Apple's Disruption Of The Ebook Market Has Nothing To Do With The Tablet
If the reporting by Publishers Lunch today is accurate (and I’ve never known it not to be), publishers may have used the entry of Apple into the ebook arena as an opportunity to change the entire paradigm of ebook distribution for major books. And while the great excitement about Apple and ebooks has been based on hopes that the new Apple Tablet that the world expects to be announced next week will add a lot of new ebook consumers, the change in the sales protocols will probably have a much more profound impact on the ebook market than the device. Or at least that’s how it looks from here.
What Michael Cader reports in Lunch is that publishers have worked out agreement with Apple to switch from a “wholesale” model to an “agency” model for ebook sales. The wholesale model imitates the physical world: the publisher “sells” the “book” to an intermediary (could be a retailer like Amazon or BN or a wholesaler like Ingram) based on the publisher’s established retail price and a discount schedule. Then the purchaser will re-sell that ebook at whatever price they like. When publishers offered discounts that were the same as the physical world discounts, they partially subsidized retailers who wanted to offer much lower ebook prices to consumers.
The “agency” model is based on the idea that the publisher is selling to the consumer and, therefore, setting the price, and any “agent”, which would usually be a retailer but wouldn’t have to be, that creates that sale would get a “commission” from the publisher for doing so. Since Apple’s normal “take” at the App Store is 30% and discounts from publishers have normally been 50% off the established retail price, publishers can claw back margin even if they don’t get Apple to concede anything from the 30%.
So making this change, if it works, accomplishes three things for big publishers. The obvious two are that they gain a greater degree of control over ebook pricing than they ever had over print book pricing and they get to rewrite the supply chain splits of the consumer dollar.
But the third advantage for the big guys is the most devilish of all: they may gain a permanent edge over smaller players on ebook margins. That is one that, truth be known, was already playing out as Amazon used its leverage to reduce the share smaller publishers got from Kindle sales. But this could institutionalize it.