Print Protectionism Rules The Day…For Now

So Amazon came out with a statement a week ago detailing its position on ebook prices and, not insignificantly, it’s belief that authors are being short changed on royalties by publishers. Not surprisingly, it was met with a collective shrug by the mainstream industry, if not outright contempt. One thing this has done, however, is bring the belief that publishers’ actions on ebooks are all about protecting print out of the implied shadows. Here’s a variety of quotes from various sources critical of Amazon in response to their statement. Read on:

“Amazon doesn’t quantify what lower e-book prices would mean for sales of physical copies of the same books. Authors who work with traditional publishers like Hachette tend to make more, per copy, from hardcover sales than from e-books. If cheaper e-books draw people away from hardcovers, that could hurt these authors financially.”

“If lower e-book prices were to eventually destroy the market for physical books entirely—or even shrink it enough so that it wouldn’t make financial sense for traditional booksellers to publish them—that would help Amazon consolidate its power, which would ultimately be dangerous for authors.”

Literary agent Brian DeFiore in The New Yorker

“Lower e-book prices aren’t necessarily the best thing for writers. We get a percentage of the price as a royalty. You also have to take into consideration the price of the hardcover. Yes, it’s cheap to make a digital book but it’s expensive to present a book in hardcover.”

Roxana Robinson, Authors Guild President in Wall Street Journal

“Amazon’s assumptions don’t include, for example, that publishers and authors might have a legitimate reason for not wanting the gulf between eBook and physical hardcover pricing to be so large that brick and mortar retailers suffer, narrowing the number of venues into which books can sell.”

John Scalzi from his blog

“It is true that ebooks live in a world where they compete with other media. It is also true that the they live in a world which includes print, also an important component of a publisher’s and an author’s economic world. This analysis is very short on measurements of the impact on print sales of lower ebook prices.”

Michael Shatzkin from his blog

“Their figures consider a world of ebooks only. Their “total pie” is really just a piece of the pie. But publishers and authors are looking to maximize revenue across all formats. “Total revenue” on an ebook is only part of the “total revenue” for a new release book, and the hardcover edition still generates substantially more revenue per unit.”

Michael Cader from Publishers Lunch via Joe Konrath

“Even if ebook prices are the focal point of the dispute, that does not mean (Hachette) should not be looking at the effect across their total business, and their total account base.”

Michael Cader from Joe Konrath’s blog

What do all these have in common? The belief that the ebook is not only inextricably tied to print, but must, in some way, be handicapped to shield the older, more expensive and inefficient model. So what we’ve got here is the key issue in modern publishing, do you believe that digital must necessarily be hamstrung in some way to the benefit of print?

If you’re a Patterson or King or someone who gets the benefits of large numbers of hardcover sales in physical bookstores, that answer seems to be a resounding yes. But if you’re not one of those very select few, the question becomes much more difficult to answer. How does it benefit the midlist author or the debut author to have your ebook prices placed higher to support brick and mortar hardcover sales that benefit a much smaller number of superstar writers almost exclusively, and very likely, not you? As for the indie authors, it clearly doesn’t seem to benefit you to link print and digital in this way at all.

There appears to be two schools of thought on this. One is that print must be protected from lower priced ebooks because they will hurt physical stores, shelf space will decline and Amazon will reign hellfire over the industry forever and ever, which will result in damage to all authors in the long run. This is a call for all but the publishers and most fortunate authors to sacrifice in order to preserve an ecosystem that doesn’t really help them. You must sacrifice now in order to prop up a network where, unless you’re extremely fortunate, you must sacrifice in perpetuity, essentially.

The second school of thought is that ebook prices must necessarily be higher (and royalties lower) because the revenue generated pays for the totality of the book. This line of thought is that profits from ebooks aren’t really profits at all but a portion of the total revenue of a book that includes high print expenses that must be paid. This is a call for authors to sacrifice on ebooks to pay for the publishers’ print expenses even though they’re already being paid for that with a royalty structure on print that was designed and implemented to cover all the costs of bringing the book to market. You’re basically donating 75% or so of your digital proceeds after the retailer’s cut to your publisher for generating and uploading an epub file.

Either way, the presumption is that ebooks can’t be allowed to grow independently of print. They must either be restricted to prevent the erosion of print sales or a large portion of their revenue must be siphoned off to pay for the print infrastructure. There is also the assumption baked into this that the future of bookstores depends on the continued furtherance of $25 or $30 hardcovers. Also that any contraction in the print market (and conversely any unchecked growth in ebooks) will lead to Amazon consolidating even more power. Both assumptions rest on the belief that ebook and print revenue exist in the same continuum as hardcover and paperback revenue did in the past.

Here’s the thing about that, paperbacks didn’t undercut hardcovers because they were windowed. Windowing doesn’t work with digital. So the only means they see to prevent hardcover sales erosions is to actively lessen the sales of ebooks. Presumably, I would think, once the hardcover cycle runs it’s course, the high ebook price should come down to old mass market paperback levels, if not less, but that’s not really what we’re seeing.

All of this rests on the belief that digital sales can be essentially capped at 30-35% of the industry. And further, that print, particularly pricey hardcovers, won’t erode anyway due to other factors irrespective of ebooks or that the large and growing segment of the industry that simply doesn’t care about the hardcover/bookstore ecosystem they’re essentially locked out of won’t undermine the higher ebook prices to the point that publishers lose out on both print and digital sales.

Protecting physical bookstores is also a tenuous ideal from this two-pronged perspective. One, ecommerce is not going away. In fact, same day delivery is being rolled out by multiple players, not just Amazon. That has nothing to do with the price of ebooks but a more existential question on the nature of consumer shopping choices. Two, print on demand technology will become better, cheaper and more pervasive, possibly even resulting in kiosks that have the potential to do some of the same things Redbox did to video stores. When was the last time you visited one of those?

Are publishers going to withhold books from these kiosks? Will they demand near-hardcover prices for the trade paperback products they produce? Are they also going to demand higher prices for print books sold online? All of these elements will eventually erode bookstore sales and if publishers’ interests rely on protecting those stores, then these acts would be totally consistent with the higher ebook price strategy. It also means that publishers would be intentionally harming virtually every new publishing technology that increases efficiency, lowers prices to readers and increases sales in favor of their one preferred sales channel and format. One that, it can’t be understated, makes books more expensive, more inconvenient for readers to buy and less lucrative for writers overall.

If you’re James Patterson, Stephen King or Douglas Preston, these strategies may make some sort of sense in the immediate term. If you’re any of Hachette or any other large publisher’s thousands of non superstar authors, however, this doesn’t make a whole lot of long-term sense. Remember, you’re not just making less money on a contracting print market, you’re covering the publishers’ revenue declines in that respect through lower ebook royalties. The only way declining hardcover sales and rising ebook sales harms these authors is if the publishers are saddling you with a much-too-small cut of ebook proceeds. Amazon is right in this respect. If publishers were paying writers fairly on ebooks, then you stand to make more money on more sales at cheaper prices for readers. Their strategy is going to make you less money on fewer sales at higher prices to readers. The fact that there’s one single non-superstar writer who signed on to that Authors United letter is another illustration that, much like politics, dogma can and does lead some people to make choices that run counter to their own economic self interest.

Also consider, much like ebooks, independent authors will jump all over POD kiosks and the opportunities they bring. After all, when you’re looking at a physical store ecosystem that actively discriminates against you, protecting their margins or even their very existence is likely a non-factor in your choices if not a potential negative to you to do so. This is something bookstores would do well to keep in mind. Continuing to block, ignore or alienate indies is creating an entire giant class of increasingly successful writers who are ambivalent to your problems if not outright hostile to you. You might want to knock that off.

Basically, this strategy that the big publishing houses are engaging in is not in the best interests of readers or the vast majority of authors. The concern that Amazon will dominate everything is a very real one, but this isn’t a particularly practical way of dealing with that. I want a diverse ecosystem as well but asking me to sacrifice to the benefit of organizations that aren’t willing to do so in return isn’t going to work for me. Amazon’s market force is a different problem in need of a solution as innovative as the ones Amazon has used to gain that position. I think it’s fairly safe to say any such innovative competition is not going to be any more friendly to the publishers’ 20th century business strategy.

Let’s say I self publish a few books and my sales take off. A publisher comes to me with an offer. Ignore for a moment that the advances being offered barely cover a few weeks worth of sales in some cases, let alone life of the book. Let’s say I sign it anyway. That offer would require me to pull currently good selling material from the market for months in some cases. When they do return, my ebooks are now two or three times the price, the share of which I receive is less that what I was making per book on my own. I’m locked out of doing anything about it. I’m also hoping that bookstores stock my books in a way that generates sales rather than just another title on just another shelf and that declining physical sales doesn’t cost me even more money. I can’t get my books into libraries without the crazy high prices and restrictive terms publishers impose on them. I can’t take advantage of POD opportunities without my publisher’s approval and even then only on terms they set. On top of that, I have little means of having a viable route to rights reversions should everything go south. I have to hope I get lucky enough to generate hardcover sales (if I even get a hardcover print run) at a high enough volume that my next contract can get more favorable terms or a bigger advance, if there’s a next contract at all. The icing on this particular cake is that my material that was finding a foothold on my own may now be stagnant and trapped with that publisher for at least 35 years unless I can afford a good lawyer and a drawn out legal battle to get my rights back. And all because my publisher chose to emphasize its most difficult, expensive and inefficient product line for a litany of reasons that have little to nothing to do with benefitting me. Why would I sign that? Why would anyone?

I’m of the opinion that, if I were to sign on with a publisher to handle my print business, I absolutely do not want that same entity to also be in control of my digital business. They will almost inevitably do just as these publishers are, handicapping the digital to prop up the print. What should be happening here is another round of disintermediation, this time separating the print and digital products entirely. Focus on finding a way to maximize print that doesn’t involve sacrificing digital. That could mean exploiting POD technology and finding ways to actually cut the cost of physical books to readers (and bookstores), not raise the cost of ebooks. Can it be done? Maybe, maybe not. But what you won’t be doing is handicapping the emerging market that customers’ dollars are flowing toward. $30 hardcovers of mainstream genre fiction is not a long-term growth market, just as $20 compact discs weren’t for the music industry and multi-thousand dollar print ads weren’t for the newspaper industry. Their respective businesses may have been dependent on those things at one point, and they may have seemed reasonable at the time, but they weren’t a strength, instead a major weakness making them extremely vulnerable to technological change and shifting consumer habits.

The music business lost nearly half of its CD sales revenue in a just few years. Newspapers lost near half of their print ad revenue in just a few years. Sometime in 2025, will this paragraph be finished off by saying book publishers lost nearly half of their print revenue in just a few years? Those other two businesses refused to adapt, engaging in protectionist strategies under the mistaken belief that digital alternatives would top out at a lesser market share and the physical product would still retain primacy. Sound familiar?

Ask yourself this: if I sign on with a publisher whose entire strategy is to use digital to support the furtherance of print, what happens to me if print drops precipitously anyway, as there is clear precedent for? How you answer that question may well determine which writers still have a career a decade from now.

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

Containers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Correcting My Mistake: Petrocelli tops Carr in battle for who can be more wrong about DOJ price fix suit

Last week, I read what, at the time, I thought was the most one-sided, absurdly inaccurate article that could possibly be written about the ebook Agency Model price fixing lawsuit the Dept. of Justice recently filed against Apple and five of the six largest book publishers in the country.  I went through some points on the complete and utter nonsense spouted by David Carr in the New York Times here. Today, being one to readily admit my mistakes, I have to say I was wrong.

Now, I’m not about to suggest that my impressions of Carr’s piece have softened or that I’ve been convinced that he was right about any of it. He wasn’t.  It’s just that I read this piece in the Huffington Post by bookstore owner and former attorney William Petrocelli that, to my complete shock and dismay, somehow managed to reach a level even more misguided and inaccurate than Carr’s propoganda piece.  I guess the old adage really is true: don’t think things couldn’t possibly get worse because they certainly can. Here we go:

The Justice Department is hounding MacMillan and Penguin Publishers, even though those companies and other publishers have done nothing more than try to protect their business from the unfair tactics of Amazon.

This is a very early quote from the piece, but it sets the tone throughout. You can see pretty clearly that his take is Amazon is totally at fault and publishers were doing little more than defending themselves. Interesting take, particularly considering Amazon was the victim in this case, the admitted target of the pricing scheme that publishers (allegedly) illegally colluded to put in place.

News coverage of the DOJ’s case has been almost uniformly critical. When large publishers, small publishers, independent booksellers, Barnes & Noble, Apple Corporation, the American Booksellers Association, and the Authors Guild all agree that this case is terribly wrong, it’s time for the Justice Department take a step back and re-assess what’s doing.

Really? I’ve read more than a few defenses of the DOJ since this was filed, but then again, he might have a point. In the mainstream press, coverage has been generally critical of the case. But consider the sources. Most of the entities that own the mainstream press also own other business interests, you know, like book publishers, including some of the defendants in this case, under giant conglomerate umbrellas. Not exactly an unbiased position to report from, huh?

As for his list of groups inside the book industry that have been critical of the decision, they have one thing in common. They all have notable ties to the traditional industry, and therefore stood to benefit from the price fixing scheme. Without it, genuine adaptation is looking even more necessary, and that places every group inextricably tied to the traditional model at risk.

By the way, the big news this week is the DRM is on the verge of being killed off by some major publishers. Does anyone for even an instant think that would have happened if not for the DOJ lawsuit that stifled the price fixing racket? The lawsuit has already worked as it has compelled these publishers to actually compete rather than spend their time trying to squash competition they don’t like.

The DOJ has stepped into a business it doesn’t understand at all, and it is tilting the outcome against those who are trying to play by the rules.

Huh? I’m sorry, but even as cynical about government as I am, I just don’t see anybody getting sued for antitrust violations for simply playing by the rules. Collusion and price fixing are illegal actions that artificially hike prices and stop or slow down competition. If that’s considered playing by the rules, I’d hate to see what a publisher who was openly cheating looks like. Maybe Petrocelli needs to brush up a bit on what constitutes playing by the rules. Pretty sure breaking them doesn’t count.

What did the publishers do to bring down the wrath of the Justice Department? They did nothing other than what any rational business person would do in the face of unfair pressure from an over-bearing, dominant retailer.

So, according to a former attorney, the rational course of action for a business person faced with growing competitive pressure is to break the law? That’s the rational choice? Not to innovate or adapt? Not to find new ways to compete in a changing marketplace but to violate the law to manipulate market conditions to quash a competitor’s earned advantage? Sure, I guess that’s rational. This must be a line of thinking I missed out on by skipping law school.

If you read the Justice Department’s complaint , you’d get the impression that the publishers adopted the Agency Plan as a means of maximizing their profits at the expense of the consumer.

You know, he’s right. When I read the DOJ complaint, I did get that impression. You know why? Because that was their intent. And it worked. Remember all those stories a few months back about publishers’ profit margins increasing even in the face of declining revenues? How do you suppose that happened? Could it possibly have been consumers paying 30-50% higher ebook prices? And let’s not forget that a big part of the Agency strategy was to protect print profits, as well. Of course, this could just be a serendipitous coincidence for the publishers in question, right?

It is clear even in paragraph 30 of the DOJ’s own complaint that Amazon was engaging in predatory pricing — i.e. by selling e-books at $9.99, Amazon was selling them below cost.

It’s only clear if that’s what you want to believe it says. Here’s a direct quote from that same paragraph 30 that he seems to believe is so incriminating: “From the time of its launch, Amazon’s e-book distribution business has been consistently profitable, even when substantially discounting some newly released and bestselling titles.”

Predatory pricing is generally defined as losing money to run off competition, then recouping those losses later through unchallenged higher prices. But what happens if the supposed predator isn’t actually losing money? Isn’t it just as feasible that Amazon’s managed to develop a more efficient, consistently profitable mechanism for selling ebooks? Maybe they’re not really predatory at all, but actually have a sound, profitable business practice? Notice the emphasis on the word profitable there. Also, there’s the perplexing fact that in all of U.S. history, there’s never actually been a monopoly created through predatory pricing.

To top it off, here’s a quote from the SCOTUS in its 1993 case Brooke Group v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco , dealing with a predatory pricing allegation:

“The mechanism by which a firm engages in predatory pricing–lowering prices–is the same mechanism by which a firm stimulates competition; because cutting prices in order to increase business often is the very essence of competition. Mistaken inferences are especially costly, because they chill the very conduct the antitrust laws are designed to protect. It would be ironic indeed if the standards for predatory pricing liability were so low that antitrust suits themselves became a tool for keeping prices high.”

Interesting that Amazon haters who toss around the predatory label seem to want antitrust law to do exactly what the Supremes in 1993 declared it shouldn’t; chill competition and keep prices artificially high. Even more interestingly, there hasn’t been a successful prosecution in this country for predatory pricing since this decision. That’s because (1) predatory pricing doesn’t work (2) the remedies end up more anticompetitive than the offense itself and (3) very few, if any, are actually engaging in it, not even Amazon.

While it is true the cost of producing e-books is somewhat lower than print books, there are large development, marketing, and other costs that publishers simply couldn’t recover if they were forced to drop their wholesale price significantly below $9.99.

This, to me, seems a little confusing. The market shifts, prices drop and publishers find themselves in a position where their established costs exceed the prices they can bring in. Ok, so that’s Amazon’s fault? It is, in a way, because they largely ushered in the ebook disruption, but other than that, this seems to be pointing out the necessity of publishers to change. Their business model isn’t working with current or sure-to-be future market conditions. Shouldn’t the point here be adapt before you go under? Rather, he seems to be using this point to justify publishers’ actions to stifle the changes in the market to support a status quo your own damn customers are walking away from! I just don’t know anymore. These people work with books, for god’s sake! Wouldn’t some knowledge and logic sink in just out of random chance once in a while?

To really see the disastrous effects of the DOJ’s action, we should probably listen to authors.

By authors, he really just means Scott Turow. Otherwise, you might actually run across some authors who aren’t all that fond of the traditional book business model, and they might even hold opinions that don’t truck with illegal collusion and price fixing. Can’t have that. Don’t these silly writers understand that if something isn’t good for old school publishers, then it must be bad for them, too? I mean, writing and literature–hell, the entire culture itself–will simply cease to exist if the so-called Big Six go under. I’m sure I read that somewhere.

With a new hardcover book, an author will typically get around $3.00 to $4.00 per copy in royalties — hardly an extravagant amount, when you consider the effort that goes in to writing a book. But if the print book fades away and the $9.99-priced e-book becomes the new norm, authors’ royalties would be reduced to a pittance.

If I started selling ebooks on Amazon for $9.99, I’d make $7 a book. I already make the $3-$4 per book he cites for an author’s royalty on a hardcover for an ebook priced at $5. Not that it’s possible to make that, mind you, I already have, virtually every day for several months now, and so have lots and lots and lots of other writers.

This is, again, a problem for the publishers and their business model. Writers get the pittance royalties, particularly on ebooks, because that’s what publishers want to pay. This may well become a problem for those chained to traditional contracts down the road, but the rest of us pretty much just shrug it off and go back to writing.

The entire end of Petrocelli’s article is a virtual point by point presentation of the failings of the traditional model. But unlike what most rational people would do, see the need to adapt, he seems to prefer sticking his fingers in his ears and yelling, “Nah, Nah, Nah, It’s all Amazon’s fault, Nah, Nah, Nah, It’s not fair, Nah, Nah, Nah!”

So, as I said at the beginning, I was wrong about David Carr’s piece being the worst possible. And to show that I do learn from my mistakes and know how to adapt, here’s my new take: William Petrocelli’s piece is the worst, most misguided, one-sided Amazon hating missive I’ve seen, so far. See, adaptation isn’t so difficult.

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