Was Chesapeake Publishing just bought by a private equity billionaire?

I just found out that my former employer twice over, Chesapeake Publishing, has had yet another sale to yet another new owner. This time, the buyer is an Adams Publishing Group from Minnesota. How do I know this? The press release thinly veiled as a news story says so. Good thing, too, because otherwise, there’s no record of an Adams Publishing Group of Minnesota even existing prior to this acquisition.

Here’s the rundown that appeared on the Cecil Whig website. According to the Whig, APG bought three newspaper divisions from American Consolidated Media, the Chesapeake papers as well as papers in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ohio. Not knowing anything of them, I was naturally curious about Adams Publishing, and what else they might happen to own, so I read on. Unfortunately, there was no mention of anything Adams owns by name, and no comment from anyone at Adams, other than the heads of the divisions they just purchased. And, boy, are they happy!

After not finding anything to my liking, I did a little googling only to discover zilch anywhere on the internet for an Adams Publishing Group other than the various announcements of this string of buys. There’s not even one listed in any phone book or address database for the entire state of Minnesota. Odd, I thought. Here’s the description the Whig gave of Adams Publishing Group’s resume:

“Adams Publishing Group LLC…has holdings in radio broadcasting, magazines, outdoor advertising, consumer and trades shows, commercial printing and production, and other sectors…”

Holdings? An interesting way of putting that, no? So, a little more digging and I turn up this description from Wikipedia:

“current holdings include…a national publishing, retail stores and member-based direct marketing organization directed toward owners of recreational vehicles…an operator of outdoor advertising structures in the Midwest, Southeast, and Mid-Atlantic regions…previous holdings have included operators of television and radio stations, print publishers, cola bottlers and community banks.”

Pretty similar, huh? The second description belongs to billionaire private equity investor Stephen Adams who was born and raised in, you guessed it, Minnesota. This is the same Stephen Adams whose holding company, The Affinity Group, changed its name a couple years ago to Good Sam Enterprises after losing tens of millions of dollars with its investments and having Standard & Poore’s drop its credit rating to D for “the company’s highly leveraged financial profile, weak operating outlook, and limited liquidity.” One of the more interesting holdings of Adams was Affinity Bank, which Federal regulators shut down in 2009 because of depleted capital reserves. Are we still happy to be a part of this exciting new opportunity? More from the Whig:

““We are thrilled to be joining Adams Publishing Group and to be moving back to a family-owned company,” said David Fike, president and publisher of the Chesapeake group.”

Family owned, right. Just like the Koch Brothers companies are family owned. Just like the Mitt Romney’s very vulturey Bain Capital was family owned. But I guess when you’re in an industry where bad to worse has been the modus operandi for the better part of a decade now, you tell yourself whatever you have to to keep from crying to sleep at night.

Keep in mind, this is pure speculation on my part based on what little information was provided about the buyer, but it makes sense to me. How coincidental would it have to be to just happen to have a filthy-rich private equity investor from the same location with holdings in the identical areas, whose last name is the same as this seeming-previously nonexistent publishing company? I tend not to believe too much in coincidence.

My only question: if this is actually Stephen Adams behind this purchase, why not just say so? It’s not like old, billionaire white guys buying up newspapers is some kinda rarity these days. In fact, it’s increasingly looking like they may be the only people interested in buying newspapers, including the folks who used to read them.

UPDATE: After unsuccessfully looking high and low for any information on Adams Publishing Group and any connection to Stephen Adams, wouldn’t you know a kind soul took the time to email me a link to exactly that. Here’s a piece from Business North, a business news site for northern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin, that makes the explicit link between Adams Publishing Group and Stephen Adams.

UPDATE PART 2: Here’s a piece from Nancy Schwerzler at the Cecil Times that sheds a bit more light on the subject. She did some legwork through SEC filings to find that APG does, in fact, track back to Stephen Adams. Also, the four LLCs that will house these papers, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio and Chesapeake, were incorporated in Delaware about two weeks ago.

Perhaps most interestingly, according to the Cecil Times, Stephen Adams’ son Mark is set to oversee the operation of these newspapers. Schwerzler also mentions Mark Adams as the head of an EPG Media, a company founded last year to, essentially, spin off the outdoor motorsports magazines then owned by Good Sam Enterprises.

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

Who’s Got The Ether? Publishing, Hugh Howey and the downfall of old assumptions

A little while ago, I ran across this Writing on the Ether article by Porter Anderson. Anderson does a fantastic job of culling together the various viewpoints of whatever outbreaks of argumentativeness spring up around the publishing industry every week. Check him out on Twitter and definitely look for his articles when they come around. Always well worth the read.

Anyway, this particular piece dealt with author Hugh Howey’s suggestions of what would constitute a fair and equitable industry for writers given the new realities of independent publishing. Here’s a brief rundown of his points, all good ones, in my opinion:

“1. No more digital rights until ebook royalties are 50 percent of net.
2. No more “Most Favored Nation” clauses.
3. No more DRM for Guild members.
4. Fair pricing for ebooks.
5. No more non-compete clauses.
6. Stop fighting “free”.
7. The Authors Guild should embrace Amazon as a friend to writers and readers.”

The only thing I would add to that is no more DRM for anybody, but he was specifically referring to a hypothetical writers’ strike led by the Authors Guild, so there’s that. Go read his full piece yourself. Howey is clearly positioning himself not as simply a successful author but a strong advocate for author’s rights and fair treatment, something we seem to be sorely lacking from the old guard (looking at you, Scott Turow). Not surprisingly, his suggestions weren’t very well received by the establishment players, and that was the gist of Anderson’s piece and what led to the comment that caught my eye that I’ll get to further down.

Here’s industry consultant and analyst Mike Shatzkin taking issue with Howey:

“Hugh, your post is so thoroughly from an indie author’s POV that it is really not relevant to anybody else and, frankly, not to all indie authors either…It is doubtful to me that indies have 25% of all ebook unit sales everywhere, but, even if they did, they’d have a much smaller fraction of the ecommerce…let’s just say that my respect for your expertise does not extend to your ideas about how publishers ought to operate.”

To be fair, Shatzkin was very complimentary to Howey for his writing ability and the successful path he’s forged for himself. I like Shatzkin, but I have to wonder about an industry analyst advocating outright ignoring the suggestions of possibly the most successful author to emerge from these technologically challenging times. (I also find myself saying, “I like Shatzkin but…” a lot the past few weeks. I really thought he was turning a corner on this stuff, too.) He has a point of sorts, in that large publishers as they exist today likely can’t continue to function in the environment Howey describes. They’d have to cut a whole lot of fat from the bone and do damn near a complete 180 degree shift on their attitudes toward writers. But, like Howey seems to believe, those kinds of changes may look optional to publishers today (admittedly, a bad option for them) but before much longer, they won’t be. Get ahead of the curve now before it’s too late. And, maybe, paying some attention to a guy who’s already well ahead of that curve might make some sense, but I digress.

This brings me to the comment from Anderson that drove me to save this article. Here goes:

“You know where I’ve heard Shatzkin’s comments before? From myself! From myself and from other news people when “citizen journalists” became a rude, unwanted, upstart presence in “our” network news. We said just these things. Citizen journalists were a minuscule part of the overall picture in media coverage, we said. Citizen journalists, with their silly cell-phone videos, couldn’t hold a camera to our superb camera crews, we said. Citizen journalists, many of them fine folks, of course, knew nothing about how genuine journalism worked, we said.

“What we couldn’t see as we said these things was that the digital disruption of journalism would neutralize most of our traditional models and modalities. The news audience would not rush to “genuine journalism’s” aid. And the ways and means of our industry would be profoundly shifted toward open access and non-expert participation.

“See, we were wrong: every cell phone really was our competition. But we couldn’t see that, not then, not for anything, not even when we tried.”

I have to give a huge thumbs up to Anderson for not only recognizing this but stating his, and others’, mistakenly dismissing major change for a brief inconvenience. I haven’t seen that nearly as much as I should have at this point. When I first shifted over from following the newspaper/periodical segment of publishing (I started out working for newspapers, after all) to the book publishing side, one of the first things I noticed was that many in the established guard were spouting the identical nonsense about the self publishing interlopers that I had seen newspaper execs espouse about independent journalists, bloggers and the like, leading directly to them getting beaten around left, right and sideways by the shifting sands of disruption.

Kudos to Anderson for seeing that and pointing it out. Even more so for recognizing the error in his own dismissals of the past. Book publishers are still following that path, one that will lead to ruin. I’ve said before that the only thing that saved newspapers from completely collapsing in on themselves was, due to the nature of that industry segment, there was no simple, inexpensive means for the talent (writers) to fire up their own directly competing products that could monetize as well as needed. Some did, but it could have been much worse given a little different dynamic.

Ebooks are that different dynamic. There is clearly a simple, inexpensive means for authors to compete directly with publishers, largely thanks to Amazon and others. Howey has shown that it’s the case, both in his own success and now the Author Earnings data collection effort that has, even at a formative stage, shown how the interlopers are increasingly snatching up a larger and larger share of the market and the money that goes with it.

Many traditional defenders have nitpicked Howey’s data and, in some respects, they have a point as Howey himself has said. You don’t release you’re raw data unless you’re trying to invite exactly such nitpicking. But, to me, many of those arguments reek of fear. And they should be very afraid. If publishers don’t wise up, the turmoil the newspaper segment suffered isn’t the worst case scenario here. Given the talent’s ability to reach the market on their own and, more crucially, monetize in more than adequate means to support the low infrastructure costs, it could get a whole lot worse for book publishers than even their newspaper brethren ever dreamed.

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

Dirty Tricks Are For Kids…and people who work in publishing

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot about the sock puppet, review buying scandal “gripping” the ebook world. I used quotes because, frankly, I’m fresh out of shits to give about whatever system-gaming tactics other people are engaging in. Don’t get me wrong, I believe the people using fake accounts to rip other writers and their work are cowardly bastards that deserve our scorn. I also believe faking an account or getting you friends and relatives to write glowing reviews of your stuff comes off as desperate and a little pathetic. As for buying reviews, I’m honestly a little indifferent to that. It’s not something I’d do, and it’s deceptive if you know the reviews are bogus. But marketing itself is far more frequently deceptive than not. We don’t bitch when our favorite athletes or movie stars take fat checks to hock cars, watches, fast food or what have you. That’s obviously fraudulent marketing, too. Why aren’t we railing against that? No, buying reviews doesn’t even register as something I care about in the least.

My primary issue is the self-righteous indignation that has exploded in some circles over this matter. Don’t you people have anything better to do, like writing a book or something? System gaming and pushing the boundaries to get ahead is the American way. Rules exist simply so we know where the lines are when we cross them for personal advantage. Sure, that’s a cynical attitude, but then I’m not the one sitting here spewing morality and lying to myself about human nature.

I am shocked by one thing, though, that there are so many people who seem to have no conception of what the publishing industry really is. It’s a shark tank filled to the brim with lies, deception, trickery and questionable ethics, same as it ever was. Stomping this set of tactics out will only serve to the advantage of whoever’s got the next system-rigging scam ready to put in play. Is it fair or ethical? Hell no! It’s publishing.

Anyway, the whole mess reminds me of a piece I wrote over 2-1/2 years ago when some well-meaning but naive folks tried to start a new daily newspaper in the Detroit area. When their effort failed in all of four days, they proceeded to launch a massive whine-fest about the dirty tricks their competitors played on them. I think many of my points about publishing then are still applicable today, and they’ll still be applicable a decade from now, too. So, here is that piece along with the new intro I wrote in italics for its inclusion in my book, The Decline and Fall of the Publishing Empire.

By the way, see what I did there? I plugged my book, complete with hyperlink. Is that ethical? In fact, is this entire post just an excuse to promote my book on the back of a high profile scandal? It’s not, I genuinely think this is a perfectly valid point that I’ve also made in the past. But can you be sure of that just because I say so? Do you want to spend all your time sussing out who’s being totally legit and who’s being manipulative? Is it even possible to tell with any degree of certainty? If so, good luck with that. I’ve got stories to write.

Dirty Tricks- December 1, 2009

I was part of a start up publication a little over a decade ago, taking on an established, much bigger entity.  They tried every trick in book to derail us.  They swiped our papers from store racks, they pressured printers to not do business with us, the threatened possible backers, even filed a totally and completely frivolous lawsuit that was designed to get us to spend on legal fees instead of actual competition.  That’s the nature of this business. 

Dirty, low down trickery is second nature in publishing.  Always has been, always will be.  We, however, were prepared for it, didn’t go under in four days like these guys I talk about here, successfully fended off the lawsuit and, in fact, quite completely kicked their ass head-to-head.  The lesson in all this is be prepared.  Just having some money and what you think is a good idea is never enough, especially in a fickle industry like publishing.

If you haven’t heard, today I’m going to address the brief life and quick death of the new daily paper in Detroit, which lasted all of four days.  Now, when I first read about this, my thoughts weren’t particularly optimistic.  This is simply the wrong time in the wrong industry to try something so brazenly risky, but, hey, give ‘em points for effort.  Anyway, today, I read a lament about the paper’s demise, which largely blamed dirty tricks on the part of Detroit’s other two long-standing major newspapers.  You mean publishers actually engaged in dirty tricks against the competition?  Color me shocked.

How can anyone at this point possibly be naive enough to have not expected this?  Publishing is an industry built on dirty tricks.  If there has ever been a manipulative, back-stabbing, sneaky, dirty trick played in the business world anywhere, it likely had its start in publishing.  Just because you have a group of well-meaning people with good intentions and more money than sense doesn’t mean that everyone else will just step aside, congratulate you and say, “welcome to the game.”

Publishing is, and always has been, a screw or be screwed industry.  That doesn’t mean that you have to play dirty, but you do have to be prepared for it.  Expect otherwise and you’ll get eaten alive.  It’s part of what attracted me to publishing in the first place.  You have to constantly be on your toes because the minute you let your guard down, people will be lining up to burn you.  Everyone has an agenda, and part of the fun is in figuring out what that is, while keeping your own close to the vest.  Reading between the lines, figuring out the real motivations behind people’s actions and words; those are essential skills.  These dynamics exist everywhere in publishing; employee on employee within companies; company on company within markets, that’s simply how the game is played.  Whining about dirty tricks after the fact just makes you look even more unprepared than closing up shop in four days does.

When I first heard about the shut down, which has been called temporary (yeah, sorta like death is temporary) it suggested a few things to me.  The first is that they were either ill-prepared or seriously underfunded.  It’s probably both.  But to complain about printers charging you up front, and other competitors putting pressure on vendors to not do business with you?  Exactly what industry did you think you were getting into?  First off, I wouldn’t trust a printer that didn’t try to charge you in advance for a new start-up.  There’s a long-standing tradition in printing, passed down through the generations, of getting small publishers in hock up to their eyeballs in print bills just so they could take them to court and strip them clean of any and all assets.  Never, and I repeat, never allow your print bills to be secured debt and run up out of reach.  You’re much better off paying up front and shutting down before that happens.

Secondly, it seems that these folks were counting on a massive influx of revenue right out of the gate.  Apparently, they took the dissatisfaction of the community with the existing players to mean that just starting a new paper will bring them on board.  It simply doesn’t work that way.  It takes time to establish a solid revenue base, and if you don’t have the money to fund at least a year’s worth of production without earning back a dime, don’t even bother getting started.  It doesn’t matter how pissed people seem, they’re not going to throw money at you until you can prove that you’re a better alternative.  Four whole days isn’t even close to making that happen.  Four months isn’t long enough.

That being said, I appreciate their initiative, misplaced as it was.  The best we can do is learn from their mistakes.  Even a weakened print industry isn’t an easy target, and they will not go quietly into that good night.

The Fraudulent Society: A world of bogus book reviews, statistics & cyclists

We live in a fraudulent world. Everything around us every day is fake. The economy is in the dumps because of financial sector fraud on a scale so large that it can hardly seem possible. This November, we’ll be asked to select which major political party’s dishonest, pandering, self serving pack of lies gets to run the country for the next four years. Hell, even Lance Armstrong has stopped defending himself from doping charges. I know, it doesn’t make him guilty. But it doesn’t make him innocent, either. Given the track record for honesty and integrity I’ve seen around me in my lifetime, you’ll excuse me if I’m a wee bit cynical of the guy who used steroids to return from a virtual cancer death sentence, then goes on to pull off probably the most far fetched athletic feat in my lifetime, going from an also-ran to winning seven Tour de France titles in a row. Sure it’s possible his brush with death motivated him to develop the drive to push himself to never before seen athletic accomplishments. It’s just as likely he discovered the wonders of drugs, or most likely, some combination therein. Either way, the guy who should be the most inspiring athlete in the world doesn’t exactly scream legitimacy. But then, what does anymore?

Certainly not the validity of the customer review system that much of the retail web works under. Read this piece from the New York Times and try not to throw up in your mouth. Now I’m reasonably sure most of us know some kind of questionable practices have been going on in terms of reviews. But the scale this suggests is frightening. This is one guy, subcontracting out “reviewers.” If he made $28,000 a day, as he claimed, that’s a ton of bogus reviews scattered out there. In fact, at that rate, this guy would’ve disseminated a half a million fake, rose-colored reviews in a year’s time. One guy. How many more review services are there out there? How many private groups trading quid pro quo positive reviews amongst their memberships? And what’s the percentage of “sockpuppets” that sellers are using to contribute glowing reviews of their own stuff clandestinely?

The short answer: a royal shitload! Certainly enough that it calls into question the validity of any customer review system. How exactly are reviews weighted in Amazon’s discoverability algorithm? If they’re counted at all, doesn’t this disclosure seem to indicate their removal may be called for? I mean, the information is tainted. Worse yet, so long as reviews directly count toward helping products be seen and possibly drive sales, there’s virtually no reasonable means of stopping it from becoming that way.

So who availed themselves of this “service”? Well, John Locke, for one, reportedly bought 300 reviews from this guy. Somewhat less to Locke’s discredit, he didn’t seem to actually care if the reviews were good, bad or indifferent, just that they existed. Maybe he legitimately thought he was getting people who were going to actually read his book and give an honest critique. Of course, that would mean a man that’s been held up for his business acumen for rising from unknown to self publishing icon would be dangerously naive. What was I saying about cynicism earlier?

But at least Locke didn’t stoop to the level of UK best seller Stephen Leather. Leather, rather incredibly, openly admitted to having a network of fake online identities he used to promote his books, or sockpuppets, as it were. Further, he implied that he also has a group of friends and associates all engaging in the same sham marketing. Here’s a breakdown of his situation.

As appalling as these instances are, really they’re just ham handed attempts to replicate conduct the corporate world has already perfected. Does anyone really think the Big Six don’t have someone posting glowing five star reviews on their books everywhere they’re available? Realistically, they’ve been paying for reviews for a long time, either directly or through back scratching deals with review publishers along the lines of buying ads in said publication with the expectation that your offerings get reviews. At least this new payola actually goes to the people writing the fake reviews and not just the newspaper or magazine printing them. Making the world of review fraud more democratic! That’s something, I suppose. Nauseating, but something.

Then there’s the simple case of the Digital Book World ebook bestseller list. Purported to be an accurate depiction of ebook sales, closer inspection reveals something that smells worse than a suddenly-abandoned fish market three days after the ice has melted. Is it a fraud? I don’t know for sure but my internal bullshit detector goes haywire whenever something produces generally surprising results that would be exactly what you’d expect if the fix was in. First, the somewhat contemptuous tone toward the lower price points in the promotional material for the new list seemed prejudicial to indies and immediately set me to awares. Then, the initial list had publishers prominently displayed but no authors. Hmmm…who would put a greater priority on the publishers being referenced rather than the actual authors? I wonder…Third, the results came out not only unpredictably but almost irrationally anti-indie and pro Big Six. One of the big tells in statistical fraud is when they overreach and results come out far stronger on one side than is actually reasonable. Last, the guy who developed the secret algorithm we know nothing about turned out to be employed as a VP at a Big Six publisher. Not only that, it was kept hidden from all materials until he was outed by a blogger and had to fess up. Hiding possibly pertinent information is usually a big tell in fraud, too. So is it a fraud? If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, well, sometimes it turns out to be a goose, but mostly, it’ll be a duck. And I’m sure you’ll excuse me if I’m fresh outta benefit of the doubt these days.

So, with all this obvious review fraud going on everywhere, will Amazon or someone else yank review data from any meaningful purpose? Nope. One other thing about our fraudulent society is that, far more often than not, the perpetrators of the fraud suffer no consequences from it. No bankers have been called to task, lying politicians are such a cliche now that we don’t even bother to call them on their bullshit anymore, lest we get buried by an even bigger pile of bullshit defending the first load. This review-pimping guy will be back to slinging bogus five-stars before you know it, and in the meantime, the ones who haven’t been outed yet will keep plying along unfazed. John Locke and Stephen Leather will be momentary blips, and very likely won’t suffer a bit from their questionable ethics (or naivete, if you’re feeling the Locke apologist vibe).

Lance Armstrong is getting his Tour de France titles stripped, though. That’s something, right? It would be if it weren’t being done by an agency that 1) has pretty questionable authority to strip them in the first place and 2) has no real evidence of doping at all and the somewhat inconvenient fact that Lance never once failed a drug test. See, when someone does get even the slightest comuppance, it, too, ends up done fraudulently.

But, oh well. I hear Roger Clemens is making a comeback.

Moaning and Groaning: Publishers’ supporters get more hard line after being shot down by the DOJ

So I’m catching up on my reading of industry news and I noticed that, since the DOJ pretty much laughed off the anti-settlement brigade’s rhetoric, the tone in some circles has gotten even sharper, more filled with doomsaying than it was before, and it was already pretty severe. Personally, I found a lot to like about the DOJ’s response to comments, which is something I very rarely say about any government agency. I especially appreciate that they weren’t swayed by the 10 to 1 ratio against that the traditional publishing backers’ letter writing campaigns generated.

I still believe there was a fatal flaw in their logic. In encouraging people to parrot the anti-Amazon party line, it created a raft of letters that failed to address the principle matter of law in the case, worse yet, it may have vindicated it. Very few, if any, of the letters substantively refuted the claims of collusion, instead using unsubstantiated claims of Amazon’s predatory pricing as justification for the publishers’ actions. In this way, many of the comments, while attempting to defend the publishers, essentially admitted collusion took place. It’s like saying, “Yes, your honor, we did it, but we’ve got a really good excuse.”

It doesn’t surprise me in the least that this kind of approach carried no water with a group of prosecutors. If anything, the arrogance of it seems to have further emboldened and entrenched the DOJ in its beliefs. This could end up being extraordinarily bad news for Penguin, MacMillan and Apple if they actually force an annoyed DOJ into court.

But that’s an issue for a later date if the holdouts don’t come to their senses and settle before they end up spending absurd amounts of money defending a pricing scheme likely to be obsolete before the first witness is ever called.

I’ve got two articles I read this week that, I think, illustrates both the attitude of superiority and the over-the-top, end of days hyperbole that’s making the rounds now that the industry seems to be realizing Uncle Sam isn’t going to do their bidding, no matter how many campaign contributions they make to Chuck Schumer. It’s a sad commentary on the state of things these days when buying a congressman is an easier accomplishment than competing in the market.

I’ve taken five points from each of these two articles to discuss. The first is a particularly single-minded post by Dennis Johnson, co-founder of the publisher Melville House, a staunch traditionalist.

Before I begin, let me say that I find it odd that such a virulent supporter of publishers founded a company named after Herman Melville, a man who largely had a tenuous if not outright bad relationship with publishers. Most of his books had to be published in London initially because American publishers wouldn’t touch them, and even then, they were never able to generate significant sales despite the fact he wrote some of the greatest works in the English language.  Rather infamously, Melville was paid a grand total of less than $600 for his masterpiece Moby Dick. I’m sure if he were to rise from the grave today, Melville would have more than a few choice words for publishers, particularly considering his actually burnt the unsold copies of an epic poem he wrote after he couldn’t pay for them. Comforting to see some things never change, like publishers’ contempt for writers.

1. “At the start of agency, for example, Amazon controlled 90 percent of ebook sales. There’s nothing “highly speculative” about calling that a monopoly.”

Except for the fact that Amazon’s large share came about because they took a then-under utilized ebook market and drug it into the mainstream essentially by themselves. No major publishers paid much heed to it at the time, very few competitors showed any interest in jumping in before Amazon charted a course, and certainly none on their scale. Once Amazon started making real money, though, that 90% share dropped significantly, just as you’d expect a trendsetter would when a previously empty playing field started filling up. It wasn’t like Amazon entered a thriving ebook market and swiped that giant share of business from others. They essentially created the market when almost no one else had the interest, desire or the balls to do it. He’s right, though, partly. It’s not “highly speculative” to call Amazon a monopoly in that instance, it’s outright bullshit to do so.

2. “The Sherman Antitrust Act, and its descendent the Robinson-Patman Act, clearly define loss-leader under-pricing as a predatory tactic rather obviously intended to “drive out competition and obtain monopoly pricing power.”

So when does the DOJ actions start up against every retail business in this country? Loss Leader pricing is so commonplace we barely even notice it any more. Its use is far from being “rather obviously” about driving out competition, either, far more commonly used on a day to day basis virtually everywhere things are sold, as a means of bringing customers into your store.

On the other hand, what the publishers did with the agency scheme was retail price maintenance, which up until 2007, was illegal in essentially all its forms. A Supreme Court decision (which overturned damn near a century of precedent, by the way) granted a limited allowance for the behavior under the “rule of reason” which Apple and the publishers flaunted by colluding pretty much in public and gloating about how their plans were going to screw Amazon, inhibit the ebook market and raise prices on ebooks. The publishers are only in legal trouble today because of their egos, stupidity and total lack of discretion. That and, unlike Amazon, they actually broke the law.

3. “The DOJ cited arguments from David Gaughran, writing on behalf of 186 self-published authors who thanked Amazon for ‘creating, for the first time, real competition in publishing by charting a viable path for self-published books. But when was it, exactly, that publishers prevented authors from self-publishing?

Is he kidding? Certainly, anyone with the money could publish a book, but getting that in book stores or retail outlets dominated by traditional publishing was an entirely different story. Publishers’ entire business model was one of dominating the channels of distribution. What good was publishing a book if you were essentially locked out of the principle sales channels?

Preventing writers from having any access to the market was their stock in trade, creating a ready supply of material they could pay as little as possible for, which is why writers get such a low portion of revenues today when they are principally responsible for the product. And, really, anyone who thinks there was anything close to a viable path to self publish pre-Amazon is either dangerously ignorant of reality or purposely being disingenuous.

4. “The process of public involvement was, apparently, meaningless. But there are better things to remember right now. For one, take this for what it is: The DOJ has found its own case sound. The good guys, meanwhile, have yet to have their day in court.”

So the DOJ was supposed to take a vote and ignore the law because a large number of traditional publishing’s disciples said so? The truest thing in the DOJ’s response was that the overwhelming majority of anti-settlement comments came from people and businesses profiting directly from the price fixing scheme. Like I said, I’m actually impressed they saw through it.

In truth, I think the public involvement stage was very useful. It illustrated the biases of those supporting the publishers who, despite their numbers, produced no compelling arguments for a lessening of terms. It also showed that the truly independent voices who, not coincidentally, are finding success without the need to break the law, were heard even though they could have been swamped by traditional publishing’s comment generating machine. If anything, unlike many other areas of life these days, this looks like the powerful corporations flaunting the law will be held to task while consumers, innovators and legitimate competitors in the market will win the day.

5. “The ludicrous charges, the fact of such paltry and pitiful support for them, the wide variety of opponents — the entire industry and then some — roused to speak out — all provide reason for hope.”

Yeah, reason to hope you guys hurry up and go bankrupt. Seriously? Ludicrous charges? Pitiful and paltry support? No and no. The charges look pretty damn sound to me. And evidently, those of us who choose to disagree don’t matter. Hell, we’re not even in the industry, apparently, despite selling books professionally. For money. To actual readers. See, it’s not that public input didn’t matter, it’s that public input he disagreed with didn’t matter, and it certainly shouldn’t have mattered enough to beat back their superior numbers and unsubstantiated inflamatory rhetoric. How dare the DOJ side with the law and actually aggreived parties who have paid tens of millions more for ebooks than would have been possible without collusion! They sent 800 carbon copy, Amazon-is-evil letters, didn’t the DOJ get the memo? Won’t somebody please think about the culture?

Shortly after reading that piece, I read this one by John Barber of the Globe and Mail. The hits just keep on coming in this one, including cameos by everbody’s favorite bitchy traditional writers, Ewan Morrison and Scott Turow, proving that even the Atlantic Ocean can’t keep arrogance and stupidity apart.

1. “Authors are losing income as sales shift to heavily discounted, royalty-poor and easily pirated ebooks. Journalists are suffering pay cuts and job losses as advertising revenue withers. Floods of amateurs willing to work for nothing are chasing freelance writers out of the trade. And all are scrambling to salvage their livelihoods as the revolutionary doctrine of “free culture” obliterates old definitions of copyright.”

Being as he made several points here, I’ll address each in order. First, ebooks are only royalty-poor because publishers want them that way. And, to be fair, print books are pretty damn royalty poor in most instances, too. Next, do you know who’s not seeing pay cuts and job losses as advertising flees newspapers? The CEOs, who are “suffering” with giant bonuses and golden parachutes for all those job losses they’ve instituted while simultaneously playing the fiddle on any kind of digital transition as their industry segment burns to the ground.

Third, as conglomerates bought up any and every publication they could find during the acquisition rush years ago, many publishers began getting tight with freelance budgets. Even at the height of profitability before the bottom fell out, prices paid to freelancers were stagnant or negative. Once the advertising revenue started to fall, they used it as a convenient excuse to put the screws to writers even more than usual. The flood of free content he refers to was largely spurred on by publishers looking for ways to spend as little as humanly possible on content, quality be damned. The issue isn’t that there’s work out there available for free, it’s that publishers refuse to pay even modest wages for quality writing despite the fact that content is the only reason they have the ability to attract any advertising at all.

And, finally, who’s perverted the concept of copyright more, the “free culture” people, as he calls them, who advocate sharing and the rights of consumers or the media companies, who lobby for laws like DMCA and SOPA, and push through things like the Mickey Mouse rule that now has copyright extended to life of the creator plus 70 years?

The extensions and increasingly stringent punishments for even minor infringement has created an atmosphere where it makes a lot of sense to argue that copyright needs to be looked at anew. The parts of copyright law that support derivative works and allow creators to build off of the progress of those before, fair use and the first sale doctrine, and the public domain and furtherance of culture have all been imperiled by the steady rights grabs of media companies who have been engaging in a systematic effort at maintaining copyright in perpetuity for decades now. If you’re going to cry about copyright being broken, don’t do so while advocating for those who actually broke it.

2. “(According to best-selling UK author Ewan Morrison) The result will be the destruction of vital institutions that have supported “the highest achievements in culture in the past 60 years.” In short, he predicts, “There will be no more professional writers in the future.”

I’m sure when Morrison uses the term “professional writers”, he’s referring to people like himself. We can only hope for a future with as few of those kinds of “professionals” as possible. It’s not his writing talents I have issue with, I’ve never actually read any of his work, it’s that he has some ridiculously backwards, elitist ideas along with a generous helping of contempt for anyone who circumvents the traditional getekeepers.

Morrison has said some pretty crazy stuff, for instance, this piece in the Guardian where he argues against social media but makes some larger points about traditional and self publishing. Be sure to read the comments because he has numerous additional points there, including a rather entertaining discussion with Joe Konrath. My favorite part is when he excoriates Konrath for daring to encourage others to eschew traditional and embark in self publishing by saying, “It is unfair and cruel to propagate a model for others which can only ever work for the few.” After I stopped laughing and wiped the tears from my eyes, the full audaciousness of that comment really sunk in. After all, Konrath has a long, long way to go to rate with traditional publishers in propagating models that only work for the few. The sad part is that it seems Morrison doesn’t even get the rich, creamy irony.

These statements are what I’m talking about when I say the rhetoric has gotten more severe. The highest institutions of culture will crumble and working writers will totally vanish. Talk about self-important! Publishers largely gave up their mantle of cultural protectors, if they ever had one in the first place, when they became little more than profit engines for larger conglomerates. It’s pretty obvious, too, yet Morrison seems to believe that writers should willingly accept lousy royalties so these publishers can keep exploiting them to the benefit of their parent company’s bottom line. Being self published and actually keeping a fair share of what your work earns is selfish, according to Morrison. Of course, he just might see it that way because more and more writers earning outside of traditional may jeopardize his next advance. Besides, if publishers weren’t portrayed as purveyors of culture, then there’d be no moral argument for their survival, and that would make for even more specious rants, if that’s possible.

3. “(Author Scott Turow) has drawn heavy criticism from digital partisans for defending the diminishing rights of “legacy publishers” currently under U.S. Justice Department investigation for allegedly fixing ebook prices.”

Diminishing rights? I wasn’t aware publishers had the right to colluded and fix prices. Didn’t know they had the right to rip off authors through shady corporate finanglings like Harlequin just got sued for. Wasn’t aware they had the right to snatch digital rights from contracts signed 30 years before anyone had ever heard of an ebook. Most of all, I didn’t know they had the right to operate largely free of genuine competition.

If publishers are diminishing, it’s likely for two reasons; writers have other choices now and are sick of being treated like chattel and paid slightly worse; and they’re clinging to a business model that is servicing a shrinking percentage of their customer base. But that’s the common denominator in the anti-Amazon camp, the stark refusal to admit publisher’s culpability for their own problems because it’s so much easier to make excuses for your own failings when you can pretend to be a victim.

4. “Nor is self-publishing profitable for the majority of authors, according to a recent British survey. It found that half of the writers – many no doubt lured by well-publicized tales of spectacular success achieved by a handful of fellow novices – made less than $500 a year for their efforts.”

No one was ever lured into traditional publishing by the tales of success of other writers, right? I’m sure that’s never happened. And let me just reiterate an earlier point: Herman Melville made less than $600 in total on Moby Dick. Using dollar figures in this way, especially with no context in comparison with traditionally published writers, makes for compelling soundbites while providing very little actual insight. Besides, there are a whole lot of self published writers. That survey means half of them made more than $500 a year. I’d be willing to bet that percentage isn’t far removed from traditional but I’m sure we’ll never hear about it.

5. “The livelihoods of serious writers will continue to depend directly on the health of traditional publishers, “the venture capitalists of the intellectual world,” according to Turow.”

So only writers with traditional contracts are serious? The rest of us are just dicking around out here then, huh? Writers like Turow and Morrison may have their livelihoods depend on the health of traditional publishers, but there seems to be a large and growing infrastructure that’s circumventing their control. That means the health of said publishers isn’t really a major concern in that segment. In fact, it may be just the opposite.

With fewer market obstructions from the traditional end, and less product from that side, it could well increase opportunities for success amongst those who aren’t dependant on them. But that doesn’t matter because those people won’t be serious, of course. Everyone knows you can’t be a serious writer unless you give up most of the proceeds, all creative control and any conceivable rights to your work until your great, great grandchildren are old and gray. It’s just crazy talk to say otherwise.

The Death Throes of a Small Town Newspaper

Regular readers of my ramblings here will recall that the trials and tribulations of my hometown newspaper, The Cecil Whig, was a regular topic of conversation a couple of years ago, before I moved out of Cecil County and, honestly, I finally lost interest in watching what was a staple of the community I grew up in crash and burn as spectacularly as The Whig was.  It reached the point where I simply had to avert my eyes from the carnage. 

Well, in the time since I last mentioned anything going on with the formerly-distinguished, nearly two century old newspaper, things have actually gotten worse.  The Whig has now dropped from printing five days a week to three, a shift, I’m told, was horribly unpopular with many of their regular subscribers.  More than that, layoffs have continued periodically, including another region-wide purge reportedly shedding somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 people from Chesapeake Publishing’s (The Whig’s immediate parent company) payrolls in the past few weeks.  Their long-standing office in Elkton is up for sale, nearly vacant as it stands after the printing facility that operated from there was shuttered nearly two years ago.  The office itself, where something like 200 full time workers were employed not that long ago, has been pared down, unbelievably, to less than a dozen, reportedly.

With the sorry state of the newspaper industry these days, what’s happened at the Cecil Whig isn’t really surprising.  It is, however, difficult to watch a once-venerable institution be picked to pieces like this.  Sometimes, I almost think bankruptcy and an outright shutdown would’ve been preferable to this death by a thousand cuts.  At least that way, the paper’s legacy would’ve remained relatively intact.  When the doors do finally shut on them now, will anyone really miss the wispy, hollowed out shell that was left during its final days?  I kind of doubt it.

At this point, it serves no purpose to rehash what went wrong.  Like many in the newspaper industry, good decisions in the face of technologically driven change were virtually nonexistent at Chesapeake and The Whig, overwhelmed as they were, and continue to be, by the poor choices of those who never really came to grips with the disruption that shredded their business model.  None of that really matters anymore, with the Whig down to a skeleton crew, soon moving to a smaller office, then, very likely, oblivion sometime later.

No matter how difficult times have become for them, it does seem like the hits just keep on coming, taking away a little more of what was once their sole domain. Earlier Today, I read this piece on the Cecil Times website about a battle going on within the Cecil County government about where its sizeable (for a small town) legal ad business will go in the future.  Legal ads are one of the last bastions of classified revenue still flowing into newspapers’ formerly dominant positions in communication, made so by local laws that generally require publication in a region’s “paper of record.” It’s also one I happen to believe is in dire need of reform. Frankly, in a time of shrinking tax receipts and shriveling municiple budgets, there is very little justification in sending good money after bad by continuing to pay monopoly rents to a fading, formerly only-game-in-town newspaper business. According to the Cecil Times piece, the county government spent upwards of $150,000 on legal ads with the Whig last year, a sum that strikes me as massively wasteful, particularly considering how the newspaper itself has continued to decline in relevance and readership.

A few years ago, when I was publishing Pet Companions Magazine, I put out about 20,000 monthly issues for a year between 32 and 52 pages each, with a full color glossy cover and my print bill for the entire year was less than a third of the county’s legal ad bill. The glossy cover alone accounted for about a quarter of that amount, too. So, what’s stopping the county government from publishing its own legal ad magazine monthly in regular 8 x 10 size or so on newsprint? They could put out 20,000 to 25,000 a month and bulk drop them for free everywhere in the county where the Whig is available. They could also post everything freely on the county’s website, provide a pdf file free for download or, if they’re especially adventurous, put in a little extra effort to format it into an ebook and make that available freely as well. The county could pay someone to compile the info, typeset it, layout the publication, get it to a printer, have the finished print run delivered, bulk drop the entire county and create the pdf and ebook files for, at most, half of what they pay The Whig for position in its rapidly thinning classified pages, if not significantly less.

As many have learned over the past few years, it has become much cheaper and more efficient to communicate directly with the public than to go through the traditional path of an intermediary like newspapers. With the local paper losing its influence, we see more and more advertisers, writers, and even readers circumventing the old ways altogether. With the crush of needed funds in localities all over the country, it really doesn’t track any longer for governments to pay exorbitantly for newspaper advertising. Crucial government information can be passed along to the public in any number of formats, print and digital, without that traditional large expense.

The fight in Cecil County shows another interesting issue with governments supporting those who’s job it is to cover them with advertising revenue, as well. Cecil County Commissioner Diana Broomell obviously has a problem with the content of The Cecil Guardian, a competitor of the Whig who put in a much cheaper bid on the legal ad business and got legal approval as a qualifying newspaper from a judge. She clearly wants no part of shifting that business The Guardian’s way, savings be damned. The Whig’s coverage of county business, on the other hand, has either been pared down to non-existent or is outright positive. Do we really want to have a situation where local newspapers, struggling for revenue, have to softball their coverage of the local government for fear of losing that ad money?

With the current and constantly improving technology, there’s no reason at all why local governments can’t communicate cheaply and effectivly with the people they represent on their own in matters like legal ads. The laws about “paper of record” are becoming more and more costly to follow, and have lost much of the justifications for their existence in the first place. If the paper was donating the space out of a sense of community, that would be one thing, but a $150,000 annual advertising bill seems to me to be a harbinger of a past better left to history.

This illustrates why it’s both sad and inevitable that newspapers will soon meet their demise. Sad because we are leaving a rich and storied element of our past behind us. Inevitable because there is virtually no single element of a newspaper’s role in the community that can’t be done better, cheaper, and more efficiently by any number of alternatives. Newspapers have always been intermediaries between the public and institutions, be it government, private or business interests. The digital shift going on now has very effectively removed the necessity of intermediaries from much of open communication.

I am sorry to see a classic element of society like the newspaper struggle and fall, but, as with all of us in our day-to-day decisions, needs must win out. That means the county government and the people they represent are much better served now and in the future by going directly to the people and using the extra $80,000-$100,000 they save on things like infrastructure, firefighters, teachers, and what have you. To do anything else in this day and age with these present conditions, is a level of wastefulness we can no longer afford. Tradition doesn’t pay the bills.

Bile-Soaked Spite and Vitriol: Why traditional publishing should shut up and adapt already

After reading a week’s worth of steaming recriminations of the antitrust lawsuit brought against Apple and a handful of super large publishers, I thought, in the service of clarity, that I’d like to make a statement:

If the players on the traditional status quo side of the publishing industry had put as much time and effort into figuring our how to adapt and compete in the changing book marketplace as they have in bitching, moaning and complaining about Amazon and the Dept. of Justice lawsuit, maybe the publishers in question wouldn’t have had to (allegedly) illegally colluded to put the price fix in and stay afloat in the new order of things. 

Most times, I take the whinings of the disrupted with a grain of salt but after a few days of reading pronouncement after pronouncement of the end times for literature and the twists, contortions and generally pretzel-shaped reasoning that somehow manages to justify collusion and price fixing as the right and proper path to open competition, I’ve gotten a little tired of it. 

Coming from newspapers, I totally understand how disturbing it can be to have the manner in which you’ve earned your living thoroughly torn asunder by disruptive change.  But in that circumstance, I saw who was to blame and it wasn’t the disrupters.  They found new, unique and innovative ways to do the tasks we always had, and used the new technologies at their disposal to do so ever more efficiently.  That’s called progress.  It’s called innovation.  It’s the very engine that has always run our economy.  No, the blame for the newspaper industry’s catastrophic collapse doesn’t rest with the disrupters, it lies at the feet of those at the helm of the industry itself.  They refused to even acknowledge there was a problem until it was far too late.  They fought innovation every step of the way. They ignored the clear and certain handwriting on the wall screaming for change, and instead laid off everyone not nailed down, clung to a steadily declining revenue base and pissed away pretty much any and all opportunities to successfully transition. 

The reason there aren’t more jobs in newspapers today isn’t because the disruption wiped them out, its because of the pig headed obstinance of those in who’s care the industry resided.  They didn’t want to admit that their business model was fading, and didn’t want to put in the time, effort or resources necessary to save themselves or all of those that depended on their leadership to earn a living.  The problem I have with the insistent rhetoric coming from the traditional book publishing segment is that it contains heaping helpings of the same obstinance, the same refusal to see the cracks developing in their business model, the same tendency to throw blame and vitriol on the disrupters without looking inward at those who should be leading the way but instead choose only to cling to a fading past, reassuring those depending on them with false platitudes about their importance to intangible ideals like culture, heritage or literacy.

I’m not a prophet of Amazon ranting out of blind devotion. They are an enormous corporation who sometimes engages in some pretty hardball business practices. There is a risk, however minor I happen to think it is, that if they consolidate too much of the publishing industry under their banner, they may well exploit that position unfairly. But consider for a moment, the one big, constant complaint about Amazon is that, if and when they gain a dominant monopoly position within the industry, they’ll use that position to jack up prices and squeeze percentages on writers. Well, even before Amazon went to the 70% royalty from 35%, they were still paying nearly double the rate to writers that traditional publishers were. Today, in many cases, they’re paying three or four times the average ebook royalties. What’s the risk here? That Amazon will screw writers by dropping royalties to the level that traditional publishers already pay right now?

As far as hiking prices goes, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the whole point of the DOJ suit that publishers got together to push a model on Amazon that forced them to significantly raise prices? See the hypocrisy here? We’re being told by traditional publishers and their supporters that an Amazon controlled market will be virtual Hell on Earth because they’ll pay pittance royalties and jack prices way up at the same time those very same publishers are, at this moment, paying pittance royalties and openly taking actions intended to jack prices way up.

There are risks involved with a company the size of Amazon, but there are also advantages like the single best online bookstore by a long shot, massively increased selections of books of all stripes, and a platform that has ushered in a new era for writers where we can do an end run around the gatekeepers of old and get our wares into the marketplace quickly, efficiently and affordably. I haven’t seen traditional publishers bring anything remotely as positive as those three changes to the table in my lifetime. Amazon isn’t a saint by any means, but they’re not a devil, either. And they’re certainly not an old-guard cartel throwing propaganda bombs and desperately clinging to a fading business model by any means necessary, legal or otherwise.

I’m probably most disturbed by the lack of understanding of the law used by defenders. If even half of the facts laid out by the DOJ are true, there won’t be much debate, if any, that the publishers in question illegally colluded. And far from creating a fair and open competitive market for ebooks, they were attempting to create a flat, uniform, highly priced ebook market to slow its growth and prop up print sales, which is their bread and butter. The ebook boom, and digital disruption in general, is possibly the best thing that could have happened to this industry. Prior to this, reading for pleasure was a declining activity, looking a lot like yesterday’s news heading for a much smaller level of importance in our society. Today, however, people are reading more than ever, buying books at rates I never thought we’d see. Digital and ebooks have brought reading back from a slow decline to an industry segment that is potentially poised to grow like wildfire over the next few years. And what do we get from traditional publishers as a response to these developments? Nothing but doomsaying and protectionist scams, legal and (apparently) otherwise intended to stifle this coming boom period and prop up a model that was fading before digital reignited widespread consumer interest.

The traditional industry did nothing to reignite interest in reading. They were responsible for precisely zero of the innovations that have come to pass in the last few years. And now that consumer interest, demand and the money that goes with that is growing again, they are trying to shove their way back to the head of the industry table, pretending to be defenders of culture when, truthfully, they are little more than late-comers and former pseudo-monopolists trying to swipe the profits away from the businesses who took all the risks and actually did create an atmosphere of growth around publishing again. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos says their primary goals are to provide the best possible shopping experience for the consumer. The head of Penguin in the U.S., John Makinson, recently said in his response to the DOJ lawsuit that their primary goal is to make money for their shareholders. See the difference in corporate culture there?

I don’t implicitly trust Amazon to always do the right thing. They are a giant corporation, after all, and we need to watch them closely. But traditional publishers are far, far worse. I find it interesting that the term “predatory pricing” has become almost synonymous with Amazon in some circles, despite the fact that their pricing strategies were anything but. Amazon never lost money on ebooks. They priced some ebooks below cost as loss leaders and recouped those losses and then some on the vast bulk of their catalog of offerings, which weren’t priced below cost. If that conduct is illegal, as so many seem to suggest, then so is the behavior of virtually every store, physical and online, on the planet. When I go to the grocery store later today and pick up some buy-one-get-one-free deals, do you think they’re turning a profit on those? Is the ACME going to wipe out orange juice suppliers because they selectively sell some at a loss to get more customers into their stores? Of course not.

What’s at issue here isn’t a giant company wiping out a long standing industry by behaving unfairly. It’s an industry that simply must adapt, they have no choice, but are extremely reticent about doing so because it would entail an entirely different culture where, more than anything else, even the best, most successful publishers who make the transition will lose a significant amount of the power they’ve grown far too comfortable exerting over writers, readers and retailers. Agency pricing is about keeping that control. It’s about stifling competition from digital retailers they don’t control to the perceived benefit of the print ecosystem they do. The saddest part to me is that, in doing so, they’ve not only damaged themselves and their writers, it wasn’t going to work anyway.

One particular positive thing that could come from this, and one that affects Amazon as well, is the rebuke of the most-favored-nation clause. Without that enforced, we actually all gain more control of our pricing across all platforms. This can only mean that pricing will become even more important in the post MFN world. It also could mean that those who backdoor free books into the Kindle store by listing them free somewhere else and waiting for Amazon to price match them down will have to shift strategies.

That is the nature of business, particularly in a highly disruptive, constantly evolving market like ebooks. Things change, we adapt and make the best use of those changes for as long as we can until they change again. What the publishers have done here is the exact opposite. Things changed, but they didn’t want to adapt. So instead they joined forces in an attempt to undermine those changes and lock in their preferred status quo. That wasn’t good business, as some have said, and it was doomed to failure anyway because these changes can’t be stopped. On top of it all, if the DOJ is right, it wasn’t even legal.

I would like to think that those on the traditional side will take a lesson from this. Don’t ignore the changing landscape around you, find ways to use it to your advantage. If individual writers in large numbers can figure out how to benefit from the new market that’s been established, I find it hard to believe that giant publishers with all the resources at their disposal can’t. The only way that makes sense is if they really don’t want to. So instead, we get illegal collusion, protectionism of fading markets under the guise of literary culture and tradition, and an over-willingness to condemn those truly leading the way to the future, and much more effort put into throwing roadblacks in their path than exploiting the new possibilities on the trails they’re blazing.

As I said, I’d like to think they’d learn something from this, but based on the increasingly dire rhetoric coming from those quarters, I’m not holding my breath.

Reading (In) The Future: Does Clay Shirky have a point when he says publishing is going away?

The future of publishing is and has been a hot topic of discussion ever since the first weblog went live. There are many people lined up on opposite sides of the debate and, as is typical in most things, many more scattered amongst the vast middleground. Over the past few years, I’ve been rather unabashed in expressing my opinions that the legacy institutions that have dominated all sides of publishing for so long are now living on borrowed time. Nothing I have seen or any recent developments have changed my opinions in the slightest. In fact, legacy’s continued resistance to needed change have only further emboldened my beliefs. Unlike some, however, I don’t believe the fall of these long-standing organizations is a bad development. In fact, I’ve come to believe that it is a necessary step in the evolution of communication and will only help to usher in a new era of growth for the written word and, most especially, for those who practice it.

Earlier today, I read an interview with internet scholar Clay Shirky. He detailed many aspects of the emergence and value of social reading that makes it well worth a look, but I was particularly struck by his comments on the publishing industry itself. I had thought my opinions were strong in the matter, but Shirky takes things one step further. While I think some of the formerly great and powerful entities may crumble in the digital upheaval, I never considered that “publishing” itself may cease to exist. But after reading Shirky’s opinions and, specifically, how he defines things, I am starting to see his point.

The word publishing means a cadre of professionals who are taking on the incredible difficulty, complexity and expense of making something public. That’s not a job anymore. That’s a button.

Many people, myself included, have always considered publishing an act. But Shirky paints an interesting portrayal of publishing as the entities that engage in disseminating written works. From that perspective, I can see his point about publishing no longer being a job at all. Perhaps what we need here is a different term for the industry at large. Maybe we’re not simply shifting the players and tasks within the industry, but the entire industry itself. What we may be looking at is, in fact, the death of the publishing industry and, rising from it, the birth of the writing industry. (Actual future industry name may vary.)

The question isn’t what happens to publishing. The question is what are the parent professions needed around writing? Publishing isn’t one of them.

If publishing and publishers are no longer necessary, as Shirky claims, then it really does make little sense to refer to the entire industry by a term of description for a soon-to-be obsolete element of the past. Recently, there has been an increasing number of defenses of publishers springing up all over the place. What I’ve found intriguing is that all of these defenses rest essentially on the same points–editing, marketing and some mythical notion of quality. Editing and marketing are tasks that can easily be farmed out, for much less than the cut a publisher will take of your proceeds.

Quality, on the other hand, I’ve found to be a bit of a disingenuous defense. Publishers and their advocates always spring this one to support the gatekeeper role they’ve occupied for so long. But the physical necessity of limited offerings no longer makes much sense in the online retail environment, and it’s this very gatekeeper position, one that has served to cement publisher’s control and position atop the literary food chain, that has directly led to so much resentment amongst writers and helped expedite the robust environment that new technologies have created to circumvent exactly that practice. It’s always seemed not quite right to me for publishers to use actions that have alienated and, to be blunt, oppressed so many writers to justify their continued existence. If we truly found value in publishers’ narrow windows of opportunity, why would we have ever embraced self publishing in droves, as we have?

Institutions will try to preserve the problem for which they are the solution.

This is, perhaps, one of the clearest and most reasonable points Shirky makes on publishing and publishers’ efforts to retain power over readers and writers. There can be little doubt that practices like overpriced ebooks, windowing of releases, restrictive DRM, resistance to libraries, etc, all display a pattern of publishers’ intentionally hampering ebook growth in favor of print, an area in which they still maintain a modicum of their former control. Some publishers have even openly advocated increasing friction on the customer experience, ostensibly to undermine the advantages of digital over print.

In these instances, publishers are almost certainly trying to protect the problems they have long been the only answer to. Unfortunately for them, by handicapping what we all know is possible and, increasingly, preferred by the customer, they themselves have become more of an obstacle to digital growth and consumer desire than a solution to it. This is not a good place to inhabit if you’re taking the long view of the future.

The more I thought about Shirky’s point, the more I found myself agreeing with it. Remove print books and the physical bookstore chain out of the loop, and publishers bring absolutely nothing to the table for writers that can’t be acquired cheaper and more efficiently on our own. Certainly, print still maintains a majority of the industry, but can anyone honestly claim they believe it’s going to stay that way very much longer? Typically, those that do so fall back on nostalgia and some vague notions of tradition, but those elements play very little role when competing directly with the real, tangible benefits to readers that digital possesses.

I look at book publishers in some of the same ways I look at print newspapers. It is patently obvious that newspapers in their traditional form have little or no future at all if, for no other reason than digital alternatives do every last thing they do better, quicker, cheaper, more efficiently and more conveniently for readers. Newspapers still exist, of course, but who can say for how long? Two years? Five? A decade at the most? Given the advancements of the past 10 years, can we even imagine the means by which we’ll be consuming news by 2022? The only thing I can safely say is that ink on paper will look even more obsolete than it already does. And to an increasing number of people, it looks pretty damned obsolete already.

Book publishers have the same root problem. Digital alternatives are quickly reshaping the environment into one where every last aspect of what they do can be done better, cheaper, more efficiently, etc., etc. Shirky has a strong point, I think; publishing isn’t dying, it’s already dead and just lingering around waiting to be buried.

Which brings me to another point. About a month ago, the New York Times ran this piece on how publishers have begun to sour on multi-purpose tablets over dedicated ereaders because, they believe, tablets provide too many distractions for readers. This, to me, is yet another example of industry people refusing to see the forest for the trees.

Firstly, what leads any of them to believe that distractions for readers are some new development brought about by tablets? I can be distracted while reading a print book every bit as easily as I can a digital version. If I want to read, and what I’m reading is engrossing, I’ll stick with it. And if not, I can always pick up where I left off later, same as I always could. Why else would they have invented book markers in the first place if not to allow readers to easily walk away from what they were reading, for whatever reason, and come back to the same place at a more opportune time?

Secondly, and most importantly, what about our society leads any of these folks to believe readers want to plunk down money on a device that intentionally limits its possible utility? I have a nice HTC smartphone that is capable of all sorts of nifty tasks, from checking email, Twitter, Facebook, web surfing, playing music, games, watching videos and, lo and behold, reading books. Hell, I’m even writing this blog post right now on it. I’m gonna post to the site with it when I’m done, too. All of this utility is the reason I bought it in the first place. It would have been somewhat shortsighted of me to buy a basic cell phone because all these other things might distract me from my phone calls. I wanted all of these capabilities when I went shopping for one, I bought it because of them. On purpose, no less.

I even have the Kindle app, and I frequently read ebooks with it, and am a regular Amazon customer. Sometimes, I do get distracted while reading when a text message comes through, or I get a notification from email or Facebook or Words With Friends. You know what I do then? I either keep reading, ignoring the notification, temporarily stop and check on whatever it was that wanted my attention then go back to reading, or I close it and come back to the exact same place I left off sometime later. Pretty simple. Never once have I thought, “Wow, I need a device just like this one but that’s purposefully limited to only read books so the rest of my life doesn’t intrude.”

Most disturbingly, there was a poll of publishers referenced in the article stating that only 31% believed tablets are the future. Well, tablets, smartphones and other similar multipurpose devices are the future. Anyone who’s really ever used one for an extended time can tell you that. It’s disturbing that almost 70% of publishers surveyed don’t believe that. But again, this is an opinion rooted more in what they want to believe rather than what is the reality.

If publishers are so afraid of competing for readers’ attention that they think widespread adoption of intentionally limited devices is a viable possibility, then they should just close up shop now. Besides, even if every customer had a dedicated ereader; hell, even if they only read print books; distractions in our lives would still abound. That’s the nature of the world we live in, and it’s the reality of the marketplace we have to compete in. I can buy one device that does many things, including reading ebooks or I can buy numerous task-specific devices to avoid distractions. Which option do you think most people will choose?

Of course, if Shirky is correct in his assessments, what publishers believe really isn’t going to matter in the long run, anyway. The publishing industry is dead! Long live the writing industry!

The Defenders of Literature and Cultural Heritage? Ha!

In the past week, there’s been several long-winded screeds written about the end of days for publishing at the hands of the exploding supernova that is Amazon.  This isn’t altogether a rarity, but I’ve noticed, as print sales continue to decline, ebook sales continue to pick up, and the traditional ways of doing business continue looking more and more like a quaint remnant of a past soon to be forgotten, the bile and vitriol thrown around at those who are at the vanguard of this vast cultural shift have gotten more pressing and severe.  First there was Scott Turow’s “Grim News” letter defending big publishing’s (alleged) collusion and price fixing.  He followed that up with a somewhat more tempered but still massively slanted and misdirected interview on Salon a few days later.  I myself, along with several others, took a swing at the hanging sliders Turow threw into all of our wheelhouses here.  After that, there was Harper’s Magazine publisher John MacArthur’s rant on what he calls the “internet con-men who have ravaged publishing”.   I fully intend to expound upon his comments a little later, as I did find myself agreeing with bits and pieces of what he had to say about the newspaper business’ futile  addiction to elusive web ads, but his overall missive was still very much misplaced.  Finally, I ran across this piece by Bryce Milligan, publisher of Wings Press, on what he calls Amazon’s assault on intellectual freedom.  It’s been a pretty busy week for the dinosaurs of the publishing industry.

None of this is particularly surprising to me.  I’ve seen a lot of this before, watching the legacy newspaper industry’s response when the internet first started to really take a bite out of their once whole-ly locked down apple.  The newcomers were usurpers, illegitimate, doing nothing but stealing their hard-earned positions and work.  The folks heading the industry at that time were so caught up in the belief that the mechanisms they had been in charge of were the pinnacle of their business, and virtually omnipotent, that they failed to see the handwriting on the wall.  It was much easier to lash out and demonize the agents of change than to actually admit to themselves that they had to change as well, or be left on the scrap-heap of history.  So bitch, moan and complain they did.  For years while their revenues shrank, their marketshare plummeted and their customers–both advertisers and readers–moved on to bigger and better things.  The newspaper industry today is roughly 40% the size it was only a half-dozen years ago and still contracting.  Their big plans for the future are website paywalls, an argument that really should have been settled somewhere around 1998.  They slipped, ignored the reality of change by spending too much attention to the quirks of those bringing it right to their doorsteps and, in the process, doomed themselves to a slow, wasting death.  Look closely and you can see the same thing happening to parts of the book publishing segment.

So this isn’t exactly an unheard of development, the disrupted lashing out at the disrupters, and it is more than predictable to see their points of view on the precise business aspects of the issue.  Obviously, they will violently defend the status quo mechanisms while disparaging the strange, new and different ways others have found to achieve the same ends, that being to put written works in the hands of readers.  That, I expected.  It still strikes me as living life with blinders on, but at least it makes sense from a business perspective.  After all, the new digital revolution is barely a few years old.  The legacy bookselling model has existed, pretty much as is, for decades, if not centuries.  You don’t make money that well for that long without developing a nearly-religious belief in your business model.  That faith won’t save them, but it is understandable.

One thing, however, that has begun to emerge in these anti-Amazon (truthfully, more anti-future and anti-change) rants is the notion that legacy publishers, editors, distributors, agents bookstores and the authors entwined with them aren’t simply defending a means of doing business; they are beginning to position their plight on a higher plane.  They aren’t simply disrupted business people, they are pious defenders of literature, heritage and the very culture itself.  Every time I see one of these comments, I can’t help but snort.  I’ve even taken to putting down my drink whenever I get the slightest hint I’m reading one of these for fear of shooting some of said drink out of my nose, a fate I’d like to avoid if at all possible.  It’s one thing to defend your business and how it operates, even if you do so in absence of facts, reason and rationality.  It is quite another to pretend to be martyrs on the cross of literary heritage.  Of course, it’s entirely possible they’re not pretending and that would be telling in and of itself.  I’ve always approached these types of backwards defenses as willful blindness by those so worried about losing their meal tickets that they refuse to acknowledge the validity of the opposing arguments.  But, perhaps, what we are dealing with here are actually “true believers” so indoctrinated by legacy publishing’s dogma that anything challenging its preeminence is immediately treated as heresy.

When a Konrath, an Eisler or any of the other outspoken proponents of the changes that have torn through the industry advocate their positions, is it possible that these true believers don’t see a reasoned argument supported by observation, statistics and facts?  Does Turow look at Konrath the way the Pope looked at Galileo when he challenged the notion that the Earth was the center of the universe?  Did he consider the matter at hand, looking at all the available evidence and make a reasoned judgement or does he simply launch into an inquisition-style defensive assault that twists logic like a Philly soft pretzel to suit his preconceived beliefs?  I sincerely hope it’s the former because, even though I believe he’s wrong, at least he would still retain the possibility that further evidence and reason could have a positive effect.  If it’s the latter, no amount of reason will have any effect, except to make the vitriol even stronger because if there’s any one trait that defines true believers of any stripe, it’s that they almost always double down against things that challenge their faith, no matter how logical or reality-based they are.

Read each of the four pieces I linked to above and look for the similarities in their arguments.  Far from simply a discussion about the difficulties of transitioning from a print-centric business model to a digital-centric one, they each pine for the glory days of yore, nostalgia for the way things have always been done literally drips from their words.  And they each, at various points, make the proclamation that, as the new digital frontier continues to spread over the old physical one, our culture and even literacy itself will suffer for it.  The literacy point is somewhat inexplicable to me.  How, exactly, can literacy decline through the act of more people reading more than ever?  It’s seems a lot like Barry Eisler excellently pointed out on Turow’s allegation that Amazon is trying to destroy bookselling, apparently, by selling lots of books.  I guess when logic, reason and facts fail to produce a convincing argument, scare tactics are a consistently easy fallback.

“The end is near!  If our business fails, the world will be consumed by hellfire!  The people will become illiterate slugs if we’re no longer around to tell them what’s worthy of reading and spending their money on!  Without us, our culture will collapse into an horrific hodgepodge of things regular people actually enjoy, without having a gatekeeper like us to tell them it’s okay to like it!  What about our heritage?  Won’t somebody think about the children and how they’ll be able to learn of their heritage on their own, god forbid, without the facts they’re exposed to being vetted and approved by we professional keepers of what’s right and just!  It’ll be the end of days!  The horror…the horror…”

Publishing is a business, folks, not a religion.  They operate, as they always have, on a business model that allowed them to make money on the written word.  Technology has changed the ways in which people can access those words, undermining publishing’s long-standing business model.  Now, if they want to survive, they must transition to a model that fits today’s (and tomorrow’s) readers.  That’s all this is.  The world won’t end.  Great masses of people won’t suddenly lose the ability to read.  The written word will continue on as it always has, only now with the means of reaching more people more inexpensively and efficiently than ever before.  Our culture will not suffer.  Our heritage will not evaporate.  In fact, they may well be greatly enhanced by what’s coming.  The fact that a relatively small number of people who used to make a living putting words in ink on blank sheets of paper and selling them could possibly be out of work isn’t going to doom civilization as we know it.

Print publishing has had a good run.  They’ve existed as an industry largely undisturbed for numerous generations, far more fortunate than many, much more successful industries before or after them.  Change in life is inevitable.  How we deal with that change is what separates the people who keep moving forward, whatever the obstacles and the people who just whine about how much better things were back in their day.  Some of these old-guard folks sound to me like they’re desperately in need of a rocking chair, a tall glass of lemonade, a quilt to keep the evening chill away and a nice front porch to retire to.  Put enough of them together, and they should have plenty of tales to share amongst themselves about how great things were back in the good ol’ days.

As for the rest of us?  We’ve got things to do.  There’s a disruption going on, don’t you know?

MacArthur: Print shall return!

In following the plight of the newspaper industry over the past few years, I’ve seen many, many illogical defenses of the fading print segment from people often with vested interests in maintaining the status quo. However, the one I read last week from Harper’s Magazine publisher John MacArthur may well take the cake. It wasn’t so much that he was totally and completely wrong about everything. He wasn’t. In fact, there were entire sections that echoed sentiments I, myself, have voiced numerous times. No, the problem I found was in his tone.

MacArthur’s pontificating came across as certainty. In his mind, it’s a settled issue that print has been proven far superior to the internet, and that this whole web craze will blow over soon enough, returning print to its rightful position at the top of the communication food chain. While some of his points have merit, particularly with regards to publications giving away the farm with no specific plan on how to monetize that, and the very real problems with web ads on newspaper sites, the notion that print isn’t really failing and that digital doesn’t possess some very strong and pertinent advantages over print seems extraordinarily naive. If anyone hasn’t caught on just yet, digital is very much a replacement-type of technology for print, not a supplemental one, and readers in consistent, vastly increasing numbers know it.

Here are a few of the comments from MacArthur, starting with his anecdote of a conversation he had with a group of internet folks he met in a restaurant one day. When asked how they, too, could get in on the internet boom, here’s his description of the exchange:

“It depends,” one of them said smoothly, “on what kind of platform you want to establish, how you want to present your content.” I said that I wanted to publish a magazine filled with sentences, not build a tree house, and the conversation came to an abrupt halt.

I wonder why? Here you are discussing the future with some people clearly excited about the possibilities of the web, and when they make a very pointed inquiry about how you’d want to exploit your material online, you reply with a dismissive crack that shows not only arrogance but ignorance of some of the fundamental points of internet media. If I was discussing the possibilities of online content and was faced with a similar attitude, I don’t think I’d continue the conversation either.

MacArthur may well believe his crack about “platforms” was pretty clever. In fact, later on he notes how much he hates the term “platform” when he mentions that Harper’s is available across several of them. Of course, his obstinance makes me want to run right out and sign up for the internet experience from a publication run by a man with such an obvious contempt for the medium. I’ve got news for him, though. Your beloved print magazine is a type of platform, too. Always has been, and was long before anyone even imagined the transistor, let alone a computer, smartphone or tablet. Magazines, newspapers, catalogs, fliers, etc, etc are all types of platforms, no different than websites, blogs, ebooks, apps or anything else someone can dream up as a means of communicating with people.

I told them the internet wasn’t much more than a gigantic Xerox machine and thus posed the same old threat to copyright and the livelihoods of writers and publishers alike.

This one really got me. His notion of the web as a giant copy machine is simply asanine. Sure, it does have some of that capacity in spades, but it is far more diverse and to label it as such dismisses the massive volume of material created and posted by regular people and professionals alike every minute of every day. Then he went on:

Photocopying had long been the enemy of periodicals…so I had good reason to beware.

Maybe I’m too new to this game, given the fact that I have no recollection of a world before photocopiers, but I have never, ever, not even once, for even the tiniest fleeting second considered copiers as enemies of publishers. I am, apparently, totally incapable of even comprehending such an accusation. I have never, at any point in my life, encountered a situation where I saw a copy machine used as a weapon against publishers. The only possible way this makes sense is if what he really wants here is a world where the only way to access the information in a printed work is to buy a copy. Imagine, for a moment, how incredibly destructive such a practice would be in actual widespread practice. It would also be massively counterproductive to people like MacArthur, too, but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that particular point to sink in with him.

Of course, it could be that there’s an enterprising young pirate in MacArthur’s part of town who got himself a copier and runs off copies of each new issue of Harper’s, stapling them together and selling them out of a backpack on street corners. Because, you know, that kind of thing really happens, right? But it does speak to his mindset. Here’s an advancement in technology that has made things infinitely easier and more efficient in so, so many ways, and all he sees is a potential enemy. It explains quite a bit. If this guy still sees copiers as an enemy of publishers, then the web must look to him like a giant, roving, 500 ton beast, spewing fire from its six heads and crushing everything in its path. Somehow, though, I suspect Harper’s offices probably have a copier or two on the premises. And an internet connection, most likely.

It turned out that while web sites might be great for classifieds, they are in general a poor medium for display advertising.

Here is an example of his line of thinking that I actually agree with, to a point. I, too, believe that websites are lousy vehicles for display advertising, particularly when the advertising you’re pushing there is simply a replicated version of the exact type used in printed publications. He’s totally correct that ads like this are very easy to ignore, they’re a waste of time and money for publications to chase after, and, no matter how low the price, they’re not terribly effective for advertisers, either. I have never believed that display ad supported publication websites are the way to go for the long run.

That being said, this doesn’t mean that the web isn’t an effective vehicle for advertising and promotion, it undoubtedly is. Just not for trying to duplicate the exact process and mechanisms that have historically worked in print. The problem with his argument, to me, is that he seems to be saying that, because the one way they’ve tried to generate ad revenue online (the simplest and least imaginative way, not coincidentally) has been largely a failure, that means that ads on the web will never work and they should just give up. That’s the kind of thinking that has greatly contributed to the newspaper industry losing 60% of its revenue in less than a decade. Keep up the good work on that.

As the ever-more-demanding Internet God continues to bleed writers and publishers…the advantages of advertising in print become more obvious.

More obvious to whom? The advertisers who are fleeing print in droves? The readers who are doing likewise? The print salespeople who have increasing trouble earning a living on lessened commissions? I understand that this is what he believes and, in some respects, he’s right about things like inavoidability and adjacencies in printed material. But just because he believes it, doesn’t make it so.

The problem with this is that, even if he’s right, it doesn’t matter. The digital transition is well underway. No matter how great he thinks his print platform is, readers and advertisers are the ultimate judge and they’re speaking with their feet, walking away from print in steadily growing numbers. You simply can’t ignore that fact. While it may be true that he believes print is better, the people ultimately holding his purse strings don’t necessarily agree.

This is the crucial issue with why so many former print titans seem to have lost their way. There is no simple answer to how to generate needed revenue online, and they just can’t understand how something they believe is inferior can continue to grow while they languish. The pool of money is moving to digital, from advertisers and readers alike. We’re past the point of no return. You can have the greatest, most effective print platform in the world, but if all the money isn’t in print any more, you’re doomed to failure. You have to go where the money is and find a way to get people to spend it with you. And nobody cares how great you think print is if that’s not where they want to put their dollars.

Patrick de St. Exupery insists that the internet, whether paid or unpaid, doesn’t just reduce the value of writing, it destroys value. This may stem from a whole generation growing up never learning to distinguish between a blog and an edited, thought-out piece of writing.

Hmmm…maybe I’m suffering from this. Was MacArthur’s piece that I’m talking about here an edited, thought-out piece of writing? Is this? I’m writing on a blog, so does that mean this is simply a slap-dash collection of incoherent sentences? That’s ridiculous. It’s a totally dismissive opinion toward any and all writing that exists outside of the publishing gatekeepers. If your works appears outside of the established publication websites, then it simply must be inferior. Beside that, regular folks are apparently too stupid to distinguish genuinely quality writing approved by the gatekeeper class apart from the ground up mush produced by the rest of us.

I, personally, don’t underestimate readers like that. I wonder if he’s ever considered the possibility that, if readers can’t distinguish between his publication’s work and the work of people like me, maybe that’s an indicator there isn’t actually that large of a gap in relative quality, if one exists at all? Probably not, I’d imagine. Just to clarify things, by the way, I’ve thought out writing this over the past several days. I’ve also copy edited it, something I believe my 15 years of experience working for various publishers as an editor, no less, qualifies me to do. Does that mean I’ve cranked out Pulitzer Prize winning material here, or made certain every last syllable of every word in each sentence of every paragraph is a model of perfection? Of course not. But neither is his self-proclaimed edited, well thought-out piece.

The difference is that I’m not claiming that only pure gold drips off of my keyboard. This is an opinion piece where I’ve used my knowledge, personal experience and beliefs to contest what I believe was a shoddily constructed argument from an old guard print protectionist. His was exactly the same, only from a different point of view. I think his real problem is that his piece and my humble effort exist on the same plane, with the same availability to the same readers, and can have the legitimacy of his positions and mine judged not by editors, publishers or other gatekeepers, but by actual readers on equal footing. It’s an entitlement mentality, truthfully, one that stems from the internet undermining not only publishers’ ability to control who gets on the playing field, but their control of the very field itself.

He claims that the internet is undemocratic and exclusionary, but what institution could be more of those elements than the locked down print world of the recent past? These guys who make arguments like this one ultimately reveal the same bias in the end. They always show a contempt for the capacity of their audience to determine quality of material on their own. I think they secretly fear that the works they push really aren’t that superior and, given increasing opportunity, the readers they depend upon will see through their sham. Otherwise, if you truly trusted your readers to know quality when they see it and gravitate towards it, why would you have any issue with pitting your work against the supposedly inferior ramblings of us outside-the-gates barbarians?

To close, here’s another refutation of MacArthur’s opinions by Alexis Madrigal on The Atlantic’s website. I wonder if MacArthur considers it a well thought-out, edited piece? If I had to guess, I’d say probably not. After all, as he claimed at the very end of his screed, he is planning to translate his piece into a speech which he’s being paid to give later this year, so it must be of higher quality. I wonder if he realizes that paid speaking engagements are a type of platform, too?

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