From The Digital Reader:
I have been writing about industry trends in bits and pieces in each news story, but it has been a long while since I last pulled everything together, took a step back, and told you what I see.
I can sum it up in a single sentence: The major publishers are dead because they bet against digital, which is the future.
The thing about the major publishers is that they thought they could make the market go where they wanted.
They didn’t want ebooks to cannibalize print sales, so they conspired with Apple in early 2010 to bring about the Agency model. Then they doubled down on their bet with Agency 2.0, and hedged that bet by sabotaging subscription ebook services like Scribd and Oyster by saddling them with nonviable business models.
It is now 2017, and book publishing is in the later stages of a transition to digital.
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The major publishers bet against digital, and they continue to do so, and it is going to kill them in the long run. In fact, we can see them die bit by bit. First they dropped mid-list authors, then they started dropping best-selling authors.
Link to the rest at The Digital Reader
PG thinks the illegal collusion between the big publishers to force Amazon to set higher prices for ebooks was an important milestone on their path to suicide. They got together in various New York restaurants to engage in face-to-face groupthink.
Here’s a summary from Wikipedia:
The Publisher Defendants sold over 48% of all e-books in the U.S. in the first quarter of 2010. The Publisher Defendants along with Random House Publishing are the six largest publishers in the United States (collectively the Publishers) and are often referred to as the “Big Six” in the publishing industry. In 2009 Amazon.com Inc. had nearly 90% of the e-books industry. Amazon charged $9.99 for certain new releases and bestselling e-books which helped make it the market leader in the sale of e-books and e-readers with its Kindle.
Amazon’s price point caused discontent among the Publishers. The Publishers believed that the low price point was a problem for their sales of more profitable hardcover books. Approximately every three months, the CEOs of the Big Six would meet in private dining rooms in New York restaurants “without counsel or assistant present, in order to discuss the common challenges they faced, including most prominently Amazon’s pricing policies.” The Publishers used several different strategies to fight against Amazon’s pricing point, including selling e-books for the same price as their printed version through a continued wholesale model and “windowing” new releases. Windowing is a tactic that would delay the release of books to their e-book form for a certain window of time.
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Amazon sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission complaining about the simultaneous nature of the demands for agency model agreements from the Publishers who had signed with Apple. By March, Amazon had completed agency agreements with four of the five publishers. During the negotiations over the agreements, the publishers would talk with each other and share information about what Amazon would concede with each. Apple was closely following all of this progress and Cue was in contact with the publishers. Following Amazon’s move to agency amounted to “an average per unit e-book retail price increase of 14.2% for their new releases, 42.7% for their NYT Bestsellers, and 18.6% across all of the Publisher Defendants’ e-books.” The Publishers also raised the price of some of their New Release hardcover books so as to move the e-book versions into a correspondingly higher price tier. Amazon saw Random House (who for the moment had not joined Apple) e-book sales having an increase of 41%. Two studies showed that the Publishers who moved to agency model sold over 10% fewer units at major retailers. In contrast, other publishers’ sales increased 5.4% in the same period. In January 2011 Random House also moved to the agency model and raised the prices of its e-books, and then experienced a decline in its e-book sales. This allowed Random House to join the iBookstore.
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Beginning on December 8, 2009, Apple’s senior VP of Internet Software and Services, Eddy Cue, contacted the Publishers to set up meetings for the following week. During the meetings Cue suggested that Apple would sell the majority of e-books between $9.99 and $14.99, with new releases being $12.99 to $14.99. Apple also adopted the agency model which it used in its App Store for distribution of e-books. This let Publishers control the price of the e-books with Apple receiving a 30% commission. Apple also set up price tiers for different books. Apple also included a MFN clause in their contract with the Publishers which allowed for Apple to sell e-book at its competitors’ lowest price.
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On the day of the launch, Jobs was asked by a reporter why people would pay $14.99 for a book in the iBookstore when they could purchase it for $9.99 from Amazon. In response Jobs stated that “The price will be the same… Publishers are actually withholding their books from Amazon because they are not happy.” By stating this, Jobs acknowledged his understanding that the Publishers would raise e-book prices and that Apple would not have to face any competition from Amazon on price.
This collusion between the top executives of five out of the (then) six major US publishers to destroy Amazon’s pricing model for ebooks helped accelerate the development of anti-Amazon/anti-ebooks groupthink throughout Big Publishing.
Later, when the Justice Department charged these publishers with illegal anti-competitive behavior and publicly humiliated their management by requiring an admission of guilt and forcing monetary settlements, the anti-Amazon/anti-ebook sentiment blossomed into something of an industry-wide psychosis.
Publishing couldn’t live without Amazon and hated the company even more for their dependence upon it.
When Borders, the second largest bookstore chain in the US, went bankrupt in 2011, that shocking event should have set alarm bells ringing in CEO offices of every publisher.
The second-largest bricks-and-mortar customer for every major US publisher had just imploded. Perhaps it was time for some new thinking? Would the future be a lot different than the past? What a silly thought.
Borders would have been happy to sell its assets to virtually any willing purchaser, but smart money was not interested. Neither was dumb money and about 650 retail bookstores in the US just disappeared.
At the time of the Borders bankruptcy, reporters and business writers (often relying on traditional publishing sources) concluded that Borders had made a big mistake by working with Amazon to sell ebooks. On the other hand, Barnes & Noble was brilliant because it had spent lots of money to build up its Nook business as a viable competitor to Amazon’s Kindle.
Amazon Derangement Syndrome was running rampant through the publishing business and that, combined with widespread ignorance of technology among management, blinded them to a simple fact that was evident to anyone with an ounce of internet savvy: Amazon was much, much better at selling books (and a lot of other things) online than Barnes & Noble and the gap between the two organizations was growing at a rapid pace.
The traditional book industry and its convoy of pet pundits have not gotten any part of selling online right for well over ten years and show no indication that anything is going to change in the next ten years (to be clear, PG is not predicting that Big Publishing has ten more years ahead of it).
Barnes & Noble is running on fumes. Whether it continues to sink into the sunset or suddenly implodes won’t impact the overall trajectory of the retail book business. It’s dying. At this point, even if Barnes & Noble were able to hire talented management, PG thinks it’s too late for that to make a difference.
When Barnes & Noble is gone, what’s left for legacy publishing? A bunch of mom and pop bookstores. There may be some fancier moms and pops in Manhattan and Washington DC, but they’re all small businesses with tiny profit margins.
PG ran out of time before he could bloviate about traditionally-published authors heading for the exits and hedge funds taking over management of the gazillion legacy publishing contracts which represent the only value of Big Publishing.