Bile-Soaked Spite and Vitriol: Why traditional publishing should shut up and adapt already

After reading a week’s worth of steaming recriminations of the antitrust lawsuit brought against Apple and a handful of super large publishers, I thought, in the service of clarity, that I’d like to make a statement:

If the players on the traditional status quo side of the publishing industry had put as much time and effort into figuring our how to adapt and compete in the changing book marketplace as they have in bitching, moaning and complaining about Amazon and the Dept. of Justice lawsuit, maybe the publishers in question wouldn’t have had to (allegedly) illegally colluded to put the price fix in and stay afloat in the new order of things. 

Most times, I take the whinings of the disrupted with a grain of salt but after a few days of reading pronouncement after pronouncement of the end times for literature and the twists, contortions and generally pretzel-shaped reasoning that somehow manages to justify collusion and price fixing as the right and proper path to open competition, I’ve gotten a little tired of it. 

Coming from newspapers, I totally understand how disturbing it can be to have the manner in which you’ve earned your living thoroughly torn asunder by disruptive change.  But in that circumstance, I saw who was to blame and it wasn’t the disrupters.  They found new, unique and innovative ways to do the tasks we always had, and used the new technologies at their disposal to do so ever more efficiently.  That’s called progress.  It’s called innovation.  It’s the very engine that has always run our economy.  No, the blame for the newspaper industry’s catastrophic collapse doesn’t rest with the disrupters, it lies at the feet of those at the helm of the industry itself.  They refused to even acknowledge there was a problem until it was far too late.  They fought innovation every step of the way. They ignored the clear and certain handwriting on the wall screaming for change, and instead laid off everyone not nailed down, clung to a steadily declining revenue base and pissed away pretty much any and all opportunities to successfully transition. 

The reason there aren’t more jobs in newspapers today isn’t because the disruption wiped them out, its because of the pig headed obstinance of those in who’s care the industry resided.  They didn’t want to admit that their business model was fading, and didn’t want to put in the time, effort or resources necessary to save themselves or all of those that depended on their leadership to earn a living.  The problem I have with the insistent rhetoric coming from the traditional book publishing segment is that it contains heaping helpings of the same obstinance, the same refusal to see the cracks developing in their business model, the same tendency to throw blame and vitriol on the disrupters without looking inward at those who should be leading the way but instead choose only to cling to a fading past, reassuring those depending on them with false platitudes about their importance to intangible ideals like culture, heritage or literacy.

I’m not a prophet of Amazon ranting out of blind devotion. They are an enormous corporation who sometimes engages in some pretty hardball business practices. There is a risk, however minor I happen to think it is, that if they consolidate too much of the publishing industry under their banner, they may well exploit that position unfairly. But consider for a moment, the one big, constant complaint about Amazon is that, if and when they gain a dominant monopoly position within the industry, they’ll use that position to jack up prices and squeeze percentages on writers. Well, even before Amazon went to the 70% royalty from 35%, they were still paying nearly double the rate to writers that traditional publishers were. Today, in many cases, they’re paying three or four times the average ebook royalties. What’s the risk here? That Amazon will screw writers by dropping royalties to the level that traditional publishers already pay right now?

As far as hiking prices goes, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the whole point of the DOJ suit that publishers got together to push a model on Amazon that forced them to significantly raise prices? See the hypocrisy here? We’re being told by traditional publishers and their supporters that an Amazon controlled market will be virtual Hell on Earth because they’ll pay pittance royalties and jack prices way up at the same time those very same publishers are, at this moment, paying pittance royalties and openly taking actions intended to jack prices way up.

There are risks involved with a company the size of Amazon, but there are also advantages like the single best online bookstore by a long shot, massively increased selections of books of all stripes, and a platform that has ushered in a new era for writers where we can do an end run around the gatekeepers of old and get our wares into the marketplace quickly, efficiently and affordably. I haven’t seen traditional publishers bring anything remotely as positive as those three changes to the table in my lifetime. Amazon isn’t a saint by any means, but they’re not a devil, either. And they’re certainly not an old-guard cartel throwing propaganda bombs and desperately clinging to a fading business model by any means necessary, legal or otherwise.

I’m probably most disturbed by the lack of understanding of the law used by defenders. If even half of the facts laid out by the DOJ are true, there won’t be much debate, if any, that the publishers in question illegally colluded. And far from creating a fair and open competitive market for ebooks, they were attempting to create a flat, uniform, highly priced ebook market to slow its growth and prop up print sales, which is their bread and butter. The ebook boom, and digital disruption in general, is possibly the best thing that could have happened to this industry. Prior to this, reading for pleasure was a declining activity, looking a lot like yesterday’s news heading for a much smaller level of importance in our society. Today, however, people are reading more than ever, buying books at rates I never thought we’d see. Digital and ebooks have brought reading back from a slow decline to an industry segment that is potentially poised to grow like wildfire over the next few years. And what do we get from traditional publishers as a response to these developments? Nothing but doomsaying and protectionist scams, legal and (apparently) otherwise intended to stifle this coming boom period and prop up a model that was fading before digital reignited widespread consumer interest.

The traditional industry did nothing to reignite interest in reading. They were responsible for precisely zero of the innovations that have come to pass in the last few years. And now that consumer interest, demand and the money that goes with that is growing again, they are trying to shove their way back to the head of the industry table, pretending to be defenders of culture when, truthfully, they are little more than late-comers and former pseudo-monopolists trying to swipe the profits away from the businesses who took all the risks and actually did create an atmosphere of growth around publishing again. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos says their primary goals are to provide the best possible shopping experience for the consumer. The head of Penguin in the U.S., John Makinson, recently said in his response to the DOJ lawsuit that their primary goal is to make money for their shareholders. See the difference in corporate culture there?

I don’t implicitly trust Amazon to always do the right thing. They are a giant corporation, after all, and we need to watch them closely. But traditional publishers are far, far worse. I find it interesting that the term “predatory pricing” has become almost synonymous with Amazon in some circles, despite the fact that their pricing strategies were anything but. Amazon never lost money on ebooks. They priced some ebooks below cost as loss leaders and recouped those losses and then some on the vast bulk of their catalog of offerings, which weren’t priced below cost. If that conduct is illegal, as so many seem to suggest, then so is the behavior of virtually every store, physical and online, on the planet. When I go to the grocery store later today and pick up some buy-one-get-one-free deals, do you think they’re turning a profit on those? Is the ACME going to wipe out orange juice suppliers because they selectively sell some at a loss to get more customers into their stores? Of course not.

What’s at issue here isn’t a giant company wiping out a long standing industry by behaving unfairly. It’s an industry that simply must adapt, they have no choice, but are extremely reticent about doing so because it would entail an entirely different culture where, more than anything else, even the best, most successful publishers who make the transition will lose a significant amount of the power they’ve grown far too comfortable exerting over writers, readers and retailers. Agency pricing is about keeping that control. It’s about stifling competition from digital retailers they don’t control to the perceived benefit of the print ecosystem they do. The saddest part to me is that, in doing so, they’ve not only damaged themselves and their writers, it wasn’t going to work anyway.

One particular positive thing that could come from this, and one that affects Amazon as well, is the rebuke of the most-favored-nation clause. Without that enforced, we actually all gain more control of our pricing across all platforms. This can only mean that pricing will become even more important in the post MFN world. It also could mean that those who backdoor free books into the Kindle store by listing them free somewhere else and waiting for Amazon to price match them down will have to shift strategies.

That is the nature of business, particularly in a highly disruptive, constantly evolving market like ebooks. Things change, we adapt and make the best use of those changes for as long as we can until they change again. What the publishers have done here is the exact opposite. Things changed, but they didn’t want to adapt. So instead they joined forces in an attempt to undermine those changes and lock in their preferred status quo. That wasn’t good business, as some have said, and it was doomed to failure anyway because these changes can’t be stopped. On top of it all, if the DOJ is right, it wasn’t even legal.

I would like to think that those on the traditional side will take a lesson from this. Don’t ignore the changing landscape around you, find ways to use it to your advantage. If individual writers in large numbers can figure out how to benefit from the new market that’s been established, I find it hard to believe that giant publishers with all the resources at their disposal can’t. The only way that makes sense is if they really don’t want to. So instead, we get illegal collusion, protectionism of fading markets under the guise of literary culture and tradition, and an over-willingness to condemn those truly leading the way to the future, and much more effort put into throwing roadblacks in their path than exploiting the new possibilities on the trails they’re blazing.

As I said, I’d like to think they’d learn something from this, but based on the increasingly dire rhetoric coming from those quarters, I’m not holding my breath.

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