Stratego

I’m developing a little theory on publishing. Here’s how it goes: In 2009, book publishers, fresh from watching the music industry and their newspaper brethren get hammered when digital competition struck hard and fast, decided they needed a different approach. Part of that was the collusion for Agency pricing, essentially to fix retail prices of ebooks on the high side and slow adoption to protect their brick-and-mortar print interests. Most people believe that was the extent of it.

But consider, at the same time they colluded on Agency, more restrictive contracts, 25% of net ebook royalties and ebook rights grabs on old contracts proliferated across the entire industry. Many people presume the publishers wanted to preserve brick-and-mortar for the long haul and more than a few opinion pieces were written calling them out for futility and lack of vision. After all, ebooks were a problem for physical stores but the real problem was online commerce. Every without ebooks, sales were moving away from stores to the internet. Borders died partially because of this.

But what if this isn’t about the long term future of physical bookstore sales at all? What if the publishers were playing a different game entirely? Other creative industries suffered when digital adoption grew at rates that decimated their physical business while not yet bringing in the profits to counteract that. Publishers have acted, in explicit and seeming concert, to both slow digital adoption (not stop it, mind you) and to shore up better margins on ebooks. This point, that much of those profits are coming directly out of authors’ pay, seems to be largely ignored in press reports touting publishers’ higher profits, by the way.

In this theory, the publishers knew full well ebooks were potentially far more profitable, despite their illogical protestations of that point, and they knew that the brick-and-mortar segment was inevitably going to continue to shrink in importance. The point may not be to save the physical market but to slow it’s death to a manageable pace, while locking in increased profits from the digital growth on the other side.

We’ve already reached two interesting points that may support this. One, more books are sold online now that in physical stores, a rate that keeps growing steadily in online commerce’s favor. And the report from ALCS about the UK market tells the story of writers having their incomes squeezed while their very publishers are increasing margins and improving profits. It my theory, this wouldn’t be accidental or an unintended consequence, but absolutely intentional.

In a few years, if everything goes according to plan, we’ll reach a tipping point where online sales and the higher margins that go with them will exceed any justification to slow their adoption to protect dwindling physical store sales. At that point, these protective actions (prices too high, DRM, maybe even Agency itself) will be systematically abandoned. But by then, they’ll have most all of their writers locked into low paying ebook contracts that will look even more egregious after they shed large portions of the expense of serving brick-and-mortar stores. They’ll also have effectively wiped out every possibility of reversion except the 35 year rule (and just wait till Mickey Mouse is faced with public domain in a couple years. I can almost guarantee that’ll either be eliminated or pushed back to 70 years or so). Many of their writers will have non-competes that encumber their ability to fully leave them behind, if at all. And they’ll have locked down ebook rights on their entire backlist of titles, even in contracts signed decades before this market was even someone’s random fever dream.

In this model, they’re not protecting print or defending the culture of print, they’re transitioning away from it, and in the process grabbing a much larger slice of the pie from authors than the already too damn large one they take.

Am I right? Who knows? But if we’re going to sit around tossing doomsday scenarios for writers under Amazon’s bootheels, there’s one hanging right there in plain view, possibly being perpetuated by the very entities many of their supporters think are nurturing them. And, given that ALCS report, looks like may actually be happening right now.

Choose your friends wisely, but choose your enemies even more so.

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

Hatchette accidentally reveals concern for authors is bulls*&t

Hatchette released a statement today in response to an Amazon statement about their protracted and increasingly ugly contract negotiation. Here it is, with inappropriate commentary added by yours truly. And, yes, I’ve been so inspired by all the anti-Amazon hit pieces lately that I chose an intentionally inflammatory headline. Hyperbole for fun and profit!

“It is good to see Amazon acknowledge that its business decisions significantly affect authors’ lives.”

Yes it is. Now let’s continue on to see how Hatchette acknowledges its business decisions significantly affect authors’ lives. (Hint: you’ll be disappointed.)

“For reasons of their own, Amazon has limited its customers’ ability to buy more than 5,000 Hachette titles.”

From Amazon’s own statement: “These changes are related to the contract and terms between Hachette and Amazon.” Reasons of their own in a contract you signed. Reasons that you know damn good and well. Is Hatchette in the habit of not enforcing provisions in its contracts when it’s in their interest to do so? I didn’t think so.

“Authors, with whom we at Hachette have been partners for nearly two centuries, engage in a complex and difficult mission to communicate with readers.”

A complex and difficult mission to communicate with readers made so by publishers because it served their interests at the time. Or do you have some other explanation for why you’d create a system that essentially locked writers out of distribution unless they paid a toll of lifetime copyrights to a publisher to even reach the marketplace? If there’s a barrier between readers and writers, it’s because publishers put it there to better collect their pound of flesh.

“In addition to royalties, they are concerned with audience, career, culture, education, art, entertainment, and connection. By preventing its customers from connecting with these authors’ books, Amazon indicates that it considers books to be like any other consumer good. They are not.”

Oh, Jesus, more special snowflake nonsense. Weren’t you listening when the judge who reamed your ass for price fixing told you, precisely and in no uncertain terms, that publishers are not special snowflakes? Of course books are commodities like any other. You know who made them commodities? You did, and publishers like you when you priced them according to the format instead of the content inside. You seemed perfectly cool with that for the past 200 years. What’s changed now? Oh, that’s right, you’ve lost control of this particular commodity market.

“We will spare no effort to resume normal business relations with Amazon—which has been a great partner for years”

Of course they have been, they’ve made you a metric ton of money. Particularly on those 25% of net ebook deals that make writers a little bit and you a shitload more that you all totally didn’t collude to make industry standard almost simultaneously.

“but under terms that value appropriately for the years ahead the author’s unique role in creating books, and the publisher’s role in editing, marketing, and distributing them, at the same time that it recognizes Amazon’s importance as a retailer and innovator.”

Herein lies the rub. What, exactly, is the appropriate value of the publisher’s role now? Even Hatchette’s own phrasing admits the writer’s role is unique. We’ve all got a pretty good idea how valuable Amazon’s role as an innovator is. Who’s the weak link here? Nothing unique or innovative about the editing, marketing and distribution most publishers provide. Anybody can do that or find someone who can to affordably contract out. I suspect the root problem here is they don’t yet realize that the appropriate value of the publisher’s role has declined, perhaps dramatically. You know what happens in a negotiation when you come to the table with declining leverage? You don’t get as good of terms. Ask your writers about that, I’m sure some would have a few pertinent things to say on the subject.

“Once we have reached such an agreement, we will be happy to discuss with Amazon its ideas about compensating authors for the damage its demand for improved terms may have done them, and to pass along any payments it considers appropriate.”

“It’s ideas” because we sure as hell know it wasn’t Hatchette’s idea to compensate authors during this fight. If you didn’t know, Amazon, in its statement, offered to form a fund to help authors hurt by this situation and volunteered to kick in 50% if Hatchette kicked in the other half. This was their response, a big ol’ “fuck you” to their own authors who they just claimed to care so much about. Not only did they refuse, they attached any assistance to Hatchette getting what it wants first, making author assistance a negotiating tactic, and guaranteeing they will continue to suffer for as long as this lasts with no help forthcoming. Also guaranteeing that they’ll readily trot out and use that suffering to engender support and more Amazon hatred. More than that, “we’ll discuss it later” and “we’ll pass on any payments it considers appropriate” is just, “you can pay them if you want, but only after we finish our business, and we won’t be kicking in” just with different words.

Being that this is a near-explicit refusal to establish such a fund or contribute anything to it, the line about “the damage Amazon’s demands may have done them” looks like a total false denial of responsibility as they’re doing them damage right now. Seems to me like the discussion that needs to happen is between Hatchette and it’s authors about what the appropriate value of the author’s unique role is. Here’s an instance where they could have backed up their earlier glowing praise and concern for authors by putting their money where their mouth is but instead they pissed all over them trying some half-assed attempt at a clever quip at Amazon’s expense. They should leave the half-assed quipping to bored writers looking for big corporate hypocrites to bitch about. Just sayin’…

“In the meantime, we are extremely grateful for the spontaneous outpouring of support we have received both privately and publicly from authors and agents.”

Spontaneous, sure. Nothing at all to do with the coordinated astroturfing effort you all were talking about not too long ago.

“We will continue to communicate with them promptly as this situation develops.”

Yup, just like you communicated promptly with them the seven months this bullshit’s already been going on, right?

So, Hatchette accepts no responsibility for this at all, refuses to lift a finger to help their own authors this is hurting, and seems to be under some impression that their negotiating power hasn’t atrophied some over the past few years. So, for emphasis:

“It is good to see Amazon acknowledge that its business decisions significantly affect authors’ lives.”

When can we expect to see the same acknowledgement from Hatchette, because this sure as hell ain’t it. This is you intentionally putting authors in the middle of your fight and purposely extending and exploiting their suffering to suit your ends first and foremost, right there in your own words. Strange that Amazon’s statement was far more subtle in its implications than Hatchette’s. Maybe you should of hired a better writer.

Look, nobody wants to see Amazon get to be a dominant beast that lords over everyone. But these folks are not the right horse to back. They’re deluded, have an over-developed notion of their own value and readily blow smoke up writers’ asses while profiting in different ways from both their success and struggles. Even some of their own writers fully expect they’ll use the decline in sales against them in their next book deal. Amazon may be big and powerful, but these folks are just opportunistic scumbags.

Amazon broke the hold these publishers had on the industry, and it’s created more opportunities for more writers to make more money than publishers like Hatchette have in, well, pretty much ever. We need to move forward on the gains writers have made of late, and publishers like Hatchette are firmly entrenched in the past. Yesterday’s exploiters aren’t going to be tomorrow’s liberators no matter how many New York Times anti-Amazon hit pieces they encite.

We do need to have a very serious conversation about competition and diversification and what direction things need to go in the future, but Hatchette and those like them have repeatedly shown that they have absolutely nothing to add to that conversation. Or are you one of the three people who don’t think every other major publisher is going to follow lock step down the path Hatchette’s setting right now? What I really want to know, though, is after they’re all done cutting their noses off to spite their faces, which body parts are next?

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

Amazon the Great and Terrible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Predictions

Prognosticating the future is always a tricky business. Easy to do, far less easy to actually be right. Fortunately, we don’t often call out folks for being horribly wrong in their Nostradamus impersonations after the fact. You can argue maybe we should but relatively few who make public predictions are going to jump all over someone else’s bad ones because they know only too well how many of their own are way off base. What goes around, comes around so don’t go around in the first place.

But predicting things is fun! Hell, I spent 40 or 50 tweets predicting the NBA season back in the fall, then used another 20 to predict the playoffs last month even though my regular season picks were so hit or miss as to be nearly random. The only pick I’ve got left is Indiana winning the title. I also may be the last person not named Larry Bird who’s riding that particular bandwagon, and I’m not too sure Larry didn’t tuck-and-roll his way outta there a while back, too. But if they win, you bet your ass I’ll be doing some gloating. Albeit without mentioning the other dozen predictions I made that didn’t come through, of course.

My point here is take any and all prognostications you see with the biggest grain of salt you can find. Not usually something you see a writer say in a piece about to make a prediction, I know. But I find the value in prognosticating doesn’t so much come from whether the final prediction is right or wrong, it comes from the process of evaluating circumstances and evidence and extrapolating that out to a conclusion. When I read predictive pieces, the reasoning why the writer is making the guess they’re making is more important to me than what that guess is. You could be completely correct with your prediction but the reasoning leading to it could be so flawed as to be useless, or you can be completely wrong in your prediction but dead on in the circumstances leading you there. You have to evaluate those circumstances and how they relate to your individual situation. It’s impossible to know for certain how things will turn out in a complex environment like the publishing industry, but it’s very possible to understand the conditions and act accordingly for your personal ends.

That being said, here’s my extrapolated prediction: book publishers, even huge conglomerate ones like Random Penguin, will be non-existent or so altered as to be unrecognizable as present-day publishers in less than 10 years time. Easy to say, no way to prove. In fact, you can’t even prove I’m wrong at the moment, only after the fact. You can try, and state evidence opposing my viewpoint all day long, if you like, but guess what? All you’re doing is making predictions to try and counter my prediction. The same flaw that makes my prognostication far less than a certainty is also making your counter-prognostication far less than a certainty. So my final word, as it were, isn’t really the point, only a guess as to where things are heading, exactly like your theoretical counter is really only a guess.

What matters is why I’ve extrapolated that publishers are screwed (or why you’ve extrapolated that they aren’t.) Here’s the basis for my reasoning, in five handy points: Hatchette is reportedly trying to reinstitute some flavor of Agency pricing in its deal with Amazon now that it’s prohibition against such is almost up. The other major publishers will likely take similar action as their DOJ-imposed limits expire. What does Agency pricing do? It limits discounting by retailers and raises the price of books. Point one.

One of the major arguments in favor of Agency pricing (and against, to be honest) is that it works to protect hardcover sales and sales in brick and mortar bookstores from ebooks that are “too cheap.” That’s great and all, but ebooks aren’t what’s hurting brick and mortar retailers, online commerce is. Doesn’t matter if someone’s buying a print book or an ebook, if they’re buying it online, that’s a sale a physical store didn’t make. Certainly, ebooks are native to online but trends show print sales are increasingly migrating there, too, for a number of reasons. Online commerce is exposing the inefficiencies of brick and mortar retail in virtually every business that doesn’t ask if you want fries with that. (I also predict it’ll be exposing their inefficiencies sooner than later, too, but that’s a different article.) Does Agency pricing affect that deeper societal trend in any way? No, not really. Point two.

The book publishing industry hasn’t had the classic disruption drop off in sales that all disrupted industries have suffered. Napster and it’s ilk exposed the holes in the music industry’s model and set off the demand for digital music that caused massive, rapid declines in cd sales. (Not that downloading killed cd sales, mind you, consumer demand for digital music did that.) Craigslist (and later, eBay) virtually wiped out newspaper classified advertising almost overnight. For those that don’t know, classifieds were the most profitable advertising per column inch in the newspaper business. The sudden loss of great chunks of it was catastrophic.

It’s tempting to say ebooks were that force and the industry avoided the huge losses. But think about it for a second. Ebooks have been a decided gain for publishers, the extra profits they reap from ebooks have made their bottom lines look better than they should. Ebooks didn’t work against publishers’ interests, they were extra money dropped into their laps. They were the best positioned of anyone to take advantage of this when a market was firmly established. And they did, albeit while bitching all the way to the bank. Ebooks themselves have never been a threat to publishers, so unless they were braindead stupid, they were bound to benefit from them like everybody else. The fact that they haven’t benefitted more from them is something they’ll soon come to regret, I believe. Point three.

Barnes and Noble is circling the drain. We all know it. It’s just a matter of when. I would argue that if not for the college bookstores (a different, less disrupted to-this-point market) they might already by a ghost. They just reported a 10% drop in sales the third quarter of 2013 over the year before. Immediately after, they suffered about a 10% drop in their stock value. This corresponds rather neatly with a recent U.S. Census report that shows bookstore sales in general have dropped by 10% from last year, illustrating that this isn’t a B&N-centric problem but an industry-wide issue. Their online commerce effort is an epic trainwreck. And, they’re a brick and mortar retail store at their core no different from Borders or Best Buy or Circuit City (remember them?) or Blockbuster or any number of other chains that used to be mainstays in strip malls everywhere. Those pressures aren’t going to go away and they really have nothing to do with ebooks or even the publishing industry itself. Higher education is in many people’s crosshairs as a ripe market to be disrupted. When someone finally breaks through, and they will, those college stores aren’t going to be life lining anything. Barnes and Noble is doomed. Point four.

Ebook sales are slowing down. The market is maturing, establishing a ground floor somewhere around 20% of the industry and is growing at a slower rate as its marketshare rises. Now you could argue if that’s even true, given the nature of the data available and the invisibility of many self published works in that data. But what’s not really disputable is that the data we have is unquestionably reflecting traditional publishers. So, while you can argue whether ebooks on the whole are slowing down, you can’t really dispute that they’re slowing down for traditional publishers. On top of that, inexplicably, many of those same publishers seem to be under some impression that this is a good thing. Point five.

So that’s the five elements I see as the present conditions I’ve made my prediction from: the biggest publishers are likely going to try to reinstitute Agency in some form; the results of that will handicap retailers and raise prices in a market struggling with online commerce already undermining brick and mortar retail; we’re still waiting for the classic steep decline in legacy product sales caused by disruption; Barnes and Noble is a dead man walking; and the growth rate of ebook sales for traditional publishers is slowing. Now that I’ve identified what I believe are the current applicable conditions publishers face, I’ve concluded that their long-term prospects aren’t particularly good.

Here’s how I think this goes: Say you’re a big pub CEO and you sit down at your desk one morning to headlines reading “Barnes and Noble files for bankruptcy. Remaining stores to be shuttered.” As you drop your head into your hands considering the 65 different ways this screws you, there’s a knock at your door. It’s Walmart, Target, Sam’s Club and the other warehouse stores.

“We’re so sorry to hear about Barnes and Noble. It’s a terrible tragedy. We’d like to offer our condolences. Here’s a cookie bouquet.” You nod solemnly and they turn to leave, but Walmart stops short, looks to you and says, “By the way, being that we now represent the last mass-market retail space you have, we’d like to have a discussion about the discounts you give us, when you feel better, of course.” He then leaves, closing the door behind him.

Your mind races. “Well, we can probably absorb a bit of an increase in discounting. Maybe we can hire more interns or move to more freelancers.” As you snatch up one of the cookies from the bouquet and start munching, feeling somewhat ok, your office door suddenly flies open and in storms Amazon. “Hey bozo, guess who’s responsible for 70% of your business now? I’d suggest you get ready to open that checkbook of yours or we might happen to have some technical difficulties with your buy buttons. See ya, loser!” Amazon storms back out, slamming the door so hard the picture of you and a smiling James Patterson falls off your office wall.

“Ok,” you think to yourself, “maybe if we cut advances by 30%, we can get through this. We’ll be alright.” Just then, there’s another soft knock at your door and a finely dressed, lawyerly gentleman strolls in. “Hi, I’m from the Independent Bookstore Alliance. We represent 1500 independent bookstores in the U.S. Given as we are now the last bookstore shelf space in the country, we’d like to discuss the types of discounts you can give to our members at your soonest possible convenience.” He softly lays his business card on your desk, next to the half-eaten cookie from the bouquet, and leaves.

You lean all the way back in your fine $10,000 Italian leather desk chair and mutter to yourself, “Oh fuck…”

Or something like that. B&N’s gone, brick and mortar bookstore sales start dropping 10-20% year-over-year, quarter after quarter for years until what was 50% of your business is now 15%. What’s worse is that the sales you’re still making, both online and physical, print and digital, are less profitable than they were before due to being squeezed by retailers of all stripes. Ebook sales growth, while inexorable, isn’t keeping pace with the losses that are mounting. It’s the book industry version of the print dollars to digital dimes problem. On top of that, you’re losing writers from two camps: the upper echelon superstars who you’re not producing results for like you were before, and the entry level writers who scoff at the increasingly miser-like contracts you’re foisting on them. Midlist writers would likely join them in the exodus, too, if they hadn’t already fled in large numbers by this point. Both groups of writers are moving on to either do it themselves, to better adapted publishers or to some new concoction of collaborative publishing or author collectives that cut you out altogether.

At that point, there’s two choices: change to become a different kind of company, one that can handle these new market realities where you and your ilk are no longer at the head of the food chain (a process you may already be too late for) or fade to obscurity in the corporate sell-off/bankruptcy/vanity buyer process that has chewed up most newspapers. Either way, what publishers are today, and especially what they were 10 years ago, will be largely no more.

So that’s my theoretical timeline. Am I right? I don’t know, ask me in 10 years. What I do know is that there are likely more protectionist actions coming from publishers that don’t actually protect anything. I do know that Barnes and Noble is struggling mightily from the same reasons in the same ways other similar businesses didn’t survive. I do know publishers have lost a great deal of their control of the distribution system, and with it, their principle means of discovery and a chunk of their leverage with retailers over discounts. I do know, for whatever reason, ebook sales growth is slowing for traditional players and maybe everybody. I do know that writers have more options to make it to market than ever before, many of them outright replacing the essential positions publishers were anchored in. Whether all this means what I think it means is open for debate. Whether you agree with all of my five points, a few of them, just one or even none at all, there’s elements within each that can have profound impacts on the choices we have to make as writers.

Maybe you don’t think publishers are in serious trouble but you agree B&N is, so you set up a short-sell deal on their stock. Maybe you agree publishers are heading for a period of great upheaval and don’t want to sign an open-ended contract with one, or go with a publisher willing to work with contracts with a 5 or 10 year expiration date. Maybe you’ve been considering striking out on your own and the struggles of publishers are the last push you need. Maybe you think reinstituting Agency will protect the print side of the industry and put your efforts there. Maybe you agree B&N is toast but you think it’ll lead to a resurgence of independent stores rather than the start of a deep brick and mortar downfall and seek out a publisher better integrated with that community. Interpretation is in the eye of the beholder and should always be based on achieving your own individual ends. Making my prediction led me through a long cycle of circumstances, patterns and considerations to reach what I think may happen. Reading this likely led you to consider the same things, even (maybe especially) if you were breathlessly hollering at your screen how full of shit you think I am as you read. Whether I’m right about the end result or not doesn’t really matter. There are several factors in play here that will impact what I ultimately choose to do, and that’s the real value in predictions. It’s not a right or wrong thing, but a process of understanding and examining smaller elements in order to extrapolate out to a conclusion. Progress doesn’t just happen in big, sweeping pronouncements. It occurs from within the smallest details. And nothing you choose to do will be very effective if you don’t have a better understanding of those diverse yet interconnected details. I predict that’s the case, anyway.

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

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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