As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, here was a major kerfuffle between Amazon and Macmillan over the weekend that is so hugely important it will necessitate the postponement of my planned “Last Week in Publishing” post. I KNOW. Didn’t Macmillan and Amazon realize the implications to my blog???
Stay with me, because I’m going to go into the weeds a bit to break this down. And to do that I need to provide some background info.
The Background Info
The whole issue revolves around e-book pricing: many publishers have long been extremely uncomfortable with the $9.99 price point that Amazon established for e-books, feeling it’s too low and acclimating consumers to a price that is, from a publishers’ perspective, unsustainable. In the words of Hachette CEO David Young when Hachette announced that they would delay some e-book releases: “I can’t sit back and watch years of building authors sold off at bargain-basement prices.”
Here’s the interesting thing about that, and something to keep in mind because it’s not often mentioned in the discussions surrounding Amazon: major publishers weren’t getting paid based on the $9.99 price point. According to the NYTimes, for a new release publishers have been receiving roughly the equivalent of half the hardcover retail price. For a $24.99 hardcover book available as an e-book for sale at $9.99, again, according to the NY Times, Amazon pays the publisher somewhere around $12.50 and uses it as a loss leader, presumably to sell Kindles.
Along comes the iPad and Apple’s “agency” model. Apple is allowing publishers to set the list price of their own titles, and they pay publishers a 70/30 split. E-books will cost no more than $14.99. This means that for a $14.99 iBook, publishers will receive $10.43. (note: Random House hasn’t come to an agreement with Apple and is still in discussions)
Do you see what’s interesting about this?? Take this hypothetical $25.00 new release hardcover. Publishers are willingly taking less money from Apple ($10.43 in our hypothetical example vs. $12.50 for Kindle) in exchange for setting what publishers feel is a more sustainable list price.
Assuming all these reports are right. Also my math.
This past week, as Macmillan CEO John Sargent explained, Macmillan told Amazon they wanted to use the Apple agency model for Kindle e-books. Essentially, Macmillan was proposing that Amazon could pay them less money per title if Amazon would let them set their own e-book prices.
Amazon reacted with what Mike Shatzkin called the “nuclear option”: they took down the buy buttons for nearly all Macmillan titles. As in: they pulled down the buy buttons not only for the e-books, but for print books as well. Some customers reported that Amazon removed Macmillan titles from their wish lists and deleted Macmillan sample chapters off of Kindles. Yowza.
The dust settled somewhat Sunday afternoon as Amazon said that they would “ultimately capitulate” to Macmillan’s demands and abide by the agency model with Macmillan, though the buy buttons have not yet, as of this writing, been reactivated. And that brings us up to speed.
Say What Now?
So. Why would a publisher willingly take less money per e-book copy sold in exchange for, essentially, the ability to charge consumers more money for an e-book? And why would Amazon react so vehemently when Macmillan was proposing that they receive more per copy?
Well, you’d have to ask them yourself to get the real answer. I have a few guesses though (and everything below should be taken as such).
Amazon’s position is relatively easy to guess at: they want e-book prices to be as low as possible to entice more people to buy Kindles and to make sure they have the lowest prices period. The more people who buy Kindles, the more people who are locked into their proprietary format, who are probably likely to stay with Amazon to buy e-books in the future, and, by the way, who may be less likely to buy paper books from a bookstore, further consolidating Amazon’s position as the dominant player in the bookselling world. They want the ability to sell products to consumers at as low a cost as possible.
Presumably, publishers are (presumably) concerned about losing control over the price of their books in the marketplace, especially when they compete with higher priced editions of the same work.
And, of course, lurking behind all of this is the iPad.
The iPad Factor
I plan on delving into the book world implications of the iPad in a later post, but one of the great ironies of the iPad, as Bloomsbury publisher Peter Ginna recently noted, is that Amazon and Apple are very likely going to be competing against each other on the very same device. Apple will be selling e-books through the iBooks store, and Amazon will (I’m guessing) make books available via its Kindle app.
This set up an interesting scenario where these models could potentially compete against each other head to head: Amazon presumably selling an iPad compatible e-book for $9.99 and Apple selling an iBook for $14.95. This led Ginna to ponder whether the iPad was actually a trojan horse for Amazon, who could use their app presence on the iPad to further corner the e-book market. Or, even if Amazon decides against making an iPad app available, they could still offer the same e-books at a lower price on the Kindle in order to retain a key Kindle selling point.
And that, I would postulate, is the one of the keys to all of this. Macmillan’s books will now be the same price on the Kindle as they are in the iBooks store on the iPad (and on the Kindle App on the iPad if Amazon goes that route). Amazon made an audacious bid to retain the ability to be the lowest priced e-book vendor for Macmillan’s books. Amazon blinked.
Oh Yeah, What About the Consumer?
This ain’t over. Not by a long shot.
As we’ve seen repeatedly in digital media (hello, music industry!), consumers are the ones who are going to have the most power to determine what the coming e-book landscape is going to look like. And this is where consumer experience and expectations, DRM, proprietary e-book formats, piracy, and competition are going to come together to dictate prices. I’m not exactly going out on a limb to say that consumers have their own expectations for what an e-book “should” cost, and these might not mesh with what a publisher thinks they “should” cost.
And as a recent NY Times article points out, customers are not exactly lacking for free or cheap e-book options. On the iPad and similar devices of the future, they’re not going to be lacking for cheap or free non-book distractions either.
You didn’t hear it from me, but they might even still want their books on paper too. Which they bought at their friendly neighborhood bookstore.
When the dust clears on all of this, will publishers regret accepting a lower price per copy in exchange for the ability to set higher prices? Or was Macmillan smart to take a stand against very low discounting to help level the playing field? Have we seen Amazon’s peak as an e-book player or will they continue to dominate the coming e-book world? Will publishers follow Macmillan’s lead or work out their own arrangements? Are you on Team Amazon or Team Macmillan? Or maybe even Team Can’t We All Just Get Along?
You tell me. I’m extremely curious to know what you think about all of this.