agency model

Book Publishing's Real Nemesis

Book Publishing’s Real Nemesis

Book Publishing's Real Nemesis
Book Publishing's Real Nemesis

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Government Failure by Gordon Tullock, Arthur Seldon, and Gordon L. Brady

Government Failure by Gordon Tullock, Arthur Seldon, and Gordon L. Brady

Michael Stackpole, a traditionally published author who was one of the early champions of self-publishing ebooks, has an interesting post analyzing the settlement agreed to by three of the Big Six publishers — Hachette, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster — involved in the alleged ebook price fixing flap. If he’s right, the Department of Justice is going to be imposing more injustice than just preventing a little self-destructive collusive fixing of high prices. This is yet another among so many many many examples of the state stepping in to prevent something only to impose that very thing itself. Yes, it looks like the DoJ is going to prevent price fixing of one sort only to impose its own brand of price fixing. But hey, it’s only a bad thing when non-state entities do it, right?

Here is Stackpole’s breakdown of the settlement  provisions:

  1. For a period of two years,
  2. Publishers will not be able to set a restricted retail price for their product.
  3. Retailers will be able to set their own price for an ebook, but they cannot discount the bookbelow their own discount. (In short, the retailer cannot sell ebooks at a loss.)
  4. Publishers cannot “retaliate” against retailers during this time.
  5. The “favored nation” status that prevented a publisher from selling at a lower price to one retailer over another is gone.
  6. The Agency Pricing discount of 30% off the top that retailers pay publishers can remain in place.
  7. There are compliance procedures being set in place (that I don’t bother discussing) so the government can make sure that the publishers are complying with the agreement.

That’s right. Provision #3 fixes an arbitrary minimum price —a price floor. Retailers like Amazon will not be allowed to sell ebooks below the price they pay publishers for them; they will not be allowed to sell at a loss. For two years. And apparently there is yet more intrusive bureaucracy being set up to monitor compliance with these new regulations for the ebook market. It’s another shovel-ready Obama jobs program!

The federal government is also going to prevent publishers from requiring retailers sell their ebooks for a certain price. In other words, it bans the agency model. Now, I’m no fan of the agency model, and I think it’s self-destructive for publishers to adopt it in order to screw their customers with high prices so that they can prop up their dead-tree book business model for a while longer. But I don’t think they should be prevented by law from doing so.

Stabilization is Chaos: “Monetary policy all over the world has followed the advice of the stabilizers. It is high time that their influence, which has already done harm enough, should be overthrown.”
— F.A. Hayek, 1932

The federal government is also going to prevent publishers from retaliating against retailers for the prices they set. Also, no more contracts that stipulate publishers can’t sell to other retailers at a lower price. In other words, the state is going to short circuit the market process by preventing publishers from putting any kind of meaningful pressure on retailers and vice versa. No jockeying for position in the ebook market. Forget letting consumers decide and the best business model win. The United States federal government prefers stasis — the maintenance of a status quo of its own making.

But wait, there’s more. Stackpole does the math and argues that far from preventing publishers from fixing high prices for consumers, the settlement will actually disincentivize both publishers and retailers from setting lower prices:

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Sharis Pozen

DoJ Assistant AG Sharis Pozen

Sharis Pozen
DoJ Assistant AG Sharis Pozen

Jeffrey Tucker recently discussed the Department of Justice’s decided to launch antitrust litigation against Apple and five of the Big Six publishers — Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster, but not Random House — for alleged price fixing. Three of them — Hachette, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster — decided on the same day to settle straight away. The alleged sin was that Apple and the publishers decided to go with the agency pricing model in which the publishers get to set the prices for their books in the iBooks Store, while Apple takes a 30% cut.

As you’d expect, I’m with Jeffrey Tucker in believing that price fixing, collusion, cartels should not be illegal. In a free market, these practices are not stable and will end up harming the companies in the long run if they dissatisfy customers. What I want to highlight in this news post is not what so much what libertarian justice has to say about the matter but some bad economic-tech journalism about the business side.

I recently read this article on Mashable by Lance Ulanoff, the site’s Editor-in-Chief:

How Steve Jobs Got Apple Into Trouble Over Ebooks.”

Wow, is this guy clueless.

And if Steve Jobs really thought Amazon screwed up in alienating major publishers by not adopting the agency model, he was clueless as well. Amazon is WINNING.

Jobs pushed the agency model on the publishers? I don’t think so. They preferred that model but couldn’t get Amazon to go along with it without Apple’s help. It’s the screw-your-customers model and it wouldn’t have been good for the publishers over the long haul. They want high ebook prices so that they can hang onto their outdated IP-dependent business model of selling paperbacks and hardcovers in big-box brick-and-mortar stores for as long as possible.

That antiquated business model is particularly insane in the United States. The origin of the current wasteful publisher/brick-and-mortar bookstore relationship is fascinating. The strip-and-return system has its origin in the Great Depression (thanks Fed!).

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