This post, by Mike Shatzkin, originally appeared on his Shatzkin Files blog on 4/14/12.
This post went up around midnight last night (Saturday, 4/14) in London, or between 6 and 7 NY time. I had been concerned about a part of it that has been edited below. If you read it before 5 pm today (Sunday, 4/15), you’ll not have seen this correction. And you’ll see some comments that obviously pre-date the update.
Well, we certainly have a confused book business on our hands following the announcement of the Department of Justice intervention last week.
According to my (admittedly tentative) understanding:
1. We have three Big Six publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster) that have agreed to a settlement with Justice that obliges them to modify their agency arrangements over the next 60 days in ways that will eliminate their ability to control discounting in the supply chain for the next two years.
2. We have two Big Six publishers (Macmillan and Penguin) that will contest the DoJ position that they acted illegally (in collusion). They can apparently continue to manage their business with agency pricing the way they have, at least until a court rules. And, as we know, that can take a while.
3. We have one Big Six publisher, the biggest of all (Random House), which can continue to sell under agency terms without restriction and without a lawsuit to defend. Why? Because they didn’t take simultaneous action with the other five and were, therefore, not implicated in the alleged collusion.
4. Agency terms, including even most favored nation clauses (which never really affected the Big Six anyway), have not been ruled illegal. (Cader said in his post on Friday, blocked by paywalls I think, that, as a result of this set of legal actions “agency itself is demonstrably considered legal.” If that is accurate, and he almost always is, that is certainly an unintended consequence.)
5. The DoJ delivered some convincing evidence, surfaced on the Melville House blog, that despite my conjecture to the contrary, big publishers did discuss agency among each other before they implemented it. That certainly doesn’t look good. But whether or not it was implemented legally does not affect my opinion about the value of agency or the damage from losing it.
Added later. But, aha!!! This is not convincing evidence of a conspiracy. It is most likely that this discussion, assuming the email quotes are all legitimate to begin with, was about Bookish, the book retailing initiative funded by Hachette, Simon & Schuster, and Penguin. If that’s true, it would suggest that HarperCollins was an early participant in the conversations about starting it. That makes sense. HarperCollins is a partner with Penguin in the financing of Anobii, an ebook retailing site in the UK.
And hats off to my great friend and favorite consulting competitor, Lorraine Shanley of Market Partners, who made the penny drop for me in a conversation at the Digital Minds Conference today in London! I was only comforted when I spoke to one of the smartest guys in trans-Atlantic digital publishing who said, “of course” to this when I told him, just as I did when Lorraine told me. Like me, he didn’t get this right off the bat!