Letters From The Front Lines of the ebook Wars

Earlier today, I read this piece on paidContent.org about some of the letters sent to the DOJ relating to the proposed settlement for three of the five publishers who, along with Apple, have been placed in the government’s crosshairs for (alleged) collusion and price fixing of the emerging ebook market. The piece contained excerpts from both pro-publisher and pro-DOJ contributors in a pretty balanced manner. However, I would like to take this opportunity to point out one or two things I find disturbing in the letters of support for the accused.

Just to be clear, I’ve made it no secret that I believe they did illegally collude (you don’t order your employees to double delete emails if you honestly believe you’re on firm legal footing) and I do fully support a serious DOJ smackdown. In fact, I believe these major publishers have been colluding on various matters for some time now, and have used their combined cartel-like influence to dominate the industry in a manner that exploits writers, overcharges readers and has created enormous barriers for entry for viable competition.

The emergence of ebooks, particularly spearheaded by Amazon, is the first true encroachment to the publishers’ gated community of competition in my lifetime. To me, that makes it even more crucial that the DOJ does what I believe it should and pursues this case to the fullest. In my opinion, agency pricing served only a few purposes; to raise prices on the digital versions of the largest selling ebooks to protect their preferred print market, to slow ebook growth and stifle the digital transition at a manageable (for them) 20-30% of the book market, and to handicap Amazon, the one company that truly is driving the industry-wide changes that threaten their long-standing dominance. That also says nothing of Apple’s interests in the deal, which had little to do with being a competitve ebook retailer and much more to do with heading off Amazon’s efforts to enter the tablet market and potentially swipe marketshare out from under the infinitely more expensive iPad.

In my mind, this entire enterprise had nothing whatsoever to do with creating and fostering competition in the industry subset of the ebook market and everything to do with stifling genuine competition across the entirety of the book publishing spectrum. The bigger the ebook market gets, and the faster it gets that way, the quicker the house of cards that is the legacy publishers’ cartel-driven dominance of the industry collapses. So to stop it, I believe they colluded to put the price fix in.

Anyway, here are a few excerpts from three of the pro-publisher letters listed in the piece. I’ll start with literary agent Simon Lipskar, whose full letter can be read here.

“The price of the average bestselling ebook has decreased significantly, from approximately $10.20 in Q3 2010 to $8.29 on April 27 – a decrease of 19% in the two years since the introduction of agency pricing – and that, furthermore, the average price today is in fact lower than it was before the introduction of agency pricing. (As a side note, it’s also clear that even agency-priced ebooks themselves are now cheaper than they were shortly after the introduction of agency.)”

These numbers are clearly false. I won’t get into specifics on the figures because Joe Konrath already has here, using Lipskar’s own methodology to show that, particulary, agency released bestsellers have increased in price dramatically since the introduction of the agency pricing scheme. It also strikes me as somewhat disingenuous to include self pubbed or independently pubbed bestsellers in the average price he sites for a couple of reasons. One, the six publishers involved in the agency scheme control something like 85% of the bestselling books in the U.S. To clarify, that’s referring to books that sell more copies than any other books. So the prices of nearly 9 out of 10 books that sell more copies than any other books have gone up significantly, yet Lipskar somehow believes this doesn’t constitute harm to consumers? Secondly, if you take a $14.99 agency book and a $0.99 non agency book and average them, you get $7.98. That might look good on a stat sheet, but it doesn’t change the fact that the agency book is way over priced and could only get that way through collusion of the six companies that control 85% of all bestsellers.

“It is impossible to look at today’s ebook marketplace – from a price perspective alone – and not see that, rather than causing a general increase in prices, instead the agency period has evidenced a remarkable explosion of competition, with new publishers, self-publishers and retailer-owned publishers providing consumers ebooks at lower prices than the agency publishers and taking significant market share from them in the process.”

One more time, these six publishers control 85% of the most frequently purchased titles. Agency pricing specifically stopped price competition on those books. Nothing agency did created the lower priced competition or the growth we’ve seen in the ebook market. In fact, I would argue that the recent slow down we’ve seen in ebooks is more attributable to the effects of agency pricing than any of the growth we’ve seen. That’s because this is specifically what the scheme was designed to do, stifle ebook growth.

As for all the extra competition Lipskar claims came about because of agency, that’s somewhat wishful thinking as well. As much as higher priced agency ebooks have helped Indies find marketshare, and it has, though not nearly as much as he suggests because the books in question were already several times more expensive than indies under the previous wholesale model, let’s remember that the ebook market has only been a major player for about three years now. Agency has been in effect for two of those three. As the ebook market grew, it was inevitable that other competition was going to enter the game whether agency existed or not.

What this actually means is that the agency publishers seriously overestimated the power they wield over the industry. It means that this shift isn’t about reasserting control but changing and adapting. Whatever their intent, agency was doomed to fail from the get go. At best, it’s an historical speedbump in the digital transition. Just because their efforts were an inept failure and steeped in entitled arrogance, that doesn’t mean we should ignore illegal collusion or the damage done to readers who’ve spent tens of millions more than they would have on these ebooks had no collusion taken place, and the damage done to their own writers, who’ve seen the pittance royalties these publishers deign to throw their way shrink even more with agency pricing.

On a somewhat related note, here’s a truly perplexing point made by independent bookstore owner Peter Glassman:

“Publishers have never sold ebooks under the wholesale model. Rather, they have sold them under the consignment model. Amazon and other ebook sellers never purchased or took ownership of the ebooks they resold. Rather,they advertised the product, handled the transaction, and only after they had received payment and concluded the transaction did they pay the publisher for the ebook. That is consignment, not wholesale. Amazon never placed any buy orders or made any commitments to purchase specific quantities of any ebooks.”

What? I’m pretty sure they did buy wholesale because, you know, that’s how the publishers sold the ebooks to them. Not sure I’d call it consignment because part of the transaction includes Amazon electronically delivering a copy to the buyer’s device. I may not be a tech wizard, but I’m pretty sure Amazon would actually have to have a copy of the work in their possession in order to do that. As for the last sentence there, it’s gotta be on my short list of the most absurd, ignorant statements I’ve seen yet. Amazon didn’t make any buy orders? Why would they? They already had what they needed to sell 10 copies or 10 million. And I can’t even come up with a smartass quip for the “specific quantities of ebooks” line. Does this guy even have a rudimentary knowledge of what ebooks are? You don’t suppose he really thinks publishers have bunches of individual copies of each ebook on their servers and every time someone buys one, Amazon gets it from the publisher, then sends it to the reader? He can’t possibly believe that, can he? That would be just silly!

I’m hoping he was just trying to make a point that digital sales resemble consignment more than wholesale, but it wasn’t particularly effective. To me, he just looks like someone far too stuck in the print book ecosystem to see the realities and efficiencies of digital. His comparison makes no logical sense whatsoever. That is the first and only time I’ve ever seen the term “quantities of ebooks” used in that way. I certainly hope he understands that Amazon only needs the one file to sell them to infinity. I also wonder if there’s not a bit of envy in there, being a purveyor of print books, for having to actually buy quantities of books and hope they can resell them or return them later. Of course, being the owner of a small bookshop, he might not want to see the reality. That has to be a bit like standing on the beach watching a 200-foot tsunami heading your way, I suppose.

Finally, here’s a pair of points from industry consultant Mike Shatzkin, whose full letter can be read here:

“My first concern is that there is a failure of recognition of the necessity for price-setting of individual titles across the ebook supply chain. Indeed, only by eliminating price as a basis of competition can we ultimately have
balanced competition in the real world of publishing as digital change has remade it.”

So we can only have competition in ebooks by eliminating the principle means of competition? I’m sorry, I do like Shatzkin’s work generally, even though he’s a little pro-publisher sometimes, but he’s really wrong here. Taking price out of the equation means that publishers themselves would then represent the only truly viable means for competition. Excuse me if I don’t find that a particularly compelling notion, given that the largest and most powerful among them are currently on trial for colluding together to fix prices. That, and the fact that many of them still appear clueless on how to actually compete in ebooks in any way other than trying to cram them into the same molds they’ve always used with print. Given that these same publishers have openly talked about things like windowing and higher ebook prices to protect print sales, increasing friction on the reader in the ebook acquisition process, and steadfastly attempting numerous rights grabs from authors while refusing even modest royalty increases, what reason does Shatzkin have to believe that these old guard publishers will give us anything even remotely like competition? The retail competition should be left right where it is, in the hands of retailers. Unless, of course, these publishers want to become retailers themselves. He also touches on that:

“The publisher of the future must be able to sell direct. With Amazon as their single biggest wholesale customer, that puts publishers in a Catch-22. If they sell direct at full price, Amazon will undercut them and make them look foolish to their customers.”

I understand Amazon is the biggest shop on the proverbial block, but as far as I can tell, there’s no law that says publishers have to sell through them. If they do set up a direct retail mechanism and they don’t like Amazon undercutting them, then don’t sell through them. Or cut a deal with them so that they won’t undercut you. Or offer books with special editions or bundles or what have you that Amazon doesn’t have. You know, actually figure out how to compete and take advantage of the opportunities of the market! Nothing’s stopping them but themselves.

To me, this sounds like the publishers want all the benefits of the retail giant Amazon’s built but only on their terms. Life doesn’t work that way, so sorry. They could have pioneered ebooks, and online retail book sales, but they didn’t. Amazon did. You don’t get to bitch and moan how unfair it is when you dropped the ball. Don’t like it? Too bad! Deal with it or find a better way. That’s how Amazon got where they are right now.

It all comes back to competition. These publishers didn’t have any for the longest time, then Amazon and ebooks came along. Now, they must compete to survive, but the best they can come up with are protectionist schemes like agency pricing that either stifle it or try to control it.

We’re past the point where they can control this industry like they used to, no matter what they believe. Crying to Uncle Sam that a better, more nimble, more efficient competitor is stealing their customers while they were out back napping in the hammock will get them nowhere. The quicker they realize this, and move on with some actual adaptive, genuinely competitive efforts, the better off everyone in the industry will be.

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