After more than a year of debate, US district judge Denise Cote handed down a ruling this month in the case of United States of America v Apple Inc., otherwise known as the ebooks pricing case. The US Justice Department accused Apple of conspiring with the big five publishers, and the judge agreed, calling it a “brilliant scheme” to raise ebook prices. This was “agency pricing”: because Apple allowed publishers to set their own prices for ebooks on its devices, publishers could justify imposing the same model on Amazon – which was always the real target of the whole business.
Terrified of Amazon’s growing power in the book industry (at one point it had cornered up to 90% of the ebook market, a segment which will only grow; though it is now thought to have around 65%), publishers were prepared to do pretty much anything to protect themselves, their negotiating power and their bottom line. Well, when I say anything, I mean they were prepared to flirt with anti-trust law and conspire among themselves to raise prices. What they weren’t prepared to do was innovate or work for the benefit of their readers.