E-book Pricing and Vertical Restraints

(Dr. Babur De Los Santos with Matthijs R. Wildenbeest)

 

This paper empirically analyzes how the use of vertical price restraints has impacted retail prices in the market for e-books. In 2010 five of the six largest publishers simultaneously adopted the agency model of book sales, allowing them to directly set retail prices. This led the Department of Justice to file suit against the publishers in 2012, the settlement of which prevents the publishers from interfering with retailers’ ability to set e-book prices. Using a unique dataset of daily e-book prices for a large sample of books across major online retailers, we exploit cross- publisher variation in the timing of the return to the traditional wholesale model to estimate its effect on retail prices. We find that e-book prices for titles that were previously sold using the agency model decreased by 18 percent at Amazon and 8 percent at Barnes & Noble. Our results are robust to different specifications, placebo tests, and synthetic control groups. Our findings illustrate a case where upstream firms prefer to set higher retail prices than retailers and help to clarify conflicting theoretical predictions on agency versus wholesale models.

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