Another Publisher Uses iPad as Leverage for Price Hike

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Despite Amazon’s knee-jerk banishment and reinstatement of its books following a price increase of its books, publisher Macmillan isn’t the only one looking to introduce a new, more lucrative pricing structure. HarperCollins is also eager for renegotiation, and now, Hachette Book Group has also joined the growing contingent of those looking to charge more for their electronic wares.

This is what’s called the new “agency model” of pricing, which allows the company serving the content to take a cut. Apple’s own system calls for a 30 percent take of the revenue on all apps (and now books) sold through its online store. Amazon recently introduced a similar pricing structure for certain books and apps. It looks like major publishers are unwilling to absorb the cost of the seller’s cut, preferring instead to pass it along to consumers.

Hachette CEO David Young, however, in a letter sent out detailing the new pricing plans, claims that book publishers will not make more money using the agency model, claiming the opposite, in fact:

[W]e make less on each e-book sale under the new model; the author will continue to be fairly compensated and our e-book agents will make money on every digital sale. We’re willing to accept lower return for e-book sales as we control the value of our product–books, and content in general. We’re taking the long view on e-book pricing, and this new model helps protect the long term viability of the book marketplace.

Call me skeptical, but I can’t help but feel that these publishers are acting more out of self-interest than anything else. It may be true that they actually make less on every book sold using the agency model for electronic distribution, but it’s probably also true that the books cost much less for them to create than print versions, too. I’d be willing to bet that they end up profiting more on a per copy sold basis in the end. Hachette makes other claims in his letter about how the deal is actually beneficial to consumers, despite the upfront price hike:

There are many advantages to the agency model, for our authors, retailers, consumers, and publishers. It allows Hachette to make pricing decisions that are rational and reflect the value of our authors’ works. In the long run this will enable Hachette to continue to invest in and nurture authors’ careers–from major blockbusters to new voices. Without this investment in our authors, the diversity of books available to consumers will contract, as will the diversity of retailers, and our literary culture will suffer.

It’s good spin, but it’s spin nonetheless. The bottom line, no matter how Hachette, Macmillan, or HarperCollins try to spin it, is that rather than introducing competition that will result in lower prices for book-buying customers, Apple’s iPad has in fact spelled the end of the $9.99 bestseller, for both Kindle and iPad users. Apple had to offer publishers an incentive to come over to its side, but the cost of that bargain is unfortunately one we as the buying public will be paying for.

At least in the short term. A longer view reveals a different picture. Apple needed to gain access to the ebook market, and so was willing to make concessions regarding price. Publishers jumped at the chance to get out from under the tyranny of what amounted to Amazon’s ability to set prices unilaterally. But is it a case of “out of the frying pay, into the fire?”

If Apple’s power play succeeds, Amazon could conceivably be forced to close up shop (though I still don’t think I’ll ever stop reading on my Kindle in favor of the iPad). If and when that happens, Apple will occupy the spot that Amazon once did, and will be able to dictate prices to publishers, much like they did and still continue to do with record labels. It’s a rare case where a monopoly could actually benefit the buying public, but only if you’re willing to pay more than paperback prices in the meantime. I’m not sure I’m willing to do that.

Related GigaOM Pro Research: Evolution of the e-Book Market

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