e-bookReading the latest news, it seems as if the actions taken by Apple in its earlier attempts at price fixing have always been obvious. It may come as a shock to some that this has not always been the case.

The events that played out at the beginning of the post-Kindle e-book era have been tumultuous at best and downright ugly at their worst.  There was a clear and concerted effort on the part of our country’s largest publishers and one of its largest tech companies to underhandedly force artificially high price points on customers.

In the past, the story may very well have ended there, with potential customers powerlessly taking the price increases. It did not, however, play out the way that the large publishing houses and Steve Jobs envisioned. Instead, what occurred is that a divided customer base, with disparaging interests, united in an open revolt of these corporate tactics. Their complaints resonated with such force that one of the largest retailers in the world–Amazon–single-handedly picked up its cross and ran with it as far as a publicly traded company could possibly carry it.

This movement proved to be controversial to some people at the time. Cynics quickly weighed in on the boycott’s characteristic tactics of calling out books that should not be purchased and of also giving price-based one-star reviews. They labeled these methods as destructive to not only freedom of speech, but to also the concept of a free market. They stated that these actions inherently interfered with the relationship between publishers and customers. The reactions that these criticisms garnered were equally harsh, with many boycotters actively pushing accusations that critics were in some instances members of an insidious publishing astroturf campaign.

There really is no way to determine whether or not publishers went as far as using subversives. The fact that they have been proven to have colluded in one way or another to remove consumer choice is in itself a troubling reality.

It may not be the popular thing to say, but the $9.99 boycott was right at the time and it is right in retrospect. Consumers may not always have their interests represented fully by large corporations, and the boycott continues to serve as a prime example of the collective influence that consumers can have when they choose to unite.

The writer and editor Alex Sanchez, an occasional TeleRead contributor, can be found on the Web at upfromnothing.com


  1. Teleread has become, with skewed articles like this, the Fox News of eBook/publishing sites, more interested in pandering and attention-getting than in meaningful or honest reporting. I cannot allow myself to remain subscribed to such painfully out-of-touch-with-reality reporting.

    Sadly, based on the way they wrote this article, the author seems exclusively to read such slanted, attention-whoring sites, rather than anything of real substance, and considers them to be the whole story, without bothering to do any other research or in any way to look beyond their insular worldview.

    A real disappointment.

  2. Teel McClanahan III, it seems a little disingenuous (or perhaps just wrongheaded) to refer to such an anti-corporate article as this as analogous to Fox News. If you had namechecked the Huffington Post instead, it might have scanned a little better.

    In either case, you don’t make your point too well. Factually, what do you dispute? That Apple colluded with the big publishers? That Amazon took advantage of grassroots dissatisfaction to help foment discontent with agency pricing?

    Or do you not disagree with the facts? Is it more the bias of the article, which quite openly says the $9.99 boycots had the right of it?

    I for one liked this article. But then I like HuffPo. And not Fox.

  3. @ Bob W. I am also a fan of the picture! It captures such a heavy amount of symbolism.

    @Teel McClanahan III. I am saddened to hear that the op-ed has caused such a reaction. Writing at its best captures the world, through the prism of its creator, and transmits that interpretation onto readers. There is no way that I can truly convey to you the full scale or scope of my views, through mere words alone. There is a fine balance between excessive research and quality writing that is often difficult to separate. Some of the most memorable and powerful books in all of the western cannon would by most metrics be considered poorly researched. I as always would ask for you to look back and come to terms with how close we came to having potentially unreasonable price points forced upon E-book enthusiasts.

  4. @ David Lomax. I am reminding readers about the chaos that took place at the time in response to Apple’s attempts at price fixing. I am not disputing that Apple was price-fixing. The Department of Justice has done a sensational job of unearthing that for us. I tend to look skeptically at Amazon’s efforts also. That is why I mentioned their carrying the lower price banner up to a certain point. We all do recollect that they eventually did cave into the agency model.

    It is hard ultimately to write an op-ed based on historical events and not take a strong position on an issue. I don’t believe that publishers went as far as creating astroturf campaigns to persuade public opinion. I do, however, feel that they should not get a pass for such a egregious attempt at rigging a nascent market. I also don’t feel that the $9.99 boycott has received enough credit in bringing this collusion to the public’s attention. I feel that it is easily the largest event in E-books since Amazon’s foray into the market.

  5. This must be the silliest article I’ve seen on Teleread. Fortunately, Teleread can and usually does better than this.

    Take for instance this remark:

    “There was a clear and concerted effort on the part of our country’s largest publishers and one of its largest tech companies to underhandedly force artificially high price points on customers.”

    Underhandedly? Not really. They met in Manhattan restaurants not in some dimly lit back alley. Force? Somehow I don’t recall guns being mentioned. Artificially high price points? By what technique is the ‘proper’ price decided. Most businesses make money on almost everything they sell. Publishing is different. Many publishers lose money on most titles. The money-makers have to sell for enough to recoup those other losses. That makes pricing far more complicated. If the DOJ really wanted to go after a group that does conspire to drive their profits up, almost always by using the force of law, it’d go after the legal profession.

    And if the author had actually read some of the evidence presented at the trial, he’d know that Steve Jobs told these large publishers that their price expectations were too high and that they’d be forced over time to reduce them. That’s hardly an illustration of a “concerted effort” on Apple’s part.

    All this is silly because there’s perhaps never been a product in human history that’s more suited to a totally free and unhindered free market than ebooks. Getting the feds involved makes no sense other than, as I have noted elsewhere, as underhanded scheme to make it harder for Apple to compete with Amazon or forcibly prevent publishers from working together to resist Amazon’s monopolist bent.

    To give one example, free markets work marvelously when the cost of entry is low. How much does it cost to publish ebooks via Apple, Amazon, Smashwords etc. Nothing other than an author’s time and an inexpensive computer.

    Free markets work best when there’s little or no barriers to entry, particularly with economy of scale. It cost a fortune to enter the car market. You’ve got to be able to manufacture hundreds of thousands of them to compete and that requires huge factories. In contrast, my little Mac mini can create the ebook files that, can sell in any quantity desired. It is at least theoretically possible for me to publish an ebook that climbs to the top of bestseller lists and stays there for months. There’s no way I could do that with cars, TV sets or the like.

    Traditional publishing benefited large publishers. Only they had the sales teams and distribution system to get books into bookstores. The ebook market is vastly flatter. Giving ebook space to a major publisher won’t keep my ebooks from being on display at Apple or Amazon. The playing field is far more level and that means that no one, no matter how huge, can get away with overpricing.

    I could go on and on, but the point is all too obvious. There was never any legitimate, public-interest need for the DOJ to initiate this lawsuit. The DOJ action was almost certainly intended to assist Amazon. In fact, the law firm that motivated them to file that lawsuit isn’t just located in Seattle, its offices are only about a five minute walk from Amazon’s corporate headquarters. Suspicious to say the least.

    Those with emotional ties to a DOJ success seem, in my experience, to be sad and unfortunate people addicted to the trash turned out by some Big Six’s hottest authors. They want those books to be cheaper so that addiction costs them less. They’d be better advised to broaden and improve their taste in reading and try inexpensive titles from little known but more talented authors.

  6. If DRM were a legal person, that person would surely have been named as a co-conspirator. Perhaps DRM should be next in line for the DoJ’s racket-busting attention. It was and is DRM that locks customers into one ecosystem or another and thus subjects those customers to artificially harsh conditions of sale that will eventually also include higher prices. The mythology of piracy notwithstanding, DRM is the greater threat to both customers and vendors.

  7. I would point out that TeleRead did some articles about the $9.99 complaints at the time that would have been nice to link to in this article. There was the author who complained about “entitled” readers and then rather hastily backpedaled, for example. Or Paul Carr complaining about one-star reviews. And there was Joanna’s suggestion that “Maybe we should be hurting the authors,”, and my own follow-up to the publicity that one brought. And that’s just from two minutes of searching.

  8. Chris:

    Thanks for sharing the earlier discussions on this issue. They help paint a much more vibrant picture of this chaotic tech moment.


    I agree with the DRM concerns, but have not found a way that all parties could win comfortably.


    I have seen your powerfully incisive comment and want to thoroughly read as well as respond to it: till then I will refrain from responding. I want to make sure to read and fully comprehend what you have written thoroughly before sharing my thoughts on the matter.

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