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Dan Agin

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EBooks: Windbagging the Price Issue

Posted: 04/15/2012 6:50 pm

Start a debate about publishing business practices and soon blowhards are in the square with bullhorns. Reality? Forget reality. Everyone has an axe to grind, no matter how truth is trampled.

Here are some truths about the current brouhaha concerning the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Big Six publishers and Apple controversy:

1. The details of the Anti-Trust Law are available to everyone. Price-fixing by collusion of certain businesses is a violation of law, no matter which business benefits and which business is hurt. You must not meet (especially not in secret) to fix prices, no matter if you think it will benefit humanity. (Anyway, when was the last time corporate executives held a secret meeting in expensive private rooms to benefit humanity?) The idea that the DOJ is wrong because their decision benefits Amazon is ridiculous. The issue is that Apple and the Big Six apparently colluded to fix prices and thus broke the law. If stopping the collusion benefits Amazon, the Big Six and Apple need to find a better way to compete. Breaking the law is not an option.

2. A monopoly is against the public interest only when it results in artificially high prices that cost consumers extra money. A monopoly that results in LOW prices is NOT against the public interest. All over the country, we have monopolies of electric power, transportation, natural gas, and so on -- because it's ultimately cheaper for the public than having sixteen power companies in one city driving everyone crazy competing with each other.

3. In general, the purpose of the law in this country is to benefit the public and NOT to benefit certain sectors of business. The philosophical idea is that capitalism serves the public and NOT that the public serves capitalism. The anti-trust law(s) arose from our experience with unregulated business collusion and such are absolutely necessary to both protect the public and protect capitalism from destroying itself and the rest of us.

4. Behind all the smoke and mirrors put out by the Big Six and authors and booksellers and agents and everyone else in print publishing is a panic due to confrontation with a new technology that threatens to wipe out the old way of producing and selling books. They see it clearly. Their mistake is to believe they can stop industrial progress that results in lower production costs and lower consumer costs. But that cannot be stopped. The horse and buggy industry could not stop the commercial ascendance of the automobile. The passenger railroad and ship industries could not stop the ascendance of air travel. The radio industry could not stop the ascendance of television advertising. As for authors, there were indeed authors in the past who whined about the progression from pencil to manual typewriter, and from manual typewriter to electric typewriter, and from electric typewriter to computer word processor -- but looking back now, were they smart or silly?

5. Authors, agents, editors, and publishers in the publishing industry need to understand the single most important reality of industrial progress here or anywhere in the world in a free market society: If a technological change results in lower production cost and lower consumer cost and more efficiency, you either roll with the change or it will roll over you and squash you flat in the dust of history. Caveat emptor.