Posts Tagged ‘anti trust’

My Letter to the Department of Justice

May 8, 2012

Everyone in book publishing has been talking about the anti-trust litigation and proposed settlements initiated by the United States against Apple and 5 major book publishers. The government’s case alleges that the defendants agreed to fix prices on e-books and  that these agreements  had the effect of raising prices to consumers. Most people in our business believe   that the United States’ position is misdirected, that the lawsuit will enhance the market power of Amazon.com and that this is the real anti-trust threat to the industry. The Authors Guild representing authors, the American Booksellers Association representing independent booksellers and now the Association of Author Representatives representing literary agents are on record as opposing the position of the Department of Justice. I decided to weigh in, myself, with the letter below. The DOJ is required to consider these letters, so any of you who wish to express your opinions should write to  John Read at the address below.

John R. Read
Chief, Litigation III Section
United States Department of Justice
450 5th St NW
Suite 4000
Washington DC 20530

Dear Mr. Read:

I am writing regarding the proposed settlement between the three book publishers ( Simon and Schuster, HarperCollins, and Hachette Book Group)  and the United States regarding e-book pricing.

I feel that it is wrong for the Department of Justice to focus its anti-trust efforts against Apple and the major book publishers for their implementation of the so-called “agency model” for pricing. There are restraint of trade issues in our industry, but this litigation is misdirected and likely to exacerbate those issues.

The decision by each book publisher to implement agency pricing was in response to Amazon.com’s policy and practice  of setting prices on e-books below cost in order to drive other potential sellers of these products out of the market, thus giving Amazon a virtual monopoly on the sale of e-books. This strategy was  enhanced by the manner in which Amazon designed and marketed it’s Kindle format editions of e-books,  so that those books could only be read on Amazon’s proprietary Kindle book readers, and only purchased on the Amazon web site.  Amazon  refused to allow other potential competitors in the e-book business to sell Kindle edition titles. At the time that publishers began contemplating implementation of the agency model, Kindle Editions accounted for 90% of  book sales on e-book readers.

Amazon was able to  sustain this otherwise ruinous pricing policy, because it could  offset its losses by driving people to its website where they would also purchase more profitable items.

The dangers implicit in this strategy  can be demonstrated. Amazon has shown its willingness to stop selling titles by publishers who will not agree to Amazon’s trade terms. This happened recently with 5000 Independent Publisher Group titles.  As a result, these e-books  are simply not available to the 60% of  all e-book readers who read e-books on their  Kindles.

Amazon’s policies have already had a devastating effect on community based bookstores including the recently bankrupt Border’s, Barnes and Noble, and the thousands of independent booksellers across the country.

The United States should be pursuing policies that discourage excessive concentration in industries, particularly when that concentration will reduce  the free dissemination of ideas in the country. The current litigation and settlement agreements against the major book publishers is doing quite the opposite.

Andy Ross

Andy Ross Agency

The Media Speak Out on the Book Publisher – Apple Anti-trust Suit — And They Are Not Amused

April 16, 2012

The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal finally agree on something, and so does most of the mainstream media.  That suing the  book publishers for anti-trust violations  is inexplicable.  The problem is that if the DOJ succeeds in forcing the publishers to change their business model, the only party that will benefit from this is Amazon.com which is the real threat to competition in the book business.

David Carr, writing in The New York Times called the lawsuit “the modern equivalent of taking on Standard Oil but breaking up Ed’s Gas ‘N’ Groceries on Route 19 instead.” He  wonders “why the crumbling book business is worthy of so much attention from Justice while Wall Street skates is a broader question we’ll leave for another day.”  Carr continued, “after a week of watching the Justice Department and Amazon team up, I’ve learned that low prices come with a big cost.”
Holman Jenkins Jr.   in The Wall Street Journal said, “in essence, Justice says that, beginning in 2008, several plankton, in the form of five publishers, conspired against a whale, Amazon, whose monopoly clout had imposed a $9.99 retail price for e-books…. Given Amazon’s dominance, it’s hardly offensive that all five used the opportunity of Apple’s arrival in the market to reclaim that power….

“Justice calls it collusion. In reality, publishers have nothing to collude about, except maybe Clive Cussler’s next advance…. let’s face it: Publishers have every reason to fear Amazon’s exploitative behavior…”

Jenkins closes with: “Judging by Justice’s slobbering over Amazon, as if whatever Amazon wants is the Lord’s ordained order in the e-book market, many of those résumés are headed to Seattle.”

Barry Lynn at Slate says “the DoJ got this issue…spectacularly wrong…. Now this vital marketplace is, for all intents, under the sway of a single boss. One that has a direct interest in stripping capital from publishers. One that has a direct interest in gouging all writers who must ride its rails. One that has a direct interest in suppressing any work of reporting that questions its power, or for that matter the political economic regime that enabled such concentration of power. One that is swiftly capturing direct control over much of the rest of the U.S. economy as well.”

Michael Shermer in an op-ed piece in The Los Angeles Times said: “The Justice Department should have left things alone. Essentially, two titans —Apple and Amazon — clashed, and competition was working…. Amazon will gain a government-aided advantage over the competition…. What this lawsuit probably will do instead is return to Amazon the power to monopolize the e-book market through predatory pricing to the detriment of publishers, authors and, ultimately, readers.”

Monopoly, Monopsony, and Oligopoly in Book Publishing

April 11, 2012

Most of  us got into   book publishing because we wanted to make a life  immersed in great ideas and great literature and to share those ideas with others. So how come during the last few weeks all we are hearing about are arcane economic theories explaining restraint of trade?

Several weeks ago the Anti-trust Division of the Department of Justice announced that it had been conducting an investigation into whether the 6 largest US book publishers had combined with Apple to fix prices on e-books. Today the DOJ filed a lawsuit against  Apple,  Macmillan, and Penguin USA alleging that they had made agreements to restrain trade and keep retail prices for e-books higher than they would otherwise be under free competition.   At the same time three other major publishers; Simon and Schuster, Hachette Book Group, and HarperCollins; announced that they were settling with the DOJ to avoid this litigation.

The issues aren’t all that complicated. Several years ago the major publishers changed the way they sold books to retailers. Previously they used a “wholesale” model in which the publisher set a low wholesale price in which books were sold to retailers and the retailer could set its own price, usually higher, so that the retailer made money on each sale. Seems reasonable. However  Amazon.com started  aggressively selling e-books below cost in order to keep other potential competitors from getting into the e-book business. Amazon  used a proprietary format for their Kindle Edition e-books that could only be sold through Amazon. Essentially if you wanted to buy e-books to read on your Kindle Reader, there was only one place you could shop.

Back in 2010 about 90% of all e-books were being sold in the Kindle format and only  by Amazon. Publishers, authors, and other booksellers were understandably  concerned about Amazon’s power in the marketplace and decided to do something about it. The major publishers adopted a new business model where the publisher  would set the retail price and give the retailers a 30% commission but only under an agreement where the retailer couldn’t sell at a  discounted  price.

The DOJ is arguing that this arrangement (called “the agency model”)  keeps prices artificially high for consumers, and they are seeking to end it. The 3 publishers who are settling with the DOJ have agreed to allow retailers to discount e-books below the suggested retail price.

This is a victory for Amazon.  Now they can return to their  practice  of heavily discounting e-books and discouraging competition. Amazon can afford to sell books at or below cost. They know that customers coming to the Amazon site for a cheap e-book are likely to pick up some other more profitable products at the same time.

Everyone else in the book business is alarmed and I think consumers should be too. In the short run, there are going to be some good deals for e-books on Amazon. But  Amazon’s   potential for monopoly power raises some pretty ominous questions. In a word, Amazon has not been shy about removing “buy” buttons from titles by publishers who won’t cave to Amazon’s  terms, terms which are becoming  increasingly unsustainable to publishers as Amazon consolidates its market power. Several weeks ago Independent Publishers Group announced that it could not agree to Amazon’s new and draconian demands for favorable terms. As a result Amazon refused to sell Kindle editions for 6000 IPG titles. As of now, those books are still not available at the  Kindle Store.

A lot of people in our business are throwing around words that are not often used at literary cocktail parties. We say that Amazon.com is gaining monopoly power. A monopoly is a market arrangement where a single company controls all sales and distribution of a particular product. At the moment, Amazon is not a monopoly. It’s market share of e-books is down to about 60%, due to the entry into the market of major players like Apple and Barnes and Noble. To some extent this is a result of  the  the agency  pricing model that the DOJ is seeking to undermine . If   Amazon is successful at cutting out the other competitors by aggressive price competition,  it  will once again have a monopoly on the sale of e-books with the help and support of the Department of Justice.  A most ingenious paradox. Your tax dollars at work.

At the moment, we have an oligopolistic structure in the sale of e-books. An oligopoly is characterized by a small number of producers or distributors. Almost all e-books in the US are being sold by Amazon, Apple,  Barnes and Noble, Google, and Sony. A lot of industries are oligopolistic. And it doesn’t necessarily pose problems for competition as long as the parties are not acting in concert to control prices or limit supplies.

There is another relevant economic concept: Monopsony. This is distinguished from monopoly  because it describes  a market with only one buyer that forces sellers to accept lower than socially optimal prices. The decision  by the Department of Justice to litigate against Apple and the book publishers  will help establish  a market for e-books  where Amazon will be the only  seller of e-books (a monopoly) but also the only buyer of e-books from the publishers ( a monopsony).

This  is a truly alarming  situation for an industry that can only thrive in a diverse marketplace. We are, after all, in the business of disseminating ideas. And a monopoly of the marketplace of ideas is an enormously troubling development for those of us who see books as something more than just another consumer product.

The Justice Department vs. Book Publishers: What This Really Means

March 10, 2012

The Anti-Trust Division of The Justice Department announced  this week that it is considering filing charges against Apple Computer  and 5 of the largest book publishers for violating anti-trust laws. The issue, at least as far as I can determine, is whether there were illegal agreements  made between Apple and the  5 publishers to  fix  the retail price on e-books.  It is illegal under anti-trust law to make agreements to “restrain trade”.

I know a little about anti-trust law. When I was a bookseller, I was involved for about 20 years in various anti-trust lawsuits having to do with unfair competition by chain stores. I won’t go into detail here about anti-trust except to say that the laws are incredibly arcane and usually hinge on “facts” that are murky at best. And I do not know the specific facts of this case that would either incriminate or exonerate the putative conspirators.

So let’s talk about what this means in the real world. Here’s the back story. In 2010 when Apple was poised to release the iPad, Amazon controlled about 90% of the e-book business. Amazon sold books in the proprietary Kindle format which could only be read on Kindle readers. If you had  a Kindle reader (and at that time most e-book consumers did), you had to buy your e-books from Amazon.

As is their wont, Amazon began selling newly released best selling e-books at $9.95, below their cost which was typically about $12.50. This was anathema to publishers for a number of reasons. 1) The prices were so low that it had the  potential effect of eviscerating  sales of the print on paper editions. Publishers recognized that e-books should be cheaper, but not that cheap. 2) Related to this, publishers felt that Amazon’s selling below cost would discourage entry of other  potential vendors in the e-book business. This would leave publishers  completely beholden to one vendor, Amazon, whom they have never really felt comfortable with.  3) Finally this kind of pricing would put into the heads of consumers that there was an inherent  value to an e-book of $9.95. Presumably Amazon had no intention of selling below cost forever and they would  eventually use their monopolistic power to  force publishers to reduce the prices on  e-books books.  Amazon would  then have a sustainable business model. But publishers probably wouldn’t.

Enter the Apple iPad. At last the publishers hoped that they could break the Amazon monopoly by throwing themselves into the arms of  the only company with the resources to compete successfully against Amazon. Apple Computer    has the highest capitalization of any company in America, probably the world. Compared to Apple, Amazon is a mere street peddler.  Apple and the publishers worked out an alternative system for selling books that was similar to the  relationship iTunes had with music publishers.

Most products for sale in  retail stores are purchased   at “wholesale” for a low price, and the retailer can set any price they want. Thus the old saw that all you need to know in retail is: “buy low, sell high”. But Amazon had the resources to buy low and sell lower,  to sell below cost for as long as it took to drive out the weaker competition. After all, they could make up  the lost profits by selling more Kindle Readers and driving business to their other products. Cameras, shaving cream, what have you.

Apple and the six largest trade publishers adopted a new model. Rather than giving a lower wholesale price to a vendor and letting the vendor set the retail price, under the new “agency” model, the publisher would set the retail price of the book and give the vendor (say Apple or Amazon) a 30% commission on the sale. There were many complicated deals made (that may or may not have been legal) that would force Amazon to accept this new “agency” model. Amazon would have to sell the e-books at the same price as their competition, thus defeating what has always been Amazon’s competitive strategy.

The Justice Department argues that this new “agency” model  is bad for the consumer because it tends to insure that e-books are selling at a higher price than they otherwise would if  the retailer was able set its own price. Publishers argue that the “wholesale” model would create an unhealthy monopoly by Amazon  that would not be in the long term interest of book buyers and society at large.

Yesterday, the Author’s Guild weighed in on this issue. The president of the Guild, Scott Turow, sent a letter    to all of its members calling the decision by the Justice Department to challenge Apple and the 5 publishers: “grim news”. As most of the followers of this blog know, I have frequently expressed my own concerns about the sometimes  unhealthy power of Amazon in the book business.

Turow was speaking for the interests of authors, but he makes some powerful points about the ultimate impact of a de facto monopoly by Amazon. He is concerned, as are publishers, that predatory pricing of e-books will attenuate the ability of physical bookstores to compete. He says that it is as if: “Netflix announced that it would stream new movies the same weekend they opened in theaters.”

Turow goes on to say: “Marketing studies consistently show that readers are far more adventurous in their choice of books when in a bookstore than when shopping online. In bookstores, readers are open to trying new genres and new authors….A robust book marketplace demands both bookstore showrooms to properly display new titles and online distribution for the convenience of customers.”

He also points out that 2 years after the agency model was implemented Amazon’s market share of e-books is down to about 60%.  Barnes and Noble  has successfully entered  the market with its highly regarded Nook. Apple has an excellent e-book store. I can say first hand that the iPad is an insanely good e-reader. You can even buy e-books from your independent store through Google books – and at prices competitive with Amazon.

Last week we wrote about the fact that Amazon stopped selling 6000 titles from America’s second largest small press distributor, IPG, after a dispute over terms. Those books are simply not available to people with Kindle readers. I think this fact tells us all we need to know about what this dispute means to society at large.