The Agency Model: Not So Bad for Indie Authors?

Today paidContent is reporting on Barnes & Noble’s letter to the Department of Justice on the price-fixing suit against Apple and five large traditional publishers. The points B&N makes aren’t new, I don’t think, but they did get me thinking about another way in which the agency model may not be a bad thing for indie authors (an idea I blogged about  a few weeks back).

As was illustrated during the PayPal fiasco (when PayPal tried to pressure online book retailers, such as Smashwords, into cutting certain erotica titles out of their offerings), indie authors aren’t really independent. We’re actually highly reliant on a few major companies: those that process payments and those that make our books readily available to readers. Any one of those entities can make things very difficult for us at the drop of a hat.

Our biggest dependency is probably on Amazon. So far, Amazon has been a good partner for indie authors. In response to what they were hearing from their author-clients, they made the 70% royalty available. They also made it possible to publish without DRM. They’re also innovative, experimenting with new programs, such as KDP Select. Their publishing platform is relatively user-friendly, and if you write to them with a problem or concern, they write back.

But Amazon doesn’t have to do any of these things, and we should be careful not to get lulled into a false sense of security, not to start believing that Amazon is a morally driven proponent of the indie movement, not to think of Amazon as being “on our side.” Amazon is on Amazon’s side, and we’d do well to remember it.

(Please note that I’m not criticizing Amazon for being on Amazon’s side. It’s a business: where else would it be? I suspect most successful companies become and remain successful by focusing, you know, on success.)

The presence of plausible competition could encourage Amazon to continue being good to its indie authors, and there’s no doubt that Amazon’s competition has grown under the agency model. The figures I commonly see reported are that Amazon controlled about 95% of the ebook market before the advent of the agency model and now control about 60%. Much of the lost market has moved to B&N, and some to Apple. Was this growth caused by the agency model, or does it just correlate? It seems to me the link is probably causal, since the agency model ended Amazon’s loss-leading price advantage.

The presence of B&N and iTunes (and others) as workable indie-publishing alternatives is a good thing for indie authors because they give us an opportunity to jump ship, should Amazon’s policies or behavior become less satisfactory. If the agency model is what has allowed the alternatives to emerge, maybe it’s not a bad thing for us.

I’m not pondering whether what Apple and the big publishers did was legal. I doubt it was, thought smarter people than I will have to make the real decision. The question I’m asking is, Was it good for us indies? If it kept the prices of traditionally published ebooks inflated and it encouraged the growth of indie publishing alternatives, maybe it was.

Now if only PayPal had some competition.

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