By Erik Sherman
A series of emails about ebook prices between Apple and HarperCollins, including ones written by Steve Jobs, were recently released as part of the Department of Justice price-fixing suit against Apple and a number of major publishers. As the site Quartz pointed out, these offer some great insight into how Jobs negotiated.
However, Zachary Seward at Quartz called it an example of “hard-nosed” negotiation at which Jobs excelled. I’d take a different view. This is not hard-nosed. The emails show how an excellent negotiator used a series of principles to create the best conditions for winning. Let’s look in greater detail at the exchange between Steve Jobs and James Murdoch, son of Rupert Murdoch and the ultimate decision maker, and see how Jobs ultimately got his way.
First, set the stage. Apple and HarperCollins had been discussing bringing the latter’s ebooks into the iTunes store for the launch of the iPad. Apple had presented its standard contract. HarperCollins wanted to address the following issues:
- flexibility to price on a title-by-title basis outside Apple’s pricing tiers
- no so-called most favored nation status, so Harper would not have to give Apple as good a deal as any other retailers in case the two companies disagreed on prices and HarperCollins wanted to make titles available through other outlets at higher prices and, potentially, higher income for those retailers
- a lower than 30 percent commission on new works
- six month windows on using an agency model (publisher sets the price and retailer gets a commission) instead of the 12-month window that Apple wanted
- concern that Apple wanted to set prices too high, meaning that competition with Amazon would be difficult
And yet, Jobs ultimately prevailed. Here is how.
1. Understand the importance of the negotiation.
According to one of the emails, Steve Jobs got on the phone with Murdoch right away. Jobs was a busy man, but he knew that some deals are critical. To have a credible showing of ebooks, he needed all the major publishers, including HarperCollins. However, there was another aspect of importance that didn’t pass him by. If he caved on what he thought he really needed with one publisher, others would eventually find out and push back. Not only was the deal important in and of itself, but also in terms of the effect it could have on other deals.
2. Show that you understand the context and why your proposition is better.
Jobs knew, as did everyone in the publishing industry, that Amazon was driving much of the ebook business. Murdoch verified that Amazon paid $13 wholesale for an ebook title and sold it for $9.99–a lost, but Amazon wanted market share. However, buying high and selling low wouldn’t last forever, as Jobs pointed out:
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.
Furthermore, Jobs argued that the $9 HarperCollins would get per title was actually sustainable and that the only way to pay more, given that in retail a 30 percent margin is relatively modest, would be to raise prices, angering consumers.
3. Show both kinds of value.
Jobs showed two kinds of value in his email exchange. One was positive value–what HarperCollins would get by working with Apple–and the other was negative, or what HarperCollins would lose by not working with Apple. For example, Jobs wrote that “Apple is the only other company currently capable of making a serious impact, and we have four of the six big publishers signed up already.” On one hand, he offers HarperCollins a tool to oppose industry domination by Amazon. On the other, he offers a soft hint that if HarperCollins doesn’t play ball, it may get left behind by its major competitors.
4. Lay out the reality.
The Jobs coup de grâce relates to the first point. When Murdoch shows signs of compromise, while trying, as Jobs did, to show positive and negative benefits to Apple, Jobs lays out a stark reality:
As I see it, HC has the following choices:
1. Throw in with Apple and see if we can all make a go of this to create a real mainstream ebooks market at $12.99 and $14.99.
2. Keep going with Amazon at $9.99. You will make a bit more money in the short term, but in the medium term Amazon will tell you they will be paying you 70% of $9.99. They have shareholders too.
3. Hold back your books from Amazon. Without a way for customers to buy your ebooks, they will steal them. This will be the start of piracy and once started there will be no stopping it. Trust me, I’ve seen this happen with my own eyes.
Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see any other alternatives. Do you?
At that point, the gloves are off and Jobs shows that HarperCollins, and the wider industry, face a stark choice, and that he, Jobs, knows it and recognizes that giving in to Murdoch would actually mean putting HarperCollins in a medium-term bind.
5. Play the emotion
One of the biggest mistakes that businesspeople make is to assume that the process is a rational and logical one. But negotiation is almost always an emotional play. People make decisions because of ego, fear, greed, a need to please, and so on. Notice that Jobs shows the benefit and the risks by painting pictures and not enumerating lists. For instance, he mentions the 120 million customer credit card numbers on file. He deliberately left the image of all that potential money in Murdoch’s mind.
You don’t often see an extended example of a negotiation process handled by someone gifted in the field. It is worth reading through the transcript to follow the back and forth and see how skilled Jobs was.
Erik Sherman‘s work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch. @ErikSherman