The struggle to control prices of digital content sold online continues, with producers and distributors battling over prices for downloads of books and music.
In the latest skirmish, Amazon removed Macmillan books from its website after the company protested that online retail was using monopoly power to force publishers to accept prices no higher than $9.99. Macmillan and other publishers have now signed distribution deals with Apple that allows them to price downloads at $12.99 and $14.99.
Producers, of course, want higher prices because they produce higher revenue and better profits.
The struggle to control prices is not unique to the online environment. In the offline world, producers of books, magazines, CDs, and DVDs have long struggled to gain limited shelf space because there is a large oversupply of products and retailers’ have selection preferences for popular, rapidly selling products.
Large national and retailers have also used their bargaining power to push wholesale and manufacturer suggested retail prices downwards. Wal-Mart, now the number one music retailer in the World, uses its purchasing and sales power to sell large quantities of music at the lowest price possible—the basic price/quantity model for all the products it carries.
What is new in the offline world is that the conflict does not merely involve struggles over the price and quantity strategies of retailers, but that the retailers are using the media content as a joint product with their proprietary digital hardware.
Amazon wants content prices low not merely to sell more books, but because it helps it sell Kindle, its e-book reader. To date, it has been able to do so because it was the leading seller of both products—something it learned from Apple’s strategy with i-Tunes and i-Pod.
Competition in distributing content, even just a little competition, helps shift some of the power away from the retailer and back to the producer. Apple was forced to back away from its enforced price of 89 cents for a download when recording companies made deals with other download providers and threatened to end the rights for Apple to see their popular music. Apple is now playing spoiler to Amazon in the book downloads and Amazon has agreed to carry Macmillan books again.
Newspaper publishers are now seriously testing and considering a variety of e-readers as ways to reduce production and distribution costs. As part of their strategies, however, they would do well to learn from the experience of the music and book business. They need to remember that a basic rule of business is that if you don’t control price, you don’t control your business.