« Discussion

Survey: Does Apple’s Guilty Verdict in Ebook Trial Damage Publishing?

By Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief

Apple has been found guilty of colluding with publishers to raise ebook prices. Putting financial ramifications aside, has the judgement damaged the publishing’s reputation with consumers?

[poll id=87]

iPadJudge Cote’s decision came faster than expected: in an extensive 159-page decision (PDF), she wrote, “Based on the trial record, and for the reasons stated herein, this Court finds by a preponderance of the evidence that Apple conspired to restrain trade in violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act.”

Having been found guilty of colluding to raise the price of ebooks, Apple going to face restitution. Of course, cash isn’t a problem for the company: it is sitting on a stockpile of some $120 billion, a figure that is on par with what the entire global book business generates in revenue over an entire year.

But what of the publishers who have already had to settle (Random House excepted). Not only is the cash due back to consumers and lawyers damaging, but what of publishing’s reputation with the public? Consumers are already convinced that books (digital or physical) cost too much. We can thank both Amazon and Barnes & Noble’s Leonard Riggio for that (don’t forget Riggio spent much of the early 2000s lobbying for lower print prices).

Ironically, this may be one instance where the public’s lack of knowledge of specific publishers and discreet colophons might actually play into the publishing industry’s favor. After all, most readers simply don’t know nor care to know who publishes what.

As our friend Boris Kachka, author of the forthcoming book, “Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus & Giroux,” noted yesterday in the New York Times:

The Big Five have been so busy reducing old companies to brands that they’ve neglected the notion of what a brand should mean. Can any reader tell a Pantheon from a Riverhead novel? The logo doesn’t do the trick. 

My guess is that to the majority of people with whom this judgement will even register is that this will ultimately be perceived a case of the government going after “big business” that is breaking the law in an effort to “screw the consumer.”

Of course, many of us in the publishing business might feel differently. After all, wouldn’t it be nice if, in addition to policing the book business, it would also spend some time and money investing something in the book business and literary culture?

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  1. Pubbie
    Posted July 11, 2013 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    “What of publishing’s reputation with the public?”

    The average consumer might have heard about this case, and might have even read an article about it, but I doubt they care that much.

    It’s not as if the Big Six publishers (except maybe Penguin) were particularly well-branded to begin with–no one ever went online thinking, “You know, I’m going to get a Hachette ebook. Their books are always great.” Similarly, I don’t think anyone’s going to go online thinking, “Those jerks! Never buying a Hachette ebook again!”

    Consumers will buy whatever’s good or popular. I don’t know anyone outside of the publishing or academic industry who truly cares which pub the book was from.

  2. Sandy Thatcher
    Posted July 11, 2013 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    There may be some short-term damage because the public is likely to misconstrue the meaning and implications of this decision, just as the public probably did for the Supreme Court’s decision in Kirtsaeng about “first sale.” In both cases, people outside publishing no doubt believe that the government was doing consumers a favor by taking on big publishers and challenging their practices. What they don’t realize is that those practices actually benefited the public, and the decisions are going to prove costly to the public in the long term–in the Apple case if the decision helps Amazon increase its share of the ebook market further, and in the Kirtsaeng case because publishers will no longer be able to provide cheaper editions to students overseas and will have to charge higher prices for textbooks in the U.S. market also. The government doesn’t seem to understand very well how the publishing business works, and it is doing real damage under the veil of consumer protection.

  3. Posted July 11, 2013 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    I think that when Apple gets to appeal that lame decision – it might be able to better make the point that most content actually LOOKS and READS BETTER on the iPad and Apple’s price increase actually merited it. I think it will also it will ultimately help the public understand (more & better) this new type of publishing and how it’s now growing around the world – because of Apple. Moreover, later this year, iBooks will be available on ALL Macs – not just mobile devices – and this will make more ebooks sales for everyone.

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