Readersforum's Blog

April 18, 2012

Book Publishing’s Real Nemesis

Eric Holder with Sharis Pozen, acting assistant attorney general, discussing the price-fixing case.

By DAVID CARR

The Justice Department finally took aim at the monopolistic monolith that threatened to dominate the book industry. So imagine the shock when the bullet aimed at threats to competition went whizzing by Amazon — which not long ago had a 90 percent stranglehold on e-books — and instead, struck five of the six biggest publishers and Apple, a minor player in the realm of books.

That’s the modern equivalent of taking on Standard Oil but breaking up Ed’s Gas ’N’ Groceries on Route 19 instead.

Last week, the Justice Department sued in United States District Court in New York, charging that Apple, Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin and Simon & Schuster had colluded to fix e-book prices. (Hachette, Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins have already agreed to settle.)

The suit has its roots in 2007, when Amazon released the Kindle and began selling some of the most sought-after books for $9.99 in order to bolster sales of its device. Not surprisingly, booksellers and publishers hated this price with the force of 10,000 suns because it made physical books sold for $25 or more seem outrageously overpriced.

Under the wholesale arrangement with Amazon, the publishers received half of the list price, which yielded better money, but gave them no control over the pricing of their product. With the introduction of the iPad, publishers got a crack at remaking their deal because Apple allowed them to set the price and then took a cut of 30 percent.

That so-called agency model developed with Apple allowed publishers, not just Amazon, to set the price and in a move that caught the interest of the Justice Department, they all came up with pretty much the same price. (Why the crumbling book business is worthy of so much attention from Justice while Wall Street skates is a broader question we’ll leave for another day.)

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