Counter-Points To My Earlier Points

I made the arguments earlier. Now here’s the rebuttals (sort of). And the rebuttals to the rebuttals. Yeah, I’m three degrees deep in arguing with myself about obscure market competition issues on a Sunday. What of it?

When I talked about Oliver Wendell Holmes arguments in his dissent, I skipped over this part. In retrospect, he’s got a bit of a point. But only to a point.

“What really fixes that (prices) is the competition of conflicting desires. We, none of us, can have as much as we want of all the things that we want. Therefore, we have to choose. As soon as the price of something that we want goes above the point at which we are willing to give up other things to have that, we cease to buy it and buy something else. Of course, I am speaking of things that we can get along without. There may be necessaries that sooner or later must be dealt with like short rations in a shipwreck, but they are not Dr. Miles’ medicines. With regard to things like the latter, it seems to me that the point of most profitable returns marks the equilibrium of social desires, and determines the fair price in the only sense in which I can find meaning in those words.”

If things get too expensive, people stop buying. The market’s self correcting in a way. In that sense, what does it hurt if Hachette wants to price itself out of the range of a large percentage, if not most, of the people interested in buying ebooks? It’s their funeral. And, hey, maybe people in large numbers will be willing to pay higher prices. Doesn’t Hachette deserve the opportunity to sell its product for the maximum price it can muster?

Of course they do. The only thing is Hachette isn’t capable of selling directly to customers, at least not on a scale sufficient to support their annual sales and revenue needs. If they could, they wouldn’t need anything but their own storefront. To reach those readers, however, they need retailers. Specifically, they need Amazon. Hachette’s maximum price isn’t what the reader will pay, it’s what the retailer (or wholesaler) will pay. The retailer is the one with the direct connection to the customer, the one with first hand knowledge of what constitutes a reasonable price to the customer. Why should Hachette be entitled to preferential treatment in being able to restrain Amazon’s trade just because it needs something from them but doesn’t like the terms it’ll have to pay to get it? Hachette has the right to seek the maximum price it can get, yet Amazon doesn’t possess that same right? Amazon must have its interests inhibited so Hachette’s can be fulfilled? What is the basis in law for that distinction, that preferential position that Hachette seems to want?

I think you’ll find that the equilibrium of social desires, as Holmes calls it, isn’t going to be found by restricting price competition among retailers. And because we’re talking about preventing retailers from making pricing decisions, if things do go south from suppliers overestimating what the public views as a reasonable price, they’ll have no recourse but to sit there and watch money float right out the door. If retailers can’t make pricing decisions, even in the face of their own survival, giving manufacturers control of retail pricing can do a hell of a lot of harm.

The other point I wanted to make is with regards to the concept of a title to goods being transferred through a sale and the rights to that transferring with it. With ebooks, and all digital goods in this vein, there is no title being transferred. Amazon isn’t buying ebooks from Hachette, they’re selling them, much like consignment. If the title to the product doesn’t transfer, then it follows that the rights of the producer won’t be terminated at the point of sale. So it is conceivable Hachette, or others, may have the power to dictate additional terms to retailers, possibly even under copyright in ways it didn’t apply when sales were sales and title went with them.

However, the kicker here is that in order for Amazon to sell those ebooks, Hachette has to license them to do so. The terms of said license are the result of…wait for it…negotiation! Hachette doesn’t magically gain more leverage even if the title to the product remains with them.

This is the result of an issue with digital goods that will need to be addressed at some point. When products are effectively sold but, through legal definition, are only licensed, it puts the balance of power in the market off kilter. It, potentially, grants manufacturers the ability to vertically fix prices if it can do so, and exercise controls or restrictions/the elimination of further traffic in future sales. This means the consumer’s bargain of granting the producer limited exclusive rights is no longer being balanced by those rights for themselves once they’ve made the purchase. The consumer is still implicitly giving something up but no longer getting anything in return.

The situation here, however, is that Hachette (or all of the individual Big 5 independently with the possible exception of PRH) don’t possess the leverage or the will to sacrifice what it would take to get any significantly sized retailer on board with those terms. Short of working in unison (been there, done that, wrote checks for tens of millions) or Uncle Sam changing the ground rules in their favor, the title transfer issue is not one they’ll be able put to much use.

Eventually though, that’s going to become an issue. If I had to guess, I’d say it’ll start as a dispute between a customer and a retailer and mushroom out from there before a court somewhere rules that the licenses used here are indistinguishable from a sale. Then all hell breaks loose. I can’t wait!

If I were one of these publishers, I’d try to get ahead of this game by working to set up some second hand markets and make certain I was in for a sizable cut while I still had the leverage. The downside is what? Resale will undermine the value of books and drive prices downward? Subscription services, the persistence and growth of indies publishers selling at much lower pricing tiers and consumers understanding that ebooks offer less value than print versions, even paperbacks, and should be much cheaper are already doing that. Right now, resale can’t exist without the consent of the copyright holder. Such a market needs their approval to happen. That makes their signature very valuable at the moment. However, wait until a judge, a consumer agency or some legislation changes things to where digital resale markets don’t need their consent and they’ll be out in the cold. Remember this, though. When it happens, and it will eventually, publishers will be caught in yet another lurch of their own making through lack of vision and even more inexcusable lack of action.

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

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