As you may have heard, or read, or discovered while browsing Kindle books on the Amazon site, Amazon is currently in the middle of a battle with “Big 5″ publisher Hachette. The beef is over reseller wholesale contract terms (the publisher’s ‘cut’ on every ebook of theirs sold by Amazon), and Amazon has been using some strongarm tactics to remind Hachette that Amazon doesn’t HAVE to sell Hachette books at all if the parties can’t come to an agreement.
First, a little background is needed.
Back when the Kindle was new and ebooks were just starting to become a thing, say 2008 or so, Amazon established wholesale terms with publishers on ebooks based on the “fixed price” (usually known as a “suggested retail price” in other industries, for other products) which was set by the publishers. Amazon could discount the actual sales price of ebooks to whatever they wanted, or even offer them for free, so long as they paid the publisher the wholesale rate that was based on the publisher’s fixed price.
For example, if the publisher’s fixed price was $15 (seriously, that’s the average of the fixed prices the Big 5 publishers were setting; on some ebooks they wanted to go as high as $18) and the publisher’s wholesale cut was 40%, Amazon would have to pay the publisher $5.60 for every copy sold or given away on Amazon. Whether the ebook ultimately sold for $10, $6, or was given away for free, Amazon owed the publisher $5.60 for every copy distributed to Amazon customers. As a result, Amazon was (and still is) actually LOSING money on many ebook sales, but they were willing to take the hit to establish their Kindle line as dominant among ereaders.
A couple years down the road, publishers started to get nervous.
In 2010 publishers decided they didn’t want Amazon to have the right to set its own prices on their ebooks anymore, even though Amazon’s retail pricing didn’t affect their wholesale cut AT ALL. They feared that if Amazon were allowed to establish $9.99 in the minds of consumers as a standard price point for frontlist ebooks (new release ebooks the publisher expects to sell well), they would never succeed in rolling out their own, much higher fixed prices. And they were probably right about that, but only because the fixed prices they had in mind for frontlist ebooks were ridiculously high to begin with.