I’ve been seeing a lot of confusion about the “agency model” for publishing ebooks, which is what Macmillan, Hachette, HarperCollins, and Apple are on record as preferring to Amazon and its Kindle program. Please understand that I am not speaking on behalf of Macmillan or any of its subsidiaries, and I don’t have any inside information on what exactly John Sargent had in mind this past week when he wrote his statements.
Under the agency model, online retailers will sell a publisher’s ebooks in return for 30% of the gross. It’s not tied to a specific price structure or publication schedule. Publishers will set their own prices for the titles they publish, and decide when their own editions will come out.
The model isn’t newly hatched. Tom Doherty* came up with something like it a few years ago. (I distinctly recall him saying “We are not going to license ourselves out of our own business,” and hearing from Patrick not long after that that Tom had decided that online ebooksellers were distributors, not publishers.)
At the heart of the model is the proposition that ebooks aren’t essentially different from hardcopy books. Ebooks are just another repro technology.* Furthermore, online ebook sellers like Amazon aren’t publishers; they’re distributors or booksellers.*
The difference between the agency model and Amazon’s plan
for world domination is that Amazon wants to license* the ebooks in its Kindle program, control their content, and set their prices. That is: it wants to be the publisher, not a distributor or seller. This might be doable if Amazon were out there negotiating to buy rights at market prices. It isn’t. Amazon expects to have the rights just handed over, as though it were doing the conventional publishers a favor.
Amazon also wants to have the Kindle edition go on sale at the same time as the hardcover, and it wants to set a single price for the Kindle edition that undercuts the new hardcovers like crazy. This is a major problem. The revenue from hot new hardcovers is what keeps most conventional publishers afloat. It enables them to buy odd books and small books and first novels, and to put real effort into editing and packaging and promoting their books, and to pursue long-term projects like developing their authors’ careers.
In the long run, the Amazon model turns publishers into unfunded R&D labs that are obliged to turn over everything they develop to other companies at rock-bottom prices. It isn’t viable, and it’s not author-friendly in six different ways. Have you ever seen a discussion of how badly messed-up Kindle texts are? Amazon’s business isn’t about books and authors; it’s about selling units at a discount.
I like the agency model. Publishers keep doing what publishers do well. Online retailers step into something very like the role of the bookseller. Market forces continue to exert themselves in normal ways. And after decades of theories and models and way too much discussion, the ebook settles into being what it always should have been: just another repro technology, with its own strengths and weaknesses and price points.
The agency model is a good illustration of how publishing can constantly be going through (supposedly) cataclysmic changes while continuing to putter along as a recognizable entity. The specific mechanisms and technologies change, but they’re assimilated into existing roles, relationships, and areas of competence and responsibility. It’s not unlike the way the military turned cavalry into mechanized units in the first part of the 20th century: tech changes faster than the roles of the people who use it.*
From that standpoint, the agency model is a suitable and fitting development: