U.S. DoJ Investigates Apple, Publishers for Alleged Antitrust Violations

Does Apple’s Nudging of the Industry To an Agency Book Pricing Model Constitute Collusion?

Themis, Greek goddess of Justice. If only it were that simple, eh? Here’s perhaps the most interesting book-related story to appear while I was busy convalescing from a torn quadriceps tendon (in the long term) and hacking up multicolored phlegm (in the short term): the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) is investigating Apple Inc. and five U.S. publishers for possible antitrust violations.

It’s things like this that make me miss being a journalist – which probably explains in large part why blogging is such a big hobby for me (I don’t do nearly enough to promote it; I just like to indulge myself). Anyway, credit where credit is due; I first spied the antitrust story on Locus; it provides a link to a comprehensive story by the Wall Street Journal. That evil magnate Murdoch hasn’t quite ruined the Journal yet – say what you will about it’s conservative slant, it has been a source of quality journalism for many years, and hopefully will continue to be so, despite its current owner.

But I digress yet again. In addition to Apple the DoJ is looking at Simon & Schuster Inc., Hachette Book Group, Pearson PSO, Penguin Group, Macmillan and HarperCollins Publishers Inc. HarperCollins, incidentally, is owned by the aforementioned Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., which, as alluded above, also owns the Wall Street Journal (WSJ). Ostensibly we can conclude from this that Murdoch hasn’t gotten his fingers too deep into the WSJ’s newsroom.

The WSJ says, citing unidentified sources – “people familiar with the matter” – that the DoJ is investigating whether Apple and these publishers colluded with one another to drive up the price of ebooks. Apparently Apple is trying to nudge the industry away from the standard wholesale model of book pricing, in which retailers buy books for half the cover price and then charge what they deem fit, to an “agency model,” which is how Apple operates its iTunes store. From the WSJ, to wit:

As Apple prepared to introduce its first iPad, the late Steve Jobs, then its chief executive, suggested moving to an agency model, under which the publishers would set the price of the book and Apple would take a 30 percent cut. Apple also stipulated that publishers couldn’t let rival retailers sell the same book at a lower price.

“We told the publishers, ‘We’ll go to the agency model, where you set the price, and we get our 30 percent, and yes, the customer pays a little more, but that’s what you want anyway,'” Mr. Jobs was quoted as saying by his biographer, Walter Isaacson.

The publishers were then able to impose the same model across the industry, Mr. Jobs told Mr. Isaacson. “They went to Amazon and said, ‘You’re going to sign an agency contract or we’re not going to give you the books,'” Mr. Jobs said.

The Justice Department believes that Apple and the publishers acted in concert to raise prices across the industry, and is prepared to sue them for violating federal antitrust laws, the people familiar with the matter said.

The publishers have denied acting jointly to raise prices. They have told investigators that the shift to agency pricing enhanced competition in the industry by allowing more electronic booksellers to thrive.

Like I needed another reason to loathe Apple and its business practices.

Another interesting aspect to this story is that for once it’s not 800-pound gorilla Amazon getting beat up over pricing – and I’m not defending Amazon – but it’s the spectre of Amazon that Apple and these publishers cite in defending the agency model practice.

William Lynch, chief executive of Barnes & Noble, gave a deposition to the Justice Department in which he testified that abandoning the agency pricing model would effectively result in a single player gaining even more market share than it has today, according to people familiar with the testimony. A spokeswoman for Barnes & Noble declined to comment.

Prior to agency pricing, Amazon often sold best-selling digital books for less than it paid for them, a marketing stance that some publishers worried would make the emerging digital-books marketplace less appealing for other potential retailers. The publishers’ argument that agency pricing increased competition hasn’t persuaded the Justice Department, a person familiar with the matter said. Government lawyers have questioned how competition could have increased when prices went up. Amazon declined to comment.

Incidentally, the fact that everyone involved declined to comment, and the fact that there were no angry denials and or rebuttals following the publishing of the WSJ’s story March 9, that pretty much confirms that what the story claims as true. I can say that from personal experience; if there were some facts or conjecture in the story that weren’t correct, you can bet Apple, et al., would have been up in marketing arms and the press releases would issue forth like a volley of arrows in a Chinese historical epic. Television interviews would be conducted in which executives waxed indignant.

But when everyone continues to clam up, that’s a sure sign that the story is correct.

And while we’re on the subject of Apple, ebook publishing and naughty business practices …

Apple Refuses to Sell Books that Link to Amazon

Apple Inc.'s current corporate logo; the use of which here I believe constitutes fair use, yes?Over at paidContent – a great digital media trade mag – there is an interesting story by one nonfiction author Seth Godin and his experience with selling a short ebook through Apple. It seems Apple rejected his book because it uses links to Amazon in its citations of other works. To wit:

I just found out that Apple is rejecting my new manifesto Stop Stealing Dreams and won’t carry it in their store because inside the manifesto are links to buy the books I mention in the bibliography.

Quoting here from their note to me, rejecting the book: “Multiple links to Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) store. IE page 35, David Weinberger link.”

And there’s the conflict. We’re heading to a world where there are just a handful of influential bookstores (Amazon, Apple, Nook…) and one by one, the principles of open access are disappearing. Apple, apparently, won’t carry an ebook that contains a link to buy a hardcover book from Amazon.

Now I should mention here that you shouldn’t be mislead by the term manifesto. Godin isn’t some self-published yahoo – see what I did there? – with some crazy, moralistic rant – although the title does kind of suggest that, at least to me. He’s an Internet entrepreneur, and was one before it was cool, as well as the author of 13 books that have been translated into 30 languages.

In fact he makes marketing seem almost not evil.

So … what does it all mean? That remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure: we’re living in a Chinese proverb; we live in interesting times. The world of ebooks and digital publishing is still a young one, remember — less than a decade old, really.

As for me, I don’t want to see Amazon, much as I appreciate it (for the most part), become the sole major seller of ebooks. By the same token, I don’t want to line the pockets of Apple’s c-level management and shareholders anymore than they already are. Nor do I want to see publishers colluding on prices, naturally.

It might be different if authors themselves were getting rich as a result, but I’m sure the average author isn’t going to see any benefit from price fixing. Contrary to popular belief, with a few notable exceptions, authors by and large aren’t living high on the hog, anymore than the rest of us are.

Anyway, something to think about the next time you stand in line for a nominal upgrade to your precious iPhone or iPad, or download something from the Apple store. It will be interesting to see how the ebook marketplace shakes out over the next few years.

More Amazon Book Pricing Controversy: Random Book News

Time for another edition of Random Book News. But time is short, today, so this is going to be short and sweet — a list of links, as it were. No need to rewrite the wheel, so to speak.

Science Fiction Writers Protest Amazon IPG Move

Locus reports that the SFWA plans to remove a number of links from Amazon — links to its authors’ books. Why would it do this? It’s a response to Amazon removing some 4,000 books from distributor IPG over a pricing dispute; IPG distributes many SFWA authors’ books. SFWA is actually redirecting its links to Amazon to other booksellers, such as Powels, Barns and Noble.

Seems like there’s been a lot of weird and problematic issues with Amazon pricing lately.

NY Times Discusses Pulp, Burroughs, His Barsoom Series, and the Disney Movie John Carter

I’ve read the first four Barsoom books, and while they are a guilty pleasure in many ways, I have to agree with the New York Times’ assessment:

… Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Princess of Mars …  is 100 years old and was already a little dated when it came out. Burroughs … published it in monthly installments in the All-Story Magazine starting in February 1912. It was the first thing he ever wrote, after a lifetime of failing at just about everything else, and he was clearly learning on the job.

Edgar Rice Burroughs, more well-known for Tarzan of the Apes, did away with all logic in creating his sci-fi series. The book is filled with inconsistencies and plot threads that are never followed up. And as science fiction goes, Princess of Mars is not very scientific.

Um, yeah, there is all that. Then there is the sexism and racism. But if you can overlook all that, there is pulpy, manly fun to be had.

Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman (a clever book cover)NY Times Review of Tupelo Hassman’s Girlchild

I confess the only reason this stuck out from the list of headlines in my various RSS feeds was the name of author Tupelo Hassman. A nom de plume? One would assume (and one would be rhyming). In any event, this author’s debut novel sounds interesting, if the Times’ reviewer is any judge.

Grim Reaper Tough on the World of Science Fiction

If you look at the most recent news items on Locus, the first three are obits. Ouch.

Paul Haines was an Australian science fiction author, while Ralph McQuarrie was a designer and illustrator who we’re all familiar with, even if we don’t know his name — he created the look of the first Star Wars trilogy. And by first, we mean the original trilogy; not the craptacular one that came much later. Jack Scovil was a noted literary agent; he worked with many famous authors, among other accomplishments.

Stephen King to Narrate The Wind Through the Keyhole

It’s the first time in a decade that King will narrate an audiobook version of his work, SF Scope reports.

 

 

 

Anthony Shadid’s Memoir, Truth vs. Fact and Life Imitates a William Gibson Novel

I don’t know if it’s just because I’ve been paying attention or because of some arcane aspect of the publishing cycle, but it seems as if there is all sorts of interesting news in the world of books these days. Of course much of what I’m blogging about here is particularly relevant to my interests, namely the books I like to read and subjects I’m interested in. So there you go.

Thus without further ado: Random Book News, Vol. V (or thereabouts):

Is There Room for Facts in Truth?

When I was perusing the New York Times ‘book section – online – last Sunday afternoon while feeding my coffee (shop) addiction, I clicked on a link by accident. Or was it fate? Because I discovered a book that I just have to read, one that I likely wouldn’t have discovered had it not been for that errant click.

On a side note, I absolutely loathe using the touchpad on a laptop, but the little mobile, carpal-tunnel mouse that followed me from Viet Nam to the United States and back to Viet Nam finally died recently, God rest it’s tiny little optical sensor. But in this instance it was perhaps fortuitous happenstance. But I digress.

The Lifespan of a Fact is a nonfiction account of a fact-checker at odds with a nonfiction writer, one who argues that art and truth trump facts – particularly when they inconveniently diverge from the author’s sense of timing and aesthetics.

I’ll let the Times’ review tell the story of The Lifespan of a Fact, and author John D’Agata’s head-butting with the diligent Jim Fingal (Fingal … apparently there is at least one of Tolkien’s Eldar that didn’t sail into the West). I will just add that as a writer and former journalist – some would argue that I’m not former, but we’ll save the semantics debate for some other time – truth vs. fact is a subject near and dear to my heart. On one hand, I understand where D’Agata is coming from, but on the other hand, I feel that we owe it to history to not subvert fact in favor of truth, as truth in this sense becomes subjective.

Part of my attitude undoubtedly comes from having worked as a professional journalist for 20-odd years (and some of them were quite odd years). There there was the time spent at the hardcore journalism school at Ohio University too (not enough money or grades for Columbia or Stanford) – an errant fact in a story was an automatic “F,” usually.

But on the other hand, when it comes to longer forms of nonfiction writing, there is room for art, truth and fact to coexist – at least there is in the hands of a skilled author. Don’t misunderstand me; in the eternal debate over whether or not writing (as distinct from journalism and news reporting), both fiction and non fiction, is art or craft, I tend to lean toward the former. But that doesn’t mean that creation doesn’t require technical skill. A musician must know how harmony and melody work together; a painter must know how to hold a brush and how to use it. In the same way a writer must now how words go together – beyond grammar and punctuation.

Shadid’s Memoir Serves as an Epitaph

House of Stone by Anthony Shadid (book cover)Speaking of journalism and the New York Times, it seems that esteemed foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid, who died of an asthma attack recently while covering the bloody civil strife in Syria, has published a memoir that was just released this week. Although Shadid died Feb. 16 at age 43 – the same age as yours truly – he accomplished more with his time than most, to be sure.

One would think that his memoir would be about his time covering wars all over the world; and if it had been, it no doubt would be a gripping read. Had that been the case it would be an account of winning Pulitzer prizes and getting shot while covering war and bloodshed, including in his ancestral home of Lebanon (Shadid is an American of Lebanese descent who spoke Arabic fluently).

But Shadid left all of that at the office, so to speak, Rather, House of Stone is about a year spent restoring a family home in Jedeidet Marjayoun, Lebanon, following the breakup of his marriage and family. This is framed by an historical account of his family’s flight from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire to the United States.

But as Times’ reviewer, author and New Yorker staff writer Steve Coll notes, House of Stone is a far cry from This Old House: Lebanon.

House of Stone is an elegant narrative that creates unity from diverse elements, much like the Ottoman-era cemento tiles over which Mr. Shadid obsesses and bargains during one stage of his beguiling restoration work. The book tells the story of his family’s migration from Lebanon to Oklahoma early in the 20th century, and along the way it illuminates the consequences of the Ottoman Empire’s fall; the binding ties of bayt, or home and belonging, in Arab families; the workplace ethics of Mr. Shadid’s small construction site in Lebanon; and the flavors of that battered society’s bitterness and resilience.

I think I’m going to have bump this one up to the top of my long, long list.

Amazon.com Bots: I’m Afraid I Can’t Do That, Dave

I don’t always agree with what Corey Doctorow has to say, and I’ve never read his fiction (although it’s on my list, as I’m curious). But he does tend to frequently post interesting book and publishing-related news on seminal blog Boing Boing.

Take for example this “damned weird story,” as he puts it:

Carlos Bueno, author of a kids’ book about understanding computers called Lauren Ipsum, describes what happens when the cadre of competing bots that infest Amazon’s sales-database began to viciously fight with one another over pricing for his book.

Amazon.com’s many bots feud over book-prices

Apparently Bueno isn’t the only author finding that Amazon’s HAL 9000 is acting strangely.

Veteran author Jim C Hines offered some of his titles independently direct through Amazon’s Kindle store. He discovered that Amazon reserves the right to arbitrarily reprice his books — slashing the cover price of a $2.99 title to $0.99 — and pay royalties on the lower price.

Author discovers that Amazon can reprice his indie Kindle books however they want and cut his royalties

Kind of amazing, stunning even, to consider that the world of ebooks and ebook publishing is really only about five years old or so, and yet it’s come to this already. Perhaps HAL, the errant, sentient computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey isn’t an apt metaphor so much as the Borg from Star Trek: The Cheap Imitation The Next Generation. We are Amazon. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

Science Fiction Author Dave Marusek Gives It Away

The Wedding Album by Dave Marusek (book cover)I think I originally discovered this on Boing Boing as well. Author Dave Marusek is notably going about things backwards, or so it would seem. Marusek penned the successful novella The Wedding Album, which was originally published in Asimov’s and subsequently reprinted a number of times and translated into five different languages as well.

He recently published the novella as an ebook, along with My Morning Glory, a collection of three so-called flash science fiction stories that originally appeared in the scientific journal Science. What’s more, he gave them away for free, in both Kindle and Nook formats, for one week each. I’m not sure what format the Nook version was, but the Kindle version is in Amazon’s proprietary standard.

Marusek explains why he’s ebpublishing an already successful print book in an lengthy and interesting post on his blog:

Not to make too big a deal about it, but this is more than just a book launch. It’s also the launching of my new role as e-publisher. The synergistic, skill-extension effect of the personal computer and the Internet has finally caught up with authorship, and all hell is breaking loose. With the introduction of the Kindle only three years ago, the traditional barriers to book manufacture and distribution have been battered down. Tens of thousands of aspiring authors have rushed in where only traditional publishers used to tread. Now, literally, anyone who’s ever wanted to publish a real book (in both digital and POD editions) and sell it around the world can do so at minimal cost and fuss. (Grammer, speling & punctuation is optional; )

Suddenly there are channels to put books into the hands of the reading public that do not involve traditional publishing. Trailblazing authors have already racked up digital bestsellers without NYC’s input. Traditional publishing is reeling with the changes and trying to adapt, and someday it may figure out a new business model (transmedia novels, anyone?). In the meantime, we mid-list authors of the old regime are scrambling to stay afloat in the new. One thing many authors are doing, now that we’ve been given the tools, is to bring out our backlists in ebook format. I’m giving that a try; in my case I only own the ebook rights to my short stories, and I’m only planning on e-publishing these few. (You can already buy “MMG” and “TWA” along with 8 other stories in my Del Rey collection, Getting to Know You.) If all goes well, I may self-pub my next novel, Camp Tribulation, (partly because I’m doubtful any legacy publisher will touch it–it’s that good!–or, maybe it’s no good at all; I don’t know; still too early to tell; it’s about two years away from completion).

One may wonder why I am e-publishing “TWA.” After all, it’s been reprinted about a dozen times and translated into five foreign languages and is easily found on pirate sites. Hasn’t everyone already read it who’s going to read it? I hope not. The fact that it has done so well for so long suggests that, given a little nudge, it might have the right stuff to find new readers on its own who may become new fans.

I may be one of those new fans. I’ll let you know before too long; I took advantage of the giveaway and downloaded both. But as someone who has been through the violent crash of print journalism and the Internet – literally at ground zero, in Silicon Valley – I can sympathize with the Marusek’s of the world and the a changin’ times. Believe me.

Grove Press’ Barney Rosset Dies

I’m only passingly familiar with Grove Press, having read a few well-thumbed volumes published by this imprint back in my university days, Beckett, Burroughs and whatnot – the kind of books that I wanted to read in college, but never really seemed to get around to reading. Yes, a bit cliché, I know.

Anyway, Grove Press’ founder Barney Rosset died last week at age 89.

Download the Universe: Niche Reviews for eBook Niche

As Carl Zimmer notes on the inuagural blog post of Download the Universe, science books have been around for about as long there have been books – and important books at that. Look at all the trouble Darwin’s Origin of the Species has caused.

Download the Universe is a new book review blog dedicated to science ebooks – not the print ones, but specifically the electronic ones. As Zimmer says:

Many of the necessary elements are falling into place for this experiment. Programming is becoming painless and powerful. Readers can buy ebooks with a tap on a sheet of glass. And there are enough readers now that they can conceivably support a community of ebook authors.

But there’s something missing in between. It is still tough for readers to discover new science ebooks. Traditional book reviews limit themselves to works on paper. Some ebooks may appear in computer magazines, but buried in reviews of laptops and printers. In between, we need a community.

Download the Universe is a step towards that community. It is the work of a group of writers and scientists who are deeply intrigued by the future of science books.

Among the editors – many of whom are authors themselves – listed on the site, I spied some familiar names (to me, at least, being the nerd that I am). Among them are: Annalee Newitz, whose byline has been popping up in alternative pubs for some time and who is currently editor-in-chief at Io9; Jennifer Ouellette, science writer and blogger (Cocktail Party Physics, anyone?); and Maggie Koerth-Baker, who I’m familiar with from her work on Boing Boing.

An interesting and worthy endeavor, Download the Universe is. Among the reviews there already is an essay on a subject near and dear to my heart: The state of the eBook, early 2012, by John Trimmer. It’s a nice overview of where the market and the technology stands at the moment. As I noted earlier, it’s hard to believe that the ebook market has only been around for five years, and the Kindle for three.

Living in the future is cool.

J.K. Rowling to Pen Adult Novel

I’m sure a lot of copy editors initially wrote headlines like this when the news first broke a few weeks ago that Harry Potter author Rowling has a new book in the works, this one aimed at big boys and girls. Then said editors paused and thought “wait, no, that sounds like she’s writing a pornographic novel.” And then they opted for headlines that were perhaps more clear.

To wit, this new book is to be for an adult audience, in that it’s not going to be written for children – not, ostensibly, an adult book in the sense that Anne Desclos’ The Story of O is a decidedly prurient adult novel.

Not that prurience is necessarily a bad thing. And judging by some of the freaky, twisted Harry Potter fanfic out there, there would be a market should Rowling decide to turn to erotica. Just think: The Story of H. As in Hermione’s erotic awakening at the hands of a dashing, elder professor at Hogwarts — we know she has a penchant for dashing professors, after all.

Moving on …

“Although I’ve enjoyed writing it every bit as much, my next book will be very different to the Harry Potter series. … ” Rowling said in a statement – statement meaning that this was her marketing-and-PR-approved quote composed by some poor sap at Little, Brown and Company’s PR firm, and not words that she actually said in front of a journalist (God, as a former journalist I have always wanted to write that. Now I have). “The freedom to explore new territory is a gift that Harry’s success has brought me.”

Anyway, there apparently aren’t any more details out there beyond that. Publisher Little, Brown and Co. merely announced that it acquired the rights to Rowling’s next novel; there is no word on when Rowling’s next effort will appear in bookstores.

Having said that, I will I say that I enjoyed the Harry Potter series. I reread all the books while on a recent vacation and can say that they stood up to the scrutiny of a second reading, for the most part, particularly the earlier works. They are not without minor faults here and there, but then most published works rarely are, and it’s to Rowling’s credit that she was able to maintain the quality of her writing across the seven works. So many sequels to initially successful popular fiction books today are clearly half-assed attempts to cash in on said success; it’s often painfully clear when an author is phoning it in and subsequently cashing in.

On the other hand, Deathly Hallows could have used some editorial pruning. But then given Rowling’s rock-star status and the tendency toward bloat in popular fiction today, I suppose that’s no surprise. In any event, it will certainly be interesting to see where Rowling’s muse leads her post Potter.

Life Imitates Art: Gawker Editor Lives William Gibson Novel Pattern Recognition

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson (book_cover)This is a strange post-modern tale, if there ever was one. Someone sets out to discover the creator of a Clickbank ebook seller website – ostensibly just one plot in an entire Clickbank content farm. Why would someone do this? Well it seems that creator of said horse-related ebook site, in order to get around Twitter’s spam bot filters, has set up an automatic scrape of random books and websites, publishing them out of context as tweets several times a day, ostensibly to pad the obvious spam bot tweets.

This random text has apparently developed a genuine cult following.

About seven times a day, Horse_ebooks spurts out bits of context-free nonsense, like: “Worms – oh my god WORMS,” and “I noticed that my hair grew faster from spending time in my pyramid.”

The feed’s strangely poetic stream has been embraced like a life-preserver by internet users drowning in a sea of painfully literal SEO headlines and hack Twitter comedians. Since it appeared in August 2010, word of Horse_ebooks has spread steadily, propelled by blog posts and Twitter chatter by internet obsessives. But unlike many internet culture phenomenons, it never truly went viral. Horse_ebooks is too weird, too much of an acquired taste to break into exponential growth.

Being one of the obsessives, Gawker editor Adrian Chen — quoted above — set out to find out who was behind Horse_ebooks. But it seems that some among the community were afraid this revelation might dispell the magic, prompting threats.

Seriously, this is straight out of William Gibson. Chen actually manages to discover the identify of this person, after doggedly pursuing his identity through the WhoIs information of his many websites – he’s a Russian web developer, but of course – and confirming it through a Facebook page, where there was a link to the developer’s personal portfolio website.

Ah brave new world, that has such webpages in it.

Now this is only tangentially related to books and book reviews. But if you’ve read Gibson’s 2003 novel Pattern Recognition, then you can see the parallels between this work of fiction and Chen’s story are downright eery – so much so, that I just had to comment on it.

Life imitates art — specifically that of William Gibson. As he himself has observed, he no longer has to write about the future; the present has gotten plenty weird as it is.