Amazon the Great and Terrible

So I’m sitting here this fine Sunday morning patiently waiting for David Gaughran’s promised blog piece on the PR campaign Hatchette may be running in its now six-month contract dispute with Amazon. (Warning: profanity ahead because some of this shit just pisses me off.) I, for one, am not buying the “poor helpless little Hatchette being bullied by big, bad Amazon” meme that’s so popular these days. It’s making the rounds everywhere, which I find fascinating due largely to the fact that nobody outside the negotiating wing of those two companies has any knowledge whatsoever about the dispute, and they’re not talking. Well, Amazon, per usual, isn’t talking. Hatchette isn’t talking about any of the issues at hand either, but they are going through great pains to play the wounded party, and igniting the entrenched Amazon hatred out there to do the rest of the heavy lifting.

I’d think people would be more suspicious of things like that. In my experience, when someone in a position like Hatchette is playing the victim card, without clearly backing it up, odds are, they’re conveniently leaving out the parts where they are anything but victimized. So my opinion, knowing nothing about the specifics of their negotiation but strictly looking at the outward actions of the participants, Amazon is going about its business and Hatchette is playing a totally different game. Are they justified? Possibly but I get a strong sense of Hatchette trying to control the narrative and I don’t much care for being manipulated.

“Scott Turow said that Amazon recently raised the price of his most recent book, “Identical,” a move that he said would depress sales.”
–From Washington Post, May 16

Ok, what? First off, that quote’s from the Washington Post, you know, the newspaper Jeff Bezos owns. So much for slanted coverage huh? The difference I see between the Post’s coverage and most other coverage is that the Post consistently uses phrases like “could be”, “might be”, “industry insiders suspect” and things like that when discussing the negotiation. They’ve presented the argument without validating it, which is exactly what all these papers should be doing, unless they actually have hard evidence to support it, then they should print that. But they don’t. It’s rumor and conjecture presented as fact when the people writing can’t possibly know if it’s true.

Secondly, WTF Scott Turow!?! You’re actually bitching that Amazon isn’t discounting your book? Didn’t you just spend two years telling us Amazon was destroying the industry by discounting books? Is there any coherence in your argument at all? Are you just going to complain no matter what Amazon does? Or are you, as is the case with many political pundits, just going to spout the party line regardless of whether it contradicts what you just said. “Amazon’s discounting is killing us” is so last month, I guess.

So here’s my assumption about you based on your own comments. You’re a writer and a lawyer, for God’s sake, so it defies credulity to me that you don’t see the obvious contradiction in your own statements. So I must conclude that you do see it, and just don’t care. You likely never gave a shit about other writers, the industry at large or Amazon’s discounting. You were playing a mouthpiece for your publisher because you thought it was in your best interest at the time. And you did it in defense of a criminal conspiracy by your own publisher and others to violate antitrust law. But now, Amazon’s not discounting and that may hit you in the wallet, so discounting suddenly is no longer destroying the industry but necessary, and you’re statements have shifted accordingly. Credibility all day long, I tell ya. My conclusion is that you’re full of shit, and acting out of your and only your own self interest. Let me ask you, what’s your statement going to be if we find out Hatchette’s trying to reinstitute Agency in some form, limiting or eliminating Amazon’s ability to discount? Actually, I don’t even need to ask, I already know. Assumptions are a bitch, aren’t they?

“Amazon has begun discouraging customers from buying books by Malcolm Gladwell, Stephen Colbert, J. D. Salinger and other popular writers, a flexing of its muscle as a battle with a publisher spills into the open.”
–From the New York Times

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

The first quote, from the New York Times, contains no “could be”, “reportedly”, or “may be”. It’s “Amazon is”. They don’t know that, only that Hatchette is telling them that. Mightn’t they have an agenda? So does the Times, of course, but that’s a different article. The second quote is from an actual Hatchette author trying to get his publisher to prove what they’re saying. Look at the response again: “It is not information we would like to be shared with any third party at the current time.” No shit. Wonder why?

Here comes some assumptions again. Say I’m in a business arrangement with someone and they get involved in a dispute that negatively affects me, and they’re telling me “It’s not our fault. Those bastards over there are doing it to you.” My reaction is going to be exactly like this guy, “then you’ll have no problem proving to me you’re doing what you say?” If they come back with a response like he got, I can only conclude that they’re lying to me about something.

And are you telling me the writer is a third party in the distribution of his own fucking book? He’s not entitled to see proof that you’re not lying right to his face and actively harming what he contracted you for in the service of your interests elsewhere? Sales that, in the traditional world, operate in a very short time window and can have disastrous consequences on any future career? Fuck off with that noise. Whatever the negotiating battle is being fought over, this little tidbit of information may be the most important of all for writers. Hatchette doesn’t respect this guy, and they certainly aren’t treating him like a business equal. And their refusal to back up their attempt to escape responsibility for something that’s hurting their own authors even to those authors themselves, should be unacceptable. But writers, please remember, you all signed the contracts that made it this way. This Hatchette writer certainly does and is factoring that in to his future choices. So should we all.

What saddens me about this is that there are all these writers out there who see Amazon as a rival of sorts but don’t see the publishers that way. The Hatchette/Amazon dispute, and the ones like it certain to come, is a fight between billion dollar enterprises over staggering sums of money and that’s all it is. The Amazon haters are right about one thing, Amazon is not your friend. But neither are publishers. And if you’re looking for friends in a contract, anyway, you’ve got bigger problems. The best you can hope for in a business arrangement is that your interests and the interests of the other party align and flow in the same direction. You get into one where your interests diverge at some point, you may well find yourself screwed by your own signature.

I can cut off all business dealings with Amazon in the half hour it takes me pull my stuff offline. If I was signed with Hatchette or some other publisher, that type of action is simply unthinkable. I’m stuck with that contract maybe for the rest of my life, or 35 years at the least. And I don’t even have the right to verify they’re living up to their end of it. If the New York Times or Salon or the Wall Street Journal or Scott Turow want to talk about power imbalances, how about we address that one first? Who, exactly, is that man behind the curtain we shouldn’t be paying attention to?

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

Data Overload: Reader behavior data lacking in crucial context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turow also said this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moaning and Groaning: Publishers’ supporters get more hard line after being shot down by the DOJ

So I’m catching up on my reading of industry news and I noticed that, since the DOJ pretty much laughed off the anti-settlement brigade’s rhetoric, the tone in some circles has gotten even sharper, more filled with doomsaying than it was before, and it was already pretty severe. Personally, I found a lot to like about the DOJ’s response to comments, which is something I very rarely say about any government agency. I especially appreciate that they weren’t swayed by the 10 to 1 ratio against that the traditional publishing backers’ letter writing campaigns generated.

I still believe there was a fatal flaw in their logic. In encouraging people to parrot the anti-Amazon party line, it created a raft of letters that failed to address the principle matter of law in the case, worse yet, it may have vindicated it. Very few, if any, of the letters substantively refuted the claims of collusion, instead using unsubstantiated claims of Amazon’s predatory pricing as justification for the publishers’ actions. In this way, many of the comments, while attempting to defend the publishers, essentially admitted collusion took place. It’s like saying, “Yes, your honor, we did it, but we’ve got a really good excuse.”

It doesn’t surprise me in the least that this kind of approach carried no water with a group of prosecutors. If anything, the arrogance of it seems to have further emboldened and entrenched the DOJ in its beliefs. This could end up being extraordinarily bad news for Penguin, MacMillan and Apple if they actually force an annoyed DOJ into court.

But that’s an issue for a later date if the holdouts don’t come to their senses and settle before they end up spending absurd amounts of money defending a pricing scheme likely to be obsolete before the first witness is ever called.

I’ve got two articles I read this week that, I think, illustrates both the attitude of superiority and the over-the-top, end of days hyperbole that’s making the rounds now that the industry seems to be realizing Uncle Sam isn’t going to do their bidding, no matter how many campaign contributions they make to Chuck Schumer. It’s a sad commentary on the state of things these days when buying a congressman is an easier accomplishment than competing in the market.

I’ve taken five points from each of these two articles to discuss. The first is a particularly single-minded post by Dennis Johnson, co-founder of the publisher Melville House, a staunch traditionalist.

Before I begin, let me say that I find it odd that such a virulent supporter of publishers founded a company named after Herman Melville, a man who largely had a tenuous if not outright bad relationship with publishers. Most of his books had to be published in London initially because American publishers wouldn’t touch them, and even then, they were never able to generate significant sales despite the fact he wrote some of the greatest works in the English language.  Rather infamously, Melville was paid a grand total of less than $600 for his masterpiece Moby Dick. I’m sure if he were to rise from the grave today, Melville would have more than a few choice words for publishers, particularly considering his actually burnt the unsold copies of an epic poem he wrote after he couldn’t pay for them. Comforting to see some things never change, like publishers’ contempt for writers.

1. “At the start of agency, for example, Amazon controlled 90 percent of ebook sales. There’s nothing “highly speculative” about calling that a monopoly.”

Except for the fact that Amazon’s large share came about because they took a then-under utilized ebook market and drug it into the mainstream essentially by themselves. No major publishers paid much heed to it at the time, very few competitors showed any interest in jumping in before Amazon charted a course, and certainly none on their scale. Once Amazon started making real money, though, that 90% share dropped significantly, just as you’d expect a trendsetter would when a previously empty playing field started filling up. It wasn’t like Amazon entered a thriving ebook market and swiped that giant share of business from others. They essentially created the market when almost no one else had the interest, desire or the balls to do it. He’s right, though, partly. It’s not “highly speculative” to call Amazon a monopoly in that instance, it’s outright bullshit to do so.

2. “The Sherman Antitrust Act, and its descendent the Robinson-Patman Act, clearly define loss-leader under-pricing as a predatory tactic rather obviously intended to “drive out competition and obtain monopoly pricing power.”

So when does the DOJ actions start up against every retail business in this country? Loss Leader pricing is so commonplace we barely even notice it any more. Its use is far from being “rather obviously” about driving out competition, either, far more commonly used on a day to day basis virtually everywhere things are sold, as a means of bringing customers into your store.

On the other hand, what the publishers did with the agency scheme was retail price maintenance, which up until 2007, was illegal in essentially all its forms. A Supreme Court decision (which overturned damn near a century of precedent, by the way) granted a limited allowance for the behavior under the “rule of reason” which Apple and the publishers flaunted by colluding pretty much in public and gloating about how their plans were going to screw Amazon, inhibit the ebook market and raise prices on ebooks. The publishers are only in legal trouble today because of their egos, stupidity and total lack of discretion. That and, unlike Amazon, they actually broke the law.

3. “The DOJ cited arguments from David Gaughran, writing on behalf of 186 self-published authors who thanked Amazon for ‘creating, for the first time, real competition in publishing by charting a viable path for self-published books. But when was it, exactly, that publishers prevented authors from self-publishing?

Is he kidding? Certainly, anyone with the money could publish a book, but getting that in book stores or retail outlets dominated by traditional publishing was an entirely different story. Publishers’ entire business model was one of dominating the channels of distribution. What good was publishing a book if you were essentially locked out of the principle sales channels?

Preventing writers from having any access to the market was their stock in trade, creating a ready supply of material they could pay as little as possible for, which is why writers get such a low portion of revenues today when they are principally responsible for the product. And, really, anyone who thinks there was anything close to a viable path to self publish pre-Amazon is either dangerously ignorant of reality or purposely being disingenuous.

4. “The process of public involvement was, apparently, meaningless. But there are better things to remember right now. For one, take this for what it is: The DOJ has found its own case sound. The good guys, meanwhile, have yet to have their day in court.”

So the DOJ was supposed to take a vote and ignore the law because a large number of traditional publishing’s disciples said so? The truest thing in the DOJ’s response was that the overwhelming majority of anti-settlement comments came from people and businesses profiting directly from the price fixing scheme. Like I said, I’m actually impressed they saw through it.

In truth, I think the public involvement stage was very useful. It illustrated the biases of those supporting the publishers who, despite their numbers, produced no compelling arguments for a lessening of terms. It also showed that the truly independent voices who, not coincidentally, are finding success without the need to break the law, were heard even though they could have been swamped by traditional publishing’s comment generating machine. If anything, unlike many other areas of life these days, this looks like the powerful corporations flaunting the law will be held to task while consumers, innovators and legitimate competitors in the market will win the day.

5. “The ludicrous charges, the fact of such paltry and pitiful support for them, the wide variety of opponents — the entire industry and then some — roused to speak out — all provide reason for hope.”

Yeah, reason to hope you guys hurry up and go bankrupt. Seriously? Ludicrous charges? Pitiful and paltry support? No and no. The charges look pretty damn sound to me. And evidently, those of us who choose to disagree don’t matter. Hell, we’re not even in the industry, apparently, despite selling books professionally. For money. To actual readers. See, it’s not that public input didn’t matter, it’s that public input he disagreed with didn’t matter, and it certainly shouldn’t have mattered enough to beat back their superior numbers and unsubstantiated inflamatory rhetoric. How dare the DOJ side with the law and actually aggreived parties who have paid tens of millions more for ebooks than would have been possible without collusion! They sent 800 carbon copy, Amazon-is-evil letters, didn’t the DOJ get the memo? Won’t somebody please think about the culture?

Shortly after reading that piece, I read this one by John Barber of the Globe and Mail. The hits just keep on coming in this one, including cameos by everbody’s favorite bitchy traditional writers, Ewan Morrison and Scott Turow, proving that even the Atlantic Ocean can’t keep arrogance and stupidity apart.

1. “Authors are losing income as sales shift to heavily discounted, royalty-poor and easily pirated ebooks. Journalists are suffering pay cuts and job losses as advertising revenue withers. Floods of amateurs willing to work for nothing are chasing freelance writers out of the trade. And all are scrambling to salvage their livelihoods as the revolutionary doctrine of “free culture” obliterates old definitions of copyright.”

Being as he made several points here, I’ll address each in order. First, ebooks are only royalty-poor because publishers want them that way. And, to be fair, print books are pretty damn royalty poor in most instances, too. Next, do you know who’s not seeing pay cuts and job losses as advertising flees newspapers? The CEOs, who are “suffering” with giant bonuses and golden parachutes for all those job losses they’ve instituted while simultaneously playing the fiddle on any kind of digital transition as their industry segment burns to the ground.

Third, as conglomerates bought up any and every publication they could find during the acquisition rush years ago, many publishers began getting tight with freelance budgets. Even at the height of profitability before the bottom fell out, prices paid to freelancers were stagnant or negative. Once the advertising revenue started to fall, they used it as a convenient excuse to put the screws to writers even more than usual. The flood of free content he refers to was largely spurred on by publishers looking for ways to spend as little as humanly possible on content, quality be damned. The issue isn’t that there’s work out there available for free, it’s that publishers refuse to pay even modest wages for quality writing despite the fact that content is the only reason they have the ability to attract any advertising at all.

And, finally, who’s perverted the concept of copyright more, the “free culture” people, as he calls them, who advocate sharing and the rights of consumers or the media companies, who lobby for laws like DMCA and SOPA, and push through things like the Mickey Mouse rule that now has copyright extended to life of the creator plus 70 years?

The extensions and increasingly stringent punishments for even minor infringement has created an atmosphere where it makes a lot of sense to argue that copyright needs to be looked at anew. The parts of copyright law that support derivative works and allow creators to build off of the progress of those before, fair use and the first sale doctrine, and the public domain and furtherance of culture have all been imperiled by the steady rights grabs of media companies who have been engaging in a systematic effort at maintaining copyright in perpetuity for decades now. If you’re going to cry about copyright being broken, don’t do so while advocating for those who actually broke it.

2. “(According to best-selling UK author Ewan Morrison) The result will be the destruction of vital institutions that have supported “the highest achievements in culture in the past 60 years.” In short, he predicts, “There will be no more professional writers in the future.”

I’m sure when Morrison uses the term “professional writers”, he’s referring to people like himself. We can only hope for a future with as few of those kinds of “professionals” as possible. It’s not his writing talents I have issue with, I’ve never actually read any of his work, it’s that he has some ridiculously backwards, elitist ideas along with a generous helping of contempt for anyone who circumvents the traditional getekeepers.

Morrison has said some pretty crazy stuff, for instance, this piece in the Guardian where he argues against social media but makes some larger points about traditional and self publishing. Be sure to read the comments because he has numerous additional points there, including a rather entertaining discussion with Joe Konrath. My favorite part is when he excoriates Konrath for daring to encourage others to eschew traditional and embark in self publishing by saying, “It is unfair and cruel to propagate a model for others which can only ever work for the few.” After I stopped laughing and wiped the tears from my eyes, the full audaciousness of that comment really sunk in. After all, Konrath has a long, long way to go to rate with traditional publishers in propagating models that only work for the few. The sad part is that it seems Morrison doesn’t even get the rich, creamy irony.

These statements are what I’m talking about when I say the rhetoric has gotten more severe. The highest institutions of culture will crumble and working writers will totally vanish. Talk about self-important! Publishers largely gave up their mantle of cultural protectors, if they ever had one in the first place, when they became little more than profit engines for larger conglomerates. It’s pretty obvious, too, yet Morrison seems to believe that writers should willingly accept lousy royalties so these publishers can keep exploiting them to the benefit of their parent company’s bottom line. Being self published and actually keeping a fair share of what your work earns is selfish, according to Morrison. Of course, he just might see it that way because more and more writers earning outside of traditional may jeopardize his next advance. Besides, if publishers weren’t portrayed as purveyors of culture, then there’d be no moral argument for their survival, and that would make for even more specious rants, if that’s possible.

3. “(Author Scott Turow) has drawn heavy criticism from digital partisans for defending the diminishing rights of “legacy publishers” currently under U.S. Justice Department investigation for allegedly fixing ebook prices.”

Diminishing rights? I wasn’t aware publishers had the right to colluded and fix prices. Didn’t know they had the right to rip off authors through shady corporate finanglings like Harlequin just got sued for. Wasn’t aware they had the right to snatch digital rights from contracts signed 30 years before anyone had ever heard of an ebook. Most of all, I didn’t know they had the right to operate largely free of genuine competition.

If publishers are diminishing, it’s likely for two reasons; writers have other choices now and are sick of being treated like chattel and paid slightly worse; and they’re clinging to a business model that is servicing a shrinking percentage of their customer base. But that’s the common denominator in the anti-Amazon camp, the stark refusal to admit publisher’s culpability for their own problems because it’s so much easier to make excuses for your own failings when you can pretend to be a victim.

4. “Nor is self-publishing profitable for the majority of authors, according to a recent British survey. It found that half of the writers – many no doubt lured by well-publicized tales of spectacular success achieved by a handful of fellow novices – made less than $500 a year for their efforts.”

No one was ever lured into traditional publishing by the tales of success of other writers, right? I’m sure that’s never happened. And let me just reiterate an earlier point: Herman Melville made less than $600 in total on Moby Dick. Using dollar figures in this way, especially with no context in comparison with traditionally published writers, makes for compelling soundbites while providing very little actual insight. Besides, there are a whole lot of self published writers. That survey means half of them made more than $500 a year. I’d be willing to bet that percentage isn’t far removed from traditional but I’m sure we’ll never hear about it.

5. “The livelihoods of serious writers will continue to depend directly on the health of traditional publishers, “the venture capitalists of the intellectual world,” according to Turow.”

So only writers with traditional contracts are serious? The rest of us are just dicking around out here then, huh? Writers like Turow and Morrison may have their livelihoods depend on the health of traditional publishers, but there seems to be a large and growing infrastructure that’s circumventing their control. That means the health of said publishers isn’t really a major concern in that segment. In fact, it may be just the opposite.

With fewer market obstructions from the traditional end, and less product from that side, it could well increase opportunities for success amongst those who aren’t dependant on them. But that doesn’t matter because those people won’t be serious, of course. Everyone knows you can’t be a serious writer unless you give up most of the proceeds, all creative control and any conceivable rights to your work until your great, great grandchildren are old and gray. It’s just crazy talk to say otherwise.

The Defenders of Literature and Cultural Heritage? Ha!

In the past week, there’s been several long-winded screeds written about the end of days for publishing at the hands of the exploding supernova that is Amazon.  This isn’t altogether a rarity, but I’ve noticed, as print sales continue to decline, ebook sales continue to pick up, and the traditional ways of doing business continue looking more and more like a quaint remnant of a past soon to be forgotten, the bile and vitriol thrown around at those who are at the vanguard of this vast cultural shift have gotten more pressing and severe.  First there was Scott Turow’s “Grim News” letter defending big publishing’s (alleged) collusion and price fixing.  He followed that up with a somewhat more tempered but still massively slanted and misdirected interview on Salon a few days later.  I myself, along with several others, took a swing at the hanging sliders Turow threw into all of our wheelhouses here.  After that, there was Harper’s Magazine publisher John MacArthur’s rant on what he calls the “internet con-men who have ravaged publishing”.   I fully intend to expound upon his comments a little later, as I did find myself agreeing with bits and pieces of what he had to say about the newspaper business’ futile  addiction to elusive web ads, but his overall missive was still very much misplaced.  Finally, I ran across this piece by Bryce Milligan, publisher of Wings Press, on what he calls Amazon’s assault on intellectual freedom.  It’s been a pretty busy week for the dinosaurs of the publishing industry.

None of this is particularly surprising to me.  I’ve seen a lot of this before, watching the legacy newspaper industry’s response when the internet first started to really take a bite out of their once whole-ly locked down apple.  The newcomers were usurpers, illegitimate, doing nothing but stealing their hard-earned positions and work.  The folks heading the industry at that time were so caught up in the belief that the mechanisms they had been in charge of were the pinnacle of their business, and virtually omnipotent, that they failed to see the handwriting on the wall.  It was much easier to lash out and demonize the agents of change than to actually admit to themselves that they had to change as well, or be left on the scrap-heap of history.  So bitch, moan and complain they did.  For years while their revenues shrank, their marketshare plummeted and their customers–both advertisers and readers–moved on to bigger and better things.  The newspaper industry today is roughly 40% the size it was only a half-dozen years ago and still contracting.  Their big plans for the future are website paywalls, an argument that really should have been settled somewhere around 1998.  They slipped, ignored the reality of change by spending too much attention to the quirks of those bringing it right to their doorsteps and, in the process, doomed themselves to a slow, wasting death.  Look closely and you can see the same thing happening to parts of the book publishing segment.

So this isn’t exactly an unheard of development, the disrupted lashing out at the disrupters, and it is more than predictable to see their points of view on the precise business aspects of the issue.  Obviously, they will violently defend the status quo mechanisms while disparaging the strange, new and different ways others have found to achieve the same ends, that being to put written works in the hands of readers.  That, I expected.  It still strikes me as living life with blinders on, but at least it makes sense from a business perspective.  After all, the new digital revolution is barely a few years old.  The legacy bookselling model has existed, pretty much as is, for decades, if not centuries.  You don’t make money that well for that long without developing a nearly-religious belief in your business model.  That faith won’t save them, but it is understandable.

One thing, however, that has begun to emerge in these anti-Amazon (truthfully, more anti-future and anti-change) rants is the notion that legacy publishers, editors, distributors, agents bookstores and the authors entwined with them aren’t simply defending a means of doing business; they are beginning to position their plight on a higher plane.  They aren’t simply disrupted business people, they are pious defenders of literature, heritage and the very culture itself.  Every time I see one of these comments, I can’t help but snort.  I’ve even taken to putting down my drink whenever I get the slightest hint I’m reading one of these for fear of shooting some of said drink out of my nose, a fate I’d like to avoid if at all possible.  It’s one thing to defend your business and how it operates, even if you do so in absence of facts, reason and rationality.  It is quite another to pretend to be martyrs on the cross of literary heritage.  Of course, it’s entirely possible they’re not pretending and that would be telling in and of itself.  I’ve always approached these types of backwards defenses as willful blindness by those so worried about losing their meal tickets that they refuse to acknowledge the validity of the opposing arguments.  But, perhaps, what we are dealing with here are actually “true believers” so indoctrinated by legacy publishing’s dogma that anything challenging its preeminence is immediately treated as heresy.

When a Konrath, an Eisler or any of the other outspoken proponents of the changes that have torn through the industry advocate their positions, is it possible that these true believers don’t see a reasoned argument supported by observation, statistics and facts?  Does Turow look at Konrath the way the Pope looked at Galileo when he challenged the notion that the Earth was the center of the universe?  Did he consider the matter at hand, looking at all the available evidence and make a reasoned judgement or does he simply launch into an inquisition-style defensive assault that twists logic like a Philly soft pretzel to suit his preconceived beliefs?  I sincerely hope it’s the former because, even though I believe he’s wrong, at least he would still retain the possibility that further evidence and reason could have a positive effect.  If it’s the latter, no amount of reason will have any effect, except to make the vitriol even stronger because if there’s any one trait that defines true believers of any stripe, it’s that they almost always double down against things that challenge their faith, no matter how logical or reality-based they are.

Read each of the four pieces I linked to above and look for the similarities in their arguments.  Far from simply a discussion about the difficulties of transitioning from a print-centric business model to a digital-centric one, they each pine for the glory days of yore, nostalgia for the way things have always been done literally drips from their words.  And they each, at various points, make the proclamation that, as the new digital frontier continues to spread over the old physical one, our culture and even literacy itself will suffer for it.  The literacy point is somewhat inexplicable to me.  How, exactly, can literacy decline through the act of more people reading more than ever?  It’s seems a lot like Barry Eisler excellently pointed out on Turow’s allegation that Amazon is trying to destroy bookselling, apparently, by selling lots of books.  I guess when logic, reason and facts fail to produce a convincing argument, scare tactics are a consistently easy fallback.

“The end is near!  If our business fails, the world will be consumed by hellfire!  The people will become illiterate slugs if we’re no longer around to tell them what’s worthy of reading and spending their money on!  Without us, our culture will collapse into an horrific hodgepodge of things regular people actually enjoy, without having a gatekeeper like us to tell them it’s okay to like it!  What about our heritage?  Won’t somebody think about the children and how they’ll be able to learn of their heritage on their own, god forbid, without the facts they’re exposed to being vetted and approved by we professional keepers of what’s right and just!  It’ll be the end of days!  The horror…the horror…”

Publishing is a business, folks, not a religion.  They operate, as they always have, on a business model that allowed them to make money on the written word.  Technology has changed the ways in which people can access those words, undermining publishing’s long-standing business model.  Now, if they want to survive, they must transition to a model that fits today’s (and tomorrow’s) readers.  That’s all this is.  The world won’t end.  Great masses of people won’t suddenly lose the ability to read.  The written word will continue on as it always has, only now with the means of reaching more people more inexpensively and efficiently than ever before.  Our culture will not suffer.  Our heritage will not evaporate.  In fact, they may well be greatly enhanced by what’s coming.  The fact that a relatively small number of people who used to make a living putting words in ink on blank sheets of paper and selling them could possibly be out of work isn’t going to doom civilization as we know it.

Print publishing has had a good run.  They’ve existed as an industry largely undisturbed for numerous generations, far more fortunate than many, much more successful industries before or after them.  Change in life is inevitable.  How we deal with that change is what separates the people who keep moving forward, whatever the obstacles and the people who just whine about how much better things were back in their day.  Some of these old-guard folks sound to me like they’re desperately in need of a rocking chair, a tall glass of lemonade, a quilt to keep the evening chill away and a nice front porch to retire to.  Put enough of them together, and they should have plenty of tales to share amongst themselves about how great things were back in the good ol’ days.

As for the rest of us?  We’ve got things to do.  There’s a disruption going on, don’t you know?

Scott Turow, Whitley Streiber And Legacy Authors Quest For That Elusive Clue

The Author’s Guild, a group that theoretically exists to represent the interests of writers, has recently been cranking out a bunch of statements fresh out of the legacy publisher, Amazon is super evil and will destroy the industry, wipe out civilization and eat your children playbook. Guild president Scott Turow, of Presumed Innnocent fame, has himself authored a couple of these disruption-hating diatribes, but perhaps none more clueless than the one that hit the web on Friday. I had to read it twice just to be sure it was real and not an elaborate hoax given the fact that it reads almost like something The Onion would have written. I suppose I expect too much from a group who’s priciple players are steeped in the legacy model of bookselling that’s quickly meeting its demise at the hands of technology and the culture shift we’re all undergoing.

The point of his letter, appropriately titled “Grim News” because what could be more grim than discovering that the president of an organization that represents you has his head buried so far in the sand that only the tips of his toes remain visible, challenged the validity of the Justice Department’s threatened antitrust action against Apple and five of the Big Six publishers for their (alleged) pretty obvious illegal collusion in agency pricing for ebooks. By all means, read his full statement. It’s good for a laugh, if nothing else. Of course, if I were actually a dues paying member of the Guild, I certainly wouldn’t be laughing. Maybe asking for a refund, or sobbing uncontrollably, but not laughing.

The entire piece is pretty astounding, honestly, for its shortsightedness, and I could write a full volume reciting its many, many fallacies but I won’t. Plus, there’s the fact that that the web has already been peppered with several long refutations of Turow’s misguided tome. I’ve picked out a half-dozen high spots that seem worthy of addressing. Here goes:

Amazon was using ebook discounting to destroy bookselling

Really? The largest book retailer pretty much on the planet was discounting ebooks to destroy bookselling? A business that dumped tons of money into developing tablets designed to provide a quality reading experience and then sold them at or below cost to increase the pool of potential ebook customers was trying to destroy bookselling? A company that built the best consumer interface for browsing and buying books online wanted to destroy bookselling? The place that essentially created the self publishing boom, making it possible for many, many more writers than ever before to earn from their works was actively trying to destroy bookselling?

I’m giving Turow the benefit of the doubt and say this was just a poorly worded statement. Of course they weren’t trying to destroy bookselling. Trying to grab a bigger marketshare, absolutely, no question. Of course there is also the possibility that his bias is showing a bit here. Amazon’s actions could be seen as an attack on physical bookstore selling. Maybe to Turow, that is the only type of selling that really matters and that digital sales don’t really count as bookselling.

Five of the largest publishers jumped on with Apple’s (agency) model even though it meant those publishers would make less money on every ebook they sold

Here we see that Turow does really understand what publishers were doing with agency pricing, that is using it as a protectionist weapon for the benefit of print against digital sales growth. How else does it make any sense at all for publishers to collude together to force a pricing model where they actually make less money? The entire point was to keep ebook prices high, even at the expense of their own bottom line, to artificially prop up the fading print product against market forces.

Of course, he obviously thinks that’s fine and just, but think about it for a second and you’ll see why the Justice Department is getting involved. Five of the six largest publishers going and the largest technology company in the world collectively designed and implemented a system to keep ebook prices higher than the market had any interest in specifically to stifle the growth of the ebook segment of the industry and hamper digital competition against their preferred print products. That’s not the obvious, good business decision Turow claims, it’s illegal collusion, anti competitive behavior and price fixing to support the quasi monopoly position they maintain on physical print book distribution. Allegedly. I always forget that part, especially when “obviously” or “blatantly” seem much more fitting to this particular situation.

Bookstores are critical to modern bookselling

I guess the meaning in this statement all depends on one’s understanding of the word “modern.” If by modern, he means the post Civil War era then, yes, he may have a point. But anyone who believes physical bookstores are going to be critical entities in the bookselling process from this point forward (how I would define modern) is simply not paying attention to the changes in technology and consumer spending habits.

Bookstores have more in common with CD stores than the Apple stores Turow sites in his piece. Print books aren’t going completely away any time soon, but they are losing ground to digital alternatives every day. Very soon, we will reach the point where there is simply not enough foot traffic to support more than a select few brick-and-morter book retailers. Even Barnes & Noble, legacy publishing’s current most favored son, is being forced into allocating more of its floor space to non-book items like toys and games just to pay the bills. Tablets, increasingly better smartphones and ereader devices are further saturating into the consumer market and more and more people are becoming digital only or primarily digital customers. Another year or two of double digit declines in print book sales, a reality even the most conservative analysts begrudgingly admit is nearly a certainty, and a sizeable number of the remaining bookstores will simply be no more.

Far from being critical to modern bookselling, they are almost certain to become little more than a quaint afterthought or a specialty nook within the industry. What’s actually critical to modern bookselling is for publishers to develop and cultivate online retail replacements for the real-world shelf space they will soon inevitably lose. I can understand being sentimental about bookstores, nostalgic even, but just because you want to believe they are still critical doesn’t make it the case.

In bookstores, readers are open to trying new genres and new authors: it is by far the best way for new works to be discovered

This one has much in common with the previous notion that bookstores are critical to the future of bookselling. Again, just because you really, really want something to be true doesn’t make it so. The notion that physical bookstores are, as Turow put it, “by far” the best way for readers to discover new authors is so absurd that it almost doesn’t need to be refuted. But I’ll try anyway.

The emergence of book superstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble, giants helped along greatly by legacy publishers, virtually gutted the independent bookstore ecosystem years ago, wiping out many of the small, eclectic bookshops that genuinely stocked unique and original works outside of the mainstream. Many of the survivors morphed into smaller versions of the superstores, filled with little more than a lesser variety of the works of big name, famous authors. There are exceptions, but they are few and far between. The superstores themselves, particularly B&N became basically big publishing’s warehouses where all the biggest, high profile books received every premium spot in the store, and virtually all the promotion. If smaller, little known writers and their works made it into these stores at all, they were packed away like sardines, spine out, on the out of the way rows of shelves, not exactly what I consider prime real estate for discovery.

Online, you can browse through a virtually endless supply of works, grouped by whatever search terms your heart desires; big legacy books, small press books and independent self published books all interspersed together by their content, not who published them. Apparently, Turow missed the study a few weeks ago showing about 2/3 of the top 200 science fiction books were independently published. Most all of them had little or no access to the bookstore sales chain, yet somehow, readers in large numbers managed to discover them. A look at any of the Amazon top seller lists shows them peppered with relatively unknown indie writers, whose works are either ebook only or maybe including a print on demand trade paperback. If Turow is right in his presumption that bookstores are the best place for discovery, where are all the reams of new-found star writers coming out of the legacy system that dominates the bookstore sales space? That’s a rhetorical question because everyone but Turow and his ilk, it seems, already know the answer to that one.

Publishers won’t risk capital where there’s no reasonable prospect for reward. They will necessarily focus their capital on what works in an online environment: familiar works by familiar authors

Arrogance bleeding through here a bit, I believe. What works online is only familiar works by familiar authors? Well, that’s pretty obvious because they are familiar, they already have a built in sales hook. But I suspect there are more than a few indie authors collecting regular checks from Amazon and various other online retailers who might argue the point that only familiar authors work in an online world. There was also a distasteful moment in Turow’s piece where he tosses the poor, unwashed hordes of unknown writers a bone by feeling sorry for them and their quest because he’s a big, famous author and his book sales are an inevitability. The only things certain in life are death, taxes and big sales of Scott Turow’s books apparently.

To me, that line came off as detached and somewhat condescending. It seemed to show Turow stating that he, and other name authors, sit above this fray, that the seismic shift in the industry doesn’t apply to them because they’ll sell books regardless of any changes in the industry. To some extent, at this very moment, he has a point, but if he really believes the risks don’t apply to him, he may be in for a very rude awakening. Besides, as publishers’ revenues continue to decline, where does he think they’ll turn to make up those losses and save themselves? Maybe the big name authors under their control who are still bringing in revenue?

Our government may be on the verge of killing real competition in order to save the appearance of competition

This may be the most laughable one of all. Illegal collusion amongst the largest publishers and tech company in the world constitutes “real competition”? And the legacy print system Turow so adamantly defends was, need I remind anyone, a long standing ogliopoly that thrived on providing nothing more than the mere appearance of competition itself. Amazon, among others, has brought real and genuine competition to the game for the first time in all of our lifetimes, challenging every aspect of the industry from the way books are written and produced to how they are sold and distributed. There is not a single portion of the industry that hasn’t had to either reassess, adapt or defend its position in the value chain. That has led to more innovation and opportunity in the past two years alone than in the previous two centuries.

Is it a good thing if Amazon becomes a dominating monopoly? Of course not, but legacy publishing’s quasi-monopoly wasn’t a good thing either. Certainly, some like Turow were more fortunate than others, but the vast majority of writers had gradually become nothing more than fodder for a bloated, lazy and entitled industry.

Change is a good thing. But to allow yesterday’s monopoly to blatantly collude illegally in an effort to squash tomorrow’s business model can’t possibly seem like a good idea. Amazon isn’t perfect, and there are very real risks to their ascendancy, but much like they’ve used better products, terms and consumer relations to break legacy publishing’s market stranglehold, I am confident if they go overboard, someone else will emerge very quickly to do the same to them. That’s the nature of the disruption economy we live in today; no one can dominate for long and when the king gets fat and lazy, the lean, strong-willed up and comer will be poised to have him for lunch.

Turow wasn’t alone in his beliefs. After reading the “grim news”, I scrolled down through the comments underneath and found this one from author Whitley Streiber:

I am very much afraid that Justice is pursuing this, and that, if they succeed in proving that publishers colluded in the adoption of the agency model, they could strike a blow that would devastate the publishing industry–unless, of course it compels them to do what they should have done from the outset, which is to hold back ebooks like they do softcovers, which is the one choice that will certainly save our business.

I’m so glad you pointed out the importance of the bookstore to our industry and our livelihoods. The first job of every publisher and every writer is to save the bookstore. Without bookstores, we will spiral down into an entirely different and far less viable part of the culture. In the end, writing will become a hobby.

A simple idea: let’s revise the recommended contract to write in that we will not allow ebooks of our work to be published until at least nine months after hardcovers. If we the writers do this, we will save our livelihoods, our industry and this crucial foundation of our culture. And there is no question of our right to do it. No lawsuits will result.

Now, as with some of Turow’s work, I enjoy some Whitley Streiber on occasion. But this comment really gets me as much or more than Turow’s. First, he also far too easily dismisses the (allegedly) illegal acts commited by publishers to institute Agency in the first place. And he should realize, if Justice finds publishers guilty in this case, they won’t be the one’s responsible for the devastation to the industry he fears. Publishers will be responsible for it by commiting the illegal acts in the first place. Backwards logic, the publishing industry is going to be destroyed because the Justice Department is going to force us to follow the law, who the hell do they think they are?

He also repeats some of the same glorified nostalgia for bookstores and takes it one step farther, claiming that our culture and the very profession of writing will suffer irrevocably without them. And the first job of every publisher should be finding a business model where they’re still relevant in five or ten years, not trying to save another business model that technology has made somewhat obsolete. I always thought the first job of every writer, by the way, is to write the best material you can. The second job of every writer is to find a market for that work. If bookstores are no longer viable, then find somewhere else to hock your wares. Streiber seems to be missing the key point in much of this, that far from bookstores being the end-all, be-all of booksales, there are many, many more potential markets for writers today that ever before, across a variety of mediums.

It’s not the act or prominence of writing that’s changing, it’s simply the medium of delivery. Technology is making it easier, cheaper, more convenient and efficient for readers to acquire, consume and discuss more material across a broader spectrum than ever before. Couple that with a before-impossible ability for readers and writers to interact, and I believe it’s far more likely we’re entering a new golden age of reading rather than the dark age Streiber is describing here.

His suggestion of windowing ebooks for nine months after initial print publication is, bluntly, assinine. He is correct that there would be no lawsuits resulting from such a practice by authors and publishers, unless, of course, you want to count the suits filed by publishers to fight the rampant copyright infringement such a policy would surely instigate. The film industry engages in this behavior all the time, and I feel confident that it will soon be their downfall.

People like to complain that Netflix and similar streaming services don’t have a good enough selection. Well, blame that on the studios who either withhold titles altogether or window their release to support DVD sales in much the same way Streiber is advocating withholding ebooks to support print sales. The flaw in these policies is that technology has irrevocably changed the conditions of the consumer/ content provider relationship. Denying your primary customers what they want, when and how they want it to prop up fading mediums of distribution is a long term loser. Far from saving the industry, as Streiber seems to believe, it could very likely expedite their decline.

The film industry still brings in tons of box office money every year. But look closely. That money isn’t being generated by an increasing audience, it’s coming from a shrinking number of customers paying ever increasing prices. They don’t yet seem to get that there’s a tipping point coming. Nearly everyone has a theater right in their own homes now, with large, affordable high definition screens, more than ample surround sound systems, much more comfortable accommodations and access to refreshments you don’t need a small personal loan to afford. Make no mistake, there is a serious reckoning coming to the film industry very soon. Following their windowing policies will only help make publishing’s current troubles even worse.

Windowing films and DVDs against streaming and print books against ebooks forces your customers to come to you when all signs point to a world where people’s preference is that their entertainment be available to them when and where they want it. Pushing against the desires and capabilities of the folks that pay for your wares is never a good business strategy.

So what we seem to have here are two legacy authors who are unaware, or unwilling to truly see, how things have actually changed. Their combined opinions speak to a protectionist strategy for both print books and physical bookstores at a time when technology is creating legitimate, and in many ways, far superior replacements. I love print books, and I’ve always liked bookstores, but I’m not about to ignore the reality and benefits of what has and has yet to come.

I’m more than a little disturbed that they seem only too willing to excuse what looks, for all the world to be anticompetitive collusion amongst Apple and publishers, shamelessly so in some cases, because it suits their particular interest in rolling back the clock on technology and progress. But when you possess the names and reputations of these guys, they do a great disservice to the industry and writers everywhere, past, present and future, when they make little attempt to inform themselves on reality rather than simply slanting arguments to defend a backward thinking model that is soon to be supplanted.

If I was a member of The Authors Guild, I would demand more from those supposedly representing my interests. Now, perhaps more than any time in a century, the interests of writers and publishers have been disintermediated in many ways. Shilling for legacy publishing does the writers you supposedly represent no real good and, quite possibly, significant harm.

Note: I wrote this in bits and pieces on a fairly busy Saturday. By the time I finally finished, I noticed that a few others have made many of the same points, plus many more, far more eloquently than me. Here is author Kevin McLaughlin’s take. This is David Gaughran on the subject. And here is another wildly entertaining double team from Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 77 other followers

%d bloggers like this: