The Bookstore Conundrum: Value Propositions Part Two

Earlier today, I wrote about value propositions, mostly in reference to the reader/bookstore and writer/publisher relationships. Almost as soon as I clicked post, I started thinking about bookstores and how we perceive what they do. More importantly, how the talk coming from some quarters there is actually producing contradictory results to their stated aims. Basically, some of them seem like they don’t really want to succeed, they want someone else to assure success for them. Now obviously, I’m speaking in generalizations. But that’s what we trade in here in publishing land; generalizations. Big Publishers, indies, writers, readers, traditional, legacy, hybrid…these are all broad generalizations, just like bookstores. All these various groups are built of diverse collections of individuals. Your experience may vary.

We have this notion of bookstores as historical artifacts, a gut feeling of their necessity to literature and the publishing industry itself. But it’s not accurate. Certainly they’ve played an important role to get us to this point in time, but at the risk of sounding callous, what have you done for me lately? Just because you played an important role in my life in the past isn’t reason to belive yourself entitled to that position or one like it in the future.

I used to love going to Blockbuster, too, and record stores! I remember the first time I set foot in a Borders. A book store and a music store! Together! Can I just move in? I’ll sleep on a couch in the cafe. I spent huge sums of money in Borders over several years. But eventually, I found the urge to go less and less prevalent. There were even times I went and left empty handed, a possibility I wouldn’t have even considered before. I had stopped spending money in Borders years before they finally went belly up. Somehow, somewhere along the way, they stopped providing what I needed to get me in their doors.

I’m not even sure what it was they did wrong, maybe nothing. What they were doing just lost all relevance and attraction to my life. That’s where bookstores are finding yourselves right now. You’re still there, providing what you’ve always provided, offering the value we used to love and not be able to live without. But we increasingly aren’t interested anymore. We no longer value you the way you think we should. It’s not your fault, it’s us. We encouraged you to keep doing what you were doing for our own selfish ends and now that our interests have changed, you’re understandably confused about how to win us back. I don’t know the answer to that question, but I can tell you one thing for certain, doing more of what you used to do, that made us love you in the first place, isn’t going to work.

Take a hard look at the ground many of you have staked out; you don’t have any true allies. The Amazon hatred at all expense, even against the interests of your own customers, is alienating the emerging independent writer community. The 1% traditional writers are saying nice things about you, mega-best seller James Patterson even giving out $2 million in grants to bookstores. Sure, it’s divided up amongst so many stores that it’s in increments too small to be of any real help, but every little bit helps. You just have to ask exactly who that little bit helps. Is it the bookstores getting checks so small in some cases that it wouldn’t even cover a couple months rent or is it the image of James Patterson, literary philanthropist; a man who sold 50 times that total amount in books last year alone? It’s like me walking into 40 or 50 bookstores, handing them a $10 bill and saying, “this is for your future.” Ask yourself why he isn’t giving $25,000 or $50,000 grants to these stores, amounts that could actually help. He can certainly afford it. Is this about helping bookstores or is it about a rich guy’s tax write-off and good PR from the illusion of helping bookstores?

The publishers are also out there saying nice things about protecting bookstores and you’re importance. But why in the world would you believe them? Not long ago, they sold all your asses out to the big box stores and discount warehouses, quite literally putting a Target on your back. The carnage got so bad and so prevalent, it became the subject of a Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks rom-com, for God’s sake! Did you forget all that? Just block it out of your memory once they started complimenting you again?

You know why publishers are being so nice to you right now? They need your shelf space to prevent a mass exodus of writers because brick and mortar print sales are the last value hook they’ve got to hang their own hats on. The second they don’t need you anymore, they will throw you out like last week’s trash. They’ve done it before. At nearly 40 years old, one of the things I hold as a near immutable fact of life is that if someone has the will to do something to you once, if you give them the chance, they will do it to you again. Publishers are not your friends, not even by association. I’d have thought the past couple decades would have taught you that only too clearly.

It makes the indiscriminate Amazon hatred many of you show even more absurd. You should be thanking Amazon. They did you a massive solid by killing your most immediate threat, the big box stores. Amazon bought you crucial time to figure out a way to adapt and survive. If you’re just gonna sit around and bitch that people aren’t buying books like they used to, you will get burned. It might be Amazon that gets you, or the publishers. And that’s only if your own so damn customers don’t burn you first.

You could have allies on the indie side if you drop the Amazon spite and lose the last remnants of the bias toward self publishers you developed back in the true vanity press era. But instead you seem to just enjoy whining on about how things were better back in your day and the doom you claim we’re all heading for. Bookstores are for-profit businesses, and as such, the entire point is offer something people are willing to pay enough for that you can keep your doors open. Bookstores that struggle don’t do so because people arent buying books, it’s because they’re not buying books from bookstores.

The industry won’t collapse without you. In fact, the industry is actively moving away from you. Book sales aren’t plummeting as you make fewer of them. When you call for “the need” to help bookstores, what I hear isn’t someone saying help us to adapt, it’s someone saying help us keep doing what we’ve always done because it’s valuable. Here’s a hint: if, as a business, you can’t sustain yourself on what you offer, then it’s not that valuable. If we help you keep alive a model that is getting less and less economically viable now, when does it stop? Are you proposing we make bookstores permanent charity cases? If so, how does that make you different from libraries, which we already support for all the same reasons you cite for supporting bookstores?

And full circle back to my point from earlier today, what’s the value proposition for readers then? It’s not selection, knowledge, convenience or price; we’ve found all of that elsewhere. What is it, exactly, that you think benefits us by saving you? Or is it as I suspect, you don’t really care about benefitting us, just assuring your own continuation with a minimum of upheaval? If the latter has any truth to it at all, then that, not Amazon, is your biggest problem and the answer you’re looking for. Do you see it?

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

Value Propositions

Here’s the thing, we can all talk until we’re blue in face about ebooks, bookstores, publishers, writers, et al (a point some would say we already reached sometime in early 2012) but none of it means a damn thing. The only thing that matters is the value proposition offered to us and how that informs the choices people make. Everything else is bluster. Worse yet, it’s meaningless bluster that far too frequently merges with wish fulfillment of the person doing the blustering. “Ebooks are dying.” “Bookstores are crucial to the future.” “Writers need publishers to be the best they can be.” And my personal favorite of wishful thinking bullshit, “Amazon is evil.” None of those things are true. They also aren’t necessarily false in all situations. It depends on the context in which those lines are parsed. And that context depends entirely on the value proposition to the individual.

Twenty five years ago, if I wanted a new book, I had a few choices. There was the library (a brick and mortar bookstore that’s basically free for readers), used bookstores (brick and mortar store that’s cheap but whose offerings are dependent on readers getting rid of their old books), rotating racks of best sellers in retail stores (having little to do with book discovery and everything to do with pushing already known entities to impulse buyers) or bookstores themselves (who offered the best selection and knowledge about books available at the time).

In that environment, the value proposition to readers was on the side of bookstores. The time, effort and extra money necessary to patronize a bookstore was a fair trade off for what we got in return; a wider selection of books to choose from. Today, however, that value has flipped on them. Bookstores, with their real world physical constraints, inherently offer a limited selection of books. Online, however, has no such trouble. Online, you can find and buy every book. All of them. So now, bookstores have gone from having the best selection of books available to having a limited subsection of books. I know it’s frustrating because they haven’t really changed. The environment they operate in has shifted beneath them. What was once their greatest strength has now become a weakness to overcome through no fault of their own. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less of a weakness.

With ebooks, online print book sales and rapidly approaching explosion of print on demand technology, the value proposition to readers of frequenting bookstores is a problem. When they had the best selection and a knowledgeable staff that wasn’t easily reproducible, we thought nothing of the outlay in time and effort to shop there. We didn’t mind paying a few extra dollars on the price of a book to support their infrastructure when they provided a service that we valued. Today, though, shopping at physical bookstores requires readers to sacrifice. We need to give up our time and effort to get there, then pay those extra few dollars for the privilege of shopping in a limited pool of material. We need to choose to give up value available to us in order to use bookstores. I can find any book I want online, without the premium price they need to pay the rent and employee salaries, without ever leaving my couch. Hang on a second…there, I just did some book shopping, bought a book and now it’s open to chapter one in another window on my smartphone in slightly more time than it took me to type those ellipses. But only slightly.

When the value proposition changes from one where I pay out because you bring me value to one where I pay out to bring you value, that’s not going to end well for you. You can discuss bookstores’ place in literary history and culture all day long, it doesn’t change the simple fact that the value you once earned your coin with simply ain’t what it used to be.

This applies to the publisher/writer dynamic as well. Twenty five years ago, if I wanted to be a published writer, I had to go through the slow slog of querying agents, editors or whomever, piling up rejection after rejection until I get lucky enough to be offered a contract that paid me pennies on the dollar from the revenue my work generated. Not only did writers accept this, we fetishized it to the point where there are still writers who have inexplicably fond memories of taping rejection letters to their bulletin boards. The fact was, if I wanted to be published, that’s what I had to do. The value proposition of going through that crucible was worth it because it was the only way to reach the goals we wanted. Today, though, I can write, format, and offer a book for sale to anyone with an Internet connection without so much as saying hello to an agent or publisher and be selling books tomorrow. The value proposition of the publishing industry gatekeeper-rejection logjam has been gutted. The time, effort and low pay you offered to get published seems vaguely insane now that getting published and selling books at much higher compensation rates is as simple as clicking a button. Publishers, like bookstores, didn’t change, the circumstances around them changed through no fault of their own. In fact, it’s changed and is still changing despite their concerted efforts to fight those changes. Pissing into the wind may be a popular corporate response when social behavior shifts leave them behind, but that doesn’t make it an effective response. It only makes your pants wet. And smelly.

Publishers and bookstores carefully crafted the value they brought over decades, some would say centuries. It does seem a bit unfair to people who have dedicated their lives to those ends to see that value knee-capped in less than 10 years. But that’s life. Sometimes, the things we value are life-long, sometimes they only last a matter of days or weeks. The thing is, you can never really tell when that value is going to vanish. And once that happens, you have to look toward the value you actually possess today and going forward.

When you hear people talk of the role of bookstores and their value to society, ask yourself, are they referring to the value they offer right this moment or the value they offered a quarter-century ago? Same with publishers. Is what they do today valuable or are they still treading on what they did that was valuable two or three decades ago? It doesn’t matter that Borders had a great selection of books that made people happy to shop there in 1995. They’re bankrupt and gone now, not coming back. It doesn’t matter that publishers frame themselves as great curators of the written word because of their gatekeeping of the past. Their gates have been kicked down and trampled into the dirt.

What matters is that when I want to buy a book as a reader or publish a book as a writer, what I’m willing to put up with to do so. That’s the value proposition you offer us and, increasingly, it’s one that isn’t trending in a direction that’s helpful to past paradigms or the dominant businesses that profited from them.

Take a long, hard look at what people value today and what they’re willing to do to acquire that value. That’s where the path to the future rests. Reminiscing about the value people appreciated in a different time and a different place, and doubling down on nostalgia isn’t going to fend off the bankruptcy judge for very long.

Read Part Two of “Value Propositions, The Bookstore Conundrum” here.

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

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

Choices

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Who says we can't handle choices? Here's the absurd array of drinks available in one small town grocery store alone.

You know what I like most about publishing? That every two or three days, like clockwork, someone will say or write something that’ll get me all fired up. Today, it’s Michael Kozlowski at Good eReader with this missive “Self Publishers Should Not Be Called Authors.”

As soon as I saw the headline, I instantly had flashbacks to a couple of years ago when I wrote about how ridiculous it was to complain about self publishers calling themselves indies. It was much the same argument; “this term is reserved for your betters, how dare you self publishers presume to define yourself by a term that is clearly accurate and doesn’t convey your rightful position as an industry doormat!” I’m not going to spend too much time refuting this clear and obvious perversion of the term “author” but there’s a greater point to be made here, I think. If you really want my full position on labels, and how limiting I believe even the best of them are, go read my indie-term article.

Being an author is about the act of creation. Nowhere in the dictionary does it list a requirement for your earnings to deserve such a title, nor should it. The only people for whom “author” means something else are those purposely looking to impose a class system or hierarchy of some sort. We see this from certain corners because readers are no longer “respecting” the previous class system in the ways those benefitting from it are used to. Traditionally published authors aren’t being placed on a pedestal by readers appropriately high enough above the self published interlopers, apparently, so let’s parse some language to make it clear to these uninformed people that self published work is dreck and you’re destroying literature by buying and, gasp, actually enjoying such sub-standard fare.

Clearly, the people who pen this material can’t be real authors, they’re simply writers. Authors are a higher class unto themselves. And, according to Kozlowski, the only way to properly earn that title is to make a lot of money. Unless you’re traditionally published, of course, in which case you’re an author by default, recognized as such by organizations that require as little as 1/5 the income of self publishers for the same membership. Ack! Double standards make my brain hurt!

A decade or so ago, I worked for a free distribution boating magazine on the Chesapeake Bay here in Maryland. Our primary competition was another free boating magazine and our racks of magazines would often be set up in places right next to their’s. We did it that way on purpose. We found the best advertisement for our work was to sit it side by side with their’s and let the reader choose which they found more valuable. On average, we moved 4 or 5 copies for every 1 of theirs even though both were free for the taking. If you’re so convinced self publishing work is vastly inferior, why the interest in drawing distinctions with prejudicial labeling? Why not simply trust readers to recognize that quality, or lack of it, and act accordingly?

I’ll tell you why, because readers aren’t seeing self published material as vastly inferior in large enough numbers to suit their assumed hierarchy. So now they must resort to discriminatory labels, artificial class systems and demonization to get their preferred message across because readers aren’t reaching that conclusion by, you know, actually reading the stuff and using their own judgment on what constitutes value or quality. Rather than adapt and compete, they’d rather segregate. Here’s an earlier piece from Kozlowski suggesting just such a course for the major digital retailers to deal with self published material.

His call is in response to some indie erotica turning up in children’s book sections and the rather extreme over-reactions of some retailers. (W.H. Smith, to be specific, shut down their entire online ebook store as a response.) But look closely at his “solution” to this problem. He’s not suggesting retailers need better filters or categorizing ability, he wants to throw all self published material into a digital ghetto, as it were. How does that solve the miscategorization problem? Who cares? Let’s just cram them in a corner and forget they exist. That way, they don’t clutter up the traditional book market or steal sales away from “real” authors.

The interesting point to me is the straw man he uses to illustrate the problem he thinks needs correcting:

“…parents who buy innocently sounding books like “Daddy’s Playtime” might scar their kids for life.”

There’s that popular meme, the one about the reader/consumer too stupid to comprehend what they’re doing. In this case, one so oblivious that they don’t spend even 10 seconds vetting something they’re buying for their children, one who clearly doesn’t take that picture of the girl in a thong on the cover of Daddy’s Playtime as a clue that this isn’t really a kids book. These readers/buyers don’t exist in any sizable number out here in reality but they do in the minds of the traditional world and it’s defenders. In fact, we’re all this kind of consumer in their eyes, easily swayed by keywords and oblivious to matters of quality and judgment unless someone else explains what we want to us. Where our boating magazine’s practice of side by side competition relied on respecting our readers, this is the polar opposite. They want segregation precisely because they don’t respect reader’s judgment.

Lately, the publishing world is rife with complaints about “Tsunami’s of crap” and calls for the reinsertion of gatekeepers and some kind of minimum standard of “quality” abound. Who defines those standards of said “quality” is left vague, but you can bet your ass it’s not going to be readers they suggest for the task. Readers might decide “quality” is not what they want them to think it is. Someone else has to create this gold standard, then they can educate readers on what they should consider books worth buying and books that should be shunned. Better yet, they’ll shun those unworthy books for you before you even know they exist, thereby saving you the trouble of having to use any pesky independent judgment.

The big argument in favor of these sorts of things is that there’s just too many books out there, readers are overwhelmed and they need help finding good books before being drowned in the tsunami of crap. Sounds somewhat reasonable until you consider that none of it is true. More than that, this notion of readers overwhelmed by choices flies directly in the face of virtually every other aspect of 21st century life. People want choices, more, more, more, it’s never enough. We see it in everything from food to movies to music to television to pretty much anything that exists on the internet, which means just about everything.

Yet somehow, we’re supposed to believe books is the sole area remaining where consumers can’t handle choices and would prefer to have someone else limit them? Bullshit! The consumer overwhelmed with options is from the same meme as the ignorant or oblivious one. They don’t really exist in large numbers, only in the minds of people in the industry in who’s interest it is to limit those choices. But no one wants to be seen as condescending or insulting, even to themselves, so they paint the effort as a means of “helping” readers.

The truth is readers aren’t having trouble finding good books at all. In fact, they’re finding them at a far greater rate than they can consume. And as for quality, well, they seem to be doing just fine sussing out books they might enjoy from one’s they likely won’t, just as they always have. Their judgment seems to be working perfectly for them and their particular tastes. Which is the real problem here. When given a vastly larger menu of options, people will inevitably make choices of personal preference that don’t synch with those that the supposed tastemakers expect of them. So the tastemakers’ answer to that isn’t “maybe we should pay attention to the readership and what they’re actually showing us they want” but “they’re too distracted and ignorant to know what they’re doing and we need to show them the proper decisions they should be making to protect them from all these difficult choices.”

I think there’s a sizable number of people within publishing who truly believe the tech industry is driving the heavy consumption behavior we see in today’s readers, but that’s precisely backwards. This behavior was emergent long before the tech caught up. The shift in consumer behavior is what created the atmosphere for this tech in the first place, and it happened because a few other someones had the vision to see what regular people truly wanted and created platforms and devices that played directly to that. (Amazon, anyone?)

The tech industry isn’t driving this behavior, it’s a response to it. Big publishing, however, is still operating under the increasingly false assumption that they can, in fact, drive reader behavior in the directions they choose. The problem with that is readers no longer want to be driven, if they ever did. They’re saying, in no uncertain terms, “What we really want is more choices. Give us that and we’ll tell you what we want more of, not in a poll or survey or some social media data mining effort, but by where we spend our money.”

I’ve been around the block a time or two, and I’ve put in more than my fair share of time within publishing. One thing I can say with very little uncertainty is that, when your business model requires you to fight against or change the behavior your customers want to engage in, barring extraordinary measures like government intervention, you are going to fucking lose. And if you’re fighting that behavior while simultaneously acting as if those same customers would stop breathing right now if you don’t text to remind them to inhale, you’re the one who comes off looking ignorant and over-bearing.

The audience isn’t a passive one anymore, it’s no longer a one-way conversation, and they’re certainly not ignorant and uninformed. Arguing in favor of class systems, hierarchies and narrowly-defined labels doesn’t convey anything other than your own bias and pettiness. Personally, I’d prefer a world with no labels, one where “author” is an action and not a defining characteristic. But until then, call me whatever the hell you want. Odds are, at some point, I’ve been called much worse.

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

Happy Endings Suck

The other day, I read this piece in The Guardian about literary fiction writers feeling somewhat pressed to avoid unambiguously happy endings to their stories. There’s a lot of hand-wringing included in the piece at the bleak endings which are often pervasive, and references to the happied-up ending to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations as proof that happy endings can be good.

I find the Dickens reference particularly telling because I’ve always felt the changed ending of his classic of unrequited love is totally out of character with the rest of the book. All things being equal, in reality, Pip would have zero chance of getting what he wanted from Estella. In fact, anyone who would throw himself back into that emotional thresher years later has to be one of the dumbest men walking. Even implying the possibility of a happily ever after ending there simply doesn’t mesh with anything else in the entire damn story. I could buy that Pip may convince himself what he wants is within reach, but anyone out here who’ve experienced a real live Estella knows without doubt that he’s lying to himself and, when he goes through that gate, his hand in her’s, he’s taking his first steps toward future rack and ruin.

That is the main reason why I have a general contempt for happy endings in fiction; they’re usually contrived to the point you can practically see the writer straining to ignore the psychology of the characters established throughout the work to make an ending where everyone goes home happy fit on the page. Certainly, depending on what you’re seeking as a reader or what level of escapism you’re willing to accept, I can see how someone might find an ending like that hopeful or fitting to the tale. I, myself, found that ending far too unrealistic to the characters as I knew them to maintain my suspension of disbelief.

I’m not the only person with a predisposition to disliking happy endings. Not by a long shot or there wouldn’t be articles like the one linked to above decrying their dearth. I think, for me, I expect more than a happily ever after in my fiction choices because, in near 40 years, I’ve found endings in real life to very rarely be happy and, quite often, miserable and scarring. I, and many others apparently, are attracted to tragic endings in stories because it’s an aspect of life familiar to most. We have trouble relating to happy endings because so few of us experience them on any kind of regular basis.

Then there’s the issue of whether the happy ending actually makes us feel happy. Personally, I tend to have a visceral negative emotional response to a happy ending, particularly one that doesn’t ring true to life. Dark or tragic endings can reinforce that your woes aren’t as bad as you think. Happy endings, however, can often feel like you’ve been slapped in the face with your failures. I do it with films, too. I see a sad movie and I walk away feeling my problems aren’t so bad. Happy movies, though, just serve to amplify my troubles. That doesn’t mean I think all endings need to be soul-crushingly horrific. I’m more apt to buy into an ending that’s dark but hopeful than an overtly rosy fairytale. Emotional lottery winners are far more rare than the monetary kind. Besides, I’ve always found tragedy and loss far more fertile ground to explore creatively. Happiness can be boring, and more than a little annoying, to those lacking or not directly involved in it.

Romances are the worst offenders at this, too. Despite what Ryan Reynolds might say, the friend-zoned dude doesn’t ever win the girl. All he gets is to cry himself to sleep, alone and drunk, after her wedding to someone else. I’ve always liked the ending of St. Elmo’s Fire because of that. Andrew McCarthy pined for Ally Sheedy for years and years before he finally got to have her but she only hooked up with him because she was distraught over the guy she really wanted. McCarthy was totally getting ditched shortly thereafter. On the surface, if you don’t look too deeply, it appears true love and perseverance won out but the clear implication of the movie’s ending was that his heart was going to end up broken far worse than if he’d just walked away.

If that ending had been of the fairytale variety, it would’ve, one, rubbed salt in the wounds or, two, provided false hope to untold numbers of folks who have found themselves in that exact situation. I think that ending is just about perfect, a subtle reminder that, sometimes, getting what we want most in the world can be the worst thing that can happen.

Happy endings can work, if they grow organically from the characters and don’t press. I’m of the opinion that truly good fiction passes on some wisdom in the process and shouldn’t fall too far into the realm of wish fulfillment. Overly contrived happy endings are nothing if not pure wish fulfillment, both for ourselves and the characters we’ve grown to care for.

All this being said, it still comes down to your particular tastes as a reader. To me, the unhappy ending and how characters deal with that is what attracts me. Do they respond with nobility and integrity or do they drop into rage and frustration-created depression? There’s value in those endings, of the kind we can use when we inevitably face the plethora of unhappy endings in our own lives. The Disney-esque, everything works out and they all lived happily ever after endings bring nothing to the table in that regard. There are no lessons to be learned when everything ties up into a neat little bow of unrealistic happiness.

It’s a popcorn ending, one that doesn’t call for too much considerstion, that invites us not to think too hard about it. I, and many others, enjoy seeking lessons I can adapt to my own life from what I choose to read or watch. Happy endings, especially contrived ones, steal those moments of contemplation and learning from us. Stay true to the story and the characters you’ve created and your endings will ring true even if they end up seemingly bleak. Slap a giant smiley face on them, and your happy ending will end up having the exact opposite effect on a wide swath of your readership.

Happiness isn’t as simple at getting everything you think you want. Fictional endings that perpetuate that meme do us all; writers, readers and the characters they’ve created and/or loved; a great disservice.

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

Without Corporate Reform, The Future is Bleak

I don’t care much for corporations. Well, the giant ones, anyway. Anybody with $1,000 can become a corporation, I did at one point, but that’s not the type of companies I’m talking about. It’s the mega-corporations and the wannabe megas that attract my ire.

During the 2012 presidential campaign, the GOP made a big deal out of refuting the notion that “corporations aren’t people” by arguing that they are, indeed, filled with people. That may be true, but it’s misleading. There are many good people working for these mega corps, I might even say most of those employed there are good people. However, the companies themselves aren’t led by those people, the day to day hard workers who get the job done. They’re led by the upstairs suits who exist in an overly-rarefied air. Over the past few decades, floor level employees of these companies have seen job losses, wage stagnation and benefit cuts while their upstairs kin have reaped compensation packages sometimes hundreds or thousands of times greater than the average working bloke. There’s not just a metaphorical level or two separating these groups now, it’s more like a 2,000 mile winding staircase to the stratosphere.

Publishing has long been an industry that essentially lives with a split personality. Do you wonder why it is almost every major publisher got caught with their pants down when the digital disruption took hold? It’s this separation of powers, as it were. Many of the people on the ground knew the score. They were working the day to day, they saw what was coming, saw what needed be done. The people upstairs, however, were detatched, clueless and disinterested in this fancy new internet thing. After all, they were publishers! Their business model had been perfected over a century, and profit margins were still rolling.

But as revenue losses mounted, far too frequently, the answer was to cut back on ground level people in great numbers, often the very people who spent the previous few years trying to get the “braintrust’s” attention. This has only made things worse as it reaffirmed the positions of the people who dropped the ball in the first place while running out those who actually knew the score. Now, the disconnect between the upper floors and the ground level is wider than ever.

Earlier today, I was reading about convenience stores and there was an anecdote about GOP candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign stop at a Wawa while out on the road. The article told of how in awe Mitt was with the touch screen food ordering system there. I couldn’t help but laugh. I mean, really? Those things have been common for 15 or 20 years, at least. Romney was trying to convince us he had the chops to be President yet the man was overly impressed with ordering a damn sandwich in a convenience store? That is precisely the disconnect we see within corporations. Guys like Romney are upstairs making decisions on business models but he’s so clueless and out of touch that a totally commonplace thing I don’t believe I’ve given three seconds of thought to in ten years blew his mind.

I cringe every time I hear one of these upstairs types in publishing talk about culture and supporting literature. I do it almost reflexively because it’s pure bullshit. The people on the ground floor undoubtedly believe in those things, but the people upstairs believe in profits above all else. Talking in sweeping generalizations about culture puts a shiny veneer on it but, like a faux-woodgrain surface on a pressboard coffee table, it peels away very easily. When you work with a corporation, you may be talking to the lower level people who do care about such things, but you’re really dealing with the upstairs suits. You may be able to massage the inevitable labyrinth of corporate procedures now and again to get things done, but at the end of the day, the quest for margins wins every time. Maybe that’s as it should be, they exist to make money after all, but I like to think there’s a middleground between a naive cultural focus and a cynical profit-driven exploitation. Too much of our corporate world these days is all about the exploitation.

The GOP have it all wrong. The problem with our country today isn’t a government badly in need of reform. It’s our corporate structure that needs reform. Their virtually unchecked greed has damaged the very economy they depend on for their profits. They have corrupted the government by throwing large sums of those profits as look-the-other-way bribes to legislators, buying unpopular and destructive laws that serve only their business interests, and stifling any kind of even-reasonable regulations to rein in the worst of their excess. All the while, they cut pay, break unions, offshore jobs to third world countries, evade any and all taxation and give little or nothing back to the economy that supports them.

No, government isn’t the main problem, it’s simply become the PR wing for big business exploitation. Until we rein in the overbearing corporate culture that’s suffocating us all, we’ll never get back to the true representative democracy we’ve earned. I’m no socialist or communist sympathizer. I believe in free markets, I believe in entrepreneurialism. What we have today barely resembles a free market. Our laws, and our tax codes, bought and paid for by the corporations, undermine any notion of free markets to the benefit of those who would stifle competition, sue to prevent progress, rail against technology that disrupts their income streams and wrap their brand of capitalistic totalitarianism in the flag of faux-patriotism. Our elected representatives are little more than well-paid nobles subservient to their corporate kings.

The world won’t change until the first corporation has its charter dissolved and its assets sold off. It has to happen eventually. Either we do it now, rein these self-serving bastards in, reinforcing the belief that the competition and the free market they try so hard to stifle is more important than they are, or the people will do it eventually. But who knows how that will turn out, or what kind of regime will come after? They aren’t bastions of free markets or capitalism. They, through their greed and exploitation, are poisoning the notion of what those things mean. I don’t want to live in a commune. I want a vibrant, enterprising creative atmosphere with ample competition, and rules that work for all, not just those who can afford them. If we allow things to reach the point of revolution (and make no mistake, continue on our present course and they will) the end results could be very bad for everyone.

We need to send a message to these corporations that the world does not belong to you. Dissolving a few of the biggest offenders, opening the door to real competition, genuine innovation, and removing the artificial impediments they’ve bought to shore up their business models in the face of change would be a good start.

I’m not holding my breath.

Snowflakes Need Not Apply: Publishing is a commodity business and Amazon built a better mousetrap. Get over it, already.

I’ve been anxiously awaiting the judgement in the Apple antitrust case because I knew the tech giant was going to lose (they deserve it) and I knew that, when that happened, there’d be some woe-is-publishing stuff popping up on the web that I could have a little fun eviscerating. Well, imagine my glee as I read this piece by Michael (no relation to Jason, I hope) Bourne on The Millions website. At first, I thought it would be a run of mill twitter link with a handful of argumentative tweets in analysis, but low and behold, this thing got so confoundingly ridiculous that I had little choice but to go all-in blog post on it.

In fact, I started writing this a few hours ago and that morphed into a totally separate blog post bemoaning the stunning lack of logic in believing Amazon’s potential monopoly is so scary we all should run straight back into the arms of the publishers’ old cartel. This one’s juicy enough I got two blog posts out if it. Here we go:

“…it is altogether possible that the government is right that Apple and publishers conspired to set prices higher than Amazon would charge, which would have forced consumers to pay more for e-books in the short term. But to see this case in this narrowly legalistic light is to completely misunderstand how the book business actually works.”

This is a pretty common theme in publisher-defending circles, either outright admit or strongly imply that the charges are accurate and they broke the goddamn law but then claim it’s not important. The simple fact is there’s no legal exception for breaking antitrust law, even if done in response to illegal activity. Amazon’s shipping boxes coulda been made out of corrugated baby skin and it still wouldn’t have given Apple and the publishers license to collude against them. They broke the law and have to be held accountable, regardless of their reasons. To do otherwise sets a dangerous prcedent that would definitely find its way into other industries and that would be extraordinarily bad for consumers of all kinds of stuff, not just books. I don’t know how many times or how many judges have to say there is no such thing as a special snowflake and you don’t get to pick and choose what laws you care to follow that best suit your business purposes. Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.

“…books are not bars of soap. When you go online to buy a book, you are not merely paying for a file full of random ones and zeros. You’re buying the original ideas and stories contained
within that book, and frankly nobody has any idea how much those ideas are worth until people start reading them.”

That doesn’t even make sense. I’m pretty sure somebody’s gotta buy the book before they start reading it. And I have a pretty good notion of what that book’s worth without ever seeing it: $27.99 hardcover, $17.99 trade paperback, $12.99 ebook and maybe an $8.99 mass market paperback, give ot take a couple dollars on any of the above. These big publishers collectively crank out tens of thousands of titles each year and they virtually all fall within the neighborhood of these prices. Books have never been priced by the material inside but by the cost structure of the format.

They most certainly are commodities in the purest sense. The newly merged Random Penguin is set to put out 15,000 books alone next year. To them, any one book is meaningless, even the high advance books. The totality of their 15,000 title catalog is their business model. Big name authors get considerably better terms than average writers, meaning the publisher’s margins are slimmer per book. They also get the benefit of marketing and ad dollars, slicing that margin a little more. Yet we’re also told that these big name books are what bank rolls the lesser selling titles, further gobbling up the publisher’s margins, in theory. More likely, the big name books aren’t really the lone profit centers but simply the lure that gets people into the stores where, hopefully, they’ll also pick up a few other books in their catalog on which the publisher is making very sweet margins. It’s a volume game at this level. The cost or success of one lone book isn’t the point, but the collective success of the full catalog taken as one, nearly all resting within a few dollar range of identical pricing regardless of the author. 15,000 similarly priced, interchangeable pieces…sounds a lot like commodities to me.

The part about not knowing what a book is worth until people start reading could be a reference to advances paid by publishers, but let’s glance at how that system works. There are certainly a handful of high advance books, but for each one of those, there are thousands more which get advances that are more like rounding errors on executives’ expense reports than sizable investments. The threshhold to profit for these books is very low and, once met, publishers bank considerably more money per sale than for superstar books that earn out. This advance system isn’t nearly as risky or speculative as it appears. Even if we take the commonly held belief that 80% of books fail to earn out as fact, Random Penguin, for instance, would be left with about 3,000 books next year alone that do, the vast majority of which on publisher-friendly contracts that earn them more per sale.

Books have been commoditized by publishers because they can’t consistently tell which specific books are going to hit ahead of time. So they built up a bulk catalog made up of mostly low risk, low out-of-pocket books as a hedge against those larger risks. They may not be able to tell which books will be the winners but they certainly have confidence that enough of the totality of their catalog will hit to provide profitability. Saying publishers can’t tell what a book is worth until it’s on the market is both true and misleading. It doesn’t matter how any individual book does, only that enough of them do well in totality.

“…like pharmaceutical companies, publishing houses have to charge above-market rates for their successful products to amortize all those failures. If you limit their ability to do this, books will indeed be cheaper, but they also will be lower in quality and variety because publishers will have less ability to finance experimentation.”

You really wanna compare publishers to pharmaceutical companies? What, you couldn’t think of a metaphor for publishers with war-profiteering arms dealers? Or the Indonesian child sex slave industry? I could buy the above-market price argument if not for the fact that essentially all these books are selling for the same damn prices, successes and failures alike. A book’s price doesn’t increase as it sells more copies. I’m also pretty sure books are indeed cheaper and exist in a greater variety than ever before right now. And publishers certainly aren’t the place to look for experimentation. The bulk of the really unique and creative stuff is being done on the independent writer side these days. Publishers may take risks but they’re generally minimal ones within a narrowly established range. They may occasionally venture out of the plastic wrap but rarely do they get all the way outside of the box it’s in.

“…what Amazon really wants to sell is not so much e-books as the delivery system of those e-books, called a Kindle.”

And what Apple really wants to sell is not so much ebooks as the delivery system of those ebooks called an iPad. You got a point here?

“Apple was offering to once again give the publishing industry the freedom to overcharge for all those e-versions of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey flying out the virtual doors to make up for the risks it is taking on thousands of other titles…”

Yup, because customers enjoy nothing more than happily giving billion dollar corporations the right to over-charge them. That always works out well.

“…at heart, the case asks a fundamental societal question: what, legally speaking, is art?”

No, the fundamental question in the case is did five of the six largest publishers and the largest tech company in the world hatch an illegally collusive conspiracy to fix prices at considerably higher levels and squash competition? The legal definition of art has no bearing here, only the legal definition of collusion.

“…in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, the framers noted how important it is “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts” and thus created copyright protection for authors and inventors.”

That copyright protection is the reason there’s any market for artistic works at all. It was granted to give creators limited exclusivity to access to the market. Copyright wasn’t put in place to spare books from market forces, but so the specific creators could take advantage of those market forces. It’s since been perverted, largely by media lobbyists, into an effectively unlimited time frame of control. They didn’t push for life + 70 years to avoid market forces. Just the opposite, in fact, so they could reap the rewards of a century or more worth of access to those market forces. Copyright offers no guarantee that the creators profit from the work, only that they have the access to potentially profit. Publishers themselves have stood for years as a roadblock to that access, demanding those copyrights be turned over as a toll to the marketplace. By usurping the market access for creators provided in copyright law, publishers have undermined the very point of its existence.

“Books and other works of art aren’t widgets, and art does not now nor has it ever flourished in a truly efficient market.”

Bullshit. The publishing industry, at its base, is a multi-billion-dollar enterprise whose main product is creative output, just like any number of other industries. Questions of art are far too subjective to have any meaning in the actual business realities here. If it hasn’t flourished in a truly efficient market in the past, that’s because it hadn’t really had one in a long time, if ever. Publishers gradually monopolized both the supply of books and the distribution. Any inefficiencies in the market exist because publishers’ iron grip lasted basically uncontested for too long and they got complacent. Those inefficiencies shouldn’t be celebrated or vindicated in any way. They are precisely how Amazon managed to earn its position, by appealing to and improving the conditions of the people most squeezed by those inefficiencies, readers and writers. Oh, the irony of a company doing great things for readers and writers yet being pilloried for it by the existing industry who, all the while, claim to be supporters and nurturers of both those groups. And if you don’t like irony, hypocrisy is another term that will work.

If that’s not enough of a sign for you that the industry has lost its way, I’m not sure what would convince you. The interests of the industry and big publishers diverged over time from the interests of the two most important players in it. That foundation has grown so solid that many just presume what’s good for them is good for everybody. But that’s an extreme oversimplification that ignores the reality that publishers are but middlemen of the longstanding type that eventually shift from providing efficiency by connecting suppliers and buyers to squeezing both sides to the advantage of their own bottom line. That is not an atmosphere that screams for propping up the middlemen when the two parties it supposedly connects find ways to be more efficient without them.

This entire article was an odd combination of musings about the supposedly unique nature of publishing, how the standard rules of business–even the law–shouldn’t apply and some indefinable role of art within it juxtaposed by support for legacy businesses who have shown a history of anticompetitive behavior, cartel-like dominance and a decided lack of concern for the interests of readers and writers. Even the widget point he made multiple times is disingenuous. It’s easy to say books aren’t widgets but you lose a little credibility when you then defend publishers who produce large numbers of similarly priced titles in high volume as part of a business model that treats books suspiciously like widgets.

Publishing is not a special snowflake. It’s a business like any other. Publishers aren’t defenders of art but defenders of profit margins, usually at the expense of readers and writers. The law isn’t something you can willfully ignore just because you don’t care for your competition. It’s also not something that can arbitrarily be waived for the sake of art. The industry is bigger than publishers. It may be hard to see it that way since they’ve been in a position to make it look like they are for longer than most of us have been alive.

Arguing in favor of giant profit-driven conglomerates as the path to art for art’s sake just doesn’t make a lick of coherent sense. Modern publishers were a market response to conditions at the time. Even the most virulent Amazon hater has to admit that the conditions under which publishers thrived have changed. Change is hard, especially when your role is the one being mitigated, but it’s the way life, and the publishing industry at large, works. Putting a veneer of art and culture in defense of price fixing and collusive behavior is naive at best, willfully deceptive at worst.

Whether publishers live or die is immaterial to the matter of whether, and how, the industry on the whole reloads. It will carry on regardless, headlined by readers and writers which to my thinking is a far better development than one dominated by middlemen demanding onerous concessions in rights, control and money if you ever want your work to see the marketplace.

So enough with the high-minded talk about art, literature and culture. Those are great and valuable things, but the old system did little more than pay lip service to those elements while behaving as corporate profit-driven enterprises often do, the bottom line rules all. Amazon may one day become that, as well, but you’ll have to excuse me if I don’t buy in to the argument that we need to prop up the old publisher cartel in the hopes of preventing Amazon from becoming just like them.

If You’re Not Moving Forward, You’re Falling Behind

So, maybe you heard, Apple lost? I wasn’t the least bit surprised given the case was so obviously apparent that it makes Michael Bay movies seem like masterpieces of unpredictability. Hell, even their most vocal supporters would often near or outright concede they colluded, justified, of course, because Amazon, conspiracy, evil, apocalypse, Bezos is a vampire, whatever. I stopped listening once it became apparent these folks wanted the mutually exclusive ends of some fondly mused about artistic utopia of literacy and culture, and wanted it achieved under the colors of the profit-seeking billion-dollar publisher conglomerate gatekeepers. Say what you want about Amazon, but if I’m truly not interested in the commercilized publishing industry, their system and the digital and print on demand publishing environment that’s grown with it, will allow me to carve out a place where I can do whatever I like to my artistic heart’s content and still reach the marketplace. The old publisher system would brook no such quarter. Arguing for artistic merit in literature and backing those who’ve largely been an impediment to it is a logical inconsistency I can’t get past.

From the time the Dept. of Justice first announced the investigation, then the charges, followed by the publisher settlements, the trial and now the decision, I read more than a few opinions in defense of the Agency Pricing scheme at the root of the matter. They all basically boiled down to the same thing: the DOJ doesn’t get how the industry works, books are not widgets and Amazon is a monster that, if we do nothing, will burn the Earth to ashes. The Amazon monopoly concern is founded in some truth. I share it myself, to an extent, mostly of the point when Bezos moves on. The next regime that takes over is my concern.

The difference between their opinions and mine is that I recognize how Amazon achieved their position in the market. They did it by breaking the monopoly publishers had established over several decades. The testimony in the Apple case painted a picture of publishing CEOs not at all unfamiliar with routinely meeting with their fellow executives and exchanging notes on competitive circumstances. The control they had may not have been a traditional monopoly, but it sure as hell looks an awful lot like a cartel. And that says nothing of the virtual monopsony they collectively held, due to their gatekeeper role, over their suppliers (writers). Amazon broke their hold by addressing those most disaffected by the cartel’s established structure, using technology to do it. The same disruptive conditions they used still exist and I am confident can and will be directed at Amazon in the event they change course into genuinely predatory waters. But please don’t ask me to back the old, more restrictive cartel as the better choice.

Often, there’s a “won’t somebody please think about the bookstores!” moment tossed in there, too, to pull on the heartstrings of nostalgia. But, again, there’s that same dichotomy of logic in what they claim to want and what they’re actually advocating for. The health of independent book stores is clearly a concern for many, but when you present the Borders and Barnes & Nobles of the world as victims in the same mold, you’ve lost the path to rationality. Barnes & Noble in its prime was a profit consuming monster that left a wake of boarded up independent stores behind its publisher-enabled bulk-level discounting. What’s good for B&N and what’s good for independent stores are completely divergent. B&N is no ally of the corner book shop.

This argument openly backs extraordinary leeway and support for entities with an established history of actually doing what they fear Amazon might do in the future. The intellectually honest argument would be to advocate for a third path that keeps the publishers’ cartel broken and restrains Amazon’s ability to have an out-sized influence on the market. The relative absence of that third path in the anti-Amazon rhetoric makes me wonder if it’s these people, so vigorously defending both the greatness of a diverse literary culture and the corporate bohemoths who have perverted that to the greatness of their profits, who are the one’s who don’t understand how the publishing industry really works.

Amazon is a corporate bohemoth, too, of course, one that presents some very real risks for the future. But, right now, they provide a ton of benefits to a ton of people who aren’t those guys, namely readers and writers. You can say an Amazon-led industry will turn out badly for those groups in the long run all you want, but that’s not the case today, or in the forseeable future which, admittedly, might be short.

You don’t like Amazon? Fine. Let’s talk about how we move forward from the progress and advantages Amazon’s made. But if you want to talk me into moving backwards into a situation that restrains me as a writer both creatively and financially, and as a reader, both in choice and higher prices, you can take that worn out nag of an argument elsewhere.

Free The eBooks! New petition calls for supporting consumer ownership of ebooks…I think

Yesterday, I saw a link to a new petition on the U.S. government’s website to allow the “unlocking” of ebooks and reaffirmation of ownership rights by consumers for these digital goods. This comes on the heels of the Obama administration coming out strongly in favor of fully legalizing the jailbreaking or unlocking of cell phones. I agree with both sentiments, but the new petition has some issues. Here is the text: 

Protect Readers’ Rights by Unlocking Ebooks

The White House recently came out in favor of allowing consumers to unlock their own cellular telephones. We are asking the White House to apply the same laws and provisions to ebooks.

The purchase of a book, whether online or not, is a purchase, not a license. Digital books should be legal to read on any device that supports standard text files. Legally purchased digital books should not self-destruct, expire or disapper, except under conditions of damage or obsalescence. Within reasonable limits, book purchasers have the right to lend or give books to friends, charitable organizations and libraries. Finally, libraries should be permitted to lend ebooks under the same rules as physical books.

We ask the Obama Administration to champion the rights of readers to own their ebooks.

So, typos notwithstanding, let’s discuss. And by the way, if you’re going to post a petition concerning important issues like literature and consumer rights, you really should spellcheck the damn thing, otherwise your credibility could “disapper.”

For starters, the White House didn’t apply any laws or provisions regarding unlocked cell phones, they only expressed support for the notion going forward. The relevant laws concerning this, specifically in the DMCA, clearly ban the activity. Their opinion on this is all it is, just an opinion. For cell phone unlocking to actually be legal, it’ll take a legislative fix. Good luck with that. Not to mention, they stopped short of showing support for similar unlocking of ereaders and video game consoles, etc (they did mention tablets but only in the limited sense that they were becoming more like smart phones which dedicated ereaders are definitely not). A logical view would follow that if jailbreaking phones is okay, then doing so with all devices should be as well. But the White House doesn’t stretch that far, with their stated position directed at preventing lock-in by telecomm service providers and has nothing at all to do with content providers. In fact, the White House specifically called for “narrow legislative fixes in the telecommunications space.” That’s a far cry from rallying around customer rights for content they purchase. It’s certainly a step in the right direction, but there is no law or provision in this that’s even applicable to content rights for consumers.

I completely agree with the statement that buying an ebook is a purchase not a license, but that’s far from a popular position to hold. Over the past couple months, in arguing in favor of resale rights to digital goods, I found myself in many places arguing just that point of view. Content providers, including many independent writers, are clinging to the license scheme, and with some solid justification. There have been a few conflicting court decisions, but it’s far from decided that the sale referred to here is, legally speaking, actually a sale. I believe it is, and I think the licensing regime we’ve got going on here is potentionally the greatest threat to consumer rights in any of our lifetimes, but I’m definitely on the minority side of that point of view. It’s going to take a favorable SCOTUS ruling to affirm such rights, as a legislative fix simply isn’t happening in this atmosphere, and I wouldn’t hold my breath for it, even if I absolutely believe it’s what needs to happen to retain balance between producers and consumers in the stream of commerce.

I’m somewhat confused by the statement that says digital books should be legal to read on devices that support standard text files. Ebooks aren’t standard text files and, as formats improve (epub3, html5, etc) they’re even less comparable to simple text. Unless the petitioner is advocating for stripping off the bells and whistles to bare bones text, I don’t understand the point of this statement. Seems naive and, much like the recent lawsuit from bookstores against Amazon and the Big 6 calling for “open-source DRM,” whatever the hell that is, it comes off as very tech-ignorant.

As for libraries being able to loan ebooks under the same rules as print, I have two questions. One, ebooks aren’t print so why would you want to limit libraries to a physical standard that doesn’t necessarily apply? Secondly, and most importantly, the petition plays fast and loose with the first sale provision of copyright law. The ability of libraries to lend physical books as they have comes from first sale. The petitioner’s opening statement that an ebook buy is a purchase not a license supports a first sale position, but it also seems to go out of its way to avoid even mentioning consumer’s rights under the same provision, notably resale. Is the suggestion here that libraries should be granted a waiver to exploit first sale rights customers shouldn’t have, even though it opens with a strong statement supporting a first sale argument? I don’t get it. If the point here is to free ebooks from lockdown control of content providers, why skip the most important tool to achieve that, a true ownership stake in the ebook for the purchaser?

What I see as the big flaw in the argument here is the warping of the concept of first sale rights. Libraries can have them, apparently, the license scheme used to block them is dismissed, yet for some reason, consumers should still be left wanting for their full rights under copyright law? Why? And what, exactly, are reasonable limits to purchasers lending ebooks? Why should libraries get more rights to lend books than consumers? How is it that I can give away or donate said ebook, a library can then use first sale to lend it, but I can’t use the exact same provision of copyright to resell it? I thought this was about freeing ebooks for consumers, but it seems more like exempting libraries than truly benefitting paying readers.

The petition ends with a call for the Obama administration to champion the rights of readers to own their ebooks. I agree, but that’s not what they’re calling for here. This petition still ignores first sale rights for consumers while championing them for libraries and even accepting restrictions on consumers to lend or give away said ebooks. This isn’t ownership at all, but simply a desire to read a Kindle ebook on a Nook or similar type of arrangement. If all you really want is to prevent content provider lock-in to specific devices, then say that. Don’t muddle the issue with notions of first sale or ownership that you’re not even advocating. The wording of the petition also allows for ebooks to be deleted or removed due to obsolescence (misspelled obsalescence, which is a fascinating freudian slip, as license schemes are already limiting the very idea of what constitutes a sale).

I think this is a nice thought, preventing vendor lock-in has some definite merits, but ultimately this petition is poorly executed and unnecessarily convoluted. And again, spellcheck, dammit!

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