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

The Big Picture: Should we be a nation of 300 million employees or 300 million entrepreneurs?

I try not to be political. I don’t try that hard, obviously, but I do stop myself for diving full on headlong into it most days. Politics just disgusts me so much and I can get enraged so easily. Sometimes, I just can’t avoid it, though. It’s election season, so it’s absolutely everywhere and it just annoys me to see all the people who think this pomp and circumstance makes a damn bit of difference. Even if your guy wins, the day after inauguration day isn’t going to be any different than the day before. I’ve seen enough presidential elections in my lifetime not to get taken in by the rhetoric anymore. They’re all reactive anyway. Government policy generally follows what people start doing on their own. I’ve always believed that the real strength of a President is how he would respond in a genuine crisis not how he governs. I haven’t heard that question asked yet this year. Have we gone so long without a genuine, far reaching crisis that we’ve forgotten that totally fucked up shit can come outta left field with no notice and how one deals with that can be a pretty important trait?

See what I mean? I wasn’t even thinking presidential politics when I started typing, but it just took over. Dammit! What I wanted to talk about was economics (I know, thrilling!) or more specifically, what kind of economy we need to have because, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but our’s ain’t quite cutting it any more. If I thought this was a typical slowdown or correction of some sort, I might be inclined to hang back till the tide turns, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that we’ve got deep structural problems that tax cuts and/or spending cuts simply aren’t going to fix. Neither party has a clue what to do about it, either. Although I will say, frighteningly, the republicans are a little closer to understanding the implications of what’s going on than the Democrats seem to be, it’s just that their “solutions” are self serving policies for the already haves while discarding the have nots to a future of “Would you like curly fries with that?”

The simple fact, as I see it, is that the days of mass employment are ending. Companies will be functioning on 10% or less of the staff they traditionally needed, manufacturing businesses likely less still. That’s a helluva lot of people with no jobs or hope because they are never coming back. With shitty retail jobs being basically the only widely available growth sector, even that’s self-defeating. Eventually, when such a high percentage of the population is getting piss poor wages, they stop buying stuff. Besides, the internet’s kicking brick and mortar retail’s ass. How many fast food jobs can one nation reasonably support?

I bitch a lot about offshoring jobs, and I’m right, I think. It is exploitative, and it has been destructive to our economy. But I’m now realizing that it was going to happen anyway. Those factories will be fully automated in another decade or so, and even the third world workers raking in their 35 cents an hour will be out of work then. This is a problem we would inevitably have had to deal with, even if businesses on a wide scale hadn’t decided to openly screw their own workers for an extra something-something in their stock options years before it was necessary to downsize.

We’ve got an abundance of people with skills and experience nobody wants or needs to pay for any longer. A problem, I might add, that’s going to continue to get worse as technology gets better. Look at health care, for instance. You know why health care is so fucked up? Because we’re continuing to act like the 1950 model  (when you got a job in a company, health insurance was part of the package and you stayed there for 40 or 50 years, before retiring with a nice pension) is even close to relevant any more. People don’t work in companies for five years, let alone fifty any more. And that cuts both ways. Employers who began to treat workers as resources rather than people destroyed the concept of employer-employee trust, and as time went on, they paid less and less, kicked in less and less for insurance, converted the relatively stable pension system into the volatile 401k racket, all so more and more money could go upstairs. You don’t think the people working in these companies saw the effects, first hand, of their bosses reaping giant windfalls while they had to fight to get a 50 cent raise every couple of years? The whole get-a-job/career mantra has become almost totally exploitative to workers, and their loyalty went straight out the window, as well it should have. The natural outgrowth of this is that companies will automate as many jobs as possible, eventually having as few people on the payroll as is feasible.

Yet our entire economy runs on the foundation of getting-a-good-job/career. How the hell are we going to survive if there’s only 1 good job for every 5,000 or 10,000 people looking? That’s the description of a society poised to collapse in on itself. I don’t know about you, but I’m not quite ready to be living out scenes from Mad Max just yet. I still haven’t finished taking the tread off my old tires and tacking it on to some football shoulder pads.

What can save us? Probably the same thing that fucked us up, technology, specifically the internet. What’s the one big rallying cry on the Democratic side? Income inequality. Well, look at what the internet has done to media companies. Established newspapers and music companies got hammered. But look at what else happened. That money that newspaper lost is being spread around to hundreds or thousands of smaller outlets that made nothing before. The top music companies and the highest grossing bands lost ground, but there’s thousands or tens of thousands of smaller bands making money now that made nothing before. Books are heading the same way. As print loses ground, there’s now tens of thousands of writers making money digitally who made nothing before. You want income redistribution? That looks suspiciously like a free market based way to go about it. Can’t call that socialist. Certainly, this process created giants; Google from newspapers, Amazon from books, Apple from music; but giants will always exist. Besides, the old media companies existed as exclusionary forces. Amazon works with anybody selling ebooks, Apple with anybody selling music (and ebooks), Google with anybody producing content. It’s a simplification, true, but these new media companies generally don’t discriminate between giant multinational corporations and individual entrepreneurs. I’d be willing to bet that alone is the principal reason media companies hate the tech giants so much. It’s not that they revolutionized their industries, its that, in doing so, they failed to properly pay tribute to companies who got a little too comfortable perched on their unapproachable golden thrones.

This is just the media industry, too. Eventually, it’ll work across virtually the entire spectrum of commerce, and individual people will have direct access to a virtually unlimited customer base, helped out by tech companies that are happy to take their cut regardless of who’s selling it. My uncle, some twenty years ago now, well before the internet was widespread enough to be genuinely practical, tried his hand at building furniture for a living. This was no picnic table operation, he was a craftsman, making high-end wooden furniture, ornately carved, hand hewn, the best materials, intricate inlays of hand carved objects like crabs (we live on the Chesapeake Bay, after all) or oak leaves perfectly done. This wasn’t cheap IKEA crap.

And that was ultimately his problem. One that turned out to be a fatal one for his business at the time. Building the furniture; the time it took, the materials, etc; required a price above what the market could bear. The number of people around who could afford to drop that kinda coin on a hand crafted dining room suit was too small to attract a large enough customer base to make money. His work was exceptional, some of the best I’ve seen, certainly, but he just couldn’t connect with enough customers who could afford his rates.

Now consider if he had been twenty years later. What kind of access do you think he could get to high-end furniture buyers? How much do you think it would cost him to get that access, something that was quite simply impossible at the time he tried his business. I’m pretty confident he could’ve found more customers. Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if he ultimately ended up with a waiting list of custom projects, keeping him in steady work, or maybe being able to hire a someone or two to help. The internet levels a lot of traditionally slanted playing fields.

The old ways of mass employment, companies who hired thousands of people at a time are dying off. The new companies coming in aren’t hiring on that scale, and thanks to technology, they never will. We can’t rely on the business community to provide the work we need, no matter how many tax breaks we give them. What we need is to transition from an economy dependent on large companies hiring mass numbers of workers to one where individual people create their own work, their own incomes, likely from multiple smaller sources. There’s never been a better time to be entrepreneurial, either. Modern possibilities are virtually endless, and affordability has opened doors into industries that were unthinkable just a few years ago. We have a society still living in the mass employment model, even though its failing. We need a country of 300 million entrepreneurs instead of 300 million worker bees.

I see two areas where we’re making crucial mistakes, two places where I think government could be useful, for a change. One is not pushing to make broadband internet a utility. Let’s be realistic here, the internet has already become virtually ubiquitous. It’s only going to grow more so as it continues to dominate communication and commerce. Everybody will need access to it and cheaply. Yeah, that means telecomms might take a hit but who among you doesn’t feel just a little exploited by the bills you’ve paid over the years for phones, cable, internet, what have you? Be honest, you know damn well they’re capitalizing on their advantages as much as possible. Considering they operate in a government regulated little monopoly playground, I wouldn’t exactly weep for their loss. Despite the current GOP mantra going around, sometimes things are important enough that for-profit businesses can’t sufficiently handle the task. They have no reason to expand access to outlying areas with few people. There’s no market reason where it makes sense for them to do so. Do we just leave those people in the dark ages? What if we had done that with the electrical grid? Your municipal taxes should cover broadband internet as a utility for all, wireless preferably.

Secondly, we should be expanding the postal service, not defunding it. Look at the direction things are going. How much stuff do people buy online? What happens when most of commerce comes to you rather than you to it? There’s going to be huge demand for delivery services. Sure, UPS and Fed EX would be none too happy, but if government’s role is to create an atmosphere of wide spread opportunity, what harm could possibly come from cheap internet access for all and cheap delivery costs? That sounds like a recipe for retail growth to me, primarily amongst segments who are currently blocked out by high-cost barriers to entry.

Just think, a nation of millions of individual business people, taking advantage of that atmosphere. The established businesses who have locks on the marketplace now will lose some ground, but possibly millions of people will be making money where none was possible in the old economy.

You want income redistribution? Here’s how you do it, you give as wide a swath of regular people the tools to compete in the open market with the big boys and earn that income away. More free and open competition. Some other things will have to change. Health insurance will necessarily have to sold individually instead of in group company rates, yet still be affordable, which it already isn’t even close to now. The tax code will have to be seriously simplified, as well. Can you imagine getting 250 million itemized tax filings from small, individual businesses? How many people essentially just staple their W2 from their one or two jobs to their 1040 EZ and be done with it now? That won’t happen much any longer. We’ll probably end up with some kind of progressive flat tax with higher rates at higher income levels or something like it. Otherwise, the tax preparation industry is set for a serious boom period.

Look, what I’ve talked about here is already happening. Do you really think all these out of work people aren’t finding ways of making a buck here and there to get by? Most of it is unreported cash, no doubt, but people are basically very resourceful creatures. Give everybody the tools and the opportunity and bring this individual resourcefulness out into the light of day.

The time of mass employment at a relative few large companies is ending. What we need is to shift to where the average person is a participant in the market from both sides, not strictly a consumer. The real money is in selling the stuff, or offshoots that assist in the process. Labor in a mass employment world will always get the short end eventually. And the way we’re heading, there won’t be enough of that short end to go around much sooner than later.

The Death Throes of a Small Town Newspaper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MacArthur: Print shall return!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Reasons Why SOPA Must Be Stopped (and why something like it is probably inevitable)

image Tomorrow is the day that a sizable portion of the internet is going black in protest of the egregiously bad, supposedly anti-piracy legislation SOPA. I thought I’d throw my thinking on the subject out there to kick off the much-needed protests.

There are three main reasons why I believe it’s imperative that SOPA, and its Senate equivalent PIPA, be stopped dead in its tracks. Just to be clear, my reasons have nothing to do with so-called piracy. For one thing, as I’ve repeatedly asserted, what’s being defined as piracy by the various media industries is anything but and, secondly, this legislation does absolutely nothing to prevent the real thing. Unless, of course, you consider making the whole of the web totally useless to the vast majority of people a means of fighting piracy. In that case, it’s certain to be wonderfully effective.

Reason 1- SOPA epitomizes the reality that Americans are no longer represented by our government

There is absolutely nothing in SOPA that benefits your average American at all. It is a bill who’s entire purpose is to shelter the media industry at the expense of the whole of the nation. It will cost jobs, it will stifle free speech, it will wipe out competition to legacy monopolies and directly lead to higher costs for just about everything. About the only thing it won’t do is stop piracy. No one outside of disrupted media companies thinks this is a good idea. If this bill were put up for a general referendum vote, it would lose by a landslide of epic proportions. On top of all that, the entirety of the tech industry is virtually unanimous that SOPA will threaten the very fundamental foundations of how the internet functions.

So, with so much destructive possibility and so much united opposition, how is this bill even still alive? One word–graft. Our legislative process is horribly compromised. The one and only reason SOPA exists is because media companies and similar entities have dumped millions upon millions of dollars on representatives’ doorsteps through lobbying and campaign contributions. The will of the people has become almost totally meaningless in the face of this kind of obvious purchasing of government favors. This detatchment between the interests of the people and the legalized bribery of the U.S. Congress is, alone, reason enough to stomp it out.

Reason 2- SOPA provides a framework for media companies to reconstitute their monopolies and eliminate wide swaths of independent competition

One of the worst aspects of SOPA is that is puts the onus for monitoring potentially infringing content on the host sites. This means that sites that use significant user-generated content will have to either pre-scan virtually everything posted there or face severe consequences if so much as a bad link slips through. The cost of this requirement will be prohibitive. But then, I suspect that’s the point. There’s even been several venture capital firms who have come out and said, in no uncertain terms, that if a bill like SOPA becomes law, they will no longer put so much as a dime toward any internet startups. That’s sure to do wonders for our struggling economy.

This imperative will make it significantly more difficult and expensive to operate social networking sites or any sites with independent content from users. It could, conceivably, kill popular services like Google, Facebook, Twitter and Wikipedia, blogging hosts like WordPress, even self-publishing options at sites like Amazon and Barnes and Noble would be at risk. Eliminate or significantly increase the barriers for entry for independent content on the web and guess who benefits? The very media companies lobbying so hard for this bill.

The consequences of being linked to infringing content could be expensive and severe. Worse yet, there’s almost no due process in the proposed system at all, and the entire burden falls on the host to prove innocence after the penalties have already been handed down. Given that some media companies barely admit fair use even exists (at one point, the Associated Press said that quoting as little as four words from one of their articles required a license fee) this is a system that seems almost designed for abuse.

Nothing threatens the future of media companies more than the new-found capacity of independent content creators to market and distribute their work. Eliminate or severely hamper the sites or services they use, and traditional media companies effectively wipe out that threat. SOPA has nothing to do with piracy and everything to do with stifling or outright eliminating competition.

Reason 3- SOPA provides a legal framework and process for goverment to stifle opposition and dissent

The past year has seen several remarkable developments in the capacity of citizens to organize in opposition of their governments. The Arab Spring, protests in Europe and the Occupy movement here are all clear examples. It is significantly more difficult for propoganda to go unchallenged than at anytime in history. If you don’t believe these developments are of the utmost concern to governments around the world, including our own, you’re kidding yourself.

The same provisions of SOPA that benefit media companies by squashing independent content also benefit any government looking to deceive or control its people. This bill would provide effective legal cover for our government to stifle dissent and make it much more difficult for citizens to exercise our Constitutionally guaranteed rights of free speech and assembly.

And consider, when the legacy media once again controls the message, how we are informed, or even if we are, comes into question. If you need any proof of the dangers of allowing legacy media to control the conversation solely once again, look no further than their performance on SOPA itself and the equally questionable NDAA act recently signed into law. These are enormously important issues that threaten the fundamental nature of liberty and our nation yet they have both been largely ignored by the mainstream press. And once the media is given that control back thanks to this government regulation, what are the chances that they’ll significantly challenge anything it does in the future? Their very existence would depend on government stifling legitimate competition. Not only would the media industries be corrupting government by buying this legislation, they’d be compromising themselves by becoming dependent for survival on government regulation.

I can’t imagine a worse turn of events. Freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly all hindered dramatically and further cementing in place a system representative of the highest bidder over the best interest of the people.

Any one of these three reasons would be ample justification to kill SOPA and anything like it. Taken together, there can be absolutely no doubt that this effort needs to die a quick and dirty death.

Unfortunately, these very same reasons are why I’m almost certain a version of this will reach the President’s desk at some point, my guess being after the November election. The media companies will continue to throw massive amounts of money at representatives. Their only alternative is to adapt and compete in the current atmosphere, which many of them have already proven unwilling or unable. Their very survival may depend on changing the nature of the game, consequences to the rest of us be damned.

Government will continue to have a double motive. They will suck up all the money they can in lobbying and contributions. And as people get louder and louder in their discontent with the status quo, as is sure to happen, their motivation to stifle organization and dissent will only increase.

No, it will take a massive sea change in our government to prevent something like SOPA from becoming law eventually. Of course, this kind of far-reaching, self-serving and imminently destructive legislation may be the final impetus that spurs that much-needed change. We can only hope.

The Decline and Fall of the Publishing Empire

After three years of closely following and writing about the trials and tribulations of the publishing industry, I decided it was a good time to do a bit of a wrap-up on the changes I’ve witnessed.  I’ve collected together some of the writings I’ve done on this site, added quite a bit of context and produced a book telling the story of the upheaval of the industry through my eyes and experience.

Perhaps most interestingly, the book has been published through my imprint, Watershed Publications, and is now available as an ebook through Amazon.  There will be a print-on-demand version coming along in a while, as well.  I thought it extremely fitting to tell the tale of the downfall of traditional publishing by using the very mechanisms of its disruption. 

To kick off the book’s run, it will be available for free from Amazon starting Christmas Day until December 29.  After that, it’ll be priced at the very reasonable figure of $2.99.  Check it out, if you like, by clicking at the bottom of this piece.

Merry Christmas to all, and I look forward to a grand New Year for publishing as the times keep rolling forward.  With change as big as those the industry is currently undergoing, some long-standing institutions will inevitably fall, but every ending for one marks a new beginning for another.

The Watershed Chronicle:
The Decline and Fall of the Publishing Empire

image

The publishing industry is currently embroiled in a state of flux never before seen.  It’s a battle for the very life of the industry, with forces from both inside and outside jockeying for position.  Technology has undermined many of the things that once made publishing the long-standing giant it was.  More than that, the same technology is allowing more and more individuals and smaller entities to forego the traditional routes to publication entirely.  It’s an all-out assault on what has been one of the most successful, profitable enterprises of the past century.

Author Dan Meadows has followed the past three years of this battle very closely, not with the eye of a pundit so much, but as a member of the industry just looking for some path to find a viable future for himself.  After 15 years working within publishing, he found himself suddenly on the outside looking in, with no clear path back.  With disruption everywhere, and experts on all sides of the fight speaking in sweeping proclamations, it’s sometimes difficult to tell who’s right and who’s wrong, or which way the future leads.

Over two-and-a-half years, Meadows followed and wrote about the changes sweeping through the industry on his website, The Watershed Chronicle.  This book is a timeline of that writing, and a description of his journey through exploring traditional work after the disruption, trying out new online alternatives and finally settling on what he believes is the best course.

The publishing industry has changed in the past five years in more ways than it had in the previous century, and it’s not over yet.  This book chronicles one of the most tumultuous periods in the industry’s history from the eyes of someone in the middle of it, one that has seen massive revenue losses, layoffs and a dynamic shift in the attitudes and reading habits of the public.  It is a period that may well be looked back on as the beginning of the end of the traditional ways of doing business.

Buy From Amazon

Looking Ahead: Predictions for publishing in 2012 and beyond

This year saw the emergence of several factors that could have a profound impact on the publishing industry in near future.  Newspaper revenues backslid into more losses, increasing through the first three quarters of the year, and digital revenues, while improving somewhat, are still far short of making up the difference.  A few papers found some success with semi-porous paywalls that encouraged more of their brethren to make the leap into subscription based sites, for better or for worse.  Ebooks moved up to nearly 20% of the overall book market in the U.S. and all signs point to a steady upswing in that sector.

Amazon encroached further and further into traditional publishers’ domains, and started a drive to lower prices and increased saturation in the tablet market.  Millions of new digital customers are set to enter the ebook market after Christmas thanks to robust pre-holiday tablet sales.  Traditional publishers, in conjunction with Apple, forced the agency pricing model on ebooks, driving their prices up 50% or more in many cases.  That effort also brought some backlash in the form of civil lawsuits and antitrust investigations in both the United States and Europe.  Finally, self-publishing and independent publishers made great strides toward establishing themselves as a viable player and overcoming long-standing industry bias.  All in all, 2011 was a year of great transition, and one that has served to set the stage for what’s yet to come.

Following the industry as closely as I have this past year, I’ve reached a few conclusions about what will happen now, and where the industry as a whole goes from here.  It’s nearly impossible to accurately predict the future, even the most educated guess is still just a guess.  All it takes is one new technological break-through and everything is thrust right back into a state of flux.  Some people don’t like that kind of uncertainty but, for me, I find it invigorating.

Newspapers Are Finished

I’m still amazed that there are people out there who believe that print newspapers have any kind of future at all.  I’ve even come to seriously wonder if news websites really have any kind of future, either.  The primary problem, as I see it, is that they are entirely too dependent on advertising revenue to support their business model.  We are only one more advertising shift away from this entire industry segment getting wiped off the face of the Earth.  I believe that shift will come soon, and the era of advertising supported newspapers will end abruptly.

There is not one single trait of the physical newspaper that gives me any belief that they have even the slightest capacity to survive long-term.  They are expensive, inefficient and extremely limited.  In short, they are an anachronism.  The most recent surveys I’ve seen indicate that the percentage of people in this country who get their information from newspapers is down to 14% and falling precipitously.

News websites are also at severe risk of obsolescence.  Paywalls, ultimately, won’t be anything more than a temporary block to stave off the inevitable.  I’m just guessing here, but I suspect we’ll see a combination of elements pick up the slack when the inevitable finally happens, including mobile apps, easily accessible streams and standalone digital publications.  All of this will be dependent on finding customers to pay for the actual content, and the innovative and best quality content will win out in the end.  It’s a shift that will decimate the larger industry players because total revenue numbers will plummet with the loss of advertising.  I also anticipate that we’ll see the rise of truly independent journalists producing and selling their own wares under their own banners rather than working for a New York Times or a Wall Street Journal.

I believe the long-view will see a reversal of sorts of the consolidation run that happened in the last few decades of the 20th century.  The industry will fragment back into many smaller and even individual entities that will create an extreme diversity in viewpoints, products and delivery mechanisms.  I suspect the small local newspaper will likely have a slightly longer shelf-life than the large metros or nationals, but even they will be on the clock eventually.

Basically, my belief is that, as bad as things have been for newspapers over the past decade, we haven’t come close to seeing the worst of it yet.  But out of that Armageddon will emerge the potential for a far greater, more independent, more democratic news and information ecosystem.

Print Books Aren’t Quite Finished, But Close

The way elements are lining up heading into 2012, if I were a book publisher who depended on 75% or more of my revenue coming from print sales, I would be scared to death.  Digital reader sales across all devices are up 200-300%.  Amazon alone has been selling over a million new Kindles every week leading up to Christmas.  Ebook sales were in the miniscule single digits as a percentage of the overall book market just two years ago and now, some estimates have that up to as high as 20% in the U.S.  Through agency pricing, major print publishers have pushed the prices of their ebooks up to three or four times that of the growing self-published sector and, simultaneously, brought antitrust investigations and civil lawsuits in both Europe and America down on their heads.

The big-box retailers they used so effectively are gone (Borders) or at risk (Barnes & Noble) after having weakened independent bookstores to the point that a rapid drop in print sales could be the final straw in wiping most of them out.  Christmas of 2012 is poised to see literally 15-20 million new ebook customers entering the retail market.  And none of this even speaks to the digital expansion into foreign markets that is coming but yet to really kick into high gear.

I suspect that losses in the print book sector will happen quicker and more severely than those of newspapers.  They won’t have 8 or 10 years to map out a gradual digital transition; more like 2 or 3 years, if they’re lucky.  All this being said, print books will not vanish entirely.  I expect there will continue to be a high-end boutique market for very high quality printed material.  The overall market share, however, will be miniscule in comparison to traditional levels.

What we have here is the beginnings of a vicious downward cycle.  Declines in print book sales will cause a loss of book stores and physical retail outlets which will cause more losses in print book sales which will cause more losses of bookstores which will cause more losses in print book sales, etc., etc., until this segment of the industry is virtually unrecognizable.  In the end, I suspect bookstores will be winnowed down a great deal, 80% or more forced to shut their doors.  The ones that are left will cater to the boutique end of the consumer spectrum, and will convert to more of a literary cultural gathering place generating revenue through principle means outside of strictly print book sales.

At the end of the day, I believe that we will end up with the creative destruction of the long-standing print book industry replaced by a much larger, vibrant, much more independent industry that exists principally in cyberspace.

Amazon Won’t Be The 10-Ton Guerilla For Long

Read any blog, news site or publishing industry pundit and you’ll hear all about how bad Amazon is.  I, as an independent writer, am perplexed by other self-pubbed writers frequently ripping Amazon and their business practices.  They have done more for us than any other entity in recent memory, possibly ever.  The argument that self-published writers should somehow support traditional publishers in this perceived battle with Amazon simply defies logic.  If traditional publishers could squash all of the developments and advancements Amazon has brought about for us in the past few years, they would do it in a heartbeat, make no mistake.  To now turn and ridicule them for continuing to press their advantages against traditional publishers is not only hypocritical, it’s short-sighted and potentially self-destructive.  Big Six publishers aren’t really our friends, and they don’t deserve our unquestioning support in this conflict.

Amazon itself, no matter how large or powerful they get, is not any more immune to the disruptive forces that exist than the traditional publishing industry.  This isn’t simply an age marked by a sudden dramatic shift from one paradigm to another.  We’re at the very earliest stages of an era of constant, ever-present disruption.  No one in the internet age is too big to tumble.  Long-term monopolies, like the traditional publishing industry maintained, may well be nearly impossible to establish in this new era, and the only way in which they would keep that control and influence is to represent the values of the people they aim to serve as best as possible.

I believe that retail alternatives will emerge as the ebook market continues to expand and mature.  Formats will become more standardized, or at least easily transferable from device to device.  They will have to; customers will ultimately demand it to be so.  I expect we’ll see some specialized, genre specific retail and self-publishing outlets emerge over time.  Take romance fiction, for instance.  Imagine a retail site that caters specifically to readers and authors in that genre.  Or mystery.  Or horror.  Or science fiction.  Or historical non-fiction.  Or journalism.  The possibilities are endless.  As long as writers and publishers maintain the ability to publish across all retail outlets and platforms, there truly are no limits to the retail alternatives that could and will come about.  Today, they may well be the dominant player, but the history and nature of the internet itself suggests that will not always be the case, especially if they get too large or too onerous in their business practices.

In the end, I expect what we’ll see is a few large retail ebook stores in the vein of Amazon, and many, many smaller, very targeted retail options all over.  I also fully believe that, as authors themselves fully realize the potential of maintaining connections to their own fan bases, there will be an array of direct sales possibilities developed, as well.

Following “The Rules” Will Be Even Less Important

If you read enough online about publishing on any side of the spectrum, you will see that nearly everyone is going to tell you about “the rules.”  There are rules for breaking into the traditional side and rules for breaking into to the independent side.  There are rules for how you should write, what you should write and what you should do with your material afterwards.  The main problem is that if you read enough of those, you’ll find most of the rules stated out there conflict with other rules somewhere else.  The thing is, we are well on the way toward a time when, basically, there are no rules.  There are an ample variety of ways to go about getting what you want done, and the only thing that matters is what you find works for you.  And even then, things are changing so rapidly that something that works today may not work tomorrow.  Hard-and-fast, overly rigid ways of thinking can hang about your neck like an albatross, wherever you stand in the current publishing ecosystem.

As I said earlier, we now live in an era of constant disruption.  Flexibility, adaptability and experimentation are today’s ultimate keys to success, and that will only get more important, whether you aspire to traditional print publishing or independent digital publishing.  The great thing is that writers are generally pretty creative people.  Who could be better poised to take advantage of a circumstance where all the lines have been blurred and there are multiple paths to your desires than the creatively minded?

The next few years will likely see the final death of the old, established ways of doing business.  The transition will continue and we’ll eventually have a system that is very different than what we’ve been conditioned to expect.  The future, in many ways, is very bright.  Change can be frightening, but it can also be liberating and exciting.  Don’t weep for the things lost to the shifting sands of progress, revel in the new and innovative possibilities instead.

Read more about the digital disruption to the publishing industry and what all the changes mean for the future with author Dan Meadows’ new book The Decline and Fall of the Publishing Empire, available now.

Published in: on December 24, 2011 at 7:58 pm  Comments (2)  
Tags: , , , , , , ,

New Stuff and Old Concerns: The emerging ebook market can create a better future for writers

After all the Halloween stuff I did over the past few weeks on this site, I took a little time off.  Hey, cranking out 18 pieces in 14 days can be exhausting.  Anyway, I was very happy with how that worked out.  I got a massive uptick in traffic to this blog, I added a number of Twitter followers who actually stuck around and, ultimately, I sold what I consider to be a fair number of both of my books. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, the actual numbers behind any of this are miniscule.  I’m not making a fortune, I didn’t sell 50,000 copies, I didn’t add 25,000 followers on Twitter.  What I did do was illustrate to myself how some of this could conceivably work over the long haul.  And I made a few bucks to help pay the bills.  Sounds like a success to me.

I’ve noticed a few things of late that are steering me toward future choices.  The first is the impact a second book has had on generating sales for the first one.  That is, while I’ve sold copies of the new book, I’ve noticed a nice little bump in sales of the old one, too.  As much time and effort as I’ve put into trying to figure this stuff out over the past couple years, it startled me a bit to realize that I was still a victim of old school thinking. 

I was looking forward, focusing on the new book, almost subconsciously determining that the old one was played out.  It really never dawned on me that “played out” doesn’t even begin to apply to any of this any longer.  Ebooks are a relatively small percentage of the overall book market right now, but even the most pessimistic observers admit that they will soon come to dominate the market.  Tablets are getting cheaper and more diverse, meaning their penetration into the mainstream of life has the potential of what the VCR or DVD player or cable television did in the past, as in sooner than later, more people will have one than not.  How can a book that never goes out of stock, and never leaves the marketplace be played out when the market itself could be 200-300% bigger in the next few years alone?

I believe the mistake I made, and the mistake a lot of other, smarter people than me are making right now, is considering ebooks a segment of the overall book market.  It’s not.  Ebooks are an entirely different market altogether.  Even though you have the same material overlapping between print and digital, that’s really the only similarity.  Digital revenue won’t overtake print revenue in total dollars historically anytime soon, or even compensate for print’s losses in any effective way because the economics are different.  As much as big publishers want to tell themselves that people will pay $13, $15, $17 for ebooks, that’s a pricing structure doomed to failure.  So to look at ebook sales in the context of a percentage of total book sales misses the point, and totally underestimates the potential upside.

Ebooks are a market that, barring another economic catastrophe, is poised to enter a period of enourmous growth and expansion.  That expansion is predicated on a vastly different sales model than what has existed seemingly forever in print.  There is no longer any such concept as “played out.”  In fact, it appears that, as the networked infrastructures within ebook sales continue to grow and be populated by more and more readers, that each new entrant into the market under an author’s name has the potential to generate just as many sales for a book published two years ago as it does for a new release. 

That just seems counterintuitive to anyone who’s worked extensively in print publishing where everything, no matter how popular and successful, has a distinct life cycle.  It may be that ebooks hold the possibility of not simply extending that life cycle, but making it near infinite.  While things have existed in such a way for the most popular of writers, albeit to a lesser extent, this infinite life cycle in ebooks isn’t limited to the top of the top, it’s available for all writers at all levels of the book food chain.  That is a massive departure from the past, a total game-changer, if you will.

And it never really occurred to me even though it was staring me right in the face.  But I get it now.  After two years of wrapping my head around this stuff, trying to find something that makes sense economically–meaning an earning potential that equates the effort necessary to produce the product–ebooks are by far the most promising development I’ve seen.  There really hasn’t, with limited exceptions, been a model that makes a compelling case for selling digital content as a writer.  The ones that do tended to pull the majority of revenue to the institutions operating the platform.  Newspaper paywalls, for instance, generate revenue mostly for the newspaper and the corporation that owns it, and the writer is left with a miniscule share of that, if any.  Content farms pay peanuts for material, yet exploit that for their own, much larger share.  Ad supported sites are stuck in a volume business because the unlimited structure of the internet has been, and will continue to, drive a race to the bottom on ad rates.  And again, the writer gets a tiny, insignificant slice while the institution gets the lion’s share. 

Even book publishers, who have operated on that premise forever, are trying to squeeze that form into ebooks.  What does it say about a system where I can sell a book for a third or a quarter of the price of a Big 6, agency priced ebook yet I make more per copy than their author, no matter how big their name?  Ebooks have a clear potential to break this cycle, and produce significant financial gains for writers, putting us into a position, perhaps for the first time, to reap the majority of the proceeds generated from our work. 

While I’ve had conflicting issues with previous developments for writers online–most of which seemed based on a devaluing of our work, further mitigating our place in the content ecosystem–ebooks look to be just the opposite.  And we’re right at the ground floor of what is possibly a booming growth industry over the next decade.  When I look at ebooks, I see optimism, I see large growth possibilities, I see earnings potential that at least meets the efforts required to enter the market, and quite possibly far exceeds it.  For the first time in years, I can look at the disruption the internet has wrought on publishing and see an opportunity created for writers rather than one taken away.  Can it be that I’ve actually found what I’ve been looking for?

Anyway, enough pontificating.  I liked the 13 Days of Halloween stuff I did here so much, I decided to collect it up and make it an ebook all its own.  I unleashed it a few days ago.  You can click here to check it out.  I did slap a modest little price on it, as it’s a cleaned up, better organized and polished version of what’s still on the site, so I don’t believe that’s unreasonable. If you simply must read it for free, well, just scroll on down and have at it.

After wrapping that up, I dove right into something I’ve considered for a while but haven’t acted on, I kicked off a series of individual short stories in ebook form, each available for 99 cents.  I started off with three stories, and am listing them under the banner “Watershed Tales.”  Click here to check them out and see where you can buy copies.

It’s been a busy few weeks.  And there’s much more to come.  It’s interesting how encouraging it is to finally see a direction that doesn’t look like a dead end.  I’ve had a lot of pent-up creativity the past few years, mainly because I couldn’t find an outlet that made sense.  Now, however, without even truly realizing it, I’m overloading with ideas and possibilities.  For the first time in a long time, they actually seem attainable.  It’s about damn time!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 122 other followers

%d bloggers like this: