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April 19, 2012

Filed under: fiction»industry»ebooks


Before anyone gets too excited about the DOJ antitrust suit against "agency-model" book publishers, it's important to reiterate the following important facts:

  • Amazon is not on your side.
  • Apple is not on your side.
  • The publishers are definitely not on your side.

Who is on your side? We will assume, for the purposes of discussion, that you are, but I retain the right to be skeptical.

I'm trying not to have an emotional investment in this case (see opening list). Belle and I use a lot of Amazon services (did you know in Seattle you can buy your groceries from them? We do), but I'm fully aware that when it comes to both strong-arming suppliers and providing unfettered access to content (read: AmazonFail a few years back) they've got more issues than New Yorker archives. I'm just having a hard time, ultimately, seeing how the publisher's problems dealing with Amazon should be my problem (or any other customer's problem), or why they should be allowed to fix prices just because they feel threatened.

There has been a lot of good commentary written about this. Charlie Stross uses the suit as an opportunity to propose that DRM is dead, since it's the primary weapon that publishers have against Amazon. This is an interesting pitch, although I'm not sure it actually makes sense: Amazon has been selling other media, such as MP3s, unencumbered by DRM for some time and it doesn't seem to have done much for them either way. Moreover, I don't buy Kindle books because they're locked to the platform--I do it because the process is practically frictionless, as opposed to requiring a connection to a PC every time I want to buy a book. But then, I find Stross informative but not always particularly prescient, such as this disastrously wrong post from 2007 (shorter version: there will never be a cheap e-book reader. Five years later, you can get a Kindle for less than $80, and dropping).

As far as the antitrust case goes, the government's case seems pretty straightforward: yes, the publishers colluded to fix prices, using Apple as a middleman but also trading e-mails (with notes attached reminding each other to delete said e-mails at a future time) and having private meetings at fancy restaurants. From this we can conclude that these are people who have not watched either The Sopranos or any other mafia movie made in the last thirty years.

In fact, it's kind of amazing how much this case lets us learn about the book publishing industry--stuff that, frankly, seems entirely insane. This is an industry that, as Obsidian Wings notes:

  • does little or no marketing for its actual product,
  • barely edits its product,
  • buys books that it will not print, and
  • buys back and destroys stock that didn't sell from the store.

Ignore the questions of price-fixing. Set aside the (debatable) arguments that publishers provide valuable editing and marketing services that full-time authors cannot handle for themselves. Forget about the fact that, under their preferred agency model, they are happy to sell you fewer books at a higher price, or that this all seems weirdly similar to the way the music industry campaigned for self-immolation post-Napster. Just look at that last item: this is a business model that pays retailers to destroy stock solely to keep distribution channels stuffed.

Even people in the publishing industry tend to agree that this is basically insane. Call me an anarchist, but you'll have to forgive me for being incredulous when they propose we let them do whatever they want to keep their institutions intact. Anti-trust? Yeah, that seems about right.

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