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.
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).