How Apple's Agency Model for Publishers Fails to Merit Collusion Charges

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Justice, a number of U.S. states, and authorities in several other countries announced that they were filing lawsuits against Apple and six book publishers, alleging anticompetitive behavior in shifting to an Apple-backed agency model in which publishers set retail pricing and retailers such as Apple receive a 30% commission on the sales price.

Rather than settling the case as several of the publishers have opted to do, Apple has stood firm in its stance that the move did not represent collusion and price fixing but instead served as a way to give publishers control over pricing and break up Amazon's near-monopoly in the e-book market.

Former Wall Street Journal publisher and Press+ founder Gordon Crovitz published a column over the weekend outlining how Apple's plan for a 30% commission on publishers' sales is merely its standard business practice, not any sort of collusion to fix prices in the market.

'I don't think you understand. We can't treat newspapers or magazines any differently than we treat FarmVille."

With those words, senior Apple executive Eddy Cue stuck to his take-it-or-leave-it business model of a 30% revenue share payable for transactions through the iTunes service. Despite my arguments to Mr. Cue in Apple's Cupertino, Calif., offices last year on behalf of news publishers seeking different terms, to him there was no difference between a newspaper and an online game.

It was a sobering reminder that traditional media brands have no preferred place in the new digital world. It also should be the defense's Exhibit A in the Justice Department's antitrust case against Apple and book publishers: The 30% revenue-share model is Apple's standard practice, not, as alleged by the government, the product of a conspiracy.

Crovitz goes on to outline how the U.S. government's case against Apple and the publishers is misguided, with the agency model having been validated in numerous other industries by federal courts. And with the model looking exactly like that used for apps and other iTunes Store content, it suggests that Apple is not trying to accomplish anything special to gain control of the e-book market.

In fact, Crovitz notes that the e-book market has become significantly healthier since Apple's agency model was adopted by the major publishers.

Over the past couple of years, thanks to the agency model, the Kindle's market share has fallen to 60% [from 90% previously] thanks to competition from iPads and Barnes & Noble Nooks, and there is more variation in consumer prices, typically ranging from $5.95 to $14.95.

Pricing flexibility for publishers is necessary to allow innovation. Why shouldn't some e-books cost 99 cents and others that come with video and hardcover editions be $49.95? Why not give people the option to pay 10% more to access an e-book on all e-readers? Consumers should decide, not Amazon or the Antitrust Division.

With settlements already looking at unwinding the agency model to allow Amazon to once again begin controlling the e-book market by leveraging its consistent $9.99 pricing to drive competitors out of business, investors have become increasingly skittish about Barnes & Noble and other retailers trying to stake out their positions in the market. Consequently, there are real fears among authors, publishers, and retailers that the federal government's efforts are working quickly to restore an Amazon monopoly capable of bringing down its competitors.

Update: As noted by Chris Martucci and others, Crovitz fails to address the issue of the "most favored nation" clauses included in Apple's contracts with the publishers. These clauses prohibited the publishers from offering their content to any other retailer at lower prices than they offered through Apple. When combined with the apparent coordination among the publishers to break Amazon's near monopoly by shifting to the agency model, a case for anti-competitive behavior is more easily made.

But while simply removing the most favored nation clauses from Apple's contracts with the publishers would bring them more in line with the relationship between Apple and app developers, that move alone would not appear to satisfy the Department of Justice.

The government's settlements with several of the publishers have gone beyond the issue of most favored nation clauses and have required that the publishers essentially abandon the agency model as it currently exists. While the settlements would allow a modified form of the agency model to exist, they would require that retailers remain some control over the setting of retail prices.

Top Rated Comments

(View all)
Avatar
111 months ago
This is opinion posted with a title that suggests it is fact. I expect better from MR.
Score: 23 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Avatar
111 months ago

So you're comfortable spending $15 for an eBook that might have otherwise cost you $10 under Amazon's former wholesale model? Why are you on Apple's side when its screwing you over as a consumer?

The problem is that "screwing over the consumer" isn't always so cut and dry by checking who costs more. Especially when wholesale pricing allows Amazon to use newer titles and the kindle itself as loss leaders. It not only creates an unrealistic price expectation, but it tends to squeeze out players that can't afford to slash their own wrists in the game of price cut-throat. Amazon can fuel losses in Kindle sales from video games, furniture, TVs, peripherals, food, clothing, etc. B&N can't.

And what happens when Amazon does get themselves setup as the 'de-facto e-book source' under their model? Do those loss leaders go away? What keeps them going? Prices on older books that just never seem to get lower because Amazon needs the margins? Which is worse? Higher initial prices or higher final prices?

The PC OEM market has effectively commoditized themselves doing stuff like this. Look at how slowly the survivors (Dell and HP) are able to respond to the move to mobile devices and slates. Look at the fact that Intel had to do a big chunk of the R&D to bring ultrabooks to Apple's competitors. Perhaps the e-book market needs to be commoditized as well, but not around a single retailer with vertical integration lock-in.
Score: 11 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Avatar
111 months ago

Can they please let Apple do what they wanna do? If the prices are too high, customers will let Apple know by closing their wallets.


So you're comfortable spending $15 for an eBook that might have otherwise cost you $10 under Amazon's former wholesale model? Why are you on Apple's side when its screwing you over as a consumer?
Score: 10 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Avatar
111 months ago

This is opinion posted with a title that suggests it is fact. I expect better from MR.


You expect better from a site that primarily publishes rumors?
Score: 7 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Avatar
111 months ago
If anything is wrong here, it's Apple's insistence that publishers have to give Apple the lowest price.

That's the one area where all this does differ from apps. If Angry birds was $2 on the iPhone and $1 on Android, there's nothing Apple can do about that. They're trying to make that a rule with books, though.

The good news is, I honestly think they can (and should) drop that and it won't hurt them. Then books really will be treated like apps, which is how I think it should be. (And I think Apple will still do just fine in that world.)

I'm not 100% clear if the DOJ would agree with me at that point or if they're trying to go further. My opinion depends on that and I don't have a really clear understanding of their intentions right now.
Score: 7 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Avatar
111 months ago

Apple's terms for dealing with the publishers included that they were required to give Apple the lowest price (retail, not "list). That means that, combined with their agency-only policy, they were effectively pricing everything on Amazon's website, or anyone else's website, if they wanted to play ball with Apple's new store.

I thought the deal was, that if they price the same book at a lower price else where they must offer it at the same price inside the iTunes store too?
Score: 6 Votes (Like | Disagree)

Top Stories

Early iPhone 12 Tests Show Ceramic Shield is Stronger and More Scratch Resistant Than iPhone 11 Glass

Friday October 23, 2020 1:21 pm PDT by
Apple's new iPhone 12 models are protected by a Ceramic Shield cover glass that has nano-ceramic crystals infused right into the glass to improve durability. According to Apple, Ceramic Shield offers four times better drop protection than the glass used for the iPhone 11 models. YouTube channel MobileReviewsEh conducted some tests on the iPhone 12 using a force meter to compare its performance ...

First Impressions From New iPhone 12 and 12 Pro Owners

Thursday October 22, 2020 4:20 pm PDT by
It's already Friday, October 23, in Australia and New Zealand, which means some customers who purchased an iPhone 12 or 12 Pro already have their new devices in hand. We've seen dozens of reviews of the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro from media sites, but now first impressions from regular Apple customers are available. Image via MacRumors reader Boardiesboi New iPhone 12 and 12 Pro owners are...

iPhone 12 Pro Allows You to Measure Someone's Height Instantly Using LiDAR Scanner

Saturday October 24, 2020 11:12 am PDT by
iPhone 12 Pro models feature a new LiDAR Scanner for enhanced augmented reality experiences, but the sensor also enables another unique feature: the ability to measure a person's height instantly using the Measure app. You can even measure the seated height of a person in a chair, according to Apple. When the Measure app detects a person in the viewfinder, it automatically measures their...

Apple VP Kaiann Drance Interview Addresses Battery Life, MagSafe, and Power Adapter Concerns

Friday October 23, 2020 3:37 am PDT by
Apple's Vice President of iPhone Marketing, Kaiann Drance, has provided a new interview to Rich DeMuro on the Rich on Tech Podcast, to discuss the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro. Although much of the interview repeated points from Apple's "Hi, Speed" event, there were a number of interesting tidbits regarding the affect of 5G on battery life, MagSafe concerns, and the lack of a power adapter in...

iPhone 11 Pro Outlasts iPhone 12 and 12 Pro in Extensive Battery Life Test

Friday October 23, 2020 8:36 am PDT by
Arun Maini today shared a new side-by-side iPhone battery life video test on his YouTube channel Mrwhosetheboss, timing how long the new iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro models last on a single charge compared to older models, with equal brightness, settings, battery health, and usage. All of the devices are running iOS 14 without a SIM card inserted. In the test, the iPhone 11 Pro outlasted both ...

Apple Distributing New Heated Display Removal Machine for iPhone 12 Repairs

Thursday October 22, 2020 6:20 pm PDT by
Apple is providing Genius Bars and Apple Authorized Service Providers with a new heated display removal fixture for iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro repairs, according to information obtained by MacRumors from a reliable source. To open iPhone 12 models, technicians will be required to slide the device into a specialized tray, and then place the tray into the high-temperature fixture for two...

Apple Warns MagSafe Charger Can Leave Circular Imprints on Leather Cases

Friday October 23, 2020 3:23 pm PDT by
If you keep your iPhone in a leather case while charging with Apple's new MagSafe Charger, the case might show circular imprints from contact with the accessory, according to a new Apple support document published today. Apple's leather cases for the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro are not available until November 6, but a MacRumors reader has already shared a photo of a circular imprint on...

MagSafe Charger Teardown Reveals Simple Design With Magnets and Charging Coil Encircling a Small Circuit Board

Friday October 23, 2020 7:50 am PDT by
iFixit has today shared a teardown of Apple's new MagSafe charger for the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro. An X-ray of the MagSafe charger courtesy of Creative Electron reveals the internal charging coil surrounded by a circular arrangement of magnets within the puck. The only seam that iFixit was able to leverage to open the device was where the white rubber circle meets the metal rim,...

PSA: Non-iPhone 12 Models Charge Super Slowly With MagSafe Charger

Friday October 23, 2020 4:11 pm PDT by
Alongside the iPhone 12 models, Apple introduced a new $39 MagSafe Charger that's meant to work with the magnets in the iPhone 12 Pro models to charge them up at a maximum of 15W. The MagSafe Charger is technically able to be used with older iPhones, but it's not a good idea because the charging with non-iPhone 12 devices is so slow. We did two tests with the iPhone XS Max, draining the...

New Photos Offer Better Look at iPhone 12 Color Options

Tuesday October 20, 2020 2:34 am PDT by
As we wait for the iPhone 12 review embargo to lift later today, more pictures are circulating of the devices in real-world lighting conditions, providing a better look at the different colors available. Leaker DuanRui has shared images on Twitter of the iPhone 12 in white, black, blue, green, and (PRODUCT)RED. The black and white colors are similar to the iPhone 11 colors, but the other...