Is Apple price-fixing? Does it matter?

The United States DoJ is investigating Apple and five major publishers for collusion.

Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal reported that the United States Department of Justice was investigating Apple and the "big five" publishers (HarperCollins, Hachette, Macmillan, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster) for collusion to fix ebook prices.

At stake is the agency pricing model, where publishers have the power to set their own prices on ebook retailers; this is in contrast to the pricing model dominant in the industry before Apple's entrance, where retailers (at the time largely synonymous with Amazon, which held 80-90 per cent of the ebook market) were free to set their own prices while guaranteeing a certain cut to the publishers.

The concern of the Department of Justice seems to be that all the major publishers used the entry of Apple into the market to force Amazon to adopt the agency model, and then, it is alleged, all made the most of their newfound freedom over pricing to raise the prices of their ebooks.

Evidence on the issue is scarce, and some of the publishers have reportedly moved to settle already; but today, some new figures came to light which may strengthen their case.

The publisher Smashwords, which acts as an umbrella body for self-published authors looking to get their books on to digital storefronts, has released the data it submitted to the DoJ in the investigation. It shows that, all else being equal, the competition afforded by agency pricing seems to lower prices across the board:

In plain English, the average prices have dropped 25% from $4.55 in October 2010 to $3.41 today...

The $3.41 is a really interesting number, for a couple reasons:

1) It shows that authors and publishers, left to their own free will, are pricing their books lower in this highly competitive market. Sure, they could all try to fleece customers by pricing their books at $29.99, but customers won't let them.

2) $3.41 is remarkably close to the average price paid for Smashwords books purchased at Barnes & Noble during the last 30 days. The B&N number: $3.16. I looked at every Smashwords book sold at Barnes & Noble between February 28 and March 27, then calculated the average price. This means Smashwords authors are pricing their books close to what customers want to pay. The median price (represents the midpoint, where an equal number of books sold at lower prices and and equal number sold at higher prices) was $2.99.

But proving that agency pricing doesn't lead to artificially inflated price tags may not be enough to save the publishers and Apple from a lawsuit. Tim Carmody reports for Wired that the issues for the DoJ are "bigger than rising e-book prices or even collusion between publishers":

"Plenty of business practices raise prices that aren’t antitrust violations," says Donald Knebel, an IP and antitrust attorney affiliated with the Center for Intellectual Property Research. "Agency pricing is perfectly legal. But something isn’t an agency relationship just because you call it that."

Knebel says there are three major points of law at stake in both the class-action suit and the Justice Department investigation against Apple and the five publishers:

  1. Whether and how the agency model applies to virtual goods;
  2. Whether Apple and publishers engaged in a “hub-and-spoke” conspiracy or simply “conscious parallelism”;
  3. The status of the “most-favored nation” clause, common to many legal contracts today, which Apple used to ensure that books could not be sold elsewhere at a lower price than in the iBooks store.

The case is nowhere close to conclusion, but whatever the outcome, it will reverberate throughout the industry. In tech, it remains the case that where America goes, the rest of the world follows.

A Kindle is tested in Amazon France. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.