Bring Out Your Dead: If book publishing is truly dying, then the afterlife is looking pretty sweet!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was only too ready to stand up and tell anyone who would listen after last year’s NFL Draft that I thought former Florida QB Tim Tebow would be a bust.  Well, I’m still not convinced that he will pan out, but he has shown me enough over the past year that I now believe he at least deserves a fair shot.

Denver apparently disagrees, however, dropping Tebow behind genuine, unquestioned bust and total waste of roster space Brady Quinn.  There is even talk that Tebow will be released by the Broncos.  I may not like the guy, but he’s really getting the shaft here.

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Published in: on August 26, 2011 at 1:19 am  Leave a Comment  
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The single most disgraceful thing I’ve ever heard

So the bankers who brought the world economy to its knees with their lending and mortgage scams are gonna skate.  It would be shocking if it wasn’t so damned obviously going to turn out this way.  The Justice Department and state attorney generals are going to soon reach a settlement that cuts off any future civil or criminal liabilities in exchange for a relative pittance of a fine that’s going to end up flipped back to the banks as “loan modifications” anyway.  It’s flat out disgusting.

The financial crisis is the defining issue of Obama’s presidency, and he’s not going to do a damn thing to change anything or hold anyone at all responsible for the massive, unprecedented fraud and market manipulation.  You can be sure that any settlement will contain language to the effect of “by agreeing to this settlement, we in no way admit to any wrongdoing.”

No matter how scary the GOP nutjobs running in 2012 are, and I agree, some of those folks scare the Hell outta me, it doesn’t change the reality that Obama has and continues to be a major disappointment and massive failure who, in a sane universe, should have no shot of winning reelection as a dogcatcher, let alone President.

If the Democrats don’t come up with a viable alternative very soon, we’re going to be saddled with one of those republican whackos anyway because he’s going to lose.  He’s simply been that bad and continues to get inexplicably worse.

These banker bastards destroyed the entire global economy and our President, a man who ran under a platform of change and audacity, is going to let them walk with little more than a statement saying, “Whoops, my bad.”  There is no more lesser of two evils choice in 2012.  If Obama’s still in the race, its gonna be Evil 1 versus Evil 1-A.

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Wouldn’t it be nice if we had someone, anyone worth a damn to vote for?

I’m in a ranting mood today.  Reading the news this morning quite simply pissed me off.  So, I took the time to explain my sometimes conflicting political beliefs, and how people like me have very few, if any, real options to put our support behind.

I also felt compelled to bemoan the loss of legitimate conservative thought in politics today, replaced as it has been by raging, radical libertarianism. Why, oh, why isn’t it possible to be in favor of tax and regulation cuts in some areas, tax and regulation increases in others, decry the nanny state and be for cutting spending yet still believe we need a useful social safety net and public assistance, and to get government the Hell out of our private, personal choices and freedoms while protecting the rights and liberties of all?

Our polarized two-party system makes these things seem almost schizophrenic at times, but I’m not the crazy one.  It’s our government that’s gone over the wall into fantasy land, and myself, and other independent voters like me, are left holding our noses while being forced to pick what we hope is the lesser of two evils.  Wow, is our system ever broken.

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Absolute Power: With Terrelle Pryor ruling, Roger Goodell proves he’s been corrupted absolutely

Just when you thought NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell couldn’t do anything to look like more of a deuchebag than he already has, here comes the Terrelle Pryor decision.  Pryor, the disgraced former Ohio State quarterback, petitioned the league for entry into the supplemental draft.  What should have been a simple yes or no decision has turned into an ugly, invented punishment for a guy not even in his league yet.

Goodell inexplicably ruled that Pryor could enter the supplemental draft but he’d be suspended for five games.  Not coincidentally, that’s a suspension exactly the length of one he agreed to at OSU before things took a massive turn for the worse with the NCAA earlier this year.  Goodell somehow has decreed that he has the authority to enforce NCAA sanctions, even when the rules violated aren’t even prohibited activities in the NFL.

It’s an egregious over-stepping of authority by Goodell, and a blatant give away as a favor to the NFL’s de facto minor league, the NCAA.

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Published in: on August 19, 2011 at 11:50 pm  Comments (1)  
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Grasping At Straws: Large Book Publishers Likely Collude to Jack Up ebook Prices

So, a lawsuit has been filed against Apple and five major book publishers over their alleged collusion to force a shift to an agency pricing model that has caused the cost of new ebooks to jump, sometimes as much as 50%.  I find myself in the unusual position of both agreeing with the lawsuit and agreeing with the publishers. Here’s why:

The gist of the problem stems from Amazon’s ebook pricing structure, which the online retailer set the price point for new, best selling ebooks at $9.99.  The major publishers balked at this, claiming it was unprofitable to sell ebooks at that price and that it undermined sales of hardcover books. 

So a few of them got into bed with Apple and the ibookstore and effectively forced Amazon to change to the agency pricing model or lose access to their catalogs, what some people estimate as being 85% of the most popular, best selling authors.  That’s nothing to sneeze at if you’re a book seller.

As a consequence, ebook pricing for this material has jumped to $15 or so, a 50% bump.  In fact, the publishers have been pretty upfront in their belief that ebook pricing has to be determined in a matter in which it correlates with physical printed editions so as not to rob Peter to pay Paul, as it were.

From the publishers point of view, I get it.  It’s their product, they should be able to sell it for whatever they like.  They have long-standing legacy businesses based on physical print products through which they’ve made oodles of money over the years.  Willfully undermining that business probably isn’t the best idea.  And if Amazon won’t play ball on pricing, then they have every right to pull their material and go with a platform that will.  Whether that’s wise or not, I’ll get to in a bit, but they are in business to make money and how they go about doing that is their own business.

I also agree with the premise of the lawsuit, however. Undoubtedly, collusion amongst the major players took place in forcing this shift to higher pricing.  Apple willingly helped out because they are trying to eat into Amazon’s Kindle business.  Five companies controlling 85% of the most popular material colluding together to force a major price shift upward across the industry really deserves some sort of legal smackdown.  Just one of these companies going this route wouldn’t compel the systemic change, nor would two or even three.  It had to be a critical mass of best selling material to generate enough leverage to pull this off, and that means five publishing giants, ostensibly in competition with one another, yet all agreeing to an effort to drive prices up industry-wide.  If that’s not collusion, then I don’t know what is.

Ultimately, though, this is a pointless discussion.  Much like the music industry before it, publishing’s content pricing structure is built around two things:  one is the actual physical costs of production- printing, shipping, etc- and two is the costs of the publishers themselves, the middlemen, as it were, who manage the  production, distribution, marketing, et al.  The real long term problem for the industry is that both of those principle costs are shortly going to be significantly smaller, if not non existant.

The key issue I see is tying the ebook to the print product.  The music industry tried to do it unsuccessfully with digital music and cd’s.  The news business has tried umpteen variations of tying the print product to the digital, some spectacularly unsuccessful.  The reality is that physical and digital products can’t be truly conjoined because the root cost structure is so vastly divergent.

Are paperback books profitable?  Of course they are or else they wouldn’t make them.  So how is it that an ebook, with almost zero costs of replication and distribution, according to the publishers, isn’t, even at their hated $10 price point, which is still in excess of the average cost of a paperback?  It strains credibility to believe so. 

The problem here isn’t that the ebooks aren’t profitable, I have to believe they would be even at far less than $10, its that they serve to undermine the profitability of the physical print products that make up their long standing business.  The legacy businesses have built their pricing structures around large, somewhat inefficient processes based on a soon-to-obsolete model.  No matter the price collusion today, the changes brought to the industry by digital advancements can’t be stopped.  Locking in pricing on the industry’s future to prop up its expensive and inefficient past is a path doomed to failure.

The barriers to entry in the ebook market are negligible, especially when compared to the barriers to entry to the print book market.  Nothing in the world can stop competitors without the massive infrastructure costs from selling ebooks at half, a third or less of the agency model and still find profitability.  Even currently controlling that previously mentioned 85% of popular material, this pricing structure will put them at a major, potentially catastrophic long-term competitive disadvantage.

So call this what it really is, a protectionist effort to prop up business models that worked well yesterday but have little, if any tomorrow.  Oh yeah, they also very likely had to illegally collude to even get this far.  Not a good sign for the future prospects of the giant legacy publishers.

Published in: on August 19, 2011 at 11:40 am  Leave a Comment  
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NBA Draft 2011 Winners and Losers

In brighter NBA news, just before the lockout, the league held its annual draft.  The NFL draft gets all the buzz, but I’ve always liked the NBA version better.  In the NFL, so many players are hyped so much but so few of them actually pan out or are ever heard from again.  The NBA’s model is much more concise  (2 rounds as opposed to 7) and players have an increasing likelihood of affecting their team’s immediate fortunes.

This year’s draft was, admittedly, anti-climactic coming off of a fantastic playoff run and directly before a work stoppage that could mean we don’t see any of these guys on an NBA court until sometime in 2012, if we’re lucky.  Even still, I enjoyed it and spent a little time breaking down who I thought the winners and losers were.  I can only hope I get to find out whether I was right or wrong sometime soon.

Read my NBA Draft 2011 Losers on Bleacher Report

Read my NBA Draft 2011 Winners on Bleacher Report

Published in: on August 14, 2011 at 12:57 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Lockout Woes: An Entire NBA Season in Jeopardy

Over the past few months, sports fans everywhere have been subjected to endless labor struggles and shutdowns of our favorite leagues.  The NFL battle, while being somewhat inexplicable to me given the heaping gobs of cash that league is rolling in, has at least come to an end and players will be back on the field soon enough.  The NBA, however, is an entirely different matter.

Over time, my mood and opinion on the NBA issues has shifted a bit.  Initially, I backed the owners as a cursory look at the state of the league seemed to indicate that some significant structural changes needed to be made in the owners benefit.

Read my original take on the NBA’s then upcoming lockout on Bleacher Report

However, once the season ended with a thrilling championship win by the Dallas Mavericks over the much-despised Miami Heat, I’ve had more time to look a little more deeply into the issues at hand.  While I still believe that a deal has to be struck more to the owners benefit, what the league is seeking isn’t reasonable concessions but total destruction of both the player’s union and their ability to be fairly compensated.  Commissioner David Stern’s hardline stance has totally turned me off, as well, and their effort now looks a lot more like a giant screw job of the players rather than a fair deal where everyone benefits.  

Read my updated point of view on the NBA lockout on Bleacher Report

Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail, but it’s looking more and more like the owners are more than willing to throw away an entire season in order to break the players, you know, the folks that actually generate all that revenue in the first place.   Stupidity knows no bounds, apparently, even among billionaires.

Published in: on August 14, 2011 at 11:59 am  Leave a Comment  
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The End of the Affair (with apologies to Graham Greene)

Considering that I’ve spent a goodly portion of time discussing the collapse of the publishing industry, I figure its only fitting that, after nearly two years of watching and waiting as everything continues to circle the drain, I have another disillusioned rant about the industry of which I used to be proud to be a part.

I am quite simply disgusted by the industry at this point.  I simply cannot believe that, still, after all that has happened and all yet to come, the vast majority of publishing companies are still rushing headlong towards their own demise.  To be certain, there are those who have made progress, and those who have embraced new technology, but the overall industry ethos is still the same as it ever was.  Transition in a disrupted industry is about a little more than simply trying to same thing, over and over again, redundantly, regardless of the medium.  And these are the folks who’s primary function is supposed to be informing us when they can’t even seem to inform themselves.

Today, for the moment, there may still exist a class of writers at the very top who earn at least a living wage, but the industry’s policies of chopping the hell out of expenses have decimated the rank and file, right down to the once ample freelance rolls who can no longer pay the bills at 50 or 75 bucks an article.  They still don’t see that the one advantage publishers had at their disposal during all of this great internet upheaval was a deep, diverse and multi-talented content generation machine.

No, it is as it’s always been, content the poor, distant stepchild to the advertising end of the ledger.  The funny thing  (and not funny in a ha-ha way but more like throw up in your mouth kinda funny) is that the long, lucrative union between publishing and advertising is on life support.  It’s like a relationship where both sides know its over but they keep holding on too long.  Publishing is becoming the desperate boyfriend trying anything to hold on to her for just one more day. 

Advertising and publishing hooked up in the first place for one simple reason, the publishers were the gateway to the customer.  Ask yourself this, in a world where ads can be instantly zapped to someone’s cell phone when they drive past a store, what in the hell do advertisers need with the publishing middlemen anymore?  They can make their own gateway, to far more people far more effectively than you ever could.  No, advertising has become the old girlfriend who traded up to the investment banker.  And there’s just no winning her back.

So what do they have left?  Well, if they hadn’t gutted their content creation capabilities, we just happen to have at our disposal the most effective, efficient, affordable and widespread content delivery system ever devised by man.  It’s limited only by the imagination of those who use it. 

Do you think if someone, anyone in big-time publishing had recognized this ten or fifteen years ago, like they should have, they might have been able to figure out a way to make some money on it?  The best content by the best creators on the planet, backed by the most successful media companies in the world and the means to distribute it virtually anywhere in an endless variety of formats at almost no cost.  Why ever should publishing have considered such a thing?

But instead, they’ve wasted their time, money and leverage chasing after the unattainable girl.  Sure, she flirts with them, still puts out occasionally when she has to, but she’s just using them until something better comes along.

And this is the 21st century folks. When you’re talking technology, something better comes along every couple weeks.

Publishing had its chance to break the cycle, had an opportunity to see what other fish were in the sea, but they didn’t.  They were too obsessed, blinded by the too-good-to-be-true beauty of the old girlfriend. And now they’re just creeping around in the bushes outside her house, trying to catch a glimpse at who she’s stepping out with tonight.  It’s just pathetic to watch.

But, alas, this isn’t the first time, nor will it be the last, that a pretty face led someone to their downfall.  It’s becoming an epic tragedy.  This time, the obsession is dragging an entire once-great industry down with it.

Published in: on August 14, 2011 at 11:11 am  Leave a Comment  
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Legacy Costs: Adobe’s History, Among Others, Have Hit Us All In The Wallet

Software licenses have always been a bit of a touchy subject with me.  I’ve always felt they exerted more control than should reasonably be allowed.  Adobe, in my mind, was one of the more egregious companies in pushing for more and more control over what customers could do with a legally purchased product.  They helped to usher in an era where we get charged more and more for the right to use a product we already paid through the teeth for.  Here’s a big shout out to a company that has helped set the standards for screwing its customers both by charging obscene prices and enshrining into law unprecedented controls after you’ve already paid.

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