Publishing/Writing: Insights, News, Intrigue

04/08/2012

A Compelling Case for the Agency Model or Reasons Why the Agency Model Will Not Lead to Higher Book Prices


 

Will blind justice kill the agency model?

Tonight a little hard data showing that the free market ecosystem would not allow the agency pricing model to cause book prices to rise.

Why not? One main reason is because authors and publishers would use price as a competitive tool, and this would naturally lead to lower prices.

Mark Coker, founder of  e-book distributor Smashwords, gives up some inside numbers on the Smashwords official blog  — data he has also shared with DOJ: 

Does Agency Pricing Lead to Higher Book Prices?

According to a March 9 story in the Wall Street Journal, The U.S. Department of Justice is considering suing Apple and five large US publishers for allegedly colluding to raise the price of ebooks.

At the heart of the issue, I suspect, is concern over the agency pricing model. Agency pricing allows the publisher (or the indie author) to set the retail price of their book.

Although Smashwords is not a party to this potential lawsuit, I felt it was important that the DoJ investigators hear the Smashwords side of the story, because any decisions they make could have significant ramifications for our 40,000 authors and publishers, and for our retailers and customers.

Yesterday I had an hour-long conference call with the DoJ. My goal was to express why I think it’s critically important that the DoJ not take any actions to weaken or dismantle agency pricing for ebooks.

Even before the DoJ investigation, I understood that detractors of the agency model believed that agency would lead to higher prices for consumers.

Ever since we adopted the agency model, however, I had faith that in a free market ecosystem where the supply of product (ebooks) exceeds the demand, that suppliers (authors and publishers) would use price as a competitive tool, and this would naturally lead to lower prices.

I preparation for the DoJ call, I decided to dig up the data to prove whether my pie-in-the-sky supply-and-demand hunch was correct or incorrect. I asked Henry on our engineering team to sift through our log files to reconstruct as much pricing data as possible regarding our books at the Apple iBookstore.

We shared hard data with the DoJ yesterday that we’ve never shared with anyone. I’ll share this data with you now.

Read and learn more

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04/04/2012

Looks Like the Agency Model May Survive DOJ as a Valid Business Model


The Right Decision on Agency Model ?

Signs emanating from news sources point to the agency model (backed by the big six publishing houses) being judged a valid business model by The Department of Justice.

With one alteration — Apple must drop its MFN (most favored nation) designation. MFN status meant Apple could not be undersold by other retailers.

What does this mean?

To me it means that all the best content, known authors, bestsellers, etc. will probably be available only through sites employing the agency model. Why? Simply because authors/creators can make more money with the 70%/30% revenue split — and at a price set by the author/publisher not a third-party retailer.

This also means that all the best new content, authors, bestsellers, etc. will probably leave Amazon with its cheapo book model, unless they make some changes.

That some of its titles in iBooks are uncompetitive probably won’t worry Apple much. It cares a hell of a lot more about upholding agency terms and MFN with magazine and newspaper publishers, where the market structure is totally different. 

What tomorrow may look like:

    For quality content go to Apple iBooks and other agency model sites.

    For lesser, second-rate, cheapo content go to Amazon.

More details here by  at Digital Book World:

Breaking Down the Apple-DoJ-Agency Five Saga and Its Ramifications

What could the actions of the Department of Justice mean for e-books? Here’s a breakdown with some scenarios as I understand the situation. 

Apple’s Agency Model

Publishers selling through Apple can only do so through an agency agreement (a uniform 70%/30% revenue split across all categories and digital products). That is true for all assets – games, music, video, movies, etc. – sold through Apple.

Based on the recent news reporting, the DoJ might accept agency as a valid business model. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Sharis Pozen, the top antitrust official at the Department of Justice states “we don’t pick the business model”, and is focusing its efforts on a settlement under which Apple drops the “most favored nation” clause form contracts according to a report by Reuters.

This means Apple’s business model for iTunes – including iBooks – may remain largely untouched. Apple does not have to worry about price-matching, does not need buyers or merchandisers to come up with the right price, and does not need to change its technical or e-commerce infrastructure. 

Most Favored Nation

To be competitive under its retail model, Apple originally insisted on a Most Favored Nation (MFN) clause to make sure its goods (and its processes for pricing these, where the publisher set the retail price) were competitive (i.e. Apple would not be undercut on the same goods in the marketplace).

Being forced by the DoJ to drop the Most Favored Nation (MFN) clause means that Apple could no longer insist that the retail price agreed between Apple and publisher is the lowest in the market at all times. 

Agency and the Big Six (Penguin, Macmillan, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, Random House and HarperCollins)

The big-six publishers (except Random House, which followed the “agency five” to this business model one year later) had agency agreements in place with Apple when iBooks launched and more importantly were able to force these agency agreements (RH included) on Amazon, too. Due to their market position and the popularity of their books (and authors), the big-six publishers prevailed in negotiations with Amazon (remember the outcry by authors and customers when Macmillan books disappeared from Amazon? Amazon caved inside of 3 days.)

It is likely that nothing will change for the big six if Apple is forced to drop MFN. It will be agency terms as normal with all retailers be they Apple, Amazon, BN, Google, Kobo or others. This is probably a very happy outcome for the big six.

However, at the same time, the big six are less constrained when doing short-terms promotions and will only be able to do these promotions selectively, i.e. only in certain channels and on certain titles. Regardless, I think the big six would be very happy with this outcome. 

Agency and the Second Tier

Many publishers in the “2nd tier” (all those outside big six – this in no way refers to quality of the output, it is just a reflection of size and market-share) have agency agreements with Apple, but wholesale agreements with Amazon, because Amazon had the upper hand in negotiations along the lines of “you are not willing to sell on wholesale terms? O.K. we will not sell your books” and swoosh these publishers would have lost the potential of selling to 60% to 70% of the now very large e-book market (as much as 50% of the total market for many titles).

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03/14/2012

Publishing Intrigue Con’t: Is Government About to kill Real competition to Save Appearance of Competition?


Gov't Killing Competition?

Hopefully not!

The jury is still out. While the Justice Department is weighing the past, present and future course of the publishing industry (in trying to tame the nefarious price-setting practices of e-books — and by extension of all books), opinionated speculation is running rampant!

This digital-era-caused publishing shipwreck upon ‘conscience island’ could just be the best thing that has ever been visited upon the publishing empire.

Why ? Because the forced dealing with recent ethical questions like price-setting below profitable margins just to run peripherals out of business and create a more monopolistic advantage, will hopefully lead to a clearing up of abuses and unethical practices that existed under the old traditional publishing business model as well!  

But, in order for this to take place, the DOJ must put it’s best foot forward with a real commitment to create a publishing landscape that fosters open and fair competition. Good prices for all concerned will then follow — based on fair market value — not cookie-cutter, one-price-fits-all, dip-shit prices (that will be raised, without any recourse, in the future when the true monopoly is firmly established).

This from Carolyn Kellogg of the LA Times:

Scott Turow: Apple didn’t collude, it offered an e-books life raft

Last week shivers shot through the world of publishing when news broke that the U.S. Justice Department warned Apple and five major publishers that it was investigating them for alleged collusion, the Wall Street Journal reported. At issue was the price of e-books: When Apple launched the iPad, five major publishers adjusted their pricing schemes from a wholesale/retail model to an agency model.

In December, Justice Department official Sharis A. Pozen told a House subcommittee that the antitrust division was investigating e-book pricing. A source told the New York Times that the department hopes to decide by the end of April, when Pozen is leaving, whether to file suit against Apple and publishers  Simon & Schuster, Hachette, Penguin, HarperCollins and Macmillan.

That would be a mistake, writes Scott Turow, a bestselling author, a lawyer, and head of the Authors Guild. In an update on the Authors Guild website, he writes:

We have no way of knowing whether publishers colluded in adopting the agency model for e-book pricing. We do know that collusion wasn’t necessary: Given the chance, any rational publisher would have leapt at Apple’s offer and clung to it like a life raft. Amazon was using e-book discounting to destroy bookselling, making it uneconomic for physical bookstores to keep their doors open.

Just before Amazon introduced the Kindle, it convinced major publishers to break old practices and release books in digital form at the same time they released them as hardcovers. Then Amazon dropped its bombshell: as it announced the launch of the Kindle, publishers learned that Amazon would be selling countless frontlist e-books at a loss. This was a game-changer, and not in a good way. Amazon’s predatory pricing would shield it from e-book competitors that lacked Amazon’s deep pockets.

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08/20/2011

Coming: Legal Deposition RE E-Book Pricing, Economics of Digital Publishing and Inner Core Operations


Deposing Core Elements of the Agency Model

Class action lawsuits are growing against five major publishers plus Apple RE the infamous “agency model” (where the publisher sets the book/e-book price versus the traditional wholesale/retail model where the price is set by the sellers/retailers (?) … at least I think I have that right) 

Per publishing consultant, Mike Shatzkin, who writes the great IdeaLog Blog,  the “agency” model is based on the idea that the publisher is selling to the consumer and, therefore, setting the price, and any “agent”, which would usually be a retailer but wouldn’t have to be, that creates that sale would get a “commission” from the publisher for doing so.

Or, put another way by the ABA (The American Booksellers Assoc): Under the agency model, a publisher sets a retail price for a specific book, which establishes a level playing field for all resellers.

 I have posted on the agency model several times back when it was first named … and damned if I don’t seem more confused about it now!

At any rate, the lawsuits … mostly claiming that e-book prices are being artificially inflated … and their associated costs are spiraling upward!

These details in Publishers Weekly by Andrew Albanese:

More Lawsuits Over Agency Model

A class action lawsuit over e-book pricing filed against five major publishers and Apple has begun to sprawl, with four new “copycat” lawsuits filed last week. Two suits, filed in Manhattan, add Random House as a defendant, while a third suit, also in Manhattan, adds Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Another suit was filed in Oakland, Calif. The claims and assertions of fact in each suit are nearly identical to the original suit, filed August 9 by the firm Hagens Berman: that the simultaneous introduction of the agency model by the major publishers reflects an illegal conspiracy to “artificially inflate” e-book prices.

The filing of copycat suits is very common in consumer class actions. “It is more the rule than the exception,” one class action attorney told PW. If a case is perceived to be a good one, there will be multiple filings by different firms in different courts, and the firms will then compete to see who will become lead counsel. In the coming months, the cases—and there could be more coming—will be organized, and the defendants will seek to have them moved to one court.

According to the filings, the price-fixing conspiracy occurred as Apple negotiated terms with publishers in anticipation of the 2010 iPad release. On January 27, 2010, when asked by reporters how Apple’s e-bookstore would compete with Amazon’s $9.99 price, Apple’s Steve Jobs responded that the prices “would be the same.” That public pronouncement, one suit alleges, “was a signal to Publisher Defendants that each of them had agreed to join the conspiracy.” The following day, January 28, Macmillan CEO John Sargent told Amazon of its switch to the agency model. “This would have been irrational if Macmillan had not expected its primary competitors to follow suit,” the lawsuit notes. “Acting alone, no individual publisher would be able to sustain the supra-competitive prices.” The agency model, the suit notes, effectively ended “retailer discretion” for e-book pricing.

Read and learn more
 

 
 

 

10/18/2010

Amazon Should Lose the $9.99 Ebook Price War


Publishers have engaged in a battle with Amazon on pricing all eBooks at $9.99…and they are winning.

I think they should win! Why? Simply because the value of a book (a creation, if you will, from intellectual capital) has never been just about the manufacturing process…It has, more importantly, been about the “content” from the writers mind and imagination.

Traditional publishing has always tried to minimize content (as evidenced by the chump-change percentages offered to writers)…But, in fact, it has always been the true gold.

Faith Merino, writing for Vator.tv, reports on this issue (not always with my point of view) with a key timeline history of the publishers vs Amazon fight and future probabilities:

Why are publishers fighting Amazon’s e-books?

A breakdown of traditional book publishers’ uphill battle against cheap, digitized books.

Amazon’s war with publishers heated up last week with a passive-aggressive letter to customers posted on Amazon.co.uk informing them that the high prices of e-books have been set by publishers and Amazon will continue to fight them. Personally, I go back and forth on this issue. On the one hand, charging the same price (or more) for an e-book as a hardcover seems ludicrous, but at the same time, the publishing industry has long struggled to survive, as there is little if any money in books these days. So what is the real story?

Amazon’s letter to customers reads:

“Dear Customers, recently, you may have heard that a small group of UK publishers will require booksellers to adopt an ‘agency model’ for selling e-books. Under this model, publishers set the consumer price for each e-book and require any bookseller to sell at that price… We believe they will raise prices on e-books for consumers almost across the board. For a number of reasons, we think this is a damaging approach for readers, authors, booksellers and publishers alike.”

The letter ends with a simple statement about Amazon’s confidence in its customers’ buying power: “In any case, we expect UK customers to enjoy low prices on the vast majority of titles we sell, and if faced with a small group of higher-priced agency titles, they will then decide for themselves how much they are willing to pay for e-books, and vote with their purchases.”

The agency model that Amazon refers to was first proposed by Macmillan, which threatened to pull its books from Amazon if the online bookseller didn’t raise the prices of its $9.99 e-books. Amazon responded by pulling Macmillan’s books itself, but as other publishers rallied behind Macmillan (Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and Penguin), Amazon has been left no other choice but to capitulate and let publishers set their own prices.

How it all started

Read more http://alturl.com/rzdu9

05/28/2010

British Publishers Ink Deals with Apple



More intrigue in publishing with the iPad’s coming-out party in England…Some previously committed publishers to Apple delayed final acceptance until the last minute! Talk about a last minute prom date…

Four big English publishers finally signed with the iPad agency pricing model and had ebooks in the Apple iBookStore today at the iPad overseas launch…

This report from TheBookSeller.com by Catherine Neilan:

Hachette UK, Penguin, HarperCollins and Pan Macmillan are the only British publishers to have inked deals with Apple, with e-books produced by all companies appearing on the iBookStore this morning (28th) and available to UK book buyers.

The four represent five of the original global publishers who signed with Apple before its US launch in April—only Simon & Schuster is currently missing. Between them, they account for roughly 36% of the UK books market.

Man Booker-winner Wolf Hall (Fourth Estate), David Mitchell’s number one The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (Sceptre) and Stephen Gately’s The Tree of Seasons are available to buy with prices ranging from £11.99 to £9.99 for hardbacks and £6.99 to £3.99 for paperbacks.

Prices are in the main more expensive than the equivalent print versions available on Amazon.co.u. For example, the paperback of Wolf Hall is £3.60 on Amazon, but £6.99 on the iBookStore. Thousand Autumns… is £11.99 via Apple, but Amazon is charging £9.41 for the hardback.

However, readers can download more than 100 pages of Wolf Hall for free, with an option to buy it while reading the sample. Nearly 100 pages of Mitchell’s novel can also be downloaded for free.

Tony Parsons, Jeremy Clarkson, Chris Evans and Frankie Boyle are all among other authors appearing on the virtual bookshelf. Currently, Evans’ memoir It’s Not What You Think is number one.

Freelance writer Ben Johncock, who already owns an iPad, said: “There is a huge selection on here, with titles from all the genres – there is a really good sample of work available.” He added: “I was a bit worred there would be nothing on here but there is actually quite a bit.”

Read more at http://alturl.com/uomc

03/28/2010

What’s So Hard To Understand About Random House’s Strategy?


Does Random House (RH) have the right approach to establishing digital content pricing, especially eBooks? RH is successfully moving the digital pricing needle from the retailer to the publisher…where it probably belongs and will be more beneficial to writers and other creative people…Just this bloggers opinion.

Mike Shatzkin, The Shatzkin Files, has his usual intelligent analysis on this subject:

Since Apple made its iPad announcement last January, five of the Big Six publishers have been featured participatants. That not only means they’re making content available for the iPad “form factor” (color and connectivity like the iPhone, screen size like the Kindle) but also that they’re buying into the new “agency model” for sales. As anybody who cares about this stuff already knows, under the agency model the control of pricing to the consumer moves from the retail point of contact to the publisher.

In return for that control, the publisher lowers the “established retail price” and, although the stated margin to the retailer is reduced from 50% to 30%, the effective margin rises because the retailer sells at that publisher price, not something substantially less. And the publishers going to agency are happily accepting less for each book sold to gain that pricing control and price stability across all retailers.

Random House has been prominent by its absence from the group. And some people, including some who are really well-informed about publishing, wonder “why?”

I wonder why they wonder.

Although it is certainly possible that iPad book sales will be startling right out of the box, that’s not really likely. Unlike the Kindle, which is purchased by consumers solely for the purpose of reading books, the iPad will attract customers for all manner of reasons and, actually, reading books would be pretty far down the list for most people. Although there are pockets of skeptics, I’m sure most publishing people accept that the iPad can grow into a very robust bookselling channel but it isn’t clear how long that will take or whether narrative text will be as much a beneficiary of the device as books that are more complex presentations of words and pictures.

In the short run, which from this seat looks like some months, if not a year, Kindle and Amazon are still likely to be the leader in ebook sales, and other established ereader platforms that are optimized for text (Nook, Sony Reader, the new ereader from Kobo) will remain important. By holding themselves out of the new channels, continuing the current policies of “wholesale” discounting, and allowing the retailers to set prices, Random House will be maximizing their short-term sales and profits. Assuming they maintain their publisher-established prices near their current levels (and why would they not?), Random House will collect more money for each ebook sold than their competitors do while the public will will pay less for each Random House ebook they buy than for comparable titles from other publishers.

That’s a pretty significant short term advantage. Why wonder why somebody would do that?

Of course, most publishers hope — if not believe — that the proliferation of new devices and platforms combined with the more widespread use of the agency model setting retail prices will disperse the ebook market among many more players. Will Apple or any other player hold it against Random that they were slow to make the change if they decide to join the party after it really gets going? My hunch is “no.”

And that may be Random House’s hunch too. They may be making a perfectly conscious and rational gamble that the sales they’ll lose in the short run by not being on the iPad will be more than compensated for by margin they’ll make through higher wholesale prices and greater sales through lower retail prices than any of their Big Six competition in the still-dominant Kindle channel.

And if Amazon is willing to retaliate against a publisher’s print business over dislike of their ebook policies, wouldn’t they also be likely to favor the books of a big publisher that cooperates with them when everybody else doesn’t? Couldn’t that add a further incremental edge to Random House in the short run while the iPad book-reading audience is still ramping up?

I have read nothing to tell me whether Apple would or wouldn’t accept Random House books on the wholesale model. (The other publishers embraced the agency model; they didn’t need to be talked into it.) If they do, Random House could persist with this strategy for a long time, even when they start putting books on the iPad. Even though their “listed” ebook prices would be considerably higher than their competitors’, the prices at which they’d be offered to the public could be lower.

If this all works the way the agency publishers envision, we’ll have a multi-platform, multi-retailer, price-stable ebook market before too long. If that happens, Amazon may tire of paying more for Random House books, whether they sell them for less or not, and the wholesale model with retail price reductions is not a palatable combination for publishers. But that’s not imminent and for the foreseeable future, all the Random House position means to them is more revenue per copy and lower prices to the consumer.

There is a school of thought that ebook consumers are very sensitive to price. Starting with the appearance of the agency model next week, ebook prices to the consumer for (usually author-) branded frontlist titles are going to rise. It will be interesting to see if the IDPF (International Digital Publishers Forum) reports of sales show any change in the trend line starting with the reports of sales in April.

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