Apologies in advance for a much-longer-than-usual post.
It is not like the publishers haven’t seen the ebook royalty fight coming. On a panel he and I were on together in March of 2009, John Sargent, the Chairman and CEO of Macmillan, identified ebook margins as the critical issue for publishers going forward. Even though ebook sales at that point were financially insignificant and the growth surge that we’ve seen in the past 15 months wasn’t yet evident, Sargent expressed the belief that ebooks would be the future and that publishers had to be diligent to preserve their margins in the digital environment.
There are three moving parts to the publishers’ margin equation for ebooks.
The one that I think Sargent was thinking most of at that time is ebook pricing. If “misguided” publishers or market forces drive down prices a great deal, that could threaten publishers as sales migrate to digital.
The second one, which was then and remains today a focus of publishers, is the potential consolidation of sales channels so that power moves from a multitude of publishers to a small number of, or perhaps a single dominant, point of contact with the customer. Until the Nook came along from B&N last winter and the iPad from Apple in the spring, Amazon and Kindle looked dangerously close to being able to dictate both pricing and margin in the ebook supply chain.
And third, of course, is the amount of the consumer spend that is taken by the authors: the royalty.
The ebook pricing and channel consolidation issues have been front and center for the past year, ever since Dominique Raccah of Sourcebooks put “windowing”, which had been tried before for ebooks, in the spotlight as her solution to the perceived damage deeply discounted ebooks could do to print book sales, particularly of the hardcover edition. After she announced that she was holding back the ebook for Bran Hambric, similar announcements came from other publishing houses. At that time, only a year ago, Amazon was the dominant ebook vendor with Kindle sales amounting to 80% or more of the ebook sales for narrative trade books.
But the introduction of Barnes & Noble’s Nook device began to eat into Amazon’s hegemony last winter as 700 B&N stores started pushing a Kindle-type experience on their millions of customers. Then, in April, Apple introduced the iPad and changed the game two ways.
First of all, their tablet computing device, which can serve as a larger-than-a-cellphone screen for an ebook reader, started adding tens of thousands of new device-equipped potential book customers every day!
But along with the device competition, the iPad and its iBooks platform added a new business model called Agency. And, under Agency, the pricing of ebooks at retail theoretically becomes standardized across the web, not subject to discounting by individual retailers. This visibly upset Amazon, which appeared to pick a fight with Macmillan over the terms. It looked to those of us with no inside knowledge of their conversations to be an attempt to bully publishers to give up the Agency idea. In retrospect, this was perhaps a bad fight to have picked. Amazon’s threat was to stop selling the print editions of titles from those publishers who sold ebooks on Agency terms. Since five of the top six publishers were moving in that direction, and none of them blinked, Amazon had to, in their own words, “capitulate.” (On the other hand, we are not aware of any other publisher, beyond the Big Five, to whom they also capitulated, so the final score on this fight isn’t in yet.)
So it would seem that the big publishers have solidified two of the major components of their ebook margin. With their help, consolidation in the ebook channel has been reversed and they’ve taken critical steps to control prices to the consumer, while ebook sales have continued to rise at an accelerating pace.
But there remains this tricky question of royalties.