How should we price e-books?

Does the agency pricing model in the e-book industry limiting competition and thus harming consumers?

By , Guest blogger

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    This product image provided by amazon.com Inc., shows the Kindle 3 reader. Antitrust officials worry that the current pricing system for e-books limits competition.
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A few months ago, I noted that Amazon and book publishers were tussling over the pricing of electronic books. Amazon had originally acquired e-books using a wholesale pricing model. It paid publishers a fixed price for each e-book it sold, and then decided what retail price to charge customers. Retailers usually sell products at a mark-up above the wholesale price–that’s how they cover their other costs and, if possible, make a profit. Amazon, however, often offered books at promotional prices below its costs. For example, it priced many new e-books at $9.99 even if it had to pay publishers $13.00 or more for them (often about half of the list price of a new hardback).

Several large publishers hated Amazon’s pricing strategy, fearing that it would ultimately reduce the perceived value of their product. They thus pressured Amazon to accept an agency pricing model for e-books. Under this approach, the publishers would retain ownership of the e-books and, most importantly, would set their retail prices. Amazon would then be compensated as an agent for providing the opportunity for the publishers to sell at retail. Under this approach, Amazon would receive 30% of each sale, and publishers would receive 70%.

The strange thing about these negotiations is that their initial effect appears to be lower publisher profits. As I noted in my earlier post:

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Under the original system, Amazon paid the publishers $13.00 for each e-book. Under the new system, publishers would receive 70% of the retail price of an e-book. To net $13.00 per book, the publishers would thus have to set a price of about $18.50 per e-book, well above the norm for electronic books. Indeed, so far above the norm that it generally doesn’t happen. … [In addition] publishers will sell fewer e-books because of the increase in retail prices. Through keen negotiating, the publishers have thus forced Amazon to (a) pay them less per book and (b) sell fewer of their books. Not something you see everyday.

Publishers presumably believe that the longer-term benefits of this strategy will more than offset lost profits in the near-term. What they may not have counted on, however, is the attention they are now getting from state antitrust officials such as Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. As reported by the Wall Street Journal this morning, Blumenthal worries that the agency pricing model (which is also used by Apple) is limiting competition and thus harming consumers. And the WSJ says he’s got some compelling evidence on his side:

The agency model has generally resulted in higher prices for e-books, with many new titles priced at $12.99 and $14.99. Further, because the publishers set their own prices, those prices are identical at all websites where the titles are sold. Although Amazon continues to sell many e-books at $9.99 or less, it has opposed the agency model because it argues that lower prices, as exemplified by its promotion of $9.99 best sellers, has been a key factor in the surging e-book market.

It’s also interesting to note that Random House decided to stick with the wholesale model, and many of its titles are priced at $9.99 at Amazon.

Of course, higher prices on select books are not enough to demonstrate an antitrust problem. Publishers will likely argue that there is nothing intrinsically anticompetitive about agency pricing, which is used in many other industries. Moreover, there is nothing to suggest that they are colluding on e-book pricing. Also, they may claim that their pricing strategy will allow more online retailers to enter the marketplace, thus providing more competition and more choice for consumers (albeit along non-price dimensions).

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