The Anatomy of a Digital Business Negotiation

Joshua Gans has done a very nice job analyzing the US DOJ pursuit of Apple Computer. There is a lots of good material to study – but let’s just focus on the Newscorp/Harper Collins vs. Apple negotiation. Here’s an excerpt:

It is at this point that James Murdoch of News Corp that owns Harper steps in and goes straight to Steve Jobs.

Steve,

Thanks for your call earlier today, and for the time last week.

I spoke to Brian Murray and Jon Miller [then the head of digital media at News Corp.]—and Brian is sending a note to Eddy today. I thin I have a handle on this now. In short—we we would like to be able to get something done with Apple—but there are legitimate concerns.

The economics are simple enough. [Amazon] Kindle pays us a wholesale price of $13 and sells it for 9.99. An author gets $4.20 on the sale of a hardcover and $3.30 on the sale of the e-book on the Kindle.

[A portion of this email was redacted by the court.]

Basically—the entire hypothetical benefit of a book without raw materials and distribution cost accrues to Apple, not to the publisher or to the creator of the work.

The other big issue is one of holdbacks. If we can’t agree on the fair price for a book, your team’s proposal restricts us from making that book available elsewhere, even at a higher price. This is just a bridge too far for us.

Also, we are worried about setting prices to high—lots of ebooks are $9.99. A new release window with a lower commission (say 10[%]) for the first six months would enable us to proce much more kenly for Apple customers. We’d like to da that.

More on this below in Brian’s note to Eddy. We outline a deal we can do.

Feel free to call or write anytime over the weekend to discuss if you like.

I am in the UK (so eight hours ahead of CA). My home number is [redacted]. I check the email regularly.

Steve, make no mistake that across the board (TV, Studios, Books, and Newspapers) we would much rather be working with apple than not. But we, and our partners who produce, write, edit, and otherwise make all this with us, have views on fair pricing, and care a lot about our future flexibility. I hope we can figure out a way, if not now and in time for this launch of yours, then maybe in the future.

Best,
JRM

The email timings appear weird as the early email is at 6PM on the 22nd January and the later email is at 4PM the same day. I suspect there is a bunch of time zone issues going on. [Oh yeah, and anyone who complains about the typos on this blog, check out the professional letters being exchanged in business negotiations! So much for lessons we teach kids at school, right?]

In this email, Murdoch appears to put themselves in a position of agent for the author but as author deals are surely flexible this seems strange to me. That said, it is the redacted part that outlines Murdoch’s position here and they are pushing for a better deal again at least during the initial period when their books sales might be highest. And the last paragraph is a thinly veiled threat reminder of the breadth of News’ media interests. In other words, Murdoch is worried that if he gives into Apple now, they will lose ground in other areas too.

Now it is Steve Jobs turn to respond:

James,

A few thoughts to consider (I’d appreciate it if we can keep this between you and me):

1. The current business model of companies like Amazon distributing ebooks below cost or without making a reasonable profit isn’t sustainable for long. As ebooks become a larger business, distributors will need to make at least a small profit, and you will want this too so that they invest in the future of the business with infrastructure, marketing, etc.

2. All the major publishers tell us that Amazon’s $9.99 price for new releases is eroding the value perception of their products in customer’s minds, and they do not want this practice to continue for new releases.

3. Apple is proposing to give the cost benefits of a book without raw materials, distribution, remaindering, cost of capital, bad debt, etc., to the customer, not Apple. This is why a new release would be priced at $12.99, say, instead of $16.99 or even higher. Apple doesn’t want to make more than the slim profit margin it makes distributing music, movies, etc.

4. $9 per new release should represent a gross margin neutral business model for the publishers. We are not asking them to make any less money. As for the artists, giving them the same amount of royalty as they make today, leaving the publisher with the same profits, is as easy as sending them all a letter telling them that you are paying them a higher percentage for ebooks. They won’t be sad.

5. Analysts estimate that Amazon has sold more than one million Kindles in 18+ months (Amazon has never said). We will sell more of our new devices than all of the Kindles ever sold during the first few weeks they are on sale. If you stick with just Amazon, Sony, etc., you will likely be sitting on the sidelines of the mainstream ebook revolution.

6. Customers will demand an end-to-end solution, meaning an online bookstore that carries the books, handles the transactions with their credit cards, and delivers the books seamlessly to their device. So far, there are only two companies who have demonstrated online stores with significant transaction volume—Apple and Amazon. Apple’s iTunes Store and App Store have over 120 million customers with credit cards on file and have downloaded over 12 billion products. This is the type of online assets that will be required to scale the ebook business into something that matters to the publishers.

So, yes, getting around $9 per new release is less than the $12.50 or so that Amazon is currently paying. But the current situation is not sustainable and not a strong foundation upon which to build an ebook business.

[A portion of this email was redacted by the court.]

Apple is the only other company currently capable of making a serious impact, and we have 4 of the 6 big publishers signed up already. Once we open things up for the second tier of publishers, we will have plenty of books to offer. We’d love to have HC among them.

Thanks for listening.

Steve

There’s depths & depths to unravel – read Joshua Gans for the complete story. And yes, those News Corp guys need to pony up for a spell checker.

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