Sunday, September 01, 2013

one way Apple could respond to the e-book judgement

Assuming they don't win a reversal of the e-book judgement on appeal, Apple still has options.

One option would be for them to move the preponderance of the code in the iBooks app into iOS and OSX, making it available through a new high-level API, so publishers could easily build their own apps based on the Apple code, providing a relatively uniform experience for users, and an opportunity for Apple to incorporate indexes to the collections in these other apps into its own iBooks app, or into a new utility that treated iBooks as just another instance of the category.

Presumably Amazon would also take advantage of this code to build their own iOS/OSX reader.

As for sales, besides the iBooks Store, Apple could offer to host, for a nominal fee, publisher-specific stores that worked with the apps based on Apple's iBooks code and used Apple's payment system, as well as allowing those apps to work with non-hosted stores.

The advantage to Apple is that it would make it possible for them to make their platforms clearly superior for e-book reading, through API improvements that would improve the behavior of all apps based on that API, including Amazon's, giving publishers an even better reason than they already have to be on Apple's platforms.

Smaller publishers and independent authors would still choose the iBooks Store. Medium-sized publishers might opt for their own stores, hosted by Apple. The largest publishers would most likely prefer to host their own stores in-house, but still take advantage of Apple's e-reader code.

While it's unlikely those opting for publisher-specific stores would agree to Apple's usual 30% cut, Apple could set a lower commission for hosted stores, say 20%, and a still-lower commission for independent stores, say 10%, and continue to garner revenue from the e-book business.

How Apple could monitor sales via independent stores and collect their 10% isn't clear to me, but I'm fairly confident they could find a way of doing so, and by making this their standard approach to the business they could at least put Amazon in the position of having to choose between coughing up 10% of sales or doing without access to the API that enabled a uniform reading experience.

two wrongs don't make a right, but some wrongs are more dangerous than others

Cult of Mac has published a thoughtful piece about the e-book antitrust case against Apple and a collection of publishers with whom Apple was working to build its iBook Store business, in which they link to another thoughtful piece, published by FORTUNE.

The FORTUNE article asks one very poignant question, “Why the Justice Department chose to prosecute the new entrant in the e-book market, and not the monopolist.”

To me it looks like the DoJ chose the safer target. With all of the patent litigation in which it is embroiled, Apple's star is already tarnished. Also, the notion that there might be something illegal about raising prices (conspiring to do so, actually) is likely to play well with the public.

Everything else being equal, lower prices are generally in the public interest. I say 'generally' because there are exceptions. Too low a price on gasoline, for example, would forestall development of alternatives to the internal combustion engine until the last drop of petroleum had been pumped from the ground.

In the case of e-books, the logic is a little different. Let's start by examining the costs involved in publishing books on paper. First there's the compensation to the author, without which many books would never be written. It's not that authors are greedy, but that they need to be able to treat writing as a full-time job to get anything done. They need to be able to live off the proceeds of their writing. Some manage a comfortable living this way; more live on a shoestring.

Then there's the costs to the publisher, which include managerial overhead as well as editing, typography, graphics, and making sure all the legal ducks are lined up. Then come costs for printing, distribution, and publicity, frequently including author tours.

E-books replace the costs of printing and distribution with the negligible cost of a download, making it reasonable that they should be less expensive than the print versions of the same books, but how much less expensive? One could argue that since they seemingly reduce all incremental costs to that of the bandwidth used by downloads, there is no limit to how low the price can go, since the fixed costs can be spread over arbitrarily large sales figures. The flaw in that argument is that one incremental cost remains in the e-book scenario, market saturation, so price reductions will not necessarily result in a proportionally larger market.

The Amazon model is akin to a print distributor which has purchased the right to reproduce and sell some title, for a flat fee plus marginal royalties. The Apple model is like a distributor which charges a percentage of the retail price, paying for printing out of its cut. Neither of these is necessarily better or more appropriate than the other; they're just different.

The problem with Amazon's use of their model is that they have engaged in predatory pricing, sometimes selling e-books below their cost, with the result that they have very little competition.

The problem with Apple's model is that the publishers liked it so much that they wanted to force it on Amazon.

So DoJ hauls Apple into court, and orders it to change its model. Go figure.