Saturday, April 28, 2012

Did Apple and the book publishers get what they wanted?

With all the Sturm und Drang surrounding the eBook price-fixing charges against Apple, Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin and Simon & Schuster, and the counter-charges that their actions prevented Amazon from establishing an eBook monopoly, a fair question to ask is: Did Apple and the publishers get what they were after? The short answers are "no," "yes" and "don't forget the Law of Unintended Consequences."

Apple: It may have hoped to become a major bookseller by getting the publishers to force all its competitors to sell eBooks at the same price, but if that was its hope, so far it's failed. Apple's eBook market share in the U.S. is, at best, in single digits, while Amazon still controls around 60% of the market and Barnes & Noble has approximately 25% market share.

The publishers: They wrested pricing control for their eBooks away from Amazon and were successful in getting Amazon to raise its prices. They also, at least in part, enabled Barnes & Noble to become a viable competitor to Amazon in the eBook market (although a good part of the credit should also be given to B&N's own strategies, including selling and supporting its Nook tablets and eReaders in its stores.)

The unintended consequences:
  1. Amazon moved quickly to develop a supply of titles that are beyond the control of the Big 6 publishers, first by strengthening its self-publishing efforts with the Kindle Direct Publishing program, and then by entering the publishing business itself with Amazon Publishing. Amazon is now competing directly with the Big 6 for contracts with top authors and licenses for popular backlist titles. Had the publishers not taken away Amazon's pricing power, the company probably would have gone much slower in building up its own publishing business.
  2. Price-fixing lawsuits have been filed in the U.S. by the Federal government, 16 state governments and private individuals, and in Canada by private individuals. Lawsuits are being considered by the European Commission and Australia. These lawsuits have the potential to cost Apple and the publishers hundreds of millions of dollars in damages and legal costs, not to mention years of management distraction, reputational damage and constraints on how they do business. Hundreds of millions of dollars may be negligible to Apple, which has $110 billion in cash and equivalents, but the cost is much more significant to the publishers. 
Given Apple's inability to turn the deal into significant market share and the publishers' inability to keep Amazon from maintaining control of a majority of the U.S. eBook market, it's hard to argue that Apple's and the publishers' actions were worth the cost.

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