The Bookstore Conundrum: Value Propositions Part Two

Earlier today, I wrote about value propositions, mostly in reference to the reader/bookstore and writer/publisher relationships. Almost as soon as I clicked post, I started thinking about bookstores and how we perceive what they do. More importantly, how the talk coming from some quarters there is actually producing contradictory results to their stated aims. Basically, some of them seem like they don’t really want to succeed, they want someone else to assure success for them. Now obviously, I’m speaking in generalizations. But that’s what we trade in here in publishing land; generalizations. Big Publishers, indies, writers, readers, traditional, legacy, hybrid…these are all broad generalizations, just like bookstores. All these various groups are built of diverse collections of individuals. Your experience may vary.

We have this notion of bookstores as historical artifacts, a gut feeling of their necessity to literature and the publishing industry itself. But it’s not accurate. Certainly they’ve played an important role to get us to this point in time, but at the risk of sounding callous, what have you done for me lately? Just because you played an important role in my life in the past isn’t reason to belive yourself entitled to that position or one like it in the future.

I used to love going to Blockbuster, too, and record stores! I remember the first time I set foot in a Borders. A book store and a music store! Together! Can I just move in? I’ll sleep on a couch in the cafe. I spent huge sums of money in Borders over several years. But eventually, I found the urge to go less and less prevalent. There were even times I went and left empty handed, a possibility I wouldn’t have even considered before. I had stopped spending money in Borders years before they finally went belly up. Somehow, somewhere along the way, they stopped providing what I needed to get me in their doors.

I’m not even sure what it was they did wrong, maybe nothing. What they were doing just lost all relevance and attraction to my life. That’s where bookstores are finding yourselves right now. You’re still there, providing what you’ve always provided, offering the value we used to love and not be able to live without. But we increasingly aren’t interested anymore. We no longer value you the way you think we should. It’s not your fault, it’s us. We encouraged you to keep doing what you were doing for our own selfish ends and now that our interests have changed, you’re understandably confused about how to win us back. I don’t know the answer to that question, but I can tell you one thing for certain, doing more of what you used to do, that made us love you in the first place, isn’t going to work.

Take a hard look at the ground many of you have staked out; you don’t have any true allies. The Amazon hatred at all expense, even against the interests of your own customers, is alienating the emerging independent writer community. The 1% traditional writers are saying nice things about you, mega-best seller James Patterson even giving out $2 million in grants to bookstores. Sure, it’s divided up amongst so many stores that it’s in increments too small to be of any real help, but every little bit helps. You just have to ask exactly who that little bit helps. Is it the bookstores getting checks so small in some cases that it wouldn’t even cover a couple months rent or is it the image of James Patterson, literary philanthropist; a man who sold 50 times that total amount in books last year alone? It’s like me walking into 40 or 50 bookstores, handing them a $10 bill and saying, “this is for your future.” Ask yourself why he isn’t giving $25,000 or $50,000 grants to these stores, amounts that could actually help. He can certainly afford it. Is this about helping bookstores or is it about a rich guy’s tax write-off and good PR from the illusion of helping bookstores?

The publishers are also out there saying nice things about protecting bookstores and you’re importance. But why in the world would you believe them? Not long ago, they sold all your asses out to the big box stores and discount warehouses, quite literally putting a Target on your back. The carnage got so bad and so prevalent, it became the subject of a Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks rom-com, for God’s sake! Did you forget all that? Just block it out of your memory once they started complimenting you again?

You know why publishers are being so nice to you right now? They need your shelf space to prevent a mass exodus of writers because brick and mortar print sales are the last value hook they’ve got to hang their own hats on. The second they don’t need you anymore, they will throw you out like last week’s trash. They’ve done it before. At nearly 40 years old, one of the things I hold as a near immutable fact of life is that if someone has the will to do something to you once, if you give them the chance, they will do it to you again. Publishers are not your friends, not even by association. I’d have thought the past couple decades would have taught you that only too clearly.

It makes the indiscriminate Amazon hatred many of you show even more absurd. You should be thanking Amazon. They did you a massive solid by killing your most immediate threat, the big box stores. Amazon bought you crucial time to figure out a way to adapt and survive. If you’re just gonna sit around and bitch that people aren’t buying books like they used to, you will get burned. It might be Amazon that gets you, or the publishers. And that’s only if your own so damn customers don’t burn you first.

You could have allies on the indie side if you drop the Amazon spite and lose the last remnants of the bias toward self publishers you developed back in the true vanity press era. But instead you seem to just enjoy whining on about how things were better back in your day and the doom you claim we’re all heading for. Bookstores are for-profit businesses, and as such, the entire point is offer something people are willing to pay enough for that you can keep your doors open. Bookstores that struggle don’t do so because people arent buying books, it’s because they’re not buying books from bookstores.

The industry won’t collapse without you. In fact, the industry is actively moving away from you. Book sales aren’t plummeting as you make fewer of them. When you call for “the need” to help bookstores, what I hear isn’t someone saying help us to adapt, it’s someone saying help us keep doing what we’ve always done because it’s valuable. Here’s a hint: if, as a business, you can’t sustain yourself on what you offer, then it’s not that valuable. If we help you keep alive a model that is getting less and less economically viable now, when does it stop? Are you proposing we make bookstores permanent charity cases? If so, how does that make you different from libraries, which we already support for all the same reasons you cite for supporting bookstores?

And full circle back to my point from earlier today, what’s the value proposition for readers then? It’s not selection, knowledge, convenience or price; we’ve found all of that elsewhere. What is it, exactly, that you think benefits us by saving you? Or is it as I suspect, you don’t really care about benefitting us, just assuring your own continuation with a minimum of upheaval? If the latter has any truth to it at all, then that, not Amazon, is your biggest problem and the answer you’re looking for. Do you see it?

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

Value Propositions

Here’s the thing, we can all talk until we’re blue in face about ebooks, bookstores, publishers, writers, et al (a point some would say we already reached sometime in early 2012) but none of it means a damn thing. The only thing that matters is the value proposition offered to us and how that informs the choices people make. Everything else is bluster. Worse yet, it’s meaningless bluster that far too frequently merges with wish fulfillment of the person doing the blustering. “Ebooks are dying.” “Bookstores are crucial to the future.” “Writers need publishers to be the best they can be.” And my personal favorite of wishful thinking bullshit, “Amazon is evil.” None of those things are true. They also aren’t necessarily false in all situations. It depends on the context in which those lines are parsed. And that context depends entirely on the value proposition to the individual.

Twenty five years ago, if I wanted a new book, I had a few choices. There was the library (a brick and mortar bookstore that’s basically free for readers), used bookstores (brick and mortar store that’s cheap but whose offerings are dependent on readers getting rid of their old books), rotating racks of best sellers in retail stores (having little to do with book discovery and everything to do with pushing already known entities to impulse buyers) or bookstores themselves (who offered the best selection and knowledge about books available at the time).

In that environment, the value proposition to readers was on the side of bookstores. The time, effort and extra money necessary to patronize a bookstore was a fair trade off for what we got in return; a wider selection of books to choose from. Today, however, that value has flipped on them. Bookstores, with their real world physical constraints, inherently offer a limited selection of books. Online, however, has no such trouble. Online, you can find and buy every book. All of them. So now, bookstores have gone from having the best selection of books available to having a limited subsection of books. I know it’s frustrating because they haven’t really changed. The environment they operate in has shifted beneath them. What was once their greatest strength has now become a weakness to overcome through no fault of their own. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less of a weakness.

With ebooks, online print book sales and rapidly approaching explosion of print on demand technology, the value proposition to readers of frequenting bookstores is a problem. When they had the best selection and a knowledgeable staff that wasn’t easily reproducible, we thought nothing of the outlay in time and effort to shop there. We didn’t mind paying a few extra dollars on the price of a book to support their infrastructure when they provided a service that we valued. Today, though, shopping at physical bookstores requires readers to sacrifice. We need to give up our time and effort to get there, then pay those extra few dollars for the privilege of shopping in a limited pool of material. We need to choose to give up value available to us in order to use bookstores. I can find any book I want online, without the premium price they need to pay the rent and employee salaries, without ever leaving my couch. Hang on a second…there, I just did some book shopping, bought a book and now it’s open to chapter one in another window on my smartphone in slightly more time than it took me to type those ellipses. But only slightly.

When the value proposition changes from one where I pay out because you bring me value to one where I pay out to bring you value, that’s not going to end well for you. You can discuss bookstores’ place in literary history and culture all day long, it doesn’t change the simple fact that the value you once earned your coin with simply ain’t what it used to be.

This applies to the publisher/writer dynamic as well. Twenty five years ago, if I wanted to be a published writer, I had to go through the slow slog of querying agents, editors or whomever, piling up rejection after rejection until I get lucky enough to be offered a contract that paid me pennies on the dollar from the revenue my work generated. Not only did writers accept this, we fetishized it to the point where there are still writers who have inexplicably fond memories of taping rejection letters to their bulletin boards. The fact was, if I wanted to be published, that’s what I had to do. The value proposition of going through that crucible was worth it because it was the only way to reach the goals we wanted. Today, though, I can write, format, and offer a book for sale to anyone with an Internet connection without so much as saying hello to an agent or publisher and be selling books tomorrow. The value proposition of the publishing industry gatekeeper-rejection logjam has been gutted. The time, effort and low pay you offered to get published seems vaguely insane now that getting published and selling books at much higher compensation rates is as simple as clicking a button. Publishers, like bookstores, didn’t change, the circumstances around them changed through no fault of their own. In fact, it’s changed and is still changing despite their concerted efforts to fight those changes. Pissing into the wind may be a popular corporate response when social behavior shifts leave them behind, but that doesn’t make it an effective response. It only makes your pants wet. And smelly.

Publishers and bookstores carefully crafted the value they brought over decades, some would say centuries. It does seem a bit unfair to people who have dedicated their lives to those ends to see that value knee-capped in less than 10 years. But that’s life. Sometimes, the things we value are life-long, sometimes they only last a matter of days or weeks. The thing is, you can never really tell when that value is going to vanish. And once that happens, you have to look toward the value you actually possess today and going forward.

When you hear people talk of the role of bookstores and their value to society, ask yourself, are they referring to the value they offer right this moment or the value they offered a quarter-century ago? Same with publishers. Is what they do today valuable or are they still treading on what they did that was valuable two or three decades ago? It doesn’t matter that Borders had a great selection of books that made people happy to shop there in 1995. They’re bankrupt and gone now, not coming back. It doesn’t matter that publishers frame themselves as great curators of the written word because of their gatekeeping of the past. Their gates have been kicked down and trampled into the dirt.

What matters is that when I want to buy a book as a reader or publish a book as a writer, what I’m willing to put up with to do so. That’s the value proposition you offer us and, increasingly, it’s one that isn’t trending in a direction that’s helpful to past paradigms or the dominant businesses that profited from them.

Take a long, hard look at what people value today and what they’re willing to do to acquire that value. That’s where the path to the future rests. Reminiscing about the value people appreciated in a different time and a different place, and doubling down on nostalgia isn’t going to fend off the bankruptcy judge for very long.

Read Part Two of “Value Propositions, The Bookstore Conundrum” here.

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

Snowflakes Need Not Apply: Publishing is a commodity business and Amazon built a better mousetrap. Get over it, already.

I’ve been anxiously awaiting the judgement in the Apple antitrust case because I knew the tech giant was going to lose (they deserve it) and I knew that, when that happened, there’d be some woe-is-publishing stuff popping up on the web that I could have a little fun eviscerating. Well, imagine my glee as I read this piece by Michael (no relation to Jason, I hope) Bourne on The Millions website. At first, I thought it would be a run of mill twitter link with a handful of argumentative tweets in analysis, but low and behold, this thing got so confoundingly ridiculous that I had little choice but to go all-in blog post on it.

In fact, I started writing this a few hours ago and that morphed into a totally separate blog post bemoaning the stunning lack of logic in believing Amazon’s potential monopoly is so scary we all should run straight back into the arms of the publishers’ old cartel. This one’s juicy enough I got two blog posts out if it. Here we go:

“…it is altogether possible that the government is right that Apple and publishers conspired to set prices higher than Amazon would charge, which would have forced consumers to pay more for e-books in the short term. But to see this case in this narrowly legalistic light is to completely misunderstand how the book business actually works.”

This is a pretty common theme in publisher-defending circles, either outright admit or strongly imply that the charges are accurate and they broke the goddamn law but then claim it’s not important. The simple fact is there’s no legal exception for breaking antitrust law, even if done in response to illegal activity. Amazon’s shipping boxes coulda been made out of corrugated baby skin and it still wouldn’t have given Apple and the publishers license to collude against them. They broke the law and have to be held accountable, regardless of their reasons. To do otherwise sets a dangerous prcedent that would definitely find its way into other industries and that would be extraordinarily bad for consumers of all kinds of stuff, not just books. I don’t know how many times or how many judges have to say there is no such thing as a special snowflake and you don’t get to pick and choose what laws you care to follow that best suit your business purposes. Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.

“…books are not bars of soap. When you go online to buy a book, you are not merely paying for a file full of random ones and zeros. You’re buying the original ideas and stories contained
within that book, and frankly nobody has any idea how much those ideas are worth until people start reading them.”

That doesn’t even make sense. I’m pretty sure somebody’s gotta buy the book before they start reading it. And I have a pretty good notion of what that book’s worth without ever seeing it: $27.99 hardcover, $17.99 trade paperback, $12.99 ebook and maybe an $8.99 mass market paperback, give ot take a couple dollars on any of the above. These big publishers collectively crank out tens of thousands of titles each year and they virtually all fall within the neighborhood of these prices. Books have never been priced by the material inside but by the cost structure of the format.

They most certainly are commodities in the purest sense. The newly merged Random Penguin is set to put out 15,000 books alone next year. To them, any one book is meaningless, even the high advance books. The totality of their 15,000 title catalog is their business model. Big name authors get considerably better terms than average writers, meaning the publisher’s margins are slimmer per book. They also get the benefit of marketing and ad dollars, slicing that margin a little more. Yet we’re also told that these big name books are what bank rolls the lesser selling titles, further gobbling up the publisher’s margins, in theory. More likely, the big name books aren’t really the lone profit centers but simply the lure that gets people into the stores where, hopefully, they’ll also pick up a few other books in their catalog on which the publisher is making very sweet margins. It’s a volume game at this level. The cost or success of one lone book isn’t the point, but the collective success of the full catalog taken as one, nearly all resting within a few dollar range of identical pricing regardless of the author. 15,000 similarly priced, interchangeable pieces…sounds a lot like commodities to me.

The part about not knowing what a book is worth until people start reading could be a reference to advances paid by publishers, but let’s glance at how that system works. There are certainly a handful of high advance books, but for each one of those, there are thousands more which get advances that are more like rounding errors on executives’ expense reports than sizable investments. The threshhold to profit for these books is very low and, once met, publishers bank considerably more money per sale than for superstar books that earn out. This advance system isn’t nearly as risky or speculative as it appears. Even if we take the commonly held belief that 80% of books fail to earn out as fact, Random Penguin, for instance, would be left with about 3,000 books next year alone that do, the vast majority of which on publisher-friendly contracts that earn them more per sale.

Books have been commoditized by publishers because they can’t consistently tell which specific books are going to hit ahead of time. So they built up a bulk catalog made up of mostly low risk, low out-of-pocket books as a hedge against those larger risks. They may not be able to tell which books will be the winners but they certainly have confidence that enough of the totality of their catalog will hit to provide profitability. Saying publishers can’t tell what a book is worth until it’s on the market is both true and misleading. It doesn’t matter how any individual book does, only that enough of them do well in totality.

“…like pharmaceutical companies, publishing houses have to charge above-market rates for their successful products to amortize all those failures. If you limit their ability to do this, books will indeed be cheaper, but they also will be lower in quality and variety because publishers will have less ability to finance experimentation.”

You really wanna compare publishers to pharmaceutical companies? What, you couldn’t think of a metaphor for publishers with war-profiteering arms dealers? Or the Indonesian child sex slave industry? I could buy the above-market price argument if not for the fact that essentially all these books are selling for the same damn prices, successes and failures alike. A book’s price doesn’t increase as it sells more copies. I’m also pretty sure books are indeed cheaper and exist in a greater variety than ever before right now. And publishers certainly aren’t the place to look for experimentation. The bulk of the really unique and creative stuff is being done on the independent writer side these days. Publishers may take risks but they’re generally minimal ones within a narrowly established range. They may occasionally venture out of the plastic wrap but rarely do they get all the way outside of the box it’s in.

“…what Amazon really wants to sell is not so much e-books as the delivery system of those e-books, called a Kindle.”

And what Apple really wants to sell is not so much ebooks as the delivery system of those ebooks called an iPad. You got a point here?

“Apple was offering to once again give the publishing industry the freedom to overcharge for all those e-versions of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey flying out the virtual doors to make up for the risks it is taking on thousands of other titles…”

Yup, because customers enjoy nothing more than happily giving billion dollar corporations the right to over-charge them. That always works out well.

“…at heart, the case asks a fundamental societal question: what, legally speaking, is art?”

No, the fundamental question in the case is did five of the six largest publishers and the largest tech company in the world hatch an illegally collusive conspiracy to fix prices at considerably higher levels and squash competition? The legal definition of art has no bearing here, only the legal definition of collusion.

“…in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, the framers noted how important it is “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts” and thus created copyright protection for authors and inventors.”

That copyright protection is the reason there’s any market for artistic works at all. It was granted to give creators limited exclusivity to access to the market. Copyright wasn’t put in place to spare books from market forces, but so the specific creators could take advantage of those market forces. It’s since been perverted, largely by media lobbyists, into an effectively unlimited time frame of control. They didn’t push for life + 70 years to avoid market forces. Just the opposite, in fact, so they could reap the rewards of a century or more worth of access to those market forces. Copyright offers no guarantee that the creators profit from the work, only that they have the access to potentially profit. Publishers themselves have stood for years as a roadblock to that access, demanding those copyrights be turned over as a toll to the marketplace. By usurping the market access for creators provided in copyright law, publishers have undermined the very point of its existence.

“Books and other works of art aren’t widgets, and art does not now nor has it ever flourished in a truly efficient market.”

Bullshit. The publishing industry, at its base, is a multi-billion-dollar enterprise whose main product is creative output, just like any number of other industries. Questions of art are far too subjective to have any meaning in the actual business realities here. If it hasn’t flourished in a truly efficient market in the past, that’s because it hadn’t really had one in a long time, if ever. Publishers gradually monopolized both the supply of books and the distribution. Any inefficiencies in the market exist because publishers’ iron grip lasted basically uncontested for too long and they got complacent. Those inefficiencies shouldn’t be celebrated or vindicated in any way. They are precisely how Amazon managed to earn its position, by appealing to and improving the conditions of the people most squeezed by those inefficiencies, readers and writers. Oh, the irony of a company doing great things for readers and writers yet being pilloried for it by the existing industry who, all the while, claim to be supporters and nurturers of both those groups. And if you don’t like irony, hypocrisy is another term that will work.

If that’s not enough of a sign for you that the industry has lost its way, I’m not sure what would convince you. The interests of the industry and big publishers diverged over time from the interests of the two most important players in it. That foundation has grown so solid that many just presume what’s good for them is good for everybody. But that’s an extreme oversimplification that ignores the reality that publishers are but middlemen of the longstanding type that eventually shift from providing efficiency by connecting suppliers and buyers to squeezing both sides to the advantage of their own bottom line. That is not an atmosphere that screams for propping up the middlemen when the two parties it supposedly connects find ways to be more efficient without them.

This entire article was an odd combination of musings about the supposedly unique nature of publishing, how the standard rules of business–even the law–shouldn’t apply and some indefinable role of art within it juxtaposed by support for legacy businesses who have shown a history of anticompetitive behavior, cartel-like dominance and a decided lack of concern for the interests of readers and writers. Even the widget point he made multiple times is disingenuous. It’s easy to say books aren’t widgets but you lose a little credibility when you then defend publishers who produce large numbers of similarly priced titles in high volume as part of a business model that treats books suspiciously like widgets.

Publishing is not a special snowflake. It’s a business like any other. Publishers aren’t defenders of art but defenders of profit margins, usually at the expense of readers and writers. The law isn’t something you can willfully ignore just because you don’t care for your competition. It’s also not something that can arbitrarily be waived for the sake of art. The industry is bigger than publishers. It may be hard to see it that way since they’ve been in a position to make it look like they are for longer than most of us have been alive.

Arguing in favor of giant profit-driven conglomerates as the path to art for art’s sake just doesn’t make a lick of coherent sense. Modern publishers were a market response to conditions at the time. Even the most virulent Amazon hater has to admit that the conditions under which publishers thrived have changed. Change is hard, especially when your role is the one being mitigated, but it’s the way life, and the publishing industry at large, works. Putting a veneer of art and culture in defense of price fixing and collusive behavior is naive at best, willfully deceptive at worst.

Whether publishers live or die is immaterial to the matter of whether, and how, the industry on the whole reloads. It will carry on regardless, headlined by readers and writers which to my thinking is a far better development than one dominated by middlemen demanding onerous concessions in rights, control and money if you ever want your work to see the marketplace.

So enough with the high-minded talk about art, literature and culture. Those are great and valuable things, but the old system did little more than pay lip service to those elements while behaving as corporate profit-driven enterprises often do, the bottom line rules all. Amazon may one day become that, as well, but you’ll have to excuse me if I don’t buy in to the argument that we need to prop up the old publisher cartel in the hopes of preventing Amazon from becoming just like them.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Editor Fallicy…Falacie…Fallacy…yeah, that’s it, Fallacy

I’d like to take a contrary position to the whole of the literary establishment for a moment, if I may. Much has been written, and will continue to be, on the rift between traditional and indie publishing. Hell, many traditional supporters throw a little shit-fit with just the use of the term “indie” as a moniker for self publishers. Some days, it seems like World Peace is a more attainable goal than bridging the gap between the established and emerging segments of the publishing industry.

But there is one area where both sides are in complete agreement. That is the absolute, irrefutable necessity of having any and all writing vetted by an honest to goodness editor. And who could argue with that, you ask? (If you didn’t ask, I apologize for putting words in your mouth but I kinda need that rhetorical response from “you” to keep the narrative flow going. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to do this next thing) Who could argue with that, you ask? I can!

Now before you get all up in arms and pissy, nostrils flaring, uppity defensive of something everyone seems to agree on but the implications of which very few people actually consider, let me explain. If you can’t or won’t edit your own work, both for polish and content, you’re not only lazy, but you’re not a complete writer, either. Three…two…one…ok, now you can get all beside yourself with righteous indignation. I mean, come on! Everybody knows that even the best writers churn out barely literate crap until the sainted editor gets his/her red pen into it. Plus, who would want to live in a world where writers are able, or even *gasp* encouraged to release their work bypassing the filters of the all-seeing, all-knowing editor? I shudder to think of the implications of seeing the raw, unfettered power of the writer’s creative muse. I imagine it would be a little like looking directly at an angel, their transcendent light far too bright, burning mere human eyes right out of their sockets. Our minds would turn to jelly without editors to properly harness all that writerly power.

Seriously, though, I am really sick of reading about how writers can’t possibly string together so much as a tweet, let alone an entire novel without someone else hanging over their shoulder steering the course. That’s what editors do, after all. Were you fully aware of that? Editors take other people’s material and structure it to suit either their own preconceived notions or the fiscal necessity of the platform they’re editing for. That’s the gig. Book editors are a little different than periodical editors in that they tend to shape the content to their perceived needs in their particular market sphere rather than a homogenized “style” or publication “brand.” Same difference to the writer in the end, though. I’d still like someone to explain to me how an editor who steeped within the structure of traditional publishing is going to be all that helpful to an indie. Sure, they can shape your book up into something that might resemble something else that once worked in the traditional realm, but if you’re an indie, you’re not really selling into that distribution area. You know how much real world market experience those former and current trad editors have selling digital independently? About as much as my great grandfather, and he’s been dead since 1954.

Then there’s the little matter of whether many editors are even qualified to dick around with an actual creator’s work in the first place. Let’s not kid ourselves, the phrase editor, in some circles, might still hold a bit of prestige, but from my experience, that editor you’re working with is, more often than not, a result of the “those who can’t, teach” school of thought. People become editors for one of three reasons, generally: 1) they’re a failed writer and had to pay the bills somehow, 2) they don’t have the balls to be the writer and it’s much easier–and usually pays better–to manipulate the work of others than produce it yourself, or 3) they are a successful writer who developed their own skills after years of dealing with semi-competent half wits who likely suggested adding some foreshadowing to the table of contents or some other such absurd idea at one time or another. There may be other ways to get that editor title next to your name (some folks go to school for it, I hear) but those are the three big ones. If you’ve got a #3, then you’re golden, but the other two are sure-fire paths to fucking up whatever artistic vision you lacked confidence in so much you turned to a stranger who’s primary claim to career fame is “I fixed some typos in so-and-so’s #1 bestseller back in 1996.”

Editor is the very definition of a fallback career option. Just like nobody ever says, “I wanna be a junkie when I grow up,” nobody says, “I wanna be an editor when I grow up,” either. Editor is the consolation prize in the literary job market. Ask yourself, is that the kind of person you really want impacting your career, someone who slid into a position filled with tedious shit-work just because it was kinda sorta in the same neighborhood as the dashed and discarded dreams of their misspent youth? Not me and you shouldn’t either.

The editor fallacy is willfully perpetuated by the traditional industry. It’s a ruse designed to keep writers down. I’m not kidding, read some of the criticisms floating around. You would seriously think writers turned out little more than random chunks of directionless text that no mere mortal could possibly make sense of if an editor didn’t mold it into shape first. Are you gonna take that? I mean, you fancy yourself a storyteller yet you don’t know if the story you’re telling sucks or not without third party involvement? Why should I plunk down my hard earned cash for the offerings of your literary vision when you don’t even understand or have confidence in it?

My point is that the notion of the infallibility of the editor, and their necessity in shaping a writer’s efforts can be an insidious one. It devalues the writer. If a book is a house, it makes the writer’s output akin to raw lumber and lifts the editor to the role of carpenter. The traditional industry thrived on this relationship dynamic for years, it helped keep writers in their place at the bottom. Otherwise, they, as a group, might have wanted something outrageous like being fairly compensated for work that produces every single dollar in industry revenues.

It’s a new world now. You are the raw material, the carpenter, the plumber, the electrician and the painter. At best, the editor is the day laborer who comes in and sweeps up the leftover dirt off the floor before you move in. Do you think carpenters ask the advice of a broom jockey on hanging joices joists? Would an electrician appreciate getting notes from the sweeper detailing how he could run the wiring to the ceiling fans more efficiently? Don’t get me wrong, writers aren’t infallible by any stretch, either, but there’s one key difference…you’re the fucking writer!

In the old model, the perception in a lot of ways, was that the writer works for the editor, true or not. In the new model, the editor unquestionably works for the writer. Big difference. Now, when your editor suggests that you rewrite chapters 8 through 14 and add a talking sewer rat as comic relief to break up the tension in your drama about an unjustly convicted man’s experiences with prison rape, you can feel free to snort coffee out your nose, laughing hysterically as you work on cancelling the check you paid him or her with. The old way, you’d laugh a bit then cringe at the inevitable realization that you’ll probably end up doing it if you ever wanted to retain any hope of seeing that book in print.

Look, it’s your book, it’s your story, no one on the planet knows it better than you. If you’re going to be a storyteller, believe in the stories you write. That doesn’t mean don’t seek out input or listen if somebody offers up some interesting ideas. But even then, ideas are just that. You’re the one who has to take the grains of inspiration from those ideas and shape them into the story you want to tell. You can’t rely on anyone else to do that for you, otherwise, it’s not your story anymore.

I’ve been a bit harsh on editors here, unfairly so in some ways, but I’m making a point. The editor is no longer among the gatekeeper class you need to appease. You don’t have to do everything they say, and you definitely don’t work for them. Editors are a tool for indie writers that, if properly utilized can be beneficial. Got that? The editor is at the service of the writer. And even then, they’re still only one tool of many. And don’t ever forget that they work for you now.

A truly great editor is almost worth their weight in gold. My descriptions of editors in this piece are obviously exaggerated, but make no mistake, those people exist. Very likely in far greater numbers than anyone will openly admit. Where a great editor can add quite a bit to your efforts, a lousy editor can do just as much, if not more to destroy and detract from your work. And there are an abundance of lousy editors out there, more than not, I believe. Editors are no different than any other field of endeavor. There’s four or five bad to mediocre ones for every good one, and out of every 50 or so good ones, you might see one reach exceptional status. The key is to recognize the difference. If you’re not confident in your storytelling prowess, if you can’t defend the merits of your work and the artistic choices you make, you’re actively making your work susceptible to the heavy hand of a bad editor.

Despite what you might think with my prior insults, there are quality editors out there available for hire, and in the right circumstance with the proper context, they can help polish your work. But any old editor isn’t necessarily a good editor. One of the worst things that can happen to a person is to fail on someone’s terms other than your own. Giving an editor, any editor, even the good ones, carte blanche to screw around with your story is setting yourself up to fail through no fault of your own. Unless, of course, you consider changing key elements of your story against your artistic judgment to appease an editor a fault of your own. I do.

Editor skills aren’t some magical capability that’s unattainable to writers. Anyone with the right motivation can learn quality editing. It’ll surprise you how much improvement creeps into your work just by having an editor’s mentality in the back of your mind. This isn’t to say you should do everything yourself, although I am one of the apparently few people who believes you can successfully do it that way if you’re willing to be meticulous and put in the time. It’s always better to have multiple sets of eyes go over your work. Just don’t ever forget that you’re in charge. It’s your story, your world, you make the rules.

I’ve said before that many people, probably most, don’t truly understand the dynamic shift going on right now. Many of us still approach the new possibilities as simply an extension of the way things were always done. It’s not. Digital is a genetically different business than traditional, though they may appear similar today in the early stages, they really are quite divergent, and growing more so as time and technology expands. Old models can be adapted and find a niche, but nothing translates easily and without effort. Don’t hold to any particular dogma, and that especially includes slavish devotion to an editor.

Tell your stories, the way you want. It’s been a long time since writers have had that ability on a wide scale. And don’t listen to the naysayers screaming in comments sections all over the web about having your work “properly vetted”. That’s a holdover from a past that, quite frankly, limited and exploited the writer. It also served to homogenize much of the content. You ever wonder why so many cookie cutter books, both in substance and tone, exist? That, my friends, is the work of editors. Nobody can steal a writer’s voice more effectively than an editor. Nobody can suck the life out of a story better than an editor. That’s not to say editors don’t have a place, they do. It’s just a far less influential one than it has been.

Editors are not higher on the literary food chain than writers. They are little more than a hired hand to provide a specific service on the writer’s terms. They are your employee. You’d do very well to remember that, even if you have to block out the shouting of those who don’t yet see that things have changed.

Oh yeah, about that “lazy and not a complete writer crack,” sure, I was shooting over the top, just trying to get your attention, but I’m sticking to it. Prove me wrong. Please.

Published in: on August 25, 2012 at 9:46 pm  Comments (14)  
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Sunday Randomness: Thoughts on DOJ suit, indie poaching and writer autonomy

Over the past few weeks, my mind has bounced around several issues relating to the book industry without settling on any particular one long enough to formulate a blog post, so I thought I’d patch a few thoughts together in semi-brief snippets.  Well, brief as much as I do brief, which is to say probably not very.  Here we go:

1. The defenders of the price fixing publishers in the DOJ antitrust case are totally full of shit.

On a few instances, I’ve directly broken down what I felt were the misguided defenses of the allegedly collusive agency pricing agreement of the largest publishers and Apple. At this point, it seems a futile exercise because the rationalities used to defend the action have become increasingly rigid and pertaining of such twisted logic that they’ve ceased to even make enough sense to try and honestly refute.  Just in the past week, I’ve read numerous letters from the Author’s Guild, the American Booksellers Association, the Association of Author’s Representatives, Barnes & Noble and numerous pundits to the DOJ decrying the proposed settlement terms for the three accused publishers who want to get this overwith and move on.  I’ve also read the responses from Apple, Penguin and Macmillan–the three principles left defending the case.

Somehow, no one involved in this case knew anything about the actions of anyone else involved yet they simultaneous knew that agency wouldn’t fly, and they personally wouldn’t have entered into it, if everyone wasn’t on the same page.  So we’re left to believe that all of these various large corporations independently took actions they knew required others to take identical actions to work, yet none of them knew what the others were doing.  Yeah, ok.  Totally reasonable.  I’m more convinced now than I was before that those who fight this all the way are screwed.

As for the settling defendants, how happy do you think they’ll be if all that impassioned anti-settlement rhetoric coming from traditional publishing interests works and they get thrust back into the roles of active defendants?  The folks arguing to kill the settlement may, in effect, be giving a death sentence to one or more of these publishers.  Besides, given the fairly obvious collusion, settling this and moving on seems to be the best possible approach.  Fighting this will be a long, drawn out, expensive war of attrition that Amazon and others will feast on by continuing to reshape the market while they waste precious time, coin and focus defending a failed price fixing scheme that, really, only served to benefit the upper, upper echelon writers and publishers anyway.

Those fighting the settlement are still harping on about the diverse literary ecosystem arguments, as well as the death of literature, choices for readers, copyrighted expression, vibrant competition and numerous other doomsaying phrases, despite the fact that there’s ample evidence that none of those things are true.  Somehow, according to them and some numbers from B&N that I find just slightly fishy, agency pricing has caused ebooks to drop in price now, even though it actually upped prices 30-50% in many cases, and despite the small matter that the scheme was put in place with the specific intention of raising prices. 

The part I like best, though, is the one where some anti-settlement mavens have decided it’s ok to punish the collusion (if any existed, of course) just so long as the DOJ doesn’t end the resulting agreements from that collusion.  This is a great precedent, and I say bring it on!  How awesome would it be to be able to rob a bank, get caught, be punished for the crime but you get to keep all the money?  Hell yeah!  I might even consider doin a couple years for auto theft if I knew the $150,000 Maserati I stole was waiting for me on the outside. 

This is an absurd argument. Agency in this case never, I repeat, never could have been instituted the way it was without the collusion of publishers.  It could not have happened.  In what alternate reality does it make any sense at all to let the results of an illegal conspiracy, that could not have existed without said conspiracy, stand?  Sorry guys.  I know you all are pretty desperate for someone to step in and check Amazon so you won’t have to be inconvenienced by, you know, having to compete or anything, but there is simply no logical reason for these agreements to be left in place.  Besides, they’re only locked out of agency for two years.  That doesn’t sound aggregiously irresponsible. Actually, it sounds like a fitting punishment to me, being barred for a time from the very actions you colluded to bring about.

Of course, I also don’t happen to believe that the death of their price fixing scheme will result in the dire consequences some predict. Actually, I believe just the opposite. Agency pricing, used as it was by the parties it was, had a negative effect on the ebook market as a whole. I think it slowed adoption, slowed growth in the sector, limited any pretense of actual retail competition, and took a pretty good sized chunk out of the wallets of readers unnecessarily. But again, all of that is what they wanted, and it’s exhibit A for how and why they had to collude to get it. Don’t buy the B.S. line about agency fostering competition or protecting a vibrant bookselling ecosystem. This was nothing more than a poorly executed scam to protect the print ecosystem they control by way of hindering the real competition from the digital side, nothing more.

As a side note, the DOJ has apparently been eating their Wheaties. Now, they are also pursuing an investigation into most favored nation clauses in cable tv contracts and looking into whether data caps instituted by ISPs, many of whom also sell cable tv, specifically target streaming services to protect their cable bundling packages. Yet again, here’s an industry–cable tv–that would rather keep its customers paying more to stay locked in to what they want (bundling) rather than give those paying folks what they want (unbundled pay to watch only what they want when they want.) The ebook antitrust suit along with this new effort are, alone, reason enough for me to vote Obama even though I’m not a big fan for many reasons. A Romney DOJ, I don’t hesitate to say, would drop these efforts like a bad habit and that would be an enormously bad thing for anyone not a corporate titan or busying themselves suckling at the tit of one.

2. I don’t really understand why indies would sign traditional deals once they start finding real success.

Call it the Hocking Effect, or the Fifty Shades of Greed, whatever, but it seems like the hot new thing in traditional publishing circles is to poach self published writers once they begin to show some serious sales. I understand why publishers are doing this; they’re struggling, losing ground, their power base is fading, and their ability to produce new literary superstars is failing. What I don’t understand is why the self published writers, having generated their own success stories, are turning around and handing that success over to a corporation under pseudo-exploitative terms before they ever realize the full benefits of their efforts. Upfront money is the obvious answer, but to me, that seems short sighted. There’s also the “I wanna be in bookstores” excuse, but that’s just as short sighted as the money angle, if not more so.

The only way this makes sense to me is if the writers in question didn’t really want to be in business in the first place, and only entered self publishing out of necessity. I’d just like to know what degree of low self esteem do you have to suffer from to hand over your own, independent, hard-earned success to corporations and bookstores who wouldn’t have given you the time of day before you busted your ass to earn your own way?

Now, I don’t want to begrudge anyone making this choice, everybody’s got their own reasons for the decisions they make, but if I get to the point where I’m finding enough independent success that publishers come calling, they’d better have hat in hand with contract terms where I’m in creative control, I make most of the profit, and my rights are only limited to the book(s) in question and then only for a limited time, five years tops. The industry is simply changing too much, too fast to sign lifetime copyright agreements. In short, I’m trying indie for real, not as a backdoor for a contract. My intent is to find success. The very last thing I’ll be doing is sacrificing my rights, my freedoms, my money for corporate free riders who wanna piggyback on my hard work. Not gonna happen.

There are some indie champions out there who’s work I respect very much, like Dean Wesley Smith, for instance, who believes the bookstore system can still thrive and ebooks will top out at about 30% of the total market. As much as I love his writing, and agree with much of what he has to say, this is one area I have a very different view. I just don’t see how bookshops have much of a life left. Digital isn’t going to stop at a third of the market. In the long term, I believe it’s going to be the market. If print somehow manages to hold on to 30%, I’ll be surprised. Technology is pushing hard in the wrong direction for purveyors of paper and ink. It’s really just a matter of time before print is winnowed to two categories–print on demand and the high end specialty craft books that are more display objects than reading material.

How far are we, truly, from book kiosks like redbox video rental machines? Yes, we have the Espresso machine today, but it’s still in the early stages and still very expensive. The cost of that is only going to fall. And once we can buy a print book or two at reasonable prices from a boundless catalog during a trip to the grocery store, what’s the point of dedicated book shops on a wide scale? Make no mistake, POD is the future of printed books. That makes the bookstore argument from indies ring a bit hollow to me. I’m not convinced bookstores on any significant scale will still exist in 10 years. From a business standpoint, the last thing I want to do is have my work locked up in a system designed and built to exploit a sales avenue that is on the way to obsolescence. Maybe I’m wrong and bookstores will be thriving for years to come, but that’s even more reason to limit the length of any traditional contract. I just don’t know. And if they’re still there in five or ten years, nothing’s stopping me from signing another contract. But if they’re gone, or severely diminished and I’m in a lifetime copyright contract, I’m screwed. I’d prefer not to be screwed.

The book selling market we have today was close to unimaginable five years ago. What will it look like five years from now? Can anyone say with any degree of certainty? Stay flexible, my friends, and don’t get locked into long term deals with anybody. Unless, of course, they’re handing you a truckload of no-strings-attached money. Then all bets are off. And when I say truckload, I’m talking well into seven figures, paid in full, up front. Probably not gonna happen, so my original point stands. Build for your own success, and when you find it, don’t sell it out for short term gain, especially in a market changing as rapidly as this one.

3. Does anyone represent the interests of writers?

The Authors Guild sure as hell doesn’t. Neither does the literary agent group AAR. Bookshops don’t. Publishers don’t. The DOJ antitrust suit is about readers not writers. About the only group that actually gives a damn about writers is readers, and then only so long as you’re producing work they want to read. For the one absolutely essential class of participants in publishing, writers sure do get shit on quite a bit. We’ve been turned into fodder used and tossed aside to provide a living for any number of middlemen. Yet somehow, we don’t get to benefit from our work until all these other groups get theirs. Whatever tablescraps are left over, then we might see some. Maybe.

We’ve been infantalized, conditioned to believe that we’re dependent on these hangers on or else our work would never be good enough to see the light of day. We can’t edit, we’re told. We don’t have the skills to recognize quality design, they say. We would never sell anything without a publisher marketing it for us, so I’ve heard. Many writers have even allowed themselves to be sold so far down the river that they actually accept the “validation” of being published as a badge of honor rather than the condescending slap in the face it actually is. Even higher education ingrains in us the belief that we don’t deserve or simply won’t earn a good living, perpetuating the starving artist model.

When so many writers simply don’t believe this is a business first, last and always, and that we are the fuel it runs on, and that we deserve fair treatment and to be paid on par with our level of importance to the industry, we’ll continue to be second class citizens, fresh meat for the publishers’ grinder, as it were. I can’t say this enough…digital has flipped the script. Writers and readers are all that matter, everyone else is in the process of being marginalized. They’ll fight it tooth and nail, of course, but that doesn’t mean we have to help.

Writers are the publishing industry, period. Everything else about it built up around us and our work. Over time, we became trapped inside this framework of termites that continued to eat away at our creativity, freedom and bank accounts to the point that many of us actually still believe publishers positions should be higher than writers in the ecosystem. They’re not and they shouldn’t be. The changes going on today have given us the opportunity to leap back to the forefront. We gave that position away once, we shouldn’t waste this second chance.

The fact that there really are no institutions that represent writers ahead of the ecosystem that exploits us should tell us all we need to know. There are none because we controlled ourselves, we willingly abdicated our proper position in the industry and allowed others to dictate how, or even if, we work, live and survive. Nobody’s looking out for us because we’ve never demanded it, and we stopped looking out for ourselves long ago. In the digital future, the cliche “Content is King” is more true than ever. And he who makes the content should be wearing the crown. We’ve got a chance to usurp the throne we once abdicated. Let’s not waste it.

Truth Be Told: Five unalterable realities of the approaching publishing landscape

After a week or so of reading, writing and ranting about the Amazon-Big Six-Apple-DOJ battle for the fate of the publishing universe, I’m a little sick of it. Besides, at this point, what the hell else can be said that hasn’t already been said bunches of times over? Amazon is an evil monster hellbent on destroying the publishing world or they’re not. The Big Six minus one and Apple colluded illegally to fix prices or they didn’t. The DOJ is over-reaching and doing more harm than good or they’re not. Agency Pricing is a racket used to shield print and slow ebook adoption or it’s not. Everybody’s got an opinion, and many of those overlap depending on which side of the old/new debate your sensibilities reside. Either we’re cheering on the damage publishers inflicted on themselves or we’re bemoaning the inevitable end of literature, culture and the publishing industry.

The thing I’ve finally realized is that none of this really matters in the grand scheme of things. There are a few basic realities that will carry on regardless of what any of the parties involved in this debacle decide to do. Amazon will become a monopoly or it won’t. The publishers will see their preferred business models smashed to pieces from the fallout of the various lawsuits or they won’t. Doesn’t matter either way in either case.

Truth #1– Digital Publishing and eBooks are here to stay

There’s no turning back now. The massive print infrastructure that roadblocked so many writers from reaching the marketplace for readers is no longer a real obstacle. The so-called Big Six can no longer stop anyone from selling their wares on equal terms. They can no longer steer customers to the limited options they prefer at whatever price points they want. Protectionist actions like the Agency Pricing deal that got them sued are ineffective and counter-productive.

Digital publishing hasn’t just kicked open doors that were long shuttered, it has blown the whole side of the building wide open.  Trying to stack up some boxes or slide the dresser in front of the gap of their gatekeeper controlled entry points won’t work. The passage is clearer now than its been in a long time, maybe ever, and we’re only at the very beginning of the changes yet to come. Things are going to get a whole lot worse for those who formerly controlled the industry before they get better, if they get better at all. Digital reading will become ubiquitous sooner than later, and it will dominate the market no matter how many warm, fuzzy memories of the past we conjure up.  Nostalgia is not a business model.

Truth #2- Amazon’s perceived dominance is fleeting

When discussing Amazon, the conversation almost inevitably turns to monopoly and now its first cousin, monopsony, too. This is a mistake because it superimposes economic conditions of the physical world onto digital. Long standing monopolies are exceptionally difficult to build and maintain in the virtual realm, and that’s only going to get harder to achieve over time. Amazon may hold most of the cards right now, maybe even the entire deck, but the thing about digital is that there are infinite decks from which to draw your hand. They’ve built up their position today because they have all their bases covered–cheap prices, overwhelming choices, a reasonably priced device most people find unobjectionable and the single best store interface in existence for both consumers and sellers. But that’s the rub. They may have the bases covered right now, but the instant they leave one unguarded, someone somewhere is going to jump all over it. To make matters worse, it might even be a base (or several bases) they didn’t even realize was on the field. We haven’t even scratched the surface of the changes yet to come.

One nice idea from some other quarter has the same potential to pull the rug out from under them that they’re innovations had for the traditional industry. And companies, as they get bigger and more complacent about their positions tend to miss important things. Amazon today may not ignore a game-changing reality, but what about tomorrow? Or the next day? Amazon is currently competing with an old school industry stuck in an industrial manufacturing, physical goods past. In that regard, they look for all the world like an unstoppable force. The next generation of competitors, however, won’t be tied to a bloated and inefficient past. They’ll be digital natives building from the advancements of Amazon itself. When the disruption has finished chewing up traditional publishers, Amazon is next on the hitlist.

Truth #3- Bookstores are doomed in every possible circumstance

How many record stores do you see around these days? How many video stores are left? Bookstores are the next to fall. As digital reading inevitably continues its ascendancy, eventually becoming the default manner in which people read, the notion of a shop specifically catering to an outdated product will seem quaint. Physical books in the future are far more likely to be found in antique stores rather than their own dedicated shops.

We will soon reach a point where the physical bookstore becomes a losing financial proposition both from the customer and the retailer standpoints. Nothing that can be achieved by a trip to the bookstore won’t be done faster, cheaper, more thoroughly and efficiently online. Barnes & Noble and what’s left of the big box book retailers will fall first, followed by a steady stream of independents until all that’s left are a smattering of tiny shops, very likely willing to lose money on books just to keep the doors open. I’m not reveling in their demise, I love bookstores, but I loved music stores, too. It would be nice to see them thrive, but it’s unrealistic. When every service you offer can be done better and more conveniently by your customers from their own living rooms, your days are numbered. Talk about literary culture and their place in publishing history all you want, but it’s not going to alter anything. Again, nostalgia is not a business model.

Truth #4- Publisher’s whining about ebook prices is irrelevant

Traditional publishers are stuck between the rock of their expensive print-centric business models and the hard place of cheaper, more efficient digital-centric changes to the industry. Given how quickly digital is eating away print’s market advantages, that is a very bad place to find yourself. Many small publishers and independent writers know that ebooks are almost insanely cheap to produce and distribute. They have direct, first hand experience selling ebooks very profitably at half or less of the price traditional publishers claim is too low for the industry to survive ($10). They, and everyone else including readers, know it. When the head of a Big Six publisher says that ebooks are only 10% less expensive to produce than print, it sounds like bullshit because we know it doesn’t have to be that way.

Print’s share of the overall market is as high today as it’s ever going to be. There’s nowhere for it to go except down. If you’re a publisher who’s business is built on a print infrastructure packed with layers of middlemen trying to squeeze ebooks into the identical framework, you’re screwed. As digital continues to grow, bookstores die off and other physical retail outlets discard large book sections, that print-first dynamic will become ever more untenable. Publishers are making a crucial error in trying to unilaterally increase ebook prices in the service of supporting print infrastructure. If they can’t profitably sell ebooks today at $10 or less, they need to make changes to their businesses so that they can. Whining about market forces and taking actions in opposition of your own customers’ desires and beliefs isn’t going to magically turn things around, and will very likely make it much worse for those that do. Yes, publishers have built virtual empires on the back of expensive print-based models. But the market is moving away from that model. If publishers don’t follow it, their predictions of doom will become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Truth #5- Writers who succeed in the future will be their own publishers whether they like it or not

Conventional wisdom suggests that publishers will eventually adapt and reclaim their positions as the principle gateway for authors to get their works to market. I don’t agree, unless, and this is a big one, their adaptations convert them into a service industry catering to writers. Thus far, I’ve seen nothing to indicate that’s going to happen. So, a far more likely outcome is that writers will, in most cases, be small businesses responsible for producing, marketing and selling their own material. This entails developing relationships with editors, designers and other services, essentially becoming micro-publishers each representing one writer–themselves.

As digital continues to threaten traditional publishers, we’ve seen more hard line stances taken with regards to writers. Rights grabs, revised contracts, shrinking royalties, non compete clauses and more efforts undertaken to mitigate their risks by cutting compensation and snatching more value from the writers under their collective umbrella. As print’s importance fades, eventually we’ll hit a point of no return where a traditional publishing contract does far more harm than good for a writer. Some have suggested that we’re already at that point for the vast majority. There may be other businesses emerge that service the essential activities of publishers, but I don’t expect their agreements to be significantly less one-sided. This means that the primary means for writers to reach publication will be essentially do-it-yourself.

“I just want to write,” is by far the most commonly used excuse by authors to place themselves under the endentured thumb of publishers, and, from a business standpoint, it’s not a very good one any more. The thing is, if a writer just wants to write in the future, they willingly will have to subject themselves to egregiously one-sided agreements where they’ll be fortunate to earn a pittance of what their work actually produces, even less than is currently the case. The current fight over the ebook market contains only occasional lip service from publishers about the benefits of writers. They seem to be treating it as a battle over who amongst the corporate giants gets to reap the rewards from writers’ efforts. The far more viable, and sound business choice for writers will be to become publishers themselves. The control, creative freedom and ability to earn the lion’s share of revenue from your efforts will make it worthwhile. It will also pose a greater risk, but that’s a tradeoff. No matter how much digital changes things, you still don’t get something for nothing.

There will be a contingent of writers who ultimately will bristle at the notion of having to expand their skill set and devote more time, effort and resources into pursuing their own success, but that’s the breaks. Traditional publishing seems to be trying to establish a pattern of poaching independent writers once they reach a certain level of success. That may make some sense, depending on who you ask, given the benefits they can potentially bring in the physical print market, but as print declines, those justifications from going indie to traditional will evaporate right along with it. If a writer puts in the time and effort to reach a level of success independently, the benefits of signing a traditional contract in a principally digital world are almost exclusive to the publisher. Sure, you might be able to no longer worry about things you don’t want to, but you will pay dearly for that “convenience.” It’s also highly debatable you’ll get the benefits you think, particularly when it comes to marketing, which is a burden already being shifted to writers today.

We may well develop a two-tiered writer system–those who are essentially lowly paid employees of publishers and those who become publishers themselves. In that environment, the big winners will come from the second group. Some writers may not like things going in that direction, but just as everyone is so keen on the notion that publishers will have to alter their conceptions and business practices, writers must also adapt to the new realities. No one on any side of the disruption is immune to having change thrust upon them.

Published in: on April 20, 2012 at 9:20 am  Leave a Comment  
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Bring Out Your Dead: If book publishing is truly dying, then the afterlife is looking pretty sweet!

So here’s a rhetorical question: At what point do media pundits finally get that the digital revolution tearing down long-established systems through previously unimaginable efficiency isn’t the end of all civilization, just the likely end of various legacy businesses who used the previous inefficiency and prohibitive cost structure to dominate their markets?  It’s rhetorical because the answer is obviously never.

The book publishing industry is the latest group of legacy businesses to fall into the chicken little, the sky is falling fallacy.  To be sure, the large publishers themselves are in trouble, but that doesn’t mean that the writers they’ve built their legacies on will fall with them.  In fact, I would argue just the opposite is true.  Writers now have previously impossible access to the market, to production and marketing possibilities without having to run the gauntlet of the publisher gatekeepers or pay their exorbitant tributes for being allowed to do so. How is this a bad development?

Here’s a piece that appeared in The Guardian recently that makes the exact case I disagree with.  In fact, the piece lays out the argument that, as publishers fall to the digital transition and ebooks become more pervasive, the writer as a profession will cease to exist.  Interesting point of view if totally and completely misguided. 

The author makes the claim that writers must support publishers or else they both are doomed.  Well, he’s half right.  If writers do bail on publishers in increasing numbers, as they very likely will, the publishers will be doomed.  Of course, I would also argue if writers ignore the new freedoms of the coming age and blindly support publishers, they’ll be dooming themselves.  Publishers, as they exist today, are doomed regardless.  They are middlemen and the internet kills middlemen as effectively as any process ever invented. 

In the past, writers needed publisher’s infrastructure and resources to print their books, market them and distribute them.  With ebooks and increasingly affordable print on demand, we don’t need that printing service any longer.  With Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, the ibookstore, etc, etc, we no longer need their distribution services either.  That leaves marketing, and the savvy web using author can do that too, with little to no expense.  Plus, how long will it be before there are no upfront costs for advertising, either?  Imagine a world where you click on an ad, buy an ebook from your mobile device, download it and a percentage goes to the storefront, a percentage to the ad platform and the rest instantaneously into the author’s bank account.  You won’t have to imagine it because it’ll be here very, very soon, and you and I will have the identical access to that framework that any legacy publisher has.  So much for marketing.

I purposely left editing out of my list of offerings from publishers for a couple reasons.  One, it’s remarkably easy to find someone online to do a technical edit for a small fee.  Two, when speaking of editing, it’s often included in with the process of selecting which works deserve to be published, i.e., the gatekeeper role.  Well, in an infinite online world, we don’t need those gatekeepers anymore.  So that about wraps it up.  There is virtually nothing publishers do that writers can’t do for themselves at low or no cost.  How, in that atmosphere, does it make any sense at all to continue to turn 75 or 80% of your possible earnings over to a legacy business you don’t really need?

There is a one caveat here.  The world I describe is one where the writer does a lot more than simply writing a book.  Of course, I would argue that the ideal of the writer earning a living simply writing has always been a bit of a fallacy.  Certainly, there are some, but the vast majority of writers have always supplemented their income in other ways.  In the Guardian piece, defending the publisher advance system that is today declining, the author sites Dickens and Shakespeare as writers who earned a living wage.  Well, Dickens was a prolific magazine editor, and most of his works were serialized into magazines before they were ever collected into books, that age’s equivalent of the radio play or the television drama.  Shakespeare was a playwright and an actor.  His work wasn’t even collected and published until well after his death.  How does that apply to modern book publishers and their advance pay scales?

In this recent interview, author Graham Swift decries a world where writers would have to depend on readings and events to earn a living.  Well, maybe I’m wrong, but wasn’t no less notable an author than Mark Twain pretty famous for his live performances, some even suggesting he invented the role of stand-up comedian? Twain was also a prolific magazine editor, as was another American great, Edgar Allan Poe.  Poe, by the way, was also known to earn a buck doing public and private readings of his poetry, notably The Raven.  I don’t see how these efforts detracted from their writings.

The fact is that the vast majority of writers have always needed other means of income outside of simply putting pen to paper.  The difference now is, that if done properly, the writer can keep the lion’s share of the money generated from their works instead of the table scraps publishers have historically thrown their way.  And make no mistake, even when publishers were paying large advances and higher royalty rates, the money filtering down to creators, by and large, was still table scraps. 

And while book publishers don’t generally have the same horrendous reputation for totally screwing their talent that the music industry does, there have been reports of publishers severely under-reporting ebook sales to get out of owed royalty payments.  Is there a justifiable reason to continue blindly trusting these folks?  And that doesn’t even mention turning over the rights to your work in various formats, which self-published folks keep outright in all forms.  Increasingly, that answer is no.

The doom and gloom is somewhat understandable coming from that quarter, however. There has always been some resentment by those inside the gated walls of publishing, and by those who aspire to gain entrance there, toward people who circumvent that process.  To some, it seems as if spending years or decades compiling a mountain of rejection letters from publishers is some kind of noble pursuit or right of passage.  Well, more power to you if that’s what you really want, but there is clearly a better way, and it’s simply a matter of time before those walls come crashing down, as well they should.

We haven’t yet reached the point where the transition has come to complete fruition yet, but it’s fairly clear the direction things are going.  When we do get there, it’s going to be obvious that publishers no longer add enough value from their offerings to justify claiming 4/5 of the proceeds or more.  It’s actually debatable to me if they ever really did, just that they held a dominant enough position that they could demand those extortion-level financial terms from authors or they could effectively squeeze you out. 

If publishers are going to survive in the coming future at all, they’re going to have to find ways to add value to the new processes, and the terms will have to be much more author friendly, to the tune of 40-50% royalties, if not more.  Otherwise, they simply become an unnecessary and prohibitive middleman expense.  Squeezing author royalties or colluding to artificially inflate ebook prices, as they have recently done, is the exact wrong way to go about things.  Even if they do make solid choices, publishers will become support mechanisms for authors instead of dominant masters.  Again, this is not a bad development for writers in any way.

All is not totally dour, the end is near commentary. In fact, here’s a counterpoint to the Guardian piece I first referenced, also appearing in the same publication.  If nothing else, this uses much of the same data to paint a much brighter picture of the industry as a whole.

And I’ll close with one more link that refuted the coming decimation of books and those who write them.  The author here sums up the point nicely in the last paragraph:

“This is a growth industry, if only its practitioners would admit it.”

Very well said.  And very true, unless you’re a legacy publisher.

Published in: on August 30, 2011 at 5:46 pm  Comments (1)  
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