Public Editor Lays the Smack Down on NY Times’ Amazon/Hachette Coverage

So the New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan has called the Times and David Streitfeld to task for its coverage of the Amazon/Hachette contract negotiation. Her comments echo in some ways the criticisms many have made of the Times coverage, including myself. In fact, I wrote a letter to Sullivan following what I believe is the most egregious example of poor journalistic ethics, the Streitfeld article pimping the $100k ad set to appear two days later. While she didn’t delve too deeply into that circumstance, she did at least address it with a note that the act of placing an ad in the Times doesn’t typically merit a news article of its own.

“Although this is a business dispute, it’s being treated as a battle for the soul of American culture.”

Sullivan opened on a high note, both clearly stating that the matter is a business dispute and noting that culture war aspects are a treatment of it. As she goes on, it becomes clear that she is uncomfortable with the Times roll is furthering that treatment as opposed to a more balanced approach to such a business dispute. The title of the piece itself says it all: “Publishing Battle Should Be Covered, Not Joined.”

“It’s certainly true that the literary establishment has received a great deal of sympathetic coverage. Authors including Douglas Preston and Philip Roth have been featured giving their allegiance to the complaint against Amazon. But Amazon itself (as well as writers who say legacy publishers have ignored their work while Amazon has made reaching readers possible) is represented less consistently and forcefully.”

If anything, this is an understatement, but I’ll take what I can get. She goes on to describe a few instances where articles have played up (her words) “the fears and anger” of the Amazon opposition before and after giving relative short shrift to Amazon’s side or the side of writers opposing the publishers’ and/or Authors United’s position.

She repeatedly points out direct quotes against Amazon immediately followed by quotes from opposing voices, done in a manner in which none of this would have ever been necessary had Streitfeld himself done so even half as well in the articles in question. Sullivan made no value judgments in these comparisons, only clearly stating the conflicting viewpoints. I can’t speak to her intent but, to me, it almost felt like a direct message to Streitfeld, “this is how you’re supposed to do it.”

She wrapped it up nicely with her take in conclusion, two paragraphs which I’ll present here in their entirety because they make the case for fairness in reporting very neatly and illustrate where many of us, including Sullivan herself in some ways, feel the Times has fallen down on fulfilling their journalistic responsibility and veered too far into advocacy:

“It’s important to remember that this is a tale of digital disruption, not good and evil. The establishment figures The Times has quoted on this issue, respected and renowned though they are, should have their statements subjected to critical analysis, just as Amazon’s actions should be. The Times has given a lot of ink to one side and — in story choice, tone and display — helped to portray the retailer as a literature-killing bully instead of a hard-nosed business.

I would like to see more unemotional exploration of the economic issues; more critical questioning of the statements of big-name publishing players; and greater representation of those who think Amazon may be a boon to a book-loving culture, not its killer.”

Very well said. Thank you, Margaret Sullivan, for trying to hold journalism at the Times to a higher standard.

Now it should be noted that Sullivan, in her position as public editor, has no actual authority or ability to see that such suggestions are acted upon. Her position is as an independent monitor of the Times coverage and how that’s perceived/received by the public. She has the ability to speak freely but not the ability to actually force changes in the way things are done. But simply the fact that she has very directly and publicly called them out may have some result. We might see a more balanced approach, with other voices weighing in outside of Streitfeld’s seemingly partisan work. (I say “seemingly” to be polite, by the way.)

Now, there are two other references in her piece that I’d like to emphasize to make different points, one is a reference to author Ursula K. LeGuin’s incomprehensible (my words, not Sullivan’s) rant about Amazon and censorship. The other is David Streitfeld defending his disparagement of the indie author petition and trying to explain the reasoning behind his articles. Both are instructive in a few ways, I think. First, here’s the quote about LeGuin:

“Author Ursula K. Le Guin offered more on the perils of Amazon. “We’re talking about censorship: deliberately making a book hard or impossible to get, ‘disappearing’ an author.”

I saw this the other day when the original scare piece billed as “Literary Lions Fight Amazon” came out and I was taken with its absurdity then. As I’ve thought more about it, though, I think it also represents another example of conduct on the part of some of these authors that I believe is misguided. Namely, she has a valid fear but she’s shouting in the wrong direction about it.

First, to equate Amazon with censorship and the rather ridiculous notion of them “disappearing authors” is, historically speaking, about as wrong as any human being has ever been about anything. Well, maybe not any human being, but it’s pretty audaciously wrong. Amazon has opened the doors to more acts of free expression to more people than damn near any entity ever. The Big 5 publishers and their brethren, on the other hand, have been responsible over the past century or so, of blocking more free expression than just about any collective group of entities in history. Obviously, I’m not equating publishers not choosing to print someone’s book with totalitarian regimes stifling speech and dissent, but if that thought crossed your mind when you just read that, it’s precisely the connection LeGuin made in her comments, and maybe you’ll understand a bit more why I’m annoyed with such an absurd suggestion. Plus, I’m reasonably sure Amazon is not a wing of the CIA and the publishing industry isn’t a mediocre ripoff of a John LeCarre novel, so the less said about authors being disappeared, the better.

Amazon is not the place to go to complain about censorship. Neither are the publishers. If she wants to truly defend free speech and expression, she needs to direct her concerns to the FCC while it’s still considering net neutrality rules and whether or not to permit ISPs to create fast lanes where companies with more money can buy quality internet distribution while the rest of us get ghetto-ized in the slow lanes. Media companies and retailers will always be inherently self-selective in what they allow. It’s the open internet, where we all have the same access at the same speeds to reach anyone on the other end, that guarantees freedom of expression. She should take her complaints there, where they might actually matter, or where they’re at least applicable. Here, as part of the Authors United front, they’re exaggerated noise that has little bearing to reality nor any applicability to the conflict at hand. They do sound nice as a demonizing, scare tactic sound bite, though, which I suspect was the only reason they were uttered to begin with. Why there wasn’t an immediate follow up question of “what the hell are you talking about?” (maybe phrased a bit more politely) is another clear journalistic failing.

Speaking of journalistic failings, that brings me to David Streitfeld. Here’s part of his response to Sullivan when asked about the perception that his reporting was taking sides:

“Mr. Streitfeld says his stories have been driven by one value: newsworthiness. When established authors band together against the largest bookseller, he says, “it’s just a great story, period.” And he says that 900 of their signatures mean much more than “a petition that’s open to anyone on the Internet.” To treat them as equal would be false equivalency, he says.”

Streitfeld says something very clearly here, if you’re looking. The terms “newsworthiness”, “established authors”, “great story” and “false equivalency” all reveal his motivations. Replace the word “established” with “famous” and that’s the angle from which he’s chosen to present this dispute. Famous authors versus mega retailer; the Godzilla-movie approach. He’s presenting the entire negotiating dispute through the lens of name brand authors. It’s sexier more “newsworthy” than anonymous authors against publishers. But, honestly, that’s his angle, it’s a valid one, roll with it.

The problem comes when he goes beyond reporting to manipulating the story to suit his angle. A much larger group of authors who dispute this group doesn’t further his story. So he chose not to simply ignore it but to actively disparage it; hence the “false equivalency” bullshit. The indie petition had 10 times the number of signees, made up of mostly independent writers and readers. The AU signing pool, on the other hand, is clearly a collection of writers from very specific sets of conditions within the industry. It’s also perfectly valid but his false equivalency line cuts both ways. It can be interpreted that the indie petition is far more representative of the reading and writing community than AU, and their letters could very easily be painted as entrenched interests fighting a populist tide threatening their positions (and, most importantly, paychecks).

But that’s just an angle. The truth is there are two (and really many more than two, but for the sake of clarity…) sometimes competing, sometimes aligned sets of interests on this matter. Each one has a point of view and relative merits (and demerits) to their various arguments. When he crosses over from reporting to advocacy, which is what I’d call it, he implies that, because of the AU writers’ position and importance (read: fame), their opinions matter more and therefore they must be speaking for all writers. He goes even further in implying any writers who dispute this are only fringe voices and any supporters they muster don’t carry the legitimacy (again, read: fame) of his selected subjects.

For the sake of full disclosure, I did not sign the indie petition. In fact, I criticized it a bit as being unnecessary, somewhat reactionary and for a tone which practically handed detractors the ability to dismiss it out of hand. Streitfeld’s line calling it a “rambling love letter to Amazon” shows precisely that. Still, it has turned out to be a useful counterweight to the AU group, and has been visible enough that Streitfeld even felt the need to try to attack it rather than simply ignore it.

So remember that. Streitfeld isn’t necessarily furthering any specific agenda for publishers or media entities. He’s furthering the narrative for his own “great story”. In this respect, Sullivan is absolutely right; cover the battle, don’t join it. He’s a journalist, it’s time to start behaving like one.

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

What About Hachette’s Responsibility?

Remember that Amazon/Disney dispute that was supposed to be yet another harbinger of the doom Amazon was looking to bring down upon all its suppliers? Well, that’s over. Or at least negotiated to a point Amazon was willing to reinstate preorders and such on Disney products. So much for the doom. It lasted a little under two months.

There’s also this little tidbit from the same Wall Street Journal article:

“A similar dispute between Amazon and Time Warner Inc.’s Warner Bros. in the spring lasted several weeks. Warner Bros. movies became available for preorder again in June after the studio and Amazon had made significant progress toward a deal, but hadn’t finished ironing out details.”

So that one, that I’d never even heard about before, lasted just a few weeks and preorders were made available as part of the negotiation. What do you know? Let’s also not forget the attempt by Hachette a couple months ago to buy the catalog of Perseus Books, with Ingram absorbing their distributor business, that failed miserably when Hachette, who spearheaded the deal, failed to negotiate an adequate end with either of the other two parties.

Is it time to consider, rather than a victim of some evil Amazon publisher-destroying plot, Hachette may just be really bad at business? Other companies involved in terse negotiations with Amazon, involving many of the same tactics, have emerged none-the-worse-for-wear in a matter of weeks. This has been dragging on with Hachette for almost a year, the past six months of which involving things like lessened stocking and no preorders. Those other two media companies both reportedly got out from under Amazon’s tactics through negotiation. Hachette has taken a hard line stance in negotiating with Amazon (and to this point, an horrifically ineffective one that’s looking more misguided by the day.) It really might be as simple as Hachette just kinda sucking at this.

With all the chatter about the responsibilities Amazon has (or some feel they’re supposed to have, anyway) I got to thinking, doesn’t Hachette have any responsibilities here? Nobody seems to be asking that question. Do you think their parent company cares about their excuses about Amazon, especially when they see other companies settle similar disputes quickly and relatively quietly? Apple’s shareholders didn’t give a damn about how supposedly evil Amazon is when they just filed a lawsuit against them to recoup damages from their illegal collusion with publishers. Why aren’t Hachette’s authors throwing an unholy fit? Maybe we’ve been reading the phrase “special snowflake” all wrong. Maybe the authors are trying to get concessions out of Amazon because they know the company they’re contracted too isn’t competent enough to get them on their own.

In any circumstance, I don’t see how Hachette can be absolved of its responsibilities to the writers under contract to them, no matter how many name brand authors keep mouthing off in the absolute wrong directions. I ran across this letter to Hachette by writer Blair MacGregor yesterday. It’s from early July, just after the first Authors United letter hit, but you wouldn’t know it if you didn’t look at the date. It’s oddly prescient and, in my opinion, spot on.

In it, MacGregor raises four important points, each a different area where Hachette can take action in regards to its responsibilities to the writers they represent (and likely should have already). Read the entire letter, it’s well worth it, but I’m just going to focus on a few points here:

“When I read through the latest round of open letters telling Amazon what they ought to do to support Hachette writers during your negotiations, I thought it exceedingly odd no one had written to you.”

She’s not alone there. I’m at the point where it’s far past exceedingly odd and getting into negligence and/or intentional obfuscation. There is zero logical business reason why someone, anyone under contract to Hachette hasn’t lit a raging fire under their ass to get something done by now.

“You see, your writers are contracted directly with you, and not at all with Amazon, even though many target Amazon with their urging to settle disputes. I get the impression you prefer it that way, which is an odd preference as it assumes you, Hachette, have no ability to support your writers and fulfill your contractual obligations without Amazon’s approval.”

Exactly. I would add, however, that what I think they’re lacking is the will to support their writers, not the ability. And, honestly, many of those same writers are giving them a free pass and, in doing so, applying no pressure or giving them even the slightest reason to lift a finger to fulfill their contractual obligations, as she put it.

“When ethical businesses in your position struggle — with negotiations, with collections, or with other cash flow problems — they don’t send their contractors out to solve the problem for them. Instead, they take care of their obligations to their employees and contractors while making every effort possible to resolve the issue.”

Yup, that’s what ethical businesses do every day. What’s that tell you about where Hachette stands on the ethical scale? Remember, this letter was from three months ago, nearly as long as both Disney and WB’s negotiations combined. What have they gotten done in that time? Zip. Now he gets to the four areas where she believes they should act:

“First, your response to Amazon’s offer to participate in a royalty fund for impacted writers is puzzling if your desire is to care for your writers. Requiring a total resolution be reached with Amazon before discussion on royalties takes place might feel like a powerful move, but exposes the priority you place upon your writers.”

It looks even more egregiously bad now that we have direct examples of both Disney and Warner Brothers getting immediate actions out of Amazon during negotiations. And that’s not to mention MacMillan accepting a nearly identical deal during its last negotiation. Why the authors didn’t use Amazon’s offer to get Hachette to act to mitigate the damage done to themselves and their fellow authors is lost on me. Their irrational and indiscriminate hatred of Amazon is blinding them to both their own and their fellow writers’ interests. But they shouldn’t have had to. Hachette showed zero interest in taking Amazon up on this. Worse still, they have done absolutely nothing on their own, nor did they even try any sort of counter proposal. Someone should mention to Hachette that negotiations typically involve some form of actual negotiating.

“Second, disclose precisely how you are fulfilling the just-in-time orders Amazon is placing with you. I assume your distribution centers aren’t set up for small and swift shipments, but surely a multinational company such as yours has someone in its distribution department able to cobble together a temporary remedy.”

This is spot on, too. If you want us to believe Amazon is why books are shipping slower, prove it. Show us that you’re getting those orders out ASAP and they’re not sitting on someone’s desk in your warehouse for two weeks. I’ve only seen one writer inquire about these shipments, and here’s how that turned out:

“Hachette has continually assured us all orders were shipping “in a timely manner” and Amazon was to blame for placing small orders. We’ve asked for copies of the purchase orders and confirmation of the shipment dates from my publisher but have been told, ‘It is not information we would like to be shared with any third party at the current time.'”
–From Digital Book World

Third party…for his own book shipments! Dripping with concern for writers, right there!

“Third, put some effort into promoting your writers who aren’t your top sellers since they are the ones who stand to lose the most—and most fear that loss.”

I’m totally down with it but they won’t do this when times are good. A snowball has a better chance of wintering successfully in Hell than Hachette ponying up to promote non-mega-selling authors. Still though, not only should they be because of this situation, but because it’s the right thing to do all the time.

“Lastly—and most importantly—publicly and firmly assure your writers that their future contract negotiations will not be based upon lower sales numbers that result from your prolonged negotiations.”

Yes, yes, a million times, yes! This should be the first question anyone asks Hachette from now until the end of time; will you guarantee not to use the lower sales figures during this dispute to drop or otherwise force better deals with writers for yourself? All day, every day. Even Hachette’s most virulent supporters just assume it’s a foregone conclusion that they will employ such unforgivably sleazy actions as this. They’re all over Amazon about the preorders because they’re afraid of the punitive actions Hachette will use those figures to take against them. Yet from writers to Hachette…crickets.

“It’s almost as if no one believes you’d consider it in your best interest to mitigate the damage writers believe will be done to them. It’s almost as if all those urging Amazon to act are far more confident in Amazon’s likelihood of listening than they are in yours. After all, none of them have yet asked you to do…well, much of anything, really.”

Yeah, almost. I think she’s on to something here. Perhaps no one’s pressuring Hachette because they know how futile it is. Whatever the reason, it’s high time that many, many someone’s start not only asking, but demanding Hachette do something here for its writers, if nothing else. Complain about Amazon all you like, but Hachette is directly responsible to the writers it has under contract. And right now, they’re pissing down all of your backs and telling you it’s raining.

You all are worried about your next contract if you rock the boat or make any noise about this? Let me ask you, if this continues to drag on through Christmas, book buying’s most wonderful time of the year, what next contract is it you think is going to be there? Unless you’re a superstar, there won’t be a next contract for you to be concerned about. Speak now or forever hold your peace.

UPDATE: Nate Hoffelder of The Digital Reader just pointed out to me that Perseus Books, the company Hachette swung and missed at, recently struck a new ebook deal of its own with Amazon. According to the report, the deal included not just their own catalog but all the books in their distributor business that were set to be spun off to Ingram in the failed acquisition.

Talk about dodging a bullet! If that sale had gone through, all of those Perseus books would be caught up in the same vortex as the rest of Hachette’s catalog right now. Instead, they’re selling ebooks unencumbered. It’ll be interesting to see if we get any information on what the terms of the deal are, but there can’t be too many smiles around Hachette’s campfire right now.

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

Agree to Disagree

I made the point yesterday that if people, whatever their opinions or beliefs, just come with a considered point of view, they may get arguments but not as much disrespect. Obviously, the world is full of trolls, and some people, as Michael Caine put it, just want to watch the world burn. But I think it’s generally pretty easy to tell who’s thinking things past the top layer or two and who’s just got an ax to grind or a bill of goods to sell. Everybody runs the risk of crossing those lines sometimes, particularly in contentious circumstances like publishing where there’s a different opinion for as many people as can formulate a sentence on the matter. But, for myself, I respond better when I feel like the person speaking has an understanding deeper than everyone’s base rhetoric.

As you may have already seen, Lee Child, author of the popular Jack Reacher books, and a signer of the Authors United efforts, exchanged views with Joe Konrath on the state of things. Read all the way through, the discussion continues into the comments, as well. I found myself alternating between agreeing and disagreeing with Child, but in the end, I was left thinking that, even though I’m generally opposed to their stated efforts, AU would be so much better off with someone like Child and his pragmatism at the helm rather than Preston and his, shall we say, questionable thinking.

“…as a guy entirely unafraid of the future, whatever it may bring – after all, I kicked your ass under the old system, and I’ll kick it under the new system, and the new-new, and the new-new-new, until I retire, or the lung cancer gets me, whichever comes first. I’m completely confident of that, and you’d be an idiot to bet against me.”

I like it! There’s no cowering in corners there, worrying about what tomorrow may bring. Maybe he’s right, maybe he’s wrong, maybe he’s just arrogant, but so what? Publishing is a difficult, often cut throat business. You’ve got to be confident in yourself or you’ll get chewed up and spit out. I’m a basketball fan; talking shit then backing it up on the court is the game’s purest form, in my opinion. Or shutting up the guy talking shit by taking it right to him. And if you can’t shut him up, then he’s earned the right to run his mouth. I love the psychological game as much as the on court action. Child is showing no fear and that wins points with me from the get go.

“Almost every sale Amazon makes happens without a contract with the supplier or manufacturer. It used to be that way with Hachette. Hachette sold to wholesalers, at a certain discount, and the wholesalers sold on to Amazon, at a slight markup. Soon Amazon wanted to avoid that markup, so it went to Hachette and asked, “Please will you sell to us direct?”  And Hachette said, “OK.”  And that’s the so-called contract, right there.”

Ok, now we disagree. Yes, Amazon could just go through a distributor and pay the wholesaler price for Hachette’s print books and then do whatever the hell they’d like with them. But it’s not unheard of for large retailers to have direct contracts with large suppliers to remove the distributor middleman cut. The one thing about Amazon everyone seems to agree on is that they are not fond of middlemen. Barnes & Noble has contracts directly with these publishers, so does Walmart and pretty much every sizable retailer of books out there. It’s been that way for quite a while. It’s not something Amazon started and, in fact, it’s good business on their part to cut out the unnecessary distributor cut if they can.

However, ebooks are a different story. They do need an agreement directly with Hachette in order to sell their ebooks. The act of replicating the files to sell them would constitute copyright infringement without an agreement directly with the publisher. There are no first sale rights on ebooks. Amazon, or anyone else, can’t just buy one, even from a distributor, then turn around and resell it legally. Ebooks, in their present form, require a contract with the publisher, be it Hachette or me as an independent. Amazon couldn’t sell ebooks from me unless I specifically give them the right to do so. There is no circumstance where an agreement with a publisher isn’t necessary for a retailer to sell ebooks.

“Amazon larded on “fees”… in street terms, protection money, to keep the playing field level with other publishers also paying protection money. Equal visibility and honest rankings – which are the best kind of visibility – were at stake. In plain English, Amazon was saying, “Give us cash under the table or we’ll lie in public about the relative merit and appeal of your products.” Publishers were, of course, accustomed to that – B&N pioneered a junior version long ago – so it was business as usual.”

Again, I’m going to have to disagree. Co-op is a form of advertising, and it’s been around forever. Every magazine I ever worked for did a nice business in co-op fees for premium placement of ads within the publication, and that was well established long before Amazon was anything more than a river in South America. Amazon does have a much more diverse mechanism for selling things, so naturally, that likely produces more opportunities to add fees and such. A brick-and-mortar store has, basically, some tables and upfront displays. Amazon has dozens of ways to increase the visibility of books. I’m not surprised at all that they make some extra coin on that. Further, they should. It’s not protection money, it’s advertising, nothing more. And Amazon, or B&N for that matter, didn’t innovate any of it.

“If Hachette walked away, Amazon would lose… unless it was prepared not to carry Hachette titles ever again. Which it isn’t, because Amazon’s whole theory is to be the go-to, first-stop, everything store. Hachette’s best play would be to walk away and suffer a few lean years before an alternative presented itself.”

First, if Hachette walked, Amazon could still sell their print books by getting them through a distributor. Or through their vast network of third party sellers. Unless, of course, Hachette were willing to pull their books from distributors, which isn’t going to happen. The only thing Amazon couldn’t sell if Hachette walked is their ebooks, which they clearly want or they would have bailed on Hachette long ago.

As for a few lean years, I think you’re underestimating how much revenue Amazon generates for Hachette. Far from a few lean years, it would likely be a couple catastrophic years followed by their corporate parent dropping them like a bad habit, either shuffling them off to someone else, likely after massive, destructive rounds of cost-cutting, or spinning them off, a la B&N’s Nook business, to while away the time without dragging down the rest of the company, until straight up bankruptcy. Amazon walking away from Hachette would be inconvenient. Hachette walking away from Amazon would be suicide. You may be right, though, it could be Hachette’s best play. How many different ways can I say the word “screwed”?

“It’s staggeringly naïve to think the current KDP landscape is anything other than a short-term tactic. Note well – I am NOT saying don’t get into it now just because it will get worse in the future… instead I say, hell yes, make hay while the sun shines. Exploit Amazon’s game plan for all you can get, as long as it lasts, and more power to you. But understand that today’s KDP is a pressure point, designed to suck authors out of the established system.”

Indeed, I think we’re in agreement on this. My only question is who thinks it’s not a short-term tactic? In fact, KDP and the offerings associated with it seem to be constantly shifting. And it’s clearly designed to pull authors out of the established system. Specifically, though, it’s authors who have either been tossed aside from that system or those on the outside who couldn’t find a way through the gates. I do think they’d like to attract some name authors but I suspect they’d rather have them under one of their imprints, if at all possible, rather than strictly in KDP. KDP is more like a third party seller program than acting as a publisher itself.

And I am in full agreement with your make hay while the sun shines. That’s a good plan for whatever you do. Large corporations use people for their own ends. Amazon does it, Hachette does it, they all do it. The key, I’ve always found, is to use them for your own ends first. Absolutely take full advantage of any opportunities you can find. That’s not a piece of publishing advice, it’s a mantra for life. Opportunities never last forever.

“I am NOT talking about nurturing or culture or curating or any of that kind of non-existent crap. I’m talking about money.”

Sir, let me say thank you for saying this! If you could get Preston to quit with that nonsense in his AU missives, that’d be really great, too. Might get some people off his back.

“Storytellers will be working for whatever few pennies they choose to hand out. (Or some will. I’ll be doing something else by then. I don’t work for pennies.) And don’t tell me some alternate savior will ride to the rescue. There won’t be one. Publishing makes no sense to any other player. Certainly there won’t be a publishing-only player. Not enough margin in it.”

I don’t work for pennies, either. That’s why I got out of newspapers. There are many who will, though, and many over time who have. These publishers have been the ones principally handing out those pennies over the decades. I don’t agree that there won’t be other competitors. Amazon, no matter how powerful it looks today, is not infinite. And if they actually engaged in many of the things AU is afraid they will, that will only expedite their fall.

I’m not sure where this notion that publishing isn’t profitable enough to attract other competitors comes from, particularly now that the massive barrier for entry that print used to constitute is no more. I also think it’s odd that line of reasoning so often comes from people like yourself (no offense), Doug Preston, Stephen King and James Patterson, people who get paid by publishers in fat stacks of cash. If they truly weren’t profitable, your cut would be infinitesimally smaller.

“So really we should all be equally concerned. We should make common cause. Behind the noise and the bullshit we’re all trying to do the same thing – sell our stories to the same people, for a living wage. And it’s those last four words that made me sign the letter. Not my living wage – that’s already in the bank – but yours, and the people that come after us.”

I agree, to a point, but that’s why I wouldn’t sign a letter like AU puts out there. I’ve seen from the inside how much concern publishers have for a living wage for their creative talent. It’s akin to my concern for the sport of soccer, that is, just slightly above none whatsoever. This is an industry that has long needed its ass handed to it. Change and reform is difficult. Say what you want about Amazon but they ask for my support and offers incentives for me to give it to them. Hachette and the like demand it as a toll for getting to market. Will it always be the case? Probably not, but if the publisher hierarchy isn’t disrupted in a big way, it’s pretty clear to me that they will never change.

“I don’t believe the established publishing industry is good. I believe it is what it is, i.e. reasonably satisfactory for most, and likely better for most than a projected Amazon-only future.
I understand that Amazon is tremendously enabling for writers – at the moment. My advice is make the most of it while it lasts.”

I don’t believe the established industry is good, either. But I would change it to reasonably satisfactory for some instead of most. Amazon is enabling and I’m right with you on taking full advantage of that while we can. The one key area we differ is that I don’t believe such an Amazon-only future will ever come to pass. I’m not even convinced they want it to be that way.

“Re: standard contract terms being shitty: They’re the result of many decades of back-and-forth between agents and publishers, in good times and bad, and as such were completely acceptable to most. Now they look very bad compared to KDP… and one’s feelings on that depend on how one sees KDP.”

I was thrilled when I landed my first gig in publishing. A few years later, I got away from the large corporate publisher I was thrilled to be working for as quickly as I could, moving on to an independent start up publication (which turned out to be very successful until we sold out to another large corporate publisher who ran us right into the ground, reminding me why I hauled ass away from their kind in the first place.) Things always look brighter from the outside. I had no expectation that I would grow anywhere near as disillusioned as I got so quickly when I landed that first gig. What it taught me was that promises are cheap, even if made in a contract, and the perception of what it was far outstripped the reality. Besides, things always look brighter than they should when there are no equivalent alternatives, which has been the case until recently for nearly all writers. The one thing I learned about big publishers is that the glow comes off the rose pretty damn quickly.

“My contracts are exactly the same as they always were, apart from larger advances to reflect larger anticipated sales. Call me a jerk, but I don’t take higher royalty rates or preferential treatment, as a matter of principle. I was effectively subsidized early on (as all new authors are) and I won’t pull up the drawbridge now. I want to earn my corn the old-fashioned way, by selling books, not by using leverage.”

Good for you! One of the criticisms I made of Preston is that his gang could be doing a lot more to help early-career and midlist writers. I’m glad to hear someone out there in your position is actually doing it rather than cashing their checks and complaining that someone else needs to. That being said, I’m not sure your leaving money on the table is actually helping any other writers. I doubt it led to higher advances or better royalties or even more contracts than they would have issued in the first place. Very likely, all it’s doing is enriching some already enriched executive or other, likely after being siphoned off to the parent company as “management fees” or some other mythical line item on an imperceptible budget sheet.

I once worked for a publisher who, like many, failed to pay men and women equivalently. On one occasion, I got a raise (it was my second one within eight months) but I knew there were other people I worked with that hadn’t gotten even one in nearly two years. So I said, how about instead of giving this to me, you give it to my coworker who needs the money far more than I do, especially since I had just gotten one a few months earlier. I was told it couldn’t be done. They had procedures and such, even though they were fully prepared to pay that money out to me, they in no way would even consider giving it to someone else. I argued, as is my wont to do, and I was eventually told either you accept it or no one gets it.

I applaud your efforts in this regard but, if I may make a suggestion, there may be a better way to achieve that end than leaving money on the table and trusting it will trickle down to where you’d like it to go. I can almost guarantee you that it’s not.

Anyway, I see someone here who’s got a much clearer-headed view of the industry than AU in general comes off as having. There’s still some consternation about Amazon’s size and market power, which isn’t irrational, I share some of that myself. But I prefer a world where I have freedom and flexibility and the ability to do just as he suggests, make hay while the sun shines. I don’t see the value in acting to prop up a system that’s more myth than reality, more faith than fact these days. That system needs to be broken down.

As for Amazon, only time will tell who’s right about their intentions. The only difference being, if Amazon does turn sour, it then becomes just another system that needs breaking down. They’re not there yet, or even close, in my opinion. I have no fear that it can and will be done, should it be necessary. It’s the 21st century now. Entrenched systems break down faster than ever these days. I see no reason to believe Amazon is any kind of exception to that. I don’t believe they think they are, either.

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

Published in: on September 28, 2014 at 11:56 am  Comments (5)  
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Conflicting Notions of the Value of Conflict

Typically in this space, I go to great, rambling lengths to point out and discuss matters I thoroughly disagree with. I’m a confirmed cynic, and on top of that, I tend to hold opinions that aren’t necessarily popular. In some circles, certainly, but not always. I believe we should have first sale rights including resale on digital goods. That’s not a particularly popular opinion in any circles. I couldn’t possibly care less about piracy and, in fact, I’ve said many times that I don’t even think it is piracy nor do I think it’s harmful in the slightest. Another not particularly popular opinion. I’ve openly defended publishing pundits like Mike Shatzkin, and caught some hell for it. Doesn’t change my mind. I don’t always agree with him, even with most of what he says, but I do usually get something to consider out of it. I also think he’s one of the more vocal critics of traditional publishing, one from the inside, and I think those voices are important to consider. Nobody knows everything. Your perspectives may vary and that can color any beliefs. You don’t have to swear allegiance to them, just try to understand where they’re coming from.

But what I absolutely can’t stand is naiveté. It’s why I was so bluntly mean to Doug Preston last week. He’s got name recognition, a large platform and the support of some sizable names amongst authors. To me, that makes it all the more disappointing that he’s using it on nonsensical arguments, pointless shaming actions and industry fairytales of nurturing publishers and literature exempt from commercial pressures (particularly galling to me coming a guy who’s made bank simply because publishing is a commercial entity).

I read this piece on the value of conflict by Barry Eisler yesterday. In it, he talks about an interaction he recently had with someone who doesn’t care for the tone some vocal self publishing supporters take. Here’s a quote from that person:

“Instead of being a force for change, self-publishing appears to be a force that creates conflict, makes people feel defensive or unwilling to speak publicly, and is, I believe, getting in the way of change.”

First, change doesn’t happen without conflict of some form or another. There’s also the matter of the frequently dismissive tone toward self publishers that turns up in many of these pieces, such as the Bush League reference by author Janet Fitch I talked about yesterday. Those kinds of things necessarily set people like me on edge. And we react. We aren’t out here serving any masters other than ourselves, and we are free to speak our minds. I don’t believe many traditionally published authors feel they are free to criticize their publishers. Whether they actually are or not is debatable, but I don’t believe they think they are. Otherwise, wouldn’t there be more of them out here raising hell? Where’s the Hachette authors throwing a fit at them for dragging their feet and not negotiating in good faith while their writers’ careers burn? Don’t tell me they don’t exist. They do, but the industry, with implied and often self-inflicted pressures, keeps them silent.

So when someone comes into what’s essentially a discussion of business models and commercial approaches with some nonsense about books not being products, that gouging readers with higher prices is crucial for the furtherance of literature and all kinds of ridiculous, unsupportable accusations about Amazon’s conduct while totally ignoring or whitewashing the conduct of their own publushers, in this environment, you’re going to get a smack down. And, in my opinion, you’ll deserve it.

Bring logic, facts and rational arguments based on the immutable reality that we’re all discussing a many-billions of dollars commercial enterprise here populated by various multi-billion dollar profit-seeking conglomerates and not some mythical philanthropic exercise and you’ll be okay. I may not agree with you, and I’ll probably argue if I do disagree, but I won’t ridicule you like I did Preston. If you want to discuss literature in the cultural sense detached from commercial concerns (and to be clear, I do believe that’s a worthy discussion) don’t frame it in the context of a business negotiation between the largest retailer going and one of a small handful of the largest publishers in the world. There’s a place for that discussion, just not in the middle of a purely commercial dispute amongst purely commercial enterprises.

The attacks you see come about because, when someone does that, they come off as naive. Worse yet, in not reflecting their lens of criticism at the publishers as well as Amazon, to many of us out here, they can come off as ignorant and a bit clueless. There are more opportunities for writers to get their work, and their ideas, out there to the public today, completely irrespective of commercial concerns than ever before in human history. If that weren’t the case, you wouldn’t be reading this right now. In fact, you wouldn’t be reading 99% of the criticisms of the traditional industry that exist today because mainstream media outlets are inbred with the media conglomerates and don’t often take them properly to task. Just ask Bill Simmons of ESPN how willing these supposedly independent media companies are to brook serious criticisms of their corporate fellow travelers. The voices of opposition have been silent too long, in my opinion, and the megaphones we use to shout our concerns to the masses is an extraordinarily valuable development and it is directly and indirectly responsible for the much-needed reform that’s currently gripping the industry.

So educate yourself before you speak. Bring a thoughtful point of view to the table, wherever on the spectrum your opinions lie, and you’ll be all right. You might even learn something. Better still, some of the people reading you might learn something, too. Everyone has their own perspective and there is clear value is seeing and understanding perspectives different from your own. There is also value in engaging with your critics, as well as your supporters. But you can’t just spout nonsense that flies in the face of the reality many of us see every day and not expect to be called on it. It’s not 1988 anymore. Everyone has a voice. Use them wisely.

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

A Closer Look at Janet Fitch’s Letter to Jeff Bezos

Author’s Note: Earlier today, I referenced a quote from author Janet Fitch. I read her Open Letter to Jeff Bezos a couple weeks ago and pulled some choice quotes from the missive to opine on, like I usually do. Fitch is a signer of Doug Preston’s Authors United publisher front group grassroots organization. There’s nothing particularly compelling in her letter and I had initially only left a comment inquiring why she wasn’t directing her anger at the company she’s under contract to rather than a retailer only associated to her tangentially through her publisher. She did graciously reply (although without actually answering the question). I hadn’t really planned on giving it any more attention until I saw this quote from Preston himself in a letter to his group leading up to the hilariously inept and ill fated letter to Amazon’s board of directors:

“In the meantime, it might be a good idea to do what we can through social media, blogs, opinion pieces, and other means to counter Amazon’s disinformation campaign. The writer Janet Fitch, for example, publicly released her letter to Jeff Bezos, which generated (an) excellent story in the Los Angeles Times.”

There’s no point linking to the Times article. Follow the link in the Publishers Weekly piece that quote came from if you must, but it’s basically just saying what she wrote. Nothing new there under the sun. Mainstream journalism at its laziest! Preston’s call to counter Amazon’s supposed disinformation through social media made up my mind to counter their actual disinformation. So I started writing this piece. Before I finished, though, that Amazon BOD letter came out and it was so absurd that I simply had to direct my attention to giving his cluelessness the what for. Now that it’s settled down a bit, and Authors United astroturfing group has moved on to writing the DOJ in an attempt to spur antitrust action against Amazon, an attempt I sincerely hopes results in a closer look at Hachette and other publishers’ recent actions through the law of unintended consequences, I thought I’d return and finish this up.

Another day, another writer attacking Amazon. This time, it’s Janet Fitch, author of the bestseller of a few years ago, White Oleander. I understand the consternation over what’s going on with Amazon but the more of these I see, the more I find myself questioning how many of these writers have the slightest clue how this business really works. I always think it’s odd when I see someone who should know better espousing virtues to businesses that may or may not have even existed in their mystical golden days and certainly don’t anymore in today’s cut-throat, overly conglomerated publishing world.

Fitch was pseudo-complimentary to self publishing and Amazon, so I suspect the seeds of realization are planted there, she’s just too stuck on what she thinks she knows rather than the preponderance of the evidence. Despite the Doug Preston talking point nonsense right from the jump of her “Letter to Mr. Bezos”, I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Writers, after all, have been intentionally sheltered from the business operations of publishers for long time now, so it’s not surprising that some misconceptions would fester from within the publisher/author infantalization feedback loop. I was looking for sound arguments in her underlying reason. Unfortunately, what I saw was condescending backhanded compliments to indies and adherence to the special snowflake, won’t-somebody-think-about-the-art, blind to business ethic that some seem to think is the author’s proper place in the food chain.

Let’s start with this this from the preamble of her letter to Bezos:

“The magic number which Amazon is holding out for, $9.99, is not based upon the actual cost of publishing books, which includes paying author advances, editor salaries, publicity and all the other costs of creating books for us to read. The publishers well know how much it costs to run their businesses. It’s simply an aesthetic decision, how that number looks to a consumer.”

First off, $9.99 isn’t a magic number Amazon is holding out for, it’s a number they have already been selling books at or below for years now. Years that, up until your publisher and others broke antitrust law to fix retail prices above that number, was generating a booming new ebook market. The market is still booming for some, those who saw the higher price push for what it is, an attempt to choke out the golden goose because she’s spitting out solid gold eggs too damn fast for their taste. Meanwhile, on the traditional side, the side your publisher represents, all signs point to ebook sales having plateaued. Do you think that’s a coincidence?

Secondly, you’re wrong about it not being based on the cost of producing the book. The traditional world is still very much a print-first environment in many respects. Everything is based upon that premise, even the higher cost of ebooks is often cited as a means of protecting print rather than fully exploiting the digital format. Advances and royalty rates for print haven’t appreciably changed in the past 10 years, other than widespread reports of both shrinking advances and increased use of discount clauses that keeps the publisher cut intact while slashing the author’s take. Those rates are well established as the means of paying for the costs of producing the book. Once the print version is already produced and paid for (through those royalty rates on print) the cost of producing an ebook from it is minimal to virtually nonexistent. Plus, once that’s done, the marginal cost of producing every other ebook copy sold is statistically insignificant from zero. Ebooks are as close to pure profit as is possible. Your publisher and their accountants know this, and yet, even with the production costs for the book already accounted for in the print royalty rates, they still pay out only between 12% to 17.5% of the ebook proceeds to the author. Why are the rates so low?

Expenses are covered, there’s only the one time charge for creating the first ebook strictly dedicated to that upfront. That money from the increased margins can go three places, to you in the form of higher royalties, to the reader in the form of lower prices or into the publisher’s pocket, ostensibly paying for expenses that are already covered elsewhere. The third option is the worst one for the long term health and growth of the industry as a whole, specifically readers and writers. It’s also the one your publisher prefers and is trying to permanently stick us with.

As for how that number looks to the customer, that’s a pretty important dynamic. Whether you realize it or not, there are a sizable number of customers who see $9.99 for an ebook as still too high and rightly so, in my opinion. The only justification for both high ebook prices and low royalty rates is an open admission that print is flagging and not producing the returns they need. But the response to that is to handicap the infinitely more margin friendly ebook? This strategy is making the publishers’ bottom lines bright and shiny today but it’s not doing a single thing to protect or encourage new growth in print long term. In fact, this path is putting at risk the ability of everyone signed on with one of these publishers’ to even have an outside chance of getting a decent return on that contract past the next few years.

I’d recommend you read up on the newspaper industry and how their strategy of print-first and digital as supplemental revenue lost them half their print business in just 5 years as well as doing irreparable harm to their emerging digital business. Might be some parallels there you’d like to think about.

Here’s one directly from her letter to Bezos (by the way, calling someone a parasite isn’t generally the best way to win them over to your side.):

“The difference between a symbiotic and a parasitic relationship is that in symbiosis, the host is not harmed in any way. The two organisms work together for mutual benefit. In a parasitic relationship, the growth of the secondary organism outstrips the ability of the host to sustain itself. Unlike symbiosis, a parasite kills its host, and eventually, itself.”

Who are you talking about here? You seem to imply it’s Amazon, but maybe you’d like to point that parasite lens at your own publisher. Very few writers inside or out of the traditional industry would consider the large publisher/writer relationship as symbiotic. Very few writers who’ve worked with or taken advantage of opportunities from Amazon would consider them parasitic. You may have this one backwards. Attacking Amazon is like killing off the beneficial bacteria that helps you digest your food so the tape worm infesting your bowels has more to eat.

Down in the comments after her letter, I found these next few quotes. I do give ger kudos for showing up and engaging her detractors directly. So many of the people defending publishers and demonizing Amazon refuse to (I’m looking at you, Preston. You too, David Streitfeld and the NY Times.) Here’s the first snippet:

“I disagree that more people buy based on price. I think the people who are going to buy Paint it Black are going to buy it at $12 as at $8. All dropping the price to $8 will do is take money out of my pocket. And to think that the publisher’s overall plan for the book doesn’t include all forms–to see the ebook is sort of a toss-off after the “book” is published, is mistaken. The cost of producing a book–editing, acquisition (ie paying the writer and his or her agent), design, marketing, overhead–is spread out over all the forms, the hardbound, the paperback, the ebook, the audiobook, large print, etc.”

Two things; one, you’re not taking money out of your pocket, you’re putting it back into the pockets of your fans and customers. And you are leaving something on the table; the zero dollars from all the people who would pay $8 but not $12. It’s nice to think the people buying our work are all strongly committed and willing to pay whatever we charge, but that’s not realistic. Price is an extremely fickle creature, especially when you’re pricing in a range that includes a psychological barrier like $10. The difference between $9.99 and $10 may be small in truth but it’s much larger in perception.

Amazon’s research shows an extra 3/4 of a sale for ebooks priced at 9.99 as opposed to 14.99. As a rough estimate looking at your pricing argument, you wouldn’t be losing $4, you’d be gaining $6 and two readers instead of just one. It’s a fairly well accepted idea that lower prices lead to higher volume sales. It’s not an exact science, of course, but to assume you gain nothing from lower prices isn’t really accurate. Besides that, you are indirectly advocating for intentionally charging higher prices to your most fervent and loyal customers, and for shrinking your audience. I, for one, prefer lower prices, rewarding the best readers and generating a wider audience. Makes for happier customers and more opportunities in the long run.

Secondly, you’re right, they are trying to spread out the total costs across all formats of the book and that’s the problem. If the differential in cost structure wasn’t so great, it may not be an issue. But ebooks are so much more inexpensive and efficient to produce and distribute that there’s no way to spread those costs that doesn’t artificially inflate the prices of ebooks and hinder their growth in order to carry formats that aren’t or soon will be no longer pulling their own weight. You’re just not going to win an argument with readers who know several dollars on the purchase price is just padding or worse still, paying for a version of the product they don’t even want. Like it or not, readers are far more informed about the business dynamics that set prices than ever before. The one-sided conversation of the past is no more.

It’s my opinion that combining expenses like this won’t have any tangible impact on improving the long-term fortunes of print, and may well handicap the long term fortunes of the publisher’s digital business as well. It’s happened before (CDs, newspapers) and it will happen again (movies). It may look like print and ebooks are the same business but they’re not. You have to careful tying them together in such a way. Rather than digital revenue being a raft to raise the total business, it could just as easily be the rest of the total business dragging down digital revenue like an anchor. There is clear precedent for this happening in other media.

“I think the world of self-publishing, where everyone can publish his or her work is amazing, and I think sooner or later, conventional publishers will develop self-publishing arms, which will be cash cows for them, and also serve as ‘bush-league’ teams from which they can cherry-pick for the majors.”

Bush league? Cherry pick for the majors? This is a bit insulting. Actually, take out the word “bit.” It’s 31 flavors of insulting. They’ve already tried to cherry pick from successful indies and it’s not working. There were some a couple years ago who fully signed up with publishers, but what have we heard from them lately? Today, most of what I hear in this regard is about indies turning down offers from publishers. There’s a simple reason for that, once an indie is successful enough to attract their attention, they have to come to the table with a sizable enough offer to compensate for their success and the things they have to give up. I see very little indication that publishers are willing to up the ante on their offers to actually attract successful indies.

As for publishers creating self-publishing arms, it’s been tried once or twice, the most notable of which being Author Solutions, which is about the scammiest of scams going. It also speaks volumes to the lack of general respect publishers have for indies. If they truly want to partner with them, then don’t behave as a predator toward them, and Author Solutions is a far bigger and more devious predator upon writers than Amazon’s been, if they’ve ever been one at all. On top of that, I’ve read quite a lot if these kinds of missives from writers like you or in your position. As for understanding the business of publishing, there certainly are more than a few Bush Leaguers around, and it’s usually not the indies.

“But for the writer who devotes three, four, five, eight years putting his or her all into a book, who aspires to greatness, who doesn’t have a readymade following, a different kind of structure is appreciated, one where agents negotiate contracts and editors refine work, where his or her book is published with some presence. This writer, this kind of literature, generally requires a conventional publisher.”

See, here’s the thing I don’t believe; nobody takes 8 years to write a book. They may take 6 months to write a book stretched out over 8 years, but they certainly didn’t slave away full time, week after week, for 8 solid years to write one book. Don’t get me wrong, I see value in the downtime between bursts of writing on a particular piece of material. I don’t necessarily believe straight through, start to finish, is always the best way to produce the best material. But when you’re dragging one piece out over years with long patches of nothing in between, I can’t help but think that’s a bit lazy. But to each their own. I just don’t buy the romanticized ideal of the writer slaving away for years on a novel when they’re really slaving away for a week then sitting it in a drawer for two months before the next slaving away for another week, but then it’s the holidays, so a few more months off, then another few days of work in January but winter is rolling in now, so you’ll pick up where you left off when spring sets in.

I’ve been as guilty of this as anybody. Sometimes, life gets in the way. But here’s where indie publishing helps, motivation to produce. It helps that you can almost instantly reap the rewards of that production, too, even if it’s not on the scale of a publisher advance (and especially if it meets or exceeds those levels). The industry still runs at a near-glacial pace and it’s going to be a problem in the long run. Many would say it already is. I doubt publishers of the future will be thrilled to invest in too many writers who they may get one book a decade from.

“All I’d like to see is that creators of literature still have the conventional publishers to turn to, and have a chance at a literary career which will pay them a living wage. I know many fine, fine musicians—on the order of our great writers—who no longer can make a living, because the cheapening of the product has broken the music business.”

Those aren’t mutually exclusive. It is entirely possible to have a chance at a career that pays a living wage without turning to a publisher. And it’s entirely possible, likely even, that turning to a publisher isn’t going to produce that living wage either. This is fairly new, admittedly, but that’s what has changed; the single path to success has been split off into as many possible paths are there are people to walk them. Certainly, publishers will hopefully find a way to adapt enough to stick around, but if they don’t, it will be because they lost relevance to what readers and writers want and need. Stay relevant and they’ll be fine.

You and I have very different views of the music industry. I know many excellent musicians myself who couldn’t earn a living prior to cheap digital music and open distribution. Now, they can. The music business was much like books, only those who got that label contract really had a chance to earn. Given the horrid nature of those labels and their contract structures, it’s difficult to say if many of them actually did. The music business isn’t broken, the old label system is. Look at those musicians who you know having trouble. Have they adapted? Are they doing anything differently than they were 15 or 20 years ago? Or are they just hoping the same path that worked then will suddenly start working again?

There are many authors who will soon be in this boat, as well. Hachette authors caught up in this mess may well be some of the first. Signing that publishing contract is only worth it if the publisher has sufficient efficacy within the market to support what you give up. It’s questionable to me, at this point, if Hachette (without Amazon) still possesses that efficacy at a necessary level. It’s a question that will only get louder and louder the longer this dispute drones on.

As I mentioned earlier, I asked a question in the comments section of her article, one I have asked repeatedly of others making similar critiques of Amazon. Have you written to Hachette to express your concerns about this dispute and what they’re doing to rectify things? Here is what she said:

“The thing to remember is that it’s not just my publisher–all the publishers are going to have to go through this. Believe me, at Hachette they keenly feel the loss to their writers–also their own loss–in the revenue that’s vanished during this dispute. But all of the publishers will find themselves in the same boat.”

I hope you’re right about Hachette caring about the loss to its writers. I have my doubts, though. And I agree, all publishers will be in the same boat sooner or later. It’ll be interesting to see if the ones coming later learn anything from the early ones. I have a hard time believing any publisher is looking at how Hachette has handled this negotiation and said, “let’s use those tactics! ” Just the fact that they made no effort at negotiation and simply let their contract expire would infuriate me if I were a Hachette author. I’m at a loss for why it hasn’t infuriated more of them. I can only conclude that many either don’t feel free to be openly critical of Hachette (notice she didn’t answer the actual question and no one else I’ve seen has, either) or they don’t truly understand who dropped the ball here. It looks to me like Hachette actually wanted an impasse, which, if true, doesn’t speak well for any concern for their writers. Also, refusing to kick in on a pool to compensate their writers during this negotiation isn’t worthy of much praise either.

I’m not sure how this ends, but I am certainly glad I’m not under contract and helpless to do anything about it. I feel for writers who find themselves in that kind of personal hell. But they need to ask themselves who put them in that position? The answer isn’t likely going to be one they want to hear; a generous contribution from their publisher with a heaping helping of their own choices.

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

Assumptions and Disintermediation

“To think that the publisher’s plan for the book doesn’t include all forms is mistaken. The cost of producing a book–editing, acquisition (ie paying the writer and his or her agent), design, marketing, overhead–is spread out over all the forms, the hardbound, the paperback, the ebook, the audiobook, large print, etc.”
– Author Janet Fitch

“You also have to take into consideration the price of the hardcover. Yes, it’s cheap to make a digital book but it’s expensive to present a book in hardcover.”
– Roxana Robinson, Authors Guild President

“Their “total pie” is really just a piece of the pie. “Total revenue” on an ebook is only part of the “total revenue” for a new release book.”
– Michael Cader

Here are three quotes framing the industry’s treatment of digital as but one part of an overall picture. The statement is true but (and here’s the kicker) it’s only true for the author, not the publisher unless the author allows it. The assumption that a book is one product with varying delivery mechanisms is wrong. It’s actually three products. I know this because the only way a publisher can have those full range of offerings to spread costs across is if the author sells them those rights. Separately.

There are three basic sets of rights involved (many more if you get all granular down into translations, overseas markets, what have you. I think it was Lee Child who said Amazon represents something like 11 of the 97 markets he sells his books in). At its root, there are three basic products the author is selling as a bundle: print rights, digital rights and audio rights. Everything else, for the most part, stems from these three forms. The question I have is why do so many writers feel it’s not only necessary to sell them as a bundle to the same entity, but to operate under some illusion that it’s not even a bundle at all? There is no reason whatsoever (other than publisher obstinance) why you can’t sell the print rights to one place, digital rights to another and audio rights to a third. Not one.

My take on this has been pretty clear; I do not believe inextricably tying print and digital together is the correct course of action. Further, I absolutely do not want the same entity handling both my print and digital products. That will inevitably result in handicapping one format to benefit the other, as many publishers are doing right now by trying to stifle ebooks to some degree in order to support their print infrastructure. It doesn’t support print because it doesn’t address the online commerce issue which is what’s really hurting bookstores. And it damages the growth potential of your digital business by anchoring it within the far-more-expensive print cost structure. Newspapers cut their own throats by trying to do this exact thing.

I understand why publishers would want the full range of rights for a book, and that made some sense when print was dominant to the point of largely being all there was. What I don’t understand anymore is why writers would still want one entity to have all those rights? Sell the print rights alone and say this is your one job, focus on generating sales for print only. Do the same with digital (or handle them yourself).

Publishers won’t willingly go along with this but tough. Don’t give them the option unless they’re paying a premium for the full bundle. But to accept contracts that are tangibly identical to what they’ve always been with potentially extremely lucrative ebook rights thrown in at largely no additional cost is just not smart. Writers need to quit assuming that a “book” is one product in multiple formats and see it for what it is; multiple products, each needing a different cost structure and level of expertise to properly exploit. Stop just tossing digital rights in with a deal from a company with print expertise. Likewise, don’t toss print rights into a deal with a company with digital expertise. Find the best party for each specific product (or do it yourself).

The buzzword of the 21st century is disintermediation. Bundled arrangements produce inefficiency now. You’re willingly undercutting yourself by selling all your rights to one entity. There’s also the matter of rights reversions. If a publisher is producing print sales for me but their digital sales are lagging, why should my digital rights not have its own separate threshold for reversions? If this were the case, a publisher couldn’t effectively hamstring one format to help another without risking losing the rights to that format. And vice versa, if digital is booming but print isn’t producing, those print rights should revert on their own merits without regard to the performance of other formats. Publishers will hate, hate, hate this, which is all the more reason why we should demand disintermediation of different categories of rights within any publishing contract.

The next writer who so easily spouts the line that the publishers’ plan is spread across all formats should stop and think how that can even come about. They can only do it if you willingly sell them all those rights as a bundle. Your choice to sign a contract like that is what creates an environment where these divergent products are intertwined. It’s not a foregone conclusion out of necessity but a willful business decision by you. And it’s very likely not even in your best interest or the interest of maximizing revenue across all formats. Stop assuming and start looking at what’s actually possible. I think you’ll find things are no longer as the industry at large would like them to appear to be.

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

Published in: on September 25, 2014 at 11:58 am  Comments (5)  
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A Letter to Doug Preston

So I’ve sat quietly and absorbed the mighty fury that Doug Preston and the Authors United group have unleashed upon Amazon in their latest round of pressure tactics. Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of a somewhat sternly worded yet awkwardly kiss-ass proposed letter to Amazon’s board of directors! Oooooh! It burns just thinking about all the carnage these kinds of extreme tactics will bring!

With open letters to people suddenly being all the rage, today, I thought I’d pen one with some advice for Doug Preston and the Pretensions:

Dear Mr. Preston,

Just stop. You’re making a fool of yourself. Your arguments are misdirected, faulty, elitist and lacking in any evidence of your awareness that a world exists beyond the little bubble of your personal experience, which in no way reflects the experiences of the vast majority of writers you and your group of self-important do-gooders claim to be speaking for. In the immortal words of Black Dynamite, you need to shut the fuck up when grown folks is talking.

Normally, I would just pluck some quotes from your letter and comment on them but this effort from your group doesn’t even raise to the level of deserving such treatment. There’s not a single element that merits the attention of anyone actually interested in the business reality of the matter, let alone serious consideration. You’ve revealed yourself to have zero knowledge of retail business agreements, and even less understanding of contracts and who is accountable for what and to whom within them. Despite your protestations on each count, you’ve shown yourself to be both cluelessly elitist and most definitively staking out a side.

Whether you realize it or not, your attempt to shame the board is actually reinforcing to them that the tactics being used in the negotiations by Amazon have been extraordinarily effective. Little tip for the future, generally speaking, when involved in a contentious negotiation with a stronger party, you typically don’t want to begin by providing a point by point list of how badly your circumstances are unless you’re trying to get the side you’re implicitly supporting to end up eviscerated in whatever deal finally results. In fact, your sad attempts at garnering sympathy by talking about how far your sales have fallen, especially the point about other retailers failing to make up the difference, may be making a strong case that Amazon isn’t asking enough for their contributions in selling Hachette’s books. Think before you speak, and think twice before you broadcast it to the world. You can play the “we’re not involved” card all you like to appear impartial but you can’t possibly be ignorant enough of reality to believe that, can you?

You should also be aware that when you spout off about how special books are, how much they’re not like other products and the people who write them deserve special dispensation from the hard economic realities everyone else on the fucking planet faces just to put food on the table every damn day, you sound precisely like a man who’s spent his whole professional life sheltered. Can you tell me where you’ve met these young writers who get advances large enough to live on before they write their first books, based on simply the idea? Did you ride your unicorn over the rainbow to chat with them about it?

Not to mention, Amazon will ship my books right now, there’s no delay. I can get preorders on books right now, there’s no prohibition. And so can everybody else except people like you because the contract you signed prevents it. Every last complaint you have could be addressed but for the fact that you willingly chose to give the rights to your work and any power or influence to do anything about it to someone else. That’s why you’re left doing nothing but throwing nonsense missives at people who have precisely zero reason to listen to a single word you have to say. You don’t like the results of Hachette’s business dealings with Amazon? Take it out on them. And if those dealings are negatively impacting your career because they can’t reach a deal with the largest retailer of books in the world, I’m sympathetic but that’s your problem, the result of the path you chose, to take the advance and give up control.

I’m sorry that you’re having these issues and I feel for the newly enlisted writers whose careers may suffer but nobody is entitled to anything. Those of us here in reality understand that. You know how you earn a living? You hustle and adapt and take advantage of opportunities. You don’t bitch and moan at other businesses who have no legal, moral or ethical obligation to you when the one you signed on with drops the ball or can’t keep the promises they made you. That’s life. It’s hard, ever-shifting and filled with risk. Don’t like it? Too goddamned bad! Welcome to the club with the rest of us.

One area where you’re mostly right is that books can’t be written more cheaply. That’s because 99% of them are already written for free. The struggle is to find a buyer after they’ve been written. That’s the world most of us live in. However, one of your esteemed signees, James Patterson, gets advances into seven figures. Could those books be written any cheaper? What was your last advance, sir? Could you have written it any cheaper? If you’re moving books, I have no issue with that. But that’s a commercial argument, justifiable, or not, in the numbers as I’m sure you’d agree. Your group, however, is trading in sentimentality and actively arguing for being exempt from normal commercial pressures. You can’t have it both ways, the commercial argument when it’s your check on the line and the non-commercial one for everybody else. We have a word for that; it’s called hypocrisy.

If you’re so concerned that Amazon is siphoning away the resources publishers use to support authors, how about putting your money where your mouth is? And I don’t mean on another tone-deaf and extraordinarily wasteful print ad in the New York Times. Jesus, you do realize we’re in the 21st century now, right?!? Tell Hachette you’ll forego an advance on your next book so long as that money gets divided up amongst a few first time or midlist authors. You and all of your best selling brethren could support the early careers of numerous young authors if you chose to wield the leverage and resources you have in the direction you can actually use it, on your own publishers. Advocate for change; better treatment, bigger advances, higher royalties, no egregious non-competes. If you’re not willing to even pay lip service to doing that, then get the hell outta here with your false sentimentality.

If authors are united under the whiny, perspective-lacking, factually detached line of nonsense you’re pushing, then I’m happy to let you all keep that term for your self-important, “prominent” and “outraged” selves. I’m a writer. I work for my living and earn my money any way I can. Nobody, least of all, Amazon, owes me a goddamned thing. If you just want to throw some kind of disingenuous shade of a literary culture argument out there to protect your own position and sizable advances without even taking the time to understand the whole of the industry and the interests of writers not like you, then as far as I’m concerned, you and yours can unite together and go jump off a cliff.

In short, to hell with you. Go away before you do even more damage to the poor writers attracted by your self serving bullshit and misrepresented ideals of what publishing actually is. Let those of us interested in the future and paving new paths to our careers go about it in peace. We don’t need your high-minded horseshit, especially when you don’t even bother to take the time to educate yourself.

As an example of the kind of damage your sad little group is doing, watch Authors Guild President Roxana Robinson in this interview segment. I’m certain you’ve already seen it. Does it make you feel good to see someone in her position, one that could be a strong advocate for authors, made to look like a blabbering fool, spouting occasional lines from your letter in between completely incoherent arguments?

Watch the end very closely, because it encapsulates the flaws of your entire movement. When faced with a clear, concise, logical (and some would say common sense) economic argument, she was left muttering, largely to herself, “I am not a special snowflake!” Even the moderator was laughing at her. Your group, your rhetoric has revealed to Authors Guild members a leader woefully ignorant of business realities. Do you think Guild members feel good about their leadership after watching that? It was painfully embarassing. As is your letter to the Amazon board. Do yourself, and all of us, a favor and just stop talking before you embarrass yourself, and by extension all writers, any further. Have a nice day!

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

A Thought on the Shifting Ideal of Value and Price

I read this piece in the Bookseller today and there were a couple of comments I’d like to address. First, here’s one from everybody’s favorite literary crusader, Doug Preston:

“I think Jeff Bezos is an evangelist as much as he is a businessman. He believes he’s making the world a better place and I think he’s less concerned about making a profit. Now that might sound like a nice thing but if you study history you’ll realize it is the people who believed that they were right, believed it absolutely, who are the ones who do the most damage.”

Can’t disagree with him there. It is very true that people who believe that they’re right even in the face of mounting contradictory evidence, are capable of doing the most harm. All I can say is, as such, Preston himself needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror.

But his relative cluelessness and lack of self-awareness notwithstanding, there’s another quote in the piece that I find far more interesting. It’s from author Germaine Greer:

“Amazon wants to sell e-books at less, so they should. They should cost less because they don’t have to be put together, stitched, printed, designed, blah, blah, blah. If you skip all that and all you have got is a ribbon of text on a Kindle, then it should cost you pennies, frankly.”

Now this is obviously going to set some people on edge. I, for one, am not down with the pennies assessment, but I do agree that the pricing for ebooks should reflect the far lower production costs. As a side note, does anyone else find it kind of ridiculous that many publishers are now openly dismissing production costs as not that big of a deal yet at the same time arguing royalties need to stay low to cover those expensive costs? Which is it? I think it’s pretty obvious that they’d like it to be both, depending on the question they’re answering, and who they’re answering it to. Remember, just a couple of years ago, these same publishers were swearing up one side and down the other that ebooks weren’t cheaper to produce than print, and some even went so far as to suggest they might actually be more expensive. The massive profits publishers are pulling in from ebooks today shut that line of thought right up, exposing it as the lie it always was. Anyway, back to the quote…

Here’s a tweet I found in response to it:

“Ebooks should cost what readers are willing to pay for good writing, editing and design. Many readers value those far more than pennies” — Caleb Woodbridge @calebwoodbridge

Here’s where I have an issue. The word “should” in respect to what readers want to pay is out of place. There is no place for should there. Readers will pay what they want to pay, be it $20 or just the pennies that Greer suggests. There’s no should involved, only what the market will bear. But this got me thinking about the notion of value and how that relates to price. Sure, it would be nice if readers were interested in paying high dollar for concepts and ideas within a story but, and here’s the kicker, they never have. Nobody in the industry had a problem with that, either, up until they lost control of pricing and fell behind the curve on reader expectations.

I’ve found myself comparing newspapers and book publishers a lot lately, mostly because the Amazon/Hachette dispute has exposed more of the underlying strategy of the publishers. It’s a strategy that appears, on its surface, to mirror the strategy that newspapers used to decimate their own business. This is another example of that, I think.

Contrary to what you may have been told, newspaper readers never paid for the content in the paper, they paid for the bundle of services including coupons, circulars, classifieds, etc, etc. The bundle they bought wasn’t even priced to reflect the value of the content. It was done so to maximize the audience to better support the exorbitant ad rates because that, and not selling content to readers, was where most of their revenue came from. But as the value of their bundle declined, the industry decided people should pay for the content. Not only that they should, many believed almost religiously that they would. They were wrong. Some have but most won’t, principally because they were not paying for that content in the first place. Nobody in that industry segment had any problem with it, either, so long as the ad sales kept flowing. Once that dried up, though, their argument switched to one of value and what readers should do.

Books are having the same problem. It’s popular in some circles to claim books aren’t commodities but that’s disingenuous. People have always paid for the container not the content. Pricing for books of similar form have always been eerily consistent based on the form. There was never any kind of premium pricing going on between similar books that I’ve ever seen. In fact, the more popular books were usually subject to more discounting than others. Oddly, ebooks are exhibiting a far greater range of pricing relative to its form than almost any other type of book, yet that’s hardly ever mentioned when folks start discussing the issue of pricing. Funny, that.

Now that the value of those older containers have diminished somewhat, and ebooks have emerged as a potentially very cheap type of container, the discussion is starting to turn to one of the value of the content. Just like newspaper readers never paid for the content but the packaging, book readers have never paid for the content, just the packaging. And that’s leading to suggestions about what readers should do. According to some, they apparently should now pay for something they’ve never paid for in the past. That argument simply doesn’t fly and, unless you’re interested in watching book publishers piss away their business like newspaper publishers did, it’s not one anybody should be interested in pursuing.

The difference here is that should absolutely applies to people producing and selling books. People buying them, however, are under no such requirement, nor will they ever be. The pricing structure for newspapers was to sell to a mass audience to support ad rates. Pricing in books was to sell mass numbers of similarly commoditized books in total to stores and other retailers. There was never any point that the value of the content inside was the principle driver of the price, except to the people buying them. Even then, that value has been established by the practice of commoditizing book prices based on their form. As newspapers learned the hard way, you can’t just shift gears and expect people to pay for something they’ve never paid for when it’s convenient for you to do so. There is no such word as should when dealing with the choices readers will make for themselves.

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

A Hazy Future Can Make For Strange Bedfellows

Let me start by saying I like Mike Shatzkin. I see his work as a view from the other side. He’s very much entrenched in the traditional worldview but, unlike some, that doesn’t mean his thoughts are ignorant and should be discounted. Certainly, he falls into some of the same traps of assumption and false narratives that others do, but who involved in following any of this and voicing opinions on it doesn’t occasionally, in some form or another, including myself. I find Shatzkin to be a fairly vocal critic of publishers. Certainly, his point of view can sometimes be very Inside Baseball, as it were, but there’s value in seeing and understanding that point of view. Everyone on all sides have reasons for what they believe, and I’ve always thought the underlying reasons for those beliefs are more important than the beliefs themselves. That’s why I tend to be far more harsh on people voicing opinions based on faith rather than fact, assumption over analytics. You can’t argue with someone who has no sound basis for what they believe. Logic doesn’t work on people whose beliefs are formed without it.

Anyway, here’s an article by Shatzkin from back in May where I think he asks four very pointed and cogent questions, not only about the future of publishing, but what the nature of that future will be. I’ll first state the question he presented, then a short quote from Shatzkin on each point before expounding in my own rambling way…

1. How persistent an activity is immersive long-form reading?

“As my generation is replaced with digital natives, a decline in the market for novels would seem to be a very likely consequence. Or, at least, novels as we know them now.”

I agree to a point. The novel, perhaps more than other types of writing, fit the form of the printed book extremely well. But if it was the pinnacle of the form for fiction, digital “books” open up new channels of possibility with the potential for new forms to emerge. I am confident the novel in its traditional form has legs, be it digital or print. But I’m not as convinced it will remain the dominant form for fiction in the long run. What it will be ursurped by, now that’s a question I’m not sure any of us can answer at this point.

2. How persistent is the demand for printed books for long-form reading?

“My hunch is that ebooks will continue to take share from print for long-form reading, in fits and starts, but inexorably.”

I’m not going to call it a hunch, I’m absolutely certain digital will take share from print over time. I think hardcovers will transition into a boutique market, likely a larger one than what has developed for vinyl albums, but a much smaller niche than it maintains today. I think trade paperbacks have a niche of their own, largely because of the efficiencies and portability of POD technology. This niche will be larger than the hardcover one, cheaper and less ornamental but, however limiting it may be, paper is a great form for static work. And I suspect the conceit of books used basically as furniture and/or expressions of your personality may hold on longer than widespread numbers of people actually reading on paper. At the end of the day, though, I think digital is going to account for 85-90% of the industry’s sales in the not too distant future.

I have one caveat to this, it’s dependent on attracting younger readers and that’s dependent on being available when, where and for how much they want. The only way I can see print maintaining anything close to even 50/50 market share is if we all fail to bring in younger readers, print sustains through the older audience and the industry as a whole contracts greatly as that audience dies off (see: newspapers). But for this to happen, it would constitute an epic failure of the big houses as well as the smaller ones, the indies and retailers both large and small. Possible buy not likely.

3. How well do informational illustrated books compete with alternatives?

“My candidate for a Black Swan here is some industrial-strength attempt to curate the vast amount of video and other Internet-based content into ‘packaged’ competition for books that teach skills.”

I can’t say as I disagree with this either. I think it’s only natural that the vast amount of information available at our fingertips will be packaged in such a way as to maximize it’s use and, ultimately, revolutionize the way we approach education. Anybody looking at the mind blowing costs of college these days can’t help but think of it as an area in dire need of revolution. This will not be good for publishers of textbooks, however, who control a vast, extremely lucrative, captive market of students. But as time goes on, it will become more and more apparent that they no longer control any kind of monopoly on information. What’s available to all of us instantly will end up as the death knell of their exploitative business model. Couldn’t happen to more deserving group, either, in my opinion.

Some forms of book haven’t yet translated in any kind of peak form to digital alternatives. But it’s only a matter of time before they all do. The technology isn’t just going to stop progressing at today’s level. It will keep getting better and better.

4. How much of the creation and selling of books spreads beyond the book business?

“I’m sure that in less than five years every multi-million dollar marketing plan will have an ebook component: sometimes free, sometimes freemium, sometimes paid. Over time the businesses that do this work will learn, probably faster than many book publishers, how to use the online discovery mechanisms to drive the attention of relevant consumers.”

Why this isn’t happening more already is a bit of a surprise to me. Despite what publishers may tell you, it’s not that expensive to bring a book to market. Much of their expense comes from the model they developed to do so in the conditions that it developed. Things have changed, barriers for entry are little piles of rubble in most places now. Individual people can and do access this market regularly and to good success. If you’re a company of any size or bankroll, the cost of diving into this type of product is miniscule.

But more than just using them as a marketing add on, I can see all sorts of businesses using digital writings to supplement their brands. You see a business like Chipotle already experimenting with things like short stories on cups and their own miniseries television show released directly to Hulu. Producing entertainment or informational media and distributing that to an audience is no longer the sole purview of media companies. Everyone can be a publisher now and over time, everyone will.

So there’s Shatzkin, a person whose opinions I often disagree with yet I find I’m in near total agreement (to some extent) on these four questions, all of which forward-looking beyond the present day conditions of the publishing industry and it’s nascent battles with Amazon and the digital revolution. Just because someone seems to be on the other side of the fence today doesn’t mean they’ll always be there. Look at the underlying reasoning for why people believe what they do and you may find more commonalities than you expect.

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

Published in: on August 28, 2014 at 2:51 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Revisiting Paywalls Revisited

(Note: this is an unfinished piece from April of 2012 that’s been sitting as a draft in my WordPress que of posts since then. I never did get around to answering the question I asked at the end, but it increasingly looks like there’s no real reason to. The answer seems even more clear now than it did then, so much so, that the question itself even seems rhetorical now…)

Earlier this week, I received a message from a friend of mine asking if I’d heard about the latest round of layoffs at our local newspaper.  Since I moved from Cecil County to Chestertown nearly two years ago now (wow, time flies) I’ve found that I’ve lost interest in the comings and goings in that particular neck of the woods.

The state of printed media in my hometown was a popular topic of discussion on this site for the first couple of years, primarily because it was close at hand, their struggles echoed the newspaper industry at large in a lot of ways, and I still had connections with many folks in and out of the company. As I mentioned in the past, I worked there myself on two separate occasions in various capacities.  Before I received that message the other day, however, I hadn’t experienced a stray thought in their direction for months. 

Professionally speaking, I’ve moved on from any hope of getting back into the newsprint business.  It’s not just the derth of jobs (layoffs, buyouts, downsizing still abounds industry-wide as the revenue sinkhole just keeps getting deeper year after year) it’s that I simply don’t see a future in that area as it presently exists and I have yet to find a digital alternative that looks truly sustainable. Better to look in other directions, I figured.

Ebooks have been my focus for the past year, and, to this point, I see all the possibilities for revenue generation and sustainability within that area that are lacking in the digital-alternative newspaper segment. I’ve been writing, publishing, experimenting, expanding my skills and, most encouraging of all, actually selling my work at a level I’m not scoffing at (nor are the folks whose bills I’m paying with that money)*.  The gist of it is that, to my way of thinking, the struggles of newspapers are yesterday’s problems, ones that I’ve left, rather properly, in the past.  They had ample opportunity to innovate and adapt but didn’t, and the slow crawl to oblivion may be irreversible at this point. 

(* Note: Since then, I’ve since rethought my approach to ebooks and digital publishing. I did bring in a decent chunk of change at the time but I grew dissatisfied with my own efforts, so I’ve been cranking out new material, reworking old material and developing a different, much more expansive approach to this that I’ll be kicking off likely early next year, if not sooner. Try doing that when you’re locked into a publishing contract.)

So, when I read this message about further layoffs, it was a bit like hearing that an old girlfriend you were serious about a decade ago just got married. You hadn’t thought about her in years, she played no part in your day to day life for as long as you could remember, and news that would have seemed enormously important not that long ago ends up met with a shrug. It’s not that it doesn’t sadden me a bit to see the continued decline of my hometown newspaper, it does. But at this point, there’s really nothing that can be done about it. The point of no return for many newspapers passed by a while ago.

In today’s atmosphere, resources have eroded to such a level that genuine full-scale innovation really isn’t possible any longer. If it had been undertaken 3 or 4 years ago, it might have made a difference. Even scrapping the enterprise and starting over isn’t really feasible at this point simply because so many skilled people have been let go, particularly on the content side. You can’t really launch a new direction in an increasingly content-driven market when saddled with a money losing print albatross and a sparse skelton crew of leftovers. It saddens me to see it but, again, all of this at least could have been avoided with a bit of vision and foresight a few years ago when it mattered. But you can’t cry over spilt milk now that the carton’s down to the last few dregs of backwash.

All of which got me thinking about the last stand of newspapers, the paywall. Much like those famed 300 Spartans fending off the Persians, paywalls may hold off the onslaught for a short time, but in the end, the Spartans all ended up dead. For the Greeks, however, that stand provided the necessary time to execute a larger strategy that ultimately stopped a Persian takeover. Do newspapers even have a larger strategy to survive beyond simply fending off immediate annihilation? Or are paywalls their final stand?

Update

So, here we are two and a half years later, and I think this question answers itself. There was obviously no deeper plan going on at most papers, and the renewed push for paywalls then did little if anything to stem the hemmoraging of revenue. Here’s a piece by Clay Shirky essentially penning the obituary on the print newspaper business. As you can see, not only did this strategy not work to stifle print declines, it may well have instigated digital ad declines for them as well. They killed their future trying to protect a past that, at best, was on life support.

As for the company I mentioned, there have been more layoffs since these and the company was eventually sold to a venture capitalist known for slice and dice acquisitions. Doomed isn’t a strong enough word for their prospects at this point. Book publishers and their writers should take note of this. Following a print protectionist strategy did great harm to their emerging digital business. Ask questions, loudly and in no uncertain terms, anytime someone from the industry tries to tell you that restricting digital to protect print is a sound idea and in your best interest. It didn’t work here and I don’t hesitate to say it won’t work there, either.

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

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