’d be willing to bet Amazon knows, or at least thinks it does. Going after co-op might mean B&N got a bump there or at least Amazon thinks they could succeed where the bookstore chain may have failed. The question really seems to be is Amazon abusing it’s market position to push for that by doing things like stopping discounting, cutting back on stock and taking away preorders? Barnes & Noble took some of the same actions, so it’s not exactly unprecedented.

I would say that’s it quite possible that they are, with some heavy qualifiers. At the very least, they’re walking an extremely fine line in the actions they’re taking. Amazon, given the size of their market share, is in a position where, as they continue to grow, that line is going to squeeze in tighter and tighter on them. The more power they accumulate, the worse these actions will look. Some would say they’ve already crossed it. And they may well be right.

However, Amazon is extremely smart. They know the general judicial trend is to allow more latitude to larger entities wielding power so long as they can show some kind of valid business reason that isn’t simply “we will crush them!” I suspect that’s why a sizable portion of their statement was an explanation of their business reasons for what they’re doing. Even if they did cross the line, you need evidence. Amazon isn’t going to leave any lying around. I’d argue that if it hadn’t been for the bungling publishers, Apple never would have gotten caught either. For Amazon to get nabbed for this kind of conduct, provided the conduct is even illegal or aggressively monopolistic, neither of which we know without knowing the terms they’re fighting over, they’re either going to have to be a lot bigger and these acts much less legally defensible or escalate up into more openly egregious actions.

Now, my attitude on this changes completely if, in fact, Agency or some kind of Resale Price Maintenance agreement is in play. If you’re going to give the producers leeway in trying to fix prices vertically, I think you also have to give some leeway to retailers in using their power in dealing with it. You can’t just say, “We’re going to let your suppliers fix prices and we’re going to stop you from doing anything about it.” That would ultimately end up with exactly what the original 1911 SCOTUS ruling said, economcally indistinguishable from horizontal price fixing. So, when faced with an opponent seeking to limit their pricing ability, they have a strong business reason to act as they have, I think. Remember, Barnes & Noble just did some of the same things and nobody’s suggesting the DOJ ring them up, so the argument against isn’t the act itself but the market strength behind it, a variation on the Rule of Reason and consideration of the circumstances that would allow Hatchette or any publisher to seek a vertical price fixing arrangement in the first place.

Some may suggest this is same argument publishers made in their defense only in reverse; “Amazon is behaving monopolistically so we had to do what we did to deal with it.” But there are limits. Amazon is a single entity, wielding only the power it’s managed to gather for itself, albeit a sizable amount. The publishers weren’t prohibited from pushing for price fixing to combat Amazon, which in and of itself is granting them leeway in their actions. Where they went off the rails is when they colluded together to do so. Price fixing situationally under justifiable conditions is ok, colluding to impose price fixing is another matter entirely. Nobody’s getting any antitrust latitude in the face of that.

The original seeds that ultimately became the reasoning behind shifting Resale Price Maintenance from per se illegal to overseen by the Rule of Reason was the notion that the absence of these agreements could create an environment where free riders benefit from larger sellers promotional activity. In the present environment, relatively free of Resale Price Maintenance agreements, there’s really nothing that, say, Barnes & Noble can do to free ride on Amazon. Install a vertical price fixing regime, however, and not only does it become possible, it seems to be what they intend to happen. Eliminate price competition among retailers, and with it, what they perceive as Amazon’s principle competitive advantage, and competitors like B&N can benefit from Amazon’s past and existing efforts to build and promote the ebook market without having actually contributed to them. They’re using a Resale Price Maintenance agreement to create the very conduct the court ruled we needed Resale Price Maintenance agreements to prevent.

Giving consideration to these circumstances, and the fact that, during the brief time Agency was imposed prior to DOJ action, one clear economic consequence we saw was higher ebook prices to consumers and considering this publisher and most of the others likely to push for these deals were just caught and punished for colluding to institute a vertical price fixing system in an attempt to attack one specific retailer, I don’t see how Agency deals should be allowed for any of these publishers, even under the Rule of Reason. I would go one step farther and say SCOTUS was mistaken to change them from per se illegal to begin with, especially since we’re possibly seeing their root reasoning for doing so directly contradicted in practice. There’s probably a damn good reason that vertical price fixing never stays outright acceptable for extended periods of time. It is price fixing, after all.

Which leads me to what I think might be the ticking time bomb in all of this, the 25% of net ebook agreements that very suddenly became almost inescapable industry standard. Check the dates on these two quotes:

“We’re confident that the current practice of paying 25% of net on ebooks will not, in the long run, prevail.”
From the Authors Guild, Dec. 15, 2009

“In a strongly worded message on its Web site on Sunday, Amazon said that while it disagreed with Macmillan’s stance, it would bow to the publisher’s plan.”
From NY Times, Jan. 31, 2010

We know now that the fight that Macmillan picked was the first strike in the collusion to install Agency that got them smacked down for antitrust violations. We also know the Authors Guild turned out, per usual, to be dead wrong. Do you think it’s a coincidence that this 25% of net rate became almost unilaterally imposed across most of the industry at the exact same time that most of the publisher’s pushing it hardest were colluding to fix prices at the retail level? That it was just a happy little accident for them that they managed to both fix retail ebook prices higher and impose ebook royalties to authors at a low level near simultaneously? This is a lawsuit and quite possibly another antitrust action waiting to happen. I can’t believe authors that got pushed into these aren’t looking at the breakdown of how bad a deal it’s turned out to be for them and how their publishers were colluding with one another to the point of attracting legal consequences at the same time and not putting their lawyers on speed dial. Look at the amounts they paid out in damages in the ebook case. If it were to be discovered that this was the result of similar collusion, that number would be much, much higher.

Ultimately though, I think these publishers would be insane to go anywhere near any kind of vertical price fixing deals right now. And if the strategy includes them having to do anything that even slightly appears like it’s being done in unison, they could be unleashing hell on themselves. If you get popped for drunk driving and as soon as you get off probation, go right out and get another one, the judge is going to throw the book at you. And, oh, if there’s this other DUI charge they were unaware of at the time they punished you for first one, too? I’m not totally sure how liability works in situations like this, but what’s the point, if there is one, where these things can go from being a civil matter involving corporate penalties and fines to somebody’s going to jail? Collusive vertical price fixing that extends to both retailers and possibly their own suppliers and then maybe a fresh collusive action at the first possible opportunity to top it off probably ought to be that point, in my opinion. Why even risk the appearance of such a thing, especially to pursue a strategy that is historically back and forth between legal and illegal that just happens to be mostly legal at this moment? How desperate are they, exactly, and how much is that desperation feeding Amazon’s negotiating position? You don’t walk out into the ocean with a big, bleeding wound and then complain when something tries to take a bite out of you.

Like I said, we have no idea if Hatchette is pursuing an Agency-type deal. And the ebook royalty looks suspicious as hell to me but it could be all above board. Amazon could be simply throwing its market weight around in ways that run afoul of antitrust law themselves. I hope they’re not. And I hope the publishers steer clear of vertical price fixing as a strategy. But even if they do, that ebook royalty is going to be a problem, I suspect. Upping that pretty quickly might be a good idea. Raving about the ebook profits you’re making while refusing to budge much, if at all, is going to piss someone off enough to start poking around. And who knows what they might find or what other bodies might be dug up in the effort?

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

Hatchette accidentally reveals concern for authors is bulls*&t

Hatchette released a statement today in response to an Amazon statement about their protracted and increasingly ugly contract negotiation. Here it is, with inappropriate commentary added by yours truly. And, yes, I’ve been so inspired by all the anti-Amazon hit pieces lately that I chose an intentionally inflammatory headline. Hyperbole for fun and profit!

“It is good to see Amazon acknowledge that its business decisions significantly affect authors’ lives.”

Yes it is. Now let’s continue on to see how Hatchette acknowledges its business decisions significantly affect authors’ lives. (Hint: you’ll be disappointed.)

“For reasons of their own, Amazon has limited its customers’ ability to buy more than 5,000 Hachette titles.”

From Amazon’s own statement: “These changes are related to the contract and terms between Hachette and Amazon.” Reasons of their own in a contract you signed. Reasons that you know damn good and well. Is Hatchette in the habit of not enforcing provisions in its contracts when it’s in their interest to do so? I didn’t think so.

“Authors, with whom we at Hachette have been partners for nearly two centuries, engage in a complex and difficult mission to communicate with readers.”

A complex and difficult mission to communicate with readers made so by publishers because it served their interests at the time. Or do you have some other explanation for why you’d create a system that essentially locked writers out of distribution unless they paid a toll of lifetime copyrights to a publisher to even reach the marketplace? If there’s a barrier between readers and writers, it’s because publishers put it there to better collect their pound of flesh.

“In addition to royalties, they are concerned with audience, career, culture, education, art, entertainment, and connection. By preventing its customers from connecting with these authors’ books, Amazon indicates that it considers books to be like any other consumer good. They are not.”

Oh, Jesus, more special snowflake nonsense. Weren’t you listening when the judge who reamed your ass for price fixing told you, precisely and in no uncertain terms, that publishers are not special snowflakes? Of course books are commodities like any other. You know who made them commodities? You did, and publishers like you when you priced them according to the format instead of the content inside. You seemed perfectly cool with that for the past 200 years. What’s changed now? Oh, that’s right, you’ve lost control of this particular commodity market.

“We will spare no effort to resume normal business relations with Amazon—which has been a great partner for years”

Of course they have been, they’ve made you a metric ton of money. Particularly on those 25% of net ebook deals that make writers a little bit and you a shitload more that you all totally didn’t collude to make industry standard almost simultaneously.

“but under terms that value appropriately for the years ahead the author’s unique role in creating books, and the publisher’s role in editing, marketing, and distributing them, at the same time that it recognizes Amazon’s importance as a retailer and innovator.”

Herein lies the rub. What, exactly, is the appropriate value of the publisher’s role now? Even Hatchette’s own phrasing admits the writer’s role is unique. We’ve all got a pretty good idea how valuable Amazon’s role as an innovator is. Who’s the weak link here? Nothing unique or innovative about the editing, marketing and distribution most publishers provide. Anybody can do that or find someone who can to affordably contract out. I suspect the root problem here is they don’t yet realize that the appropriate value of the publisher’s role has declined, perhaps dramatically. You know what happens in a negotiation when you come to the table with declining leverage? You don’t get as good of terms. Ask your writers about that, I’m sure some would have a few pertinent things to say on the subject.

“Once we have reached such an agreement, we will be happy to discuss with Amazon its ideas about compensating authors for the damage its demand for improved terms may have done them, and to pass along any payments it considers appropriate.”

“It’s ideas” because we sure as hell know it wasn’t Hatchette’s idea to compensate authors during this fight. If you didn’t know, Amazon, in its statement, offered to form a fund to help authors hurt by this situation and volunteered to kick in 50% if Hatchette kicked in the other half. This was their response, a big ol’ “fuck you” to their own authors who they just claimed to care so much about. Not only did they refuse, they attached any assistance to Hatchette getting what it wants first, making author assistance a negotiating tactic, and guaranteeing they will continue to suffer for as long as this lasts with no help forthcoming. Also guaranteeing that they’ll readily trot out and use that suffering to engender support and more Amazon hatred. More than that, “we’ll discuss it later” and “we’ll pass on any payments it considers appropriate” is just, “you can pay them if you want, but only after we finish our business, and we won’t be kicking in” just with different words.

Being that this is a near-explicit refusal to establish such a fund or contribute anything to it, the line about “the damage Amazon’s demands may have done them” looks like a total false denial of responsibility as they’re doing them damage right now. Seems to me like the discussion that needs to happen is between Hatchette and it’s authors about what the appropriate value of the author’s unique role is. Here’s an instance where they could have backed up their earlier glowing praise and concern for authors by putting their money where their mouth is but instead they pissed all over them trying some half-assed attempt at a clever quip at Amazon’s expense. They should leave the half-assed quipping to bored writers looking for big corporate hypocrites to bitch about. Just sayin’…

“In the meantime, we are extremely grateful for the spontaneous outpouring of support we have received both privately and publicly from authors and agents.”

Spontaneous, sure. Nothing at all to do with the coordinated astroturfing effort you all were talking about not too long ago.

“We will continue to communicate with them promptly as this situation develops.”

Yup, just like you communicated promptly with them the seven months this bullshit’s already been going on, right?

So, Hatchette accepts no responsibility for this at all, refuses to lift a finger to help their own authors this is hurting, and seems to be under some impression that their negotiating power hasn’t atrophied some over the past few years. So, for emphasis:

“It is good to see Amazon acknowledge that its business decisions significantly affect authors’ lives.”

When can we expect to see the same acknowledgement from Hatchette, because this sure as hell ain’t it. This is you intentionally putting authors in the middle of your fight and purposely extending and exploiting their suffering to suit your ends first and foremost, right there in your own words. Strange that Amazon’s statement was far more subtle in its implications than Hatchette’s. Maybe you should of hired a better writer.

Look, nobody wants to see Amazon get to be a dominant beast that lords over everyone. But these folks are not the right horse to back. They’re deluded, have an over-developed notion of their own value and readily blow smoke up writers’ asses while profiting in different ways from both their success and struggles. Even some of their own writers fully expect they’ll use the decline in sales against them in their next book deal. Amazon may be big and powerful, but these folks are just opportunistic scumbags.

Amazon broke the hold these publishers had on the industry, and it’s created more opportunities for more writers to make more money than publishers like Hatchette have in, well, pretty much ever. We need to move forward on the gains writers have made of late, and publishers like Hatchette are firmly entrenched in the past. Yesterday’s exploiters aren’t going to be tomorrow’s liberators no matter how many New York Times anti-Amazon hit pieces they encite.

We do need to have a very serious conversation about competition and diversification and what direction things need to go in the future, but Hatchette and those like them have repeatedly shown that they have absolutely nothing to add to that conversation. Or are you one of the three people who don’t think every other major publisher is going to follow lock step down the path Hatchette’s setting right now? What I really want to know, though, is after they’re all done cutting their noses off to spite their faces, which body parts are next?

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

Amazon the Great and Terrible

So I’m sitting here this fine Sunday morning patiently waiting for David Gaughran’s promised blog piece on the PR campaign Hatchette may be running in its now six-month contract dispute with Amazon. (Warning: profanity ahead because some of this shit just pisses me off.) I, for one, am not buying the “poor helpless little Hatchette being bullied by big, bad Amazon” meme that’s so popular these days. It’s making the rounds everywhere, which I find fascinating due largely to the fact that nobody outside the negotiating wing of those two companies has any knowledge whatsoever about the dispute, and they’re not talking. Well, Amazon, per usual, isn’t talking. Hatchette isn’t talking about any of the issues at hand either, but they are going through great pains to play the wounded party, and igniting the entrenched Amazon hatred out there to do the rest of the heavy lifting.

I’d think people would be more suspicious of things like that. In my experience, when someone in a position like Hatchette is playing the victim card, without clearly backing it up, odds are, they’re conveniently leaving out the parts where they are anything but victimized. So my opinion, knowing nothing about the specifics of their negotiation but strictly looking at the outward actions of the participants, Amazon is going about its business and Hatchette is playing a totally different game. Are they justified? Possibly but I get a strong sense of Hatchette trying to control the narrative and I don’t much care for being manipulated.

“Scott Turow said that Amazon recently raised the price of his most recent book, “Identical,” a move that he said would depress sales.”
–From Washington Post, May 16

Ok, what? First off, that quote’s from the Washington Post, you know, the newspaper Jeff Bezos owns. So much for slanted coverage huh? The difference I see between the Post’s coverage and most other coverage is that the Post consistently uses phrases like “could be”, “might be”, “industry insiders suspect” and things like that when discussing the negotiation. They’ve presented the argument without validating it, which is exactly what all these papers should be doing, unless they actually have hard evidence to support it, then they should print that. But they don’t. It’s rumor and conjecture presented as fact when the people writing can’t possibly know if it’s true.

Secondly, WTF Scott Turow!?! You’re actually bitching that Amazon isn’t discounting your book? Didn’t you just spend two years telling us Amazon was destroying the industry by discounting books? Is there any coherence in your argument at all? Are you just going to complain no matter what Amazon does? Or are you, as is the case with many political pundits, just going to spout the party line regardless of whether it contradicts what you just said. “Amazon’s discounting is killing us” is so last month, I guess.

So here’s my assumption about you based on your own comments. You’re a writer and a lawyer, for God’s sake, so it defies credulity to me that you don’t see the obvious contradiction in your own statements. So I must conclude that you do see it, and just don’t care. You likely never gave a shit about other writers, the industry at large or Amazon’s discounting. You were playing a mouthpiece for your publisher because you thought it was in your best interest at the time. And you did it in defense of a criminal conspiracy by your own publisher and others to violate antitrust law. But now, Amazon’s not discounting and that may hit you in the wallet, so discounting suddenly is no longer destroying the industry but necessary, and you’re statements have shifted accordingly. Credibility all day long, I tell ya. My conclusion is that you’re full of shit, and acting out of your and only your own self interest. Let me ask you, what’s your statement going to be if we find out Hatchette’s trying to reinstitute Agency in some form, limiting or eliminating Amazon’s ability to discount? Actually, I don’t even need to ask, I already know. Assumptions are a bitch, aren’t they?

“Amazon has begun discouraging customers from buying books by Malcolm Gladwell, Stephen Colbert, J. D. Salinger and other popular writers, a flexing of its muscle as a battle with a publisher spills into the open.”
–From the New York Times

“Hachette has continually assured us all orders were shipping “in a timely manner” and Amazon was to blame for placing small orders. We’ve asked for copies of the purchase orders and confirmation of the shipment dates from my publisher but have been told, ‘It is not information we would like to be shared with any third party at the current time.'”
–From Digital Book World

The first quote, from the New York Times, contains no “could be”, “reportedly”, or “may be”. It’s “Amazon is”. They don’t know that, only that Hatchette is telling them that. Mightn’t they have an agenda? So does the Times, of course, but that’s a different article. The second quote is from an actual Hatchette author trying to get his publisher to prove what they’re saying. Look at the response again: “It is not information we would like to be shared with any third party at the current time.” No shit. Wonder why?

Here comes some assumptions again. Say I’m in a business arrangement with someone and they get involved in a dispute that negatively affects me, and they’re telling me “It’s not our fault. Those bastards over there are doing it to you.” My reaction is going to be exactly like this guy, “then you’ll have no problem proving to me you’re doing what you say?” If they come back with a response like he got, I can only conclude that they’re lying to me about something.

And are you telling me the writer is a third party in the distribution of his own fucking book? He’s not entitled to see proof that you’re not lying right to his face and actively harming what he contracted you for in the service of your interests elsewhere? Sales that, in the traditional world, operate in a very short time window and can have disastrous consequences on any future career? Fuck off with that noise. Whatever the negotiating battle is being fought over, this little tidbit of information may be the most important of all for writers. Hatchette doesn’t respect this guy, and they certainly aren’t treating him like a business equal. And their refusal to back up their attempt to escape responsibility for something that’s hurting their own authors even to those authors themselves, should be unacceptable. But writers, please remember, you all signed the contracts that made it this way. This Hatchette writer certainly does and is factoring that in to his future choices. So should we all.

What saddens me about this is that there are all these writers out there who see Amazon as a rival of sorts but don’t see the publishers that way. The Hatchette/Amazon dispute, and the ones like it certain to come, is a fight between billion dollar enterprises over staggering sums of money and that’s all it is. The Amazon haters are right about one thing, Amazon is not your friend. But neither are publishers. And if you’re looking for friends in a contract, anyway, you’ve got bigger problems. The best you can hope for in a business arrangement is that your interests and the interests of the other party align and flow in the same direction. You get into one where your interests diverge at some point, you may well find yourself screwed by your own signature.

I can cut off all business dealings with Amazon in the half hour it takes me pull my stuff offline. If I was signed with Hatchette or some other publisher, that type of action is simply unthinkable. I’m stuck with that contract maybe for the rest of my life, or 35 years at the least. And I don’t even have the right to verify they’re living up to their end of it. If the New York Times or Salon or the Wall Street Journal or Scott Turow want to talk about power imbalances, how about we address that one first? Who, exactly, is that man behind the curtain we shouldn’t be paying attention to?

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

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