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

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

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

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

Amazon was using ebook discounting to destroy bookselling

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

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

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

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

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

Bookstores are critical to modern bookselling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Scott Turow is one of those privileged few authors sitting in their smoking clubs and catered to by the Big 6. To pretend he speaks for authors is ludicrous. The Authors Guild does little for authors but apparently is very concerned about the Big 6. I quit the Authors Guild a long time ago when I saw who filled its ranks of officers. People who had little in common with the working class author.

    • That’s what struck me more than anything about his letter, there was almost no concern or advocacy for authors in it at all. It was something that, had I not known, I would have easily assumed was written by a publishing executive. I think he needs to take a step back and take a good, hard look at who he’s supposed to be advocating for.


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