Choices

image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Protect Readers’ Rights by Unlocking Ebooks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop Stealing From Your Customers! Eroding non-creator copyright protections hurts us all

The past week, I’ve been caught up in philosophical meanderings related to the digital goods business and the notion of copyright law. I’ve read quite a bit here and there around the web on the subject and I see more than a few disturbing things.

1. Most people, including creators, don’t really understand copyright

I am continually bothered by the number of writers, musicians, etc who seem to believe copyright gives them some sort of all powerful right to totally control what happens with their work, even after it’s been sold and is out in the world. Copyright doesn’t do that. It grants you a limited monopoly right to use your work commercially, nothing more. One of the primary reasons there is so much consternation about copyright is that those limitations are slowly being eroded away. Life plus 70 years is a flat-out joke that totally spits in the face of what copyright is all about. Think about this for a second and tell me that copyright’s ends of protecting the public interest even still exist: Not one single American creative work entered the public domain statutorially this year. None. Nada. Zero.

Things like the upcoming Kirtsaeng decision in the Supreme Court, depending on how they rule, and the intricate licensing schemes pioneered by the software industry and dove into whole hog by the media industry purposely erode first sale rights, giving creators control of secondary markets (or the ability to prevent them altogether). That also undermines the idea of limited protections. The newspaper industry fighting against Google News and aggregation is an all-out assault on fair use, yet another attempt to wipe away or severely lessen copyright law’s limitations.

I can’t totally blame creators who behave as though they have some kind of all encompassing powers under copyright, media companies have been working very hard behind the scenes to make it that way for their own benefit. But those limitations exist for a reason. Take them away, and the entire purpose of copyright gets perverted away from a protection that gives creators a fair chance at exclusivity for a while to try and make a buck and allows the public to benefit from these works in a way that promotes future progress. Without those limits, the very progress copyright law is supposed to promote gets stunted.

Copyright law grants you the opportunity to make money, it doesn’t guarantee it, and the value to society on the whole is supposed to be balanced against creator’s interests, protected from the very exploitation the erosion of those limits is actively causing.

2. Very few on the creator side seem to give a damn about consumer rights

This, to me, is the most disturbing trend I see emerging, especially when it comes from Indie authors. You can’t talk out of one side of your mouth about appealing better to readers, then ignore or argue against the idea that readers also possess protections under copyright law that we’re actively taking away through the licensing scheme ebooks are sold under. The digital goods market is built upon a foundation of taking away consumer rights. What’s worse, is that we also have creators out there throwing around loaded terms like piracy and stealing that aren’t accurate. Many times, they’re used to demonize people bahaving in ways they always have with regards to sharing material. Every man, woman and child in this country commits an infringing act on par with downloading a torrent file every single day. Probably several. We just don’t see it and most probably don’t even realize we’re doing it. The internet has brought part of that behavior out into the light of day. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t happening on a major scale before the internet. It absolutely was. It didn’t destroy these industries, in fact, I believe it made them considerably stronger. File sharing won’t destroy these industries today, either. What will, however, is if we continue on a path that makes copyright effectively infinite, steals rights from consumers at every opportunity, and tries to force unprecedented controls onto people for works they’ve already bought. It also doesn’t help if creators act like entitled assholes, throwing accusations of theft around while totally ignoring the fact that their entire business model is based on gutting consumer rights. Take a deep breath, go read up on the history of copyright and try to grow a little perspective.

And remember, the perversions of copyright are being driven by giant media conglomerates for their own ends. They don’t care about your rights as a creator any more than they do the rights of consumers. Don’t confuse your interests with theirs. When they’re done wiping out consumer rights, they’re very likely to turn to undermining yours, if they haven’t already. And don’t expect what fans you have left to sympathize when that happens.

3. Everyone seems to believe digital goods are infinite despite the obvious reality that they’re not

I still don’t understand how otherwise intelligent people buy into this heaping load of bullshit. A big part of the argument justifying swiping consumer rights is that digital goods are infinitely perfect. Come on! Do you really believe that we’ll be reading these same epub or mobi files on these same devices five years from now? Or ten? Technological progress is just going to come to a grinding halt, is it? We’re not going to have better, more capable devices in the future with improved or even radically different formats for these works?

If consumers don’t have any ownership rights in these products, what’s to stop an entire generation of culture from being essentially erased on the whim of corporate interests the next time a shift in standards or new technology comes along? One of the key arguments I’ve seen against second hand goods is the idea that no one will ever buy new if the used versions are identical. To begin with, nothing gets sold second hand without it being bought first hand. And don’t give me the line about people wholesale copying the same file and selling it over and over again. That’s a tech problem no one has bothered to solve because the entire industry was built upon the notion that readers were never going to have these rights. More importantly, when we do have a media shift of sorts, these current files will no longer be identical or the best thing going. If we have resale rights, I could be buying today’s epub files cheaply used or choose to buy the newest holographic version that hits the market in 2025. The long tail may be somewhat infinite, but that doesn’t mean the specific containers we’re using today are. I’m not a big fan of the notion that corporate interests can remove a giant swath of our creative culture just by switching standards or technology. Show me where in copyright law that kind of thing is allowed. It runs directly counter to its stated intent of benefitting the culture.

My perusings through this issue, mostly because Amazon filed a patent they may never even use, have been pretty eye-opening. As much as I love ebooks, and the new digital frontier, there’s always been this nagging little voice in the back of my head and I finally figured out what it’s saying: “Hypocrite!” Despite the fact that I frequently argued against increasingly controlling software licenses during my years in the industry, I never really connected the fact that, when I sell an ebook to a reader, I’m engaging in the same activity that I felt was so exploitative from the other side. I’m starting to get a picture of the weaknesses in selling digital goods, and most all of them stem from the erosion of limits in copyright law. Economic karma, perhaps. It may seem odd that I, as a writer who earns money because of copyright, would argue against more power granted to me as a creator, but I take the long view. It’s simply bad business to rip off the people paying us, and that’s what we’ve been doing from day one. By advocating for or even turning a blind eye to the giant theft of customers’ rights we’ve all taken part in, we’ve created a system that is already doing damage to our culture. Copyright doesn’t just protect creators, it protects consumers and society on the whole in a fine balancing act. What it shouldn’t be doing is warping that balance in support of business models that wouldn’t function without the self serving perversions.

Say what you like about copyright, but its value is much more than simply protecting my rights as a creator. Our system has lurched away from any semblance of balance, and it’s getting more slanted every day.

Over the past few years, I’ve read many articles from creators containing a plea for people to “stop stealing” from artists through downloading. I’d like to end this by throwing that plea back at creators.

Stop stealing from your customers!

Here are the links to the other copyright related pieces I’ve written lately, for you reading pleasure.

The Benefits of Globalization Don’t Apply to the Little People

Second Hand Blues: First Sale Rights and Used eBooks

Amazon and the Mystery of the Great Used eBooks

Amazon and The Mystery of the Great Used eBooks

I am finding the notion of first sale rights and used ebooks pretty fascinating these days. I wrote a bit yesterday about how I suspect that taking away first sale rights from consumers has damaged the book business. Today, I read this piece by Marcus Wohlsen for Wired, completely wrapped in consternation over Amazon’s patent filing for a digital goods resale scheme. There’s a few points in the article I’d like to discuss. I’m not a lawyer, so these are simply my opinions on how copyright law, particularly first sale, might affect Amazon’s actions with regards to used digital stuff.

“Digital content is infinitely reproducible. No technological limit exists to how many times a single digital original can be copied and resold.”

No technological limit exists because nobody’s bothered to implement an effective one. And maybe I’m wrong, but isn’t all that fancy DRM we’ve had shoved down our throats a technological limitation to copying? Pretty sure that exists. It may not work very well, or might be crazy-easy to circumvent, but it exists. The entire ebook market has grown under the assumption that consumers had no right of resale, therefore no screaming need to invent one. But look, ReDigi is getting sued for its used digital business and they have a method to limit copying. Amazon’s patent here is another. If second hand digital goods becomes a reality, you can bet there’ll be numerous technical methods to deal with this post haste.

As for copying infinitely for resale, that doesn’t even apply in this case. What Amazon’s talking about here seems to be totally in-house. They already know who bought what and how many times. They’re suggesting a scheme to resell the licenses not so much the actual ebooks. There’s no way somebody copying an ebook bought from Amazon is going to be selling it over and over again without Amazon being willfully complicit. They have zero motivation to engage in something so risky and outright stupid. There is no chance anyone will be selling multiple copies of the same ebook in the system Amazon’s trying to patent.

“Just as with physical books, publishers would only have a say — or get a cut — the first time a customer buys a copy of an e-book. The second, third and fourth sales of that “same” e-book would be purely under Amazon’s control.”

That would totally depend on how this was executed. If a first sale use is exerted to allow the resale, then it’s actually the customer who has control of the resale. Amazon would, theoretically, either expedite a sale between two customers and take a small cut, or create a system where they buy the ebooks from the customers, then they would gain those resale rights. The alternative is if the resale was a product of a licensing agreement with the publisher, in which case, no first sale rights were exerted and Amazon would have as much control as the licensing agreement allows and no more. Publishers would have to be nigh-on-braindead to license resale rights to Amazon, though. They’d be better off just releasing first sale rights to everybody altogether and letting the chips fall where they may than giving Amazon more power to lock customers into their world. In fact, I think they’d be better off doing that than what they’re doing now, even if they maintain the good sense not to license away the second hand market.

Wohlsen then quotes Bill Rosenblatt, who he describes as “a consultant and expert witness in digital content patent cases”:

“If Amazon is allowed to get away with doing resale transactions without compensating publishers, then what they can do is say, ‘hey authors, sign with us and we’ll give you a piece of the resale.’”

If Amazon is allowed to resell without compensating publishers, then that means buyers would have regained first sale rights. That would mean Amazon, or anybody else for that matter, wouldn’t be able to control the resale of these goods. You can’t just say “Kindle owners have first sale rights but Nook owners don’t.” Amazon could certainly cut writers in on the resale of their books on their site, but in this hypothetical, they’d be far from the only place selling second hand digital goods. As a,writer, if would definitely be something I’d listen to, though.

There is no circumstance where Amazon totally controls the resale market and doesn’t pay publishers. Either they license the content for resale, in which case publishers get paid, or they invoke first sale, publishers don’t get paid, but the real control and resale rights would belong to consumers. (Unless, of course, a court somewhere warps copyright law to create such a circumstance. Not exactly an unheard of occurrence.) Amazon might build a nice little business with used ebooks, but it would largely have to do so by offering buyers enough incentive to exert their first sale rights with Amazon. Hardly a dominating position.

“Buried in the patent is language spelling out that the technology Amazon intends to use will have the ability to limit the number of times a digital good could be resold or loaned out. Amazon could use that constraint to strike bargains with publishers and authors to cut them in on used digital sales, which doesn’t happen with used physical media.”

And would only happen here if it were a product of a licensing deal. If they invoke first sale, Amazon couldn’t uninvoke it later. They wouldn’t have the right to put any limits on resale. They could buy the license, then willingly retire it, but they couldn’t prohibit a buyer from selling it. If it were licensed for resale, however, Amazon could do just that, per terms of the licensing agreement. But again, publishers…resale licensing with Amazon…braindead stupid.

I do believe we need to return first sale rights of digital goods to consumers. I believe there will be a technological means developed that is simple enough to make this happen without unduly encouraging piracy. Even so, no matter what you do, somebody somewhere is gonna rip you off. Publishers are just gonna have to accept that reality. Taking away first sale rights devalues the product in a very real monetary sense to the buyer. That is simply bad business.

What Amazon’s patenting here sounds to me like an attempt to strengthen its walled garden. I’m not sure this method would hold up or work in an atmosphere where first sale rights are truly implemented by consumers. So it seems as though licensing resale from publishers is the point of this. But what publisher in their right mind would give Amazon this ability? On second thought, don’t answer that. Like with most things, some idiot(s) will.

Second Hand Blues: First Sale Rights and Used eBooks

That sound you just heard was the collective heads of everyone in the traditional mass media industry exploding as news of Amazon filing a patent for a process to resell digital goods spread. Many of them are having enough trouble keeping their heads above water in the current digital marketplace as it is. Now, suddenly, they might have to deal with competition from an area they thought was locked down, resale rights of customers. Oh shit.

Personally, I’m all for this development, although I would much rather someone other than Amazon be the one to push this possibly emerging market. However, the fact that they’re taking steps to be prepared for it again shows why they have essentially made fools of the traditional industry. They think ahead, they pay attention, they prepare and, most of all, their business model adds value for their customers instead of taking it away.

I’ve long been a proponent of an aftermarket for digital goods. I believe it’s lack is the one key flaw in the ebook market. In fact, I’ve started to develop a little theory about this. Far from being just simply a loss of value for consumers, I’m starting to get behind the notion that the lack of an aftermarket is a primary cause of three of the most troublesome issues with ebooks and other digital media; piracy, discoverability and the downward pressure on prices.

1. Piracy

I usually take issue with even defining the activity of file sharing, even obviously infringing file sharing, as piracy. I just don’t think it is. I also think it clouds the issue by broadening the scope of conduct corporations would like to monetize into a individual crime, which hurts efforts to combat actual, destructive commercial-scale piracy. But for the sake of brevity, I’m just going to use the term piracy here. It’s easier to type than “possibly infringing and much maligned but potentially fair use protected file sharing,” which would be a far more accurate description of the conduct to which the industry objects.

The biggest joke of all from the anti-piracy brigade is the assumption that every download is a full price lost sale, complete with lost royalties for the creator. That’s obviously a skyscraper-high pile of horseshit I’m not going to waste time refuting. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it’s somewhat true, who’s to say that lost sale would have even been one that affected the industry or artists at all? It’s easy to suggest that someone downloading an ebook wasn’t going to buy it anyway. But what if they were going to buy it, only a cheaper second hand version? Even if it was a lost sale, it wasn’t one that would have earned the industry a dime anyway. Or any royalties for the artists. Amazon routinely lists used alternatives to new versions right on the product page, always significantly cheaper. Is it really a stretch to think that people who choose downloading for free over buying full price wouldn’t also choose to buy cheaper used than new? Even if every download were a lost sale, if those sales were going to be of the cheaper, used variety, the industry and artists lose nothing. And it’s perfectly legal under the first sale part of copyright.

Ebooks circumvent first sale by being sold as a license for use. When that happens, customers lose the ability to resell those goods (among other things). It’s why I can’t just sell the ebook I bought last week from Amazon to somebody else on eBay. But the book publishing industry has long existed side by side with its used counterpart. There has always been a place to buy books at a significantly discounted price. When eBooks took off, however, there was a vacuum left where that discounted market used to be. Isn’t it possible that piracy grew to fill this very gap that the loss of first sale left in the digitized side of the market? We went from a system where you could get books full price new, heavily discounted used, or free from libraries to a system where it was full price new, extremely limited and inconvenient from libraries or free through piracy. The industry, through the means it chose to sell ebooks, removed the discounted option completely, hamstrung the legal free option and then loudly wondered why people pirated.

I think a lot about rights, I am a writer, after all, and I spend a fair amount of time complaining about rights grabs from publishers. But it just dawned on me that I’ve essentially missed the biggest rights grab of all. The way ebooks are sold protects publishers under copyright law, protects authors under copyright law (although I would argue in too ancillary of a way through publishers but that’s for another day) and takes away almost all the rights of consumers under copyright law. It is pretty egregious when you look at it. The first theft was committed when publishers agreed to the licensing scheme and took away customer rights. Then they turned right around, started pointing fingers and yelling, “Thief!”

Removing first sale rights created a vacuum in the ebook market and piracy was what grew in its place. Nature does, indeed, abhor a vacuum.

2. Discoverability

Here’s another thought that’s been kicking around in my head: what if, instead of causing the drop in sales, piracy actually prevented that drop from being significantly worse? Think about it. When digital music hit the scene, that industry panicked, fought the rudimentary early age file sharing spots like Napster and Limewire tooth and nail, right down to suing their own damn customers. At that point, broadband was slower, not nearly as widespread, and most people didn’t know how or have the capacity to download sometimes large music files. As first sale rights fell away, the secondary markets thinned, discovery was hampered and sales dropped precipitously. When ebooks hit publishing, there were well-established file sharing networks in place, broadband was much faster and more ubiquitous. The discovery hit from loss of first sale was mitigated somewhat by piracy and the drop in sales was much lower. Book publishing, quite possibly, was somewhat protected from itself by the very pirates it so loves to demonize.

Look at it this way, when I buy a print book, I can go sell it to someone else. They in turn, can sell it again, the next owner can sell it, then that owner could donate it to the library where it can be checked out over and over again. That one book could pass through numerous hands, all legal and all based on one sale, the first sale, from which publishers and creators reap their proceeds. The rest of that book’s lifespan constitutes exposure, or discovery, if you prefer. Now, if I buy an ebook, other than a limited ability to share with a few people under specific conditions, the life span of that ebook essentially dies immediately after the first sale. All of that exposure and discovery that was present with print books sold with first sale rights is washed away. And again, the industry is perplexed about why people aren’t finding new books as easily as in the past. That kind of thing happens when you destroy the primary mechanisms of discovery by swiping rights from customers.

I’ve seen numerous polls that suggest bookstores are the number one place for discovery of new works but I’ve never seen one differentiate between what kind of bookstores they’re talking about. Is it more likely you’ll try out new authors in Barnes & Noble where you’re paying $10-25 or so on average per book, or in a used bookstore where hardcovers are $2 and paperbacks can be had for 50 cents? I suspect discovery has been done far more at bookstores selling heavily discounted used books (and libraries, where it’s free) than at stores selling only higher priced new books.

Everybody seems to be wondering why online book discovery is struggling so much. Could it be because publishers have hamstrung libraries and blocked the development of discounted used ebook stores by eliminating consumer rights to resale, places where discovery is far more likely to happen than full price, brand new alternatives? Nah, couldn’t be that, must be the pirates, you know, the only place actually emulating the primary means where book discovery was done in the past.

3. Downward Price Pressure

Taking away first sale rights from consumers does one other key thing, it takes away the customer’s ownership stake in the product. If you can resell something, that has value, and when you buy a print book, it retains that value because of first sale rights. But with ebooks, the monetary value drops to zero immediately after you pay for it. Don’t think for a second people don’t understand this basic fact. The loss of an ownership stake, and the instant elimination of any monetary value necessarily degrades a product in the customer’s eyes. By swiping first sale rights, publishers have devalued their own products. It’s the reason why so many people complain so loudly about ebooks priced anywhere near what print versions cost. We’re not stupid out here, we know damn well you’re selling us a product that doesn’t have anywhere near the tangible value of a print book, and that has nothing at all to do with the quality of the book. I can’t sell it and its uses are limited. I possess significantly fewer rights with ebooks. Consequently, it makes no sense to pay print prices for way-less-than-print value.

Then, there’s this. With the aftermarket for ebooks nonexistent, wiping out a highly discounted layer of sales, it created a huge gap between the prices of trad pubbed ebooks and indie books. That, in turn, created a situation where indie books could be priced much cheaper and attract significant sales through super-low prices alone. That, then, set off a race to the bottom fight for those sales, culminating in 99 cent novels, and generally increasing the downward pressure put on all ebook prices. But consider, if there were a used layer there where trad pubbed ebooks could have been picked up for $2-3 or so, the massive gap in prices between indie and trad books never would have happened, the severe price advantage wouldn’t have sparked the uptick in sales that set off the race to the bottom. Indie authors would have been forced to compete on factors beyond simply super-low prices, and the downward pressure they’re experiencing now declines appreciably. Also, if those same customers now bitching about $15 ebooks knew that could get a few bucks back on them through resale, they wouldn’t be so likely to complain about price. They’d retain their ownership stake, and very likely, not balk at paying a few dollars more. There’s two key elements right there driving prices down that go away if customers hadn’t had their first sale rights taken from them.

First sale rights are hugely important. I’m of the mind that swiping them from consumers as ebooks have is responsible for most of the biggest problems in a growing industry segment. An aftermarket isn’t something to be afraid of, it aids discovery, maintains value in the product chain and gives your customers not just a right to resell, but an actual ownership stake in the product, albeit a small one, relatively. It now becomes in their best interest to maintain the value of ebooks because they have some skin in the game. Take them away, and it seriously damages discoverability, drives prices down as the reality of lost value sinks in, and it drives possible customers to alternatives like piracy.

Whatever the technical difficulties in creating a digital goods aftermarket, or giving consumers back the first sale rights that have been swiped by the ebook licensing scheme, the consequences will be far less severe than continuing to treat customers as naive dullards who don’t mind being gouged by higher prices for a lesser product. There’s a good reason first sale exists as part of copyright law, free markets don’t work when one party has too much control over economic activity. If we don’t change course soon, the ebook market will find out exactly how dysfunctional things can get when the playing field gets unfairly slanted. Customers have rights, too, and it’s high time publishing remembers that.

Bookish: New publisher-backed retail site is game-chan…eh, whatever

I was checking out Bookish today, the new Big Six backed trojan horse, supposed to look like some kinda Goodreads/retail store hybrid thing but really is a not-so-subtle attempt to build their own little walled garden only sans the hardware. Yeah, I’m not a fan, what can I say?

Actually, I don’t really see too much to get worked up about anyway. There’s nothing really new here, and it’s pretty clearly an attempt to regain gatekeeper control by imitating various popular book-related internet properties they could have innovated a decade or so ago if they’d have pulled their collective heads from their assess even temporarily. Late to the party doesn’t usually fly. That and this is traditional publishing trying to be forward-thinking, after all. So forward that the debut was about two years after it was supposed to be. I’m not encouraged by the vision or support behind this if things don’t go instantly great and end up even the slightest bit challenging.

The DRM insistance sucks but not at all unexpected. We’re still quite a ways from the biggest of publishers’ conglomerate masters getting the memo that they’re cutting their own throats with it. The part of the terms of service saying they own all rights to any user generated content is troubling, but again, publishers are behind this. Never met a right they didn’t try to grab. There appears to be a pretty stark “no refunds” policy on ebooks, too, enforceable after download, which, I guess, means store-credit-only if something’s messed up? Of course, shit-out-of-luck is a distinct customer service possibility here, too. Wouldn’t surprise me. By comparison, Amazon gives you seven days to “return” an ebook for a no-questions-asked refund. Not exactly a compelling reason to buy through Bookish rather than Amazon.

I would typically link to their site here, but apparently I would be violating their terms of use if I did so, it containing a provision allowing them to block your link if you disparage them. Lord knows I wouldn’t want to run afoul of their terms. So, good job, guys! Here’s at least one less link to you in the world.

At the end of the day, Bookish to me loses points precisely for what it’s trying to do, be a limiting factor in book shopping, and serve in a gatekeeper type capacity. It’s not so much what’s seen or recommended on their site, it’s what’s excluded that’s the problem. It’s allowing material in from sources which meet some sort of standard of approval, apparently dependent entirely on the publisher. It’ll be interesting to see if this ends up with the big boys getting all the prime, algorithm-tweaking real estate. There doesn’t really seem to be much in the way of involvement for authors, either. But, I’m willing to give most things the benefit of the doubt, so I clicked on the “I’m an author” link in their FAQ. Here’s what I got:

How can I have my book(s) added to Bookish?

Authors should ask their publishers to confirm that their respective titles are in the data feeds provided to Bookish.

That’s it? I’m an author. I’m interested in becoming involved with this innovative new method of doing the same thing other people are doing just more self-servingly and the only acknowledgement or words of advice you have for me is “go ask your publisher”? Is it me, or is the tone of their suggestion reminiscient of when you were a kid and annoyed your mother with some question she didn’t care about to the point she’d say, “go ask your father?” Seems a bit dismissive and condescending. I also find myself wondering at what point the lawyers took out the “If you’re a self-published author, go fuck yourself!” line that I’m pretty sure was in the first draft.

It’s not a bad thing for publishers to try to get some sort of more direct retail channel. But they can’t even get all the big players to back it. Hell, Apple talked them all into breaking antitrust law together, but something that could actually be a practical benefit to the industry if done right? No way! This should have been done years ago. Now, it’s just chasing, piggy-backing on other people’s hardware, yet still trying to build that mystical walled garden through DRM. Authors are pretty obviously an afterthought, and they certainly aren’t treated as any kind of business equals, more like underlings to their publisher masters. I’ll withhold judgement on whether this is useful to readers until we actually hear from some, but I’m not optimistic given what I see so far. If I had to guess, Bookish will err too far toward crass commercialism over genuinely social interactions with readers. Basically, I’m seeing a site that’s talking at readers, not with them, and that’s going to be its biggest problem.

Data Overload: Reader behavior data lacking in crucial context

I just read this piece on NPR about whether the data collected on reader behavior from ereaders is useful to writers. My gut reaction is, “nope,” but upon further reflection, I can see some circumstances under which some data along those lines could be of use. It’s not a simple, black or white question, however. It all depends on who has the data, and who’s using it and how they overcome the problem of lacking proper context.

I can easily envision a circumstance where a publisher says to a writer, “Our ereader data suggests 63% of your readers were more engaged in the portions of your last book where the hero fought werewolves. We’d like your next book to include more werewolves.” That’s not appreciably different than it is now, only with more data that appears to reinforce their beliefs. Publishing has always been an industry that, when success strikes, beats every ounce of that success into the ground. Fifty shades of erotic romance, anyone? If werewolves are showing signs of being the hot new thing, bring on the werewolves!

But is that interpretation of the data correct? Were those readers more engaged because of the werewolves or because it was a high-tension, exciting sequence that just happened to involve werewolves? That’s a pretty important distinction. The problem is, we can’t say without more data to properly explain this data.

Here’s a point made by author Scott Turow that raises a similar concern in mind:

“I would love to know if 35 percent of my readers were quitting after the first two chapters because that frankly strikes me as, sometimes, a problem I could fix.”

Possibly. But what if that 35% is industry-standard for readers dropping books after the first few chapters? How do we know? I know my reading habits often have me starting books, putting them down for other books, sometimes coming back later, sometimes not. There’s no rhyme or reason related to quality for it, either. Some of my favorite books were started three or four times before I finally followed through. And I’ve read some total tripe cover to cover.

We need a whole lot more information before making any creative decisions based on this. What if we come to discover that 35% is actually better than average? What if 40-45% turns out to be the figure? Would Turow no longer have a problem to fix? He’d still have a third of his readers not getting past chapter two, but he’d also be outperforming the industry. What if we discover this having similarities to baseball, where failing 7 times out of 10 makes you an All Star? We are lacking the frame of reference to make useful decisions based on this data. Finding answers from data lacking adequate context is like reading tea leaves or interpeting ancient religious texts; anybody can do it and find a justification to point to as evidence, even if another person can credibly interpret the proofs you site the exact opposite way.

Turow also said this:

“Would I love to hitch the equivalent of a polygraph to my readers and know how they are responding word by word? That would be quite interesting.”

Frightening might be another word for it. Hell, I sense a dystopian novel where corporations have hitched everyone to a giant monitoring device to record their every impulse and give them back only products that serve their immediate desires, sort of a permanent cultural feedback loop. I don’t see how that much data is even useful. Writers, generally speaking, have varying degrees of OCD. I can easily see the hypochondriac impulse taking over, and some writers getting obsessively lost trying to make sense of this mass of often conflicting information.

He does make a cogent point here, from a publisher’s point of view:

“Why should we publish this book if 11 readers out of 12 can’t make it past page 36?”

It’s hard to argue that. Publishers need to make money to survive. So do writers but on a different scale. If data suggests a book isn’t attracting an audience sizable enough to support publisher overhead, then why should they publish? From the other side, if a book is not showing scale that befits a relationship with a publisher, maybe that’s a way for writers to help determine if a work is better served as an independent release. After all, the term “hybrid authors” is all the rage these days. You have to choose your publishing approach somehow.

But again, this only works if the data means what we think it means. Besides, there’s also the paradox of the fact that the book has to be released in order to collect reader data on it. So, at best, unless we’re talking about turning books into software and releasing beta versions we fix after getting customer feedback, this ereader data is only really useful in a predictive sense for future work. Which means that all we’ve done is pile a lot more data into a decision we’re already making based on an already-existing pile of considerations today. Will it improve end results? Maybe, maybe not. But what it will do is provide justifications to make the initial decision more defensible, regardless of outcome. I’m not certain that’s a good thing because it has the distinct potential to provide pseudo-evidentiary cover for making bad calls on whether or not to publish.

Books will still succeed despite data that suggested beforehand that they wouldn’t. And books will still fail despite having all the indicators of a sure thing. This data is nice, but there are numerous factors at work in a successful novel, reader behavior while reading is a small part of that I can’t definitively say holds much significance. I can’t say it doesn’t, either. We just don’t have enough data. In the future, we’ll fix that, I’m sure, and be awash in all the facts, figures and statistics we can stand on reader behavior. But we’ll still be lacking the context. Without that, I’m not convinced we’ll ever be able to interpret this information properly. Short of Turow’s all-encompassing polygraph or some piece of future tech that reads minds, that context isn’t readily accessible and likely never will be.

More and accurate data is always a good thing, but who wields it and how is crucial. I have a feeling that this will turn out to be little more than echo chamber material. Anyone making an argument will be able to find the numbers somewhere in the increasingly vast data pool to support it, no matter how outlandish.

Will I use this data for something, if available? Absolutely. I can totally see its value from a marketing standpoint. Will I change a character, story or rewrite portions of work based on this information? Absolutely not. I have little confidence that any of this data means what I think it means. I have even less confidence it means what other people think it means. If it only serves to reinforce already existing opinions, then it brings little of value to the table. Maybe I can glean a way to sell more books with this data, and that’s worth a shot, but changing the actual work in response to it is a bridge too far.

Containers

I was just reading this summation of the Nick Carr-Clay Shirky battle royale over whether the book is a valuable cultural artifact or simply a container for content that, in its physical limitations, shaped the forms of that content and could be dying out for good, digital or otherwise. To be honest, I was actually glazing over a bit reading it. It’s fascinating, don’t get me wrong, in a high-minded philosophical way, but I think I’ve intellectually moved past all these discussions of form and transition. Why are we still arguing any of this?

Anyway, one particular comment attributed to Carr temporarily pulled me out of my glazed meanderings:

“In response to an email from Wired magazine founder and author Kevin Kelly on the subject, Carr gives some examples of valuable forms of media that he believes have been lost or diminished: namely, “the oral epic poem, the symphony, the silent film with live musician accompaniment, the dramatic play, the short-form cartoon, the map [and] the LP.” And he argues that the book, the movie and the video game could also fall into this category.”

I think Carr has a fundamental misunderstanding about how, exactly, each of these forms of creative effort reached a point of widespread acceptance and popularity. He’s got something of a cart before the horse kinda argument, seemingly implying that media companies arbitrarily decided one day, possibly for higher profit, that CDs were better than LPs, and stopped making LPs. It was the people buying CDs en mass that made that decision for them.

Nothing, not one thing is stopping anyone from making LPs today. In fact, they’ve become quite the successful boutique business for some artists, Jack White comes to mind. But in doing so, you have to either admit that you’re creating a form with a notably smaller market to sell to or you also have to undertake efforts to build a market to go along with the product. The form isn’t obsolete or diminished in any qualitative sense (other than the strictly cumulative monetary decline from the height of the wax album era. But surely, Carr’s discussing high-minded art here, so simple free market economics can’t be what he’s referring to, can it?). The only problem the LP has is that most of its paying market has moved on to other content forms more convenient to their lives.

It’s not up to me as a writer to decide what the optimum forms of creative expression are, nor is it up to Carr, Shirky or any of thousands of other media industry pundits. Even publishers, movie studios and music companies (who have discovered this truth sooner and far more harshly than the others so far) despite their capital reservoirs and strengths of distribution and marketing, have only a limited, minuscule ability to direct those choices.

In fact, there is no one person who can make this decision. The forms of content that reach any level of social application do so beneath a critical mass of regular people deciding in unison what they’d like to spend their money on. CDs overtook LPs because the buying public wanted it so, because CDs had advantages that fit more cleanly into the conditions of their lives at the time. For that same reason, CDs have been usurped by almost totally ethereal electronic forms. Books, print or digital, will live or die by the same hand and there’s nothing Carr, Shirky or anyone else can do about it.

It seems more and more like the publishing industry is missing a very essential point of its existence: we all live at the whims of the people who buy the product. They seem to be forgetting that we in the creative fields of endeavor have to produce both content and form that large numbers of people value enough to pay for. Not just enough to want to watch, listen to or read, mind you, but actually lay down hard cash for. That decision is, has been, and will forever remain in the hands of our audience. The creative forms that service their needs, and most ably makes the case for that aforementioned exchange of currency, will win out. The ones that don’t will end up tacked on to Carr’s list of lost art forms. 

Frankly, I’ve always believed culture belongs to the people. If large enough numbers want print, there’ll be a market for it. The same for digital. And if a super-majority develops that wants some form of the written word that hasn’t been invented yet, usurping both print and ebooks, that’s as it should be.

Every new form that comes along adds new possibilities for the artist. Every old form pushed aside becomes part of a rich tapestry of history and experience that helps shape the use of new forms. LPs didn’t die, they become a foundation upon which mp3 players were eventually built.

If art is your only intent, the old forms still exist, have at it! But if you’re also trying to pay the bills, you’ve got to go where the money is. And that money is scattered about in the pockets of every person out there who’s looking for something to read. Nothing else really matters.

2012 Isn’t The End Of The World But It Is A Time Of Transition

For the past few months, I’ve laid back and soaked up the goings on in publishing, and the economy in general. Here are a few things I expect to see as we wrap up 2012 and head into the beyond.

1. Apple is in the process of cutting its own sizably profitable throat

I was once one of Apple’s biggest proponents. This was back when they produced the best computers going, especially when paired head to head with Microsoft’s crap-of-the-month they’ve spent the past 15 years cranking out. But no more. They are far too expensive in an atmosphere with downward pressure on device prices, and are showing far too many issues with signature devices like the iPhone. The iPad Mini is nothing if not a cannibal that has the potential to swallow the market for the full size (and pricier) model whole. Add to that the fact that, fairly or otherwise (I say fairly) Apple is a poster child for exploitative labor practices, offshoring of jobs and stashing large profits out of the country to avoid taxes, and I see a company who has reached its apex and is poised to begin the long decline down.  If Steve Jobs were still alive, I’d give them a shot to pull out of it, but he’s not, and Apple is in the process of becoming just another mega corporation focusing on profit at the expense of all else.

There’s a reason Apple is putting more and more resources towards patent lawsuits. It’s corporate complacency. Live off the value you have today, and do everything you can to stifle competition or progress beyond that point. It might work for a few years, but it’s a long-term loser bet. Much like Microsoft, the world will pass them by and they’ll learn that it’s much harder to play catch up than be the industry leader, especially after your corporate culture shifts from profit through new innovation to profit through exploitation of past innovation.

2. Consolidation amongst the largest publishers is a sign of desperation not forward-thinking strategy

Corporate consolidation and mergers come in many forms. Sometimes, they are aggressive, competitive moves, other times they are backs-to-the-wall defensive maneuvers. The Big Six mergers going on are in the latter group and, as such, are little more than time-buying exercises. The Disney purchase of Lucasfilm is just the opposite. The mouse didn’t snap up Star Wars to squat on the crazy-lucrative rights, they intend to use them. Publishers, on the other hand, are merging not as an aggressive bold move, but as a means of cutting costs and combining assets to add sheer bulk in some kind of misguided dick-measuring contest with the big retailer of the moment, Amazon.

I expect the Big Six will filter down to three, possibly even two within the next two years. The remaining giants aren’t going anywhere, they’ll still be raking in money, still produce bestsellers by the bushel, still be big name players, but while they get individually bigger, the overall share of the market once held by all six separate companies combined will decline.

While this consolidation will very likely appear positive on the accounting ledgers, in the real world, it means less skilled people employed in traditional publishing, less opportunities to get books published traditionally, less competition for authors between traditional houses, lower advances, lower royalties and more stringently pro-publisher contracts with increasing restrictions on writers. If you’re one of those people who still see a traditionally published book as something to aspire to, your work just got a lot more difficult and a lot less potentially lucrative.

If anything, I expect consolidation among the industry leaders will drive more writers to control their own destinies. In fact, I would not be the least bit surprised if, eventually, the bulk of the work coming out of the last of the giants winds up as work-for-hire ghost written material. Anonymous author-mills, basically.

3. Any improvement in publishing’s fate depends on a functioning economy

We just had an election that comes at a pivotal time for us and the one obvious problem that’s suffocating us went completely unaddressed. How, exactly, do we convince the corporate world to reinvest in its workforce through better pay and benefits, thereby investing in the market for its own products? Many corporations have become virtual crack-whores to ever-increasing margins, and the du jour move of the moment is to cut everything not nailed down from your employee base to improve the bottom line. We need to convince them to break that addiction, sacrifice some of those profits in the short term for the betterment of everyone, and mostly, their own long term bottom line.

The current system is clearly unsustainable. They need customers, and lots of them, which they’re not going to get if corporations en mass continue to bleed the workforce of any and all disposable income to pad their own criminally undertaxed capital gains. It’s doubly damaging condition because egregiously low wages also add to all of our tax bills. Walmart, for instance, made $15 billion in profit last year. Their employees, however, were paid over $2 billion in government assistance. That means we subsidized billions in Walmart profits with our taxes. But its the poor single mother on food stamps who’s the parasite, right? As things are now, obscene percentages of capital are being sequestered totally out of our economy, with more being drained every day. That has to stop, and it has nothing to do with tax rates. It’s a grab-the-cash-right-now strategy, and it’s sacrificing the future for everybody, rich and poor alike, to support gluttonous profits today.

It’s a common problem. Publishers suffer from it. They invest less and less into the actual productive areas of their business and more into their corporate structure. In doing so, the financial barons on Wall Street reward them for their stats on paper, which always look good right away but don’t reflect the long-term negative consequences of the cuts. Those come later, and inevitably lead to more cuts. It’s a death spiral writ large. Amazon, by contrast, does reinvest large chunks of profit back into its business, and Wall Street punishes them for it routinely. It’s a good thing Jeff Bezos doesn’t seem to care what Wall Street thinks or Amazon might never have been anything more than one of the online retail pack. Our financial system, where nearly all of our resources are controlled, rewards corporate behavior that is destructive to the real-world economy and punishes actions that help it. How a system that was originally intended to allow companies to raise money with which to expand business has been allowed to mutate into this self-sustaining casino game is one of the great disgraces of the late 20th century. Our ends are fundamentally at odds with the ends of the financial sector.

These things have to change, or our very basic social fabric risks being torn asunder. It’s not going to matter what ebooks cost if people can barely afford food. A severe rich/poor class system will rip itself apart in this country. And all it takes to fix it is if our corporate leaders give up a small percentage of profits in favor of better compensation for employees. Stop hoarding your money overseas, pay your damn taxes, and pay your employees a fair, living wage. Actually give something back to the market you’re getting filthy rich on. There’s nothing to harvest if you don’t plant a few seeds. I’m not sure how, or even if we can change our corporate culture from its current parasitical nature back into a sustainable one, but I do know that if we don’t, the changes we’ve seen the past few years are but small scratches on the surface of what’s yet to come.

4. I’m holding to my opinion that the smart money is for people to develop their own skills and use them entrepreneurially

We can no longer count on steady, good paying employment on a wide scale. Companies aren’t going to give up the exploitative profit margins they’ve grown used to without being strong-armed, and any means of forcing them will have immediate, very ugly consequences. So let’s not do that. People everywhere need to cultivate ways to make money outside of traditional employment. The get-a-job thing is becoming a worse and worse deal by the day for workers and unless we are all happy ending up as poverty stricken wage slaves, we need to start creating our own economic opportunities. For writers, this means get off the fence and learn publishing. “I just wanna write,” sounds great and all, but it’s becoming increasingly unrealistic. Not knowing the business side intimately isn’t going to be a matter of choice much longer, either figure it out or get stuck under the boot heel of a giant publisher. It’s not an intriguing little side-light to consider any longer, but a virtual requirement for your long-term survival interests.

And it’s getting to be the same with everyone else. Wide-scale employment is becoming a race to the bottom, creating bottom-rung, benefit-less, minimum wage level jobs in droves while shedding living wage jobs. Figuring out how to generate adequate incomes on our own is the next essential skill we’re all going to need. Getting started sooner than later is probably going to be a very good idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dirty Tricks- December 1, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 59 other followers

%d bloggers like this: