No end in sight for OFT e-book pricing probe

No end in sight for OFT e-book pricing probe

Publishers are being kept waiting for the conclusion of the Office of Fair Trading's investigation into e-book prices, begun at the start of this year, with the OFT now in the process of assessing all the material submitted for its scrutiny.

Legal teams for publishers involved—which include HarperCollins, Hachette and Penguin—were busy in the early months of the investigation, preparing all records and documents relating to e-book sales at the OFT's request. But the past few weeks have been quieter while the OFT proceeds with its analysis, coming back to publishers on occasion with requests for further details or clarification.

An OFT spokesperson said he could not confirm how long the investigation would take. He said: "Competition investigations don't necessarily conform to a standard time frame, but depend on a number of factors."

The investigation was opened "into whether arrangements that certain publishers have put in place with some retailers for the sale of e-books may breach competition rules" following "a significant number of complaints", and is understood to relate to the widespread adoption of the agency model for digital sales. The European Commission (EC) is undertaking a related inquiry into publishers, including Hachette, saying it "has reason to believe that the companies concerned may have violated EU anti-trust rules that prohibit cartels and other restrictive business practices". The OFT has said it is "co-operating very closely to avoid any duplication" with the EC's work.

Publishers point out that the e-book market has continued to develop in 2011, with publishers experimenting with many varieties of e-book pricing as they seek to explore the new arena. "The OFT investigation is a serious issue, and we are taking it very seriously, but nobody is tearing their hair out," said one publisher.

Meanwhile, the date the OFT will give its decision whether to refer the merger of The Book Depository and Amazon to the Competition Commission was still to be confirmed at the time of writing.

Amazon announced its intention to buy and merge with TBD in July, which led to the Booksellers and Publishers Associations, the Independent Publishers Guild and the Bookseller Group voicing opposition to the merger. The original date of the OFT's decision was given as 30th August, which was then delayed until 2nd September, before being changed to "to be confirmed".