Ask the Agent has been covering the developing story of the changing models for selling e-books and the struggle for market share between Amazon and Apple.
An article appeared in the New York Times on March 17 that adds a new and troubling wrinkle to the story.
90% of the retail sale of e-books is now done by Amazon. This would be a monopoly by any reasonable definition. Amazon is cementing its dominance in the marketplace by offering e-book downloads that can only be read by the Kindle, a media device that is manufactured by Amazon and sold exclusively through Amazon. Thus if you own a Kindle, you can only buy e-books from Amazon. If you buy e-books from Amazon, you must buy a Kindle to read them.
Amazon has come to dominate internet retailing by aggressively discounting products in order to increase market share. They did this to great effect with books from the very beginning. They have been doing the same thing with e-books. Publishers have been selling e-books to Amazon for approximately $12.50. Amazon has been selling below cost at $9.95 for their e-book best- sellers.
If you ask the major publishers how they feel about this, they will tell you privately, as they have told me, that they are profoundly troubled by the market power of Amazon and are concerned that the deep discounting practiced by Amazon will devalue what the marketplace thinks is a fair price for books. Last month the sixth largest American publisher, Macmillan, announced that it was changing its retail terms for e-books to the “agency model” which would not permit Amazon to discount titles. Amazon retaliated by pulling “buy” buttons for all Macmillan books both electronic and physical. This lasted only a week, but it should be a cautionary tale regarding the dangers of monopoly power in the distribution of ideas in a society or, in the case of Amazon, in the world.
Enter Apple and the iPad. It is difficult to imagine that Steve Jobs can be considered the friend of the little guy and a force against monopoly. Certainly the clout that Apple exercised with the music industry in forcing them to accept the iTunes model has done considerable damage to the music companies and artist royalties. But in publishing, as in Mid-East politics, the principle that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” rules.
Five of the six largest book publishers fell into the arms of Apple and negotiated a new sales model that allows the publishers to control the retail price sold to consumers of the book. But Steve Jobs is not Mahatma Gandhi and has imposed his own stringent conditions on the publishers. Under the new agreements with Apple, publishers will not be permitted to allow any other retailer to sell books below the price that is sold by Apple.
Amazon has reluctantly gone along with the new model, but is insisting on having a 3 year contract that would lock publishers into the current arrangement and guarantee that no other retailer will get better terms. Publishers are reluctant to agree to such a contract. The whole e-book market is in flux. Nobody knows what the e-book firmament will be like in three years.
But according to the New York Times, it gets a lot worse. Amazon has only agreed to the new “agency model” for the six largest publishers. The other 10,000 smaller publishers have not yet signed on with Apple. Amazon has been speaking to them and telling them that they prefer to stick with the old model where Amazon can sell books for whatever price it chooses.
These same publishers have spoken to Apple and have been told that Apple will only work with them if they sell to all other retailers under the same terms as they are selling toApple. In other words, there is reason to believe that in order to do business with Amazon, publishers will not be able to do business with Apple –and vice versa. A tough choice for the smaller publishers and a distressing possibility for the consumer.
The message Amazon sent forth during last month’s negotiation between Macmillan was eloquent and persuasive. That message was that a publisher who doesn’t agree to Amazon’s terms risks having their books not be carried by the largest book retailer in the world.
Book publishers, and particularly smaller book publishers, are clearly getting whip-sawed by the two giants. The stakes are high for both Apple and Amazon. But the stakes are even higher for book buyers and the free marketplace of ideas.