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ABA Asks Justice Department to Investigate Retailer Price Wars

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October 29 – November 5, 2009 Edition

ABA Asks Justice Department to Investigate Retailer Price Wars

NEW YORK, NY/AUTHORLINK NEWS/10/27/09–The Board of Directors of the American Booksellers Association last week sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice requesting that it investigate practices by Amazon.com, Wal-Mart, and Target that it believes constitute illegal predatory pricing that is damaging to the book industry and harmful to consumers.

As reported in the consumer and trade press this past week, Amazon.com, WalMart.com, and Target.com have engaged in a price war in the pre-sale of new hardcover bestsellers, including books from John Grisham, Stephen King, Barbara Kingsolver, Sarah Palin, and James Patterson. These books typically retail for between $25 and $35, but as the retailers battle for supremacy, prices are dropping as low as $8.98.

Members of the ABA board of directors signed the letter and sent it by overnight mail and e-mail to the DOJ’s Antitrust Division Assistant Attorney General Christine Varney, and to Molly Boast, Esquire, Deputy Assistant Attorney general for Civil Matters.

The letter requested a meeting with the DOJ on what it termed this “urgent matter.”

“Publishers sell these books to retailers at 45% – 50% off the suggested list price,” the ABA explained in its letter. “For example, a $35 book, such as Mr. King’s Under the Dome, costs a retailer $17.50 or more. News reports suggest that publishers are not offering special terms to these big box retailers, and that the retailers are, in fact, taking orders for these books at prices far below cost. (In the case of Mr. King’s book, these retailers are losing as much as $8.50 on each unit sold.) We believe that Amazon.com, Wal-Mart, and Target are using these predatory pricing practices to attempt to win control of the market for hardcover bestsellers.”

The publishing industry is unlike other retail sectors such as clothing, jewelry, and appliances, that sell commercial goods at a net price, leaving the seller free to determine the retail price and the margin these products will earn. Because publishers print list prices indelibly on jacket covers, and because books are sold at a discount off that retail price, there is a ceiling on the amount of margin a book retailer can earn, the letter pointed out.

“The suggested list price set by the publisher reflects manufacturing costs — acquisition, editing, marketing, printing, binding, shipping, etc. — which vary significantly from book to book. By selling each of these titles below the cost these retailers pay to the publishers, and at the same price as each other, and at the same price as all other titles in these pricing schemes, Amazon.com, Wal-Mart, and Target are devaluing the very concept of the book. Authors and publishers, and ultimately consumers, stand to lose a great deal if this practice continues and/or grows,” the letter said.

The letter noted that “this episode was precipitated by below-cost pricing of digital editions of new hardcover books by Amazon.com, many of those titles retailing for $9.99, and released simultaneously with the much higher-priced print editions. We believe the loss-leader pricing of digital content also bears scrutiny.”

While on the surface it may seem that these lower prices will encourage more reading and a greater sharing of ideas in the culture, the reality is quite the opposite. Consider this quote from Mr. Grisham’s agent, David Gernert, that appeared in the

The letter quoted David Gernert in the New York Times: “If readers come to believe that the value of a new

book is $10, publishing as we know it is over. If you can buy Stephen King’s new novel or John Grisham’s ‘Ford County’ for $10, why would you buy a brilliant first novel for $25? I think we underestimate the effect to which extremely discounted best sellers take the consumer’s attention away from emerging writers.”

The ABA pointed out that the effect of the price wars would have a devastating effect on independent bookstores, leaving them no way to complete. The organization said the price wars would concentrate the power in the book industry into very few hands.

Bill Petrocelli, owner of Book Passage in Corte Madera, California, an ABA member, was also quoted in the New York Times:

“You have a choke point where millions of writers are trying to reach millions of readers. But if it all has to go through a narrow funnel where there are only four or five buyers deciding what’s going to get published, the business is in trouble.”

“We would find these practices questionable were they taking place in the market for widgets. That they are taking place in the market for books is catastrophic. If left unchecked, these predatory pricing policies will devastate not only the book industry, but our collective ability to maintain a society where the widest range of ideas are always made available to the public, and will allow the few remaining mega booksellers to raise prices to consumers unchecked,” the letter concluded.