What a crazy decade it’s been, huh?

Vox has a look back at the big ebook story of the decade: the Apple anti-trust lawsuit around agency pricing. It’s cast as an explanation of why the anticipated “ebook revolution” never precisely came, but per the article, that lawsuit (and its circumstances and consequences) is largely the explanation (along with the surprising fact that gadget-happy millennials by and large prefer paper books to electronic ones). And after reading through it, it’s hard to argue with its conclusions. It’s a pretty good article, including a bit of post-mortem from Andrew Albanese, author of The Battle of $9.99 (which I reviewed here).

The article offers a pretty good recap and explanation of the lawsuit itself—how it grew out of Amazon offering ebooks at bargain prices to push its $400 Kindle device, followed by Apple’s desire to get into the ebook business but not have to compete on price with Amazon. The DOJ filed a lawsuit, the publishers backed down, Apple fought it to the bitter end (and lost at trial and every level of appeal)…but after the several-year consent decrees expired, the Big Five publishers cheerfully jacked their ebook prices right back up again, Amazon just as cheerfully makes them look ridiculous by pricing paper editions lower, and here we are. As I noticed a couple of years back, publishers are selling fewer ebooks, and are openly happy about that fact.

As Vox points out, these high ebook prices tend to drive readers away from the traditional publishers’ ebook offerings and toward the much less expensive self- or indie-published titles. They also serve to hurt debut novelists from traditional publishers, because readers are less likely to take a chance on someone they don’t know at those prices.

And the piece quotes antitrust law professor Christopher Sagers and publishing consultant Jane Friedman, who say the real problem was not so much that Amazon has a monopoly, it’s that more or less all levels of the publishing industry have contracted down to having just a handful of major players at most.

“There used to be hundreds of publishing companies. They’re now mostly owned by five,” Sagers says. (After that Department of Justice lawsuit, Penguin merged with Random House, and the Big Six became the Big Five.) “Why are ebooks expensive? It’s not because Amazon is vicious. It’s because there’s no competition at the wholesale level.”

Amazon is the biggest ebook name; the Big Five Publishers do the lion’s share of traditional publishing; Ingram is effectively the only retail distributor of paper books anymore. Sagers felt that the DOJ should have sued Amazon at the same time it sued the publishers.

It’s an interesting point. I’ve already pointed out that Amazon’s rise can be laid at the feet of the Department of Justice’s “consumer welfare” standard of antitrust enforcement for the last forty years (most recently seen in the decision to allow movie studios and movie theaters to vertically integrate once more). But taking a wider view, this laxity of antitrust enforcement is probably also every bit as responsible for the rise of the multinational publishing conglomerate, and the collapse of what used to be a broad book retail distribution market into just Ingram. Having fewer companies makes things more efficient, which is “better for the consumer.” Or something.

In the end, here we are: stuck with a market that overprices ebooks, or at least lets Amazon cheerfully undercut them on print books which amounts to the same thing. Publishers are starting to put the squeeze on library ebook offerings, as well, because they have sufficient control over how those are offered that they can. And it doesn’t exactly look like things are going to improve any time soon.

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