Over the past few weeks, my mind has bounced around several issues relating to the book industry without settling on any particular one long enough to formulate a blog post, so I thought I’d patch a few thoughts together in semi-brief snippets. Well, brief as much as I do brief, which is to say probably not very. Here we go:
1. The defenders of the price fixing publishers in the DOJ antitrust case are totally full of shit.
On a few instances, I’ve directly broken down what I felt were the misguided defenses of the allegedly collusive agency pricing agreement of the largest publishers and Apple. At this point, it seems a futile exercise because the rationalities used to defend the action have become increasingly rigid and pertaining of such twisted logic that they’ve ceased to even make enough sense to try and honestly refute. Just in the past week, I’ve read numerous letters from the Author’s Guild, the American Booksellers Association, the Association of Author’s Representatives, Barnes & Noble and numerous pundits to the DOJ decrying the proposed settlement terms for the three accused publishers who want to get this overwith and move on. I’ve also read the responses from Apple, Penguin and Macmillan–the three principles left defending the case.
Somehow, no one involved in this case knew anything about the actions of anyone else involved yet they simultaneous knew that agency wouldn’t fly, and they personally wouldn’t have entered into it, if everyone wasn’t on the same page. So we’re left to believe that all of these various large corporations independently took actions they knew required others to take identical actions to work, yet none of them knew what the others were doing. Yeah, ok. Totally reasonable. I’m more convinced now than I was before that those who fight this all the way are screwed.
As for the settling defendants, how happy do you think they’ll be if all that impassioned anti-settlement rhetoric coming from traditional publishing interests works and they get thrust back into the roles of active defendants? The folks arguing to kill the settlement may, in effect, be giving a death sentence to one or more of these publishers. Besides, given the fairly obvious collusion, settling this and moving on seems to be the best possible approach. Fighting this will be a long, drawn out, expensive war of attrition that Amazon and others will feast on by continuing to reshape the market while they waste precious time, coin and focus defending a failed price fixing scheme that, really, only served to benefit the upper, upper echelon writers and publishers anyway.
Those fighting the settlement are still harping on about the diverse literary ecosystem arguments, as well as the death of literature, choices for readers, copyrighted expression, vibrant competition and numerous other doomsaying phrases, despite the fact that there’s ample evidence that none of those things are true. Somehow, according to them and some numbers from B&N that I find just slightly fishy, agency pricing has caused ebooks to drop in price now, even though it actually upped prices 30-50% in many cases, and despite the small matter that the scheme was put in place with the specific intention of raising prices.
The part I like best, though, is the one where some anti-settlement mavens have decided it’s ok to punish the collusion (if any existed, of course) just so long as the DOJ doesn’t end the resulting agreements from that collusion. This is a great precedent, and I say bring it on! How awesome would it be to be able to rob a bank, get caught, be punished for the crime but you get to keep all the money? Hell yeah! I might even consider doin a couple years for auto theft if I knew the $150,000 Maserati I stole was waiting for me on the outside.
This is an absurd argument. Agency in this case never, I repeat, never could have been instituted the way it was without the collusion of publishers. It could not have happened. In what alternate reality does it make any sense at all to let the results of an illegal conspiracy, that could not have existed without said conspiracy, stand? Sorry guys. I know you all are pretty desperate for someone to step in and check Amazon so you won’t have to be inconvenienced by, you know, having to compete or anything, but there is simply no logical reason for these agreements to be left in place. Besides, they’re only locked out of agency for two years. That doesn’t sound aggregiously irresponsible. Actually, it sounds like a fitting punishment to me, being barred for a time from the very actions you colluded to bring about.
Of course, I also don’t happen to believe that the death of their price fixing scheme will result in the dire consequences some predict. Actually, I believe just the opposite. Agency pricing, used as it was by the parties it was, had a negative effect on the ebook market as a whole. I think it slowed adoption, slowed growth in the sector, limited any pretense of actual retail competition, and took a pretty good sized chunk out of the wallets of readers unnecessarily. But again, all of that is what they wanted, and it’s exhibit A for how and why they had to collude to get it. Don’t buy the B.S. line about agency fostering competition or protecting a vibrant bookselling ecosystem. This was nothing more than a poorly executed scam to protect the print ecosystem they control by way of hindering the real competition from the digital side, nothing more.
As a side note, the DOJ has apparently been eating their Wheaties. Now, they are also pursuing an investigation into most favored nation clauses in cable tv contracts and looking into whether data caps instituted by ISPs, many of whom also sell cable tv, specifically target streaming services to protect their cable bundling packages. Yet again, here’s an industry–cable tv–that would rather keep its customers paying more to stay locked in to what they want (bundling) rather than give those paying folks what they want (unbundled pay to watch only what they want when they want.) The ebook antitrust suit along with this new effort are, alone, reason enough for me to vote Obama even though I’m not a big fan for many reasons. A Romney DOJ, I don’t hesitate to say, would drop these efforts like a bad habit and that would be an enormously bad thing for anyone not a corporate titan or busying themselves suckling at the tit of one.
2. I don’t really understand why indies would sign traditional deals once they start finding real success.
Call it the Hocking Effect, or the Fifty Shades of Greed, whatever, but it seems like the hot new thing in traditional publishing circles is to poach self published writers once they begin to show some serious sales. I understand why publishers are doing this; they’re struggling, losing ground, their power base is fading, and their ability to produce new literary superstars is failing. What I don’t understand is why the self published writers, having generated their own success stories, are turning around and handing that success over to a corporation under pseudo-exploitative terms before they ever realize the full benefits of their efforts. Upfront money is the obvious answer, but to me, that seems short sighted. There’s also the “I wanna be in bookstores” excuse, but that’s just as short sighted as the money angle, if not more so.
The only way this makes sense to me is if the writers in question didn’t really want to be in business in the first place, and only entered self publishing out of necessity. I’d just like to know what degree of low self esteem do you have to suffer from to hand over your own, independent, hard-earned success to corporations and bookstores who wouldn’t have given you the time of day before you busted your ass to earn your own way?
Now, I don’t want to begrudge anyone making this choice, everybody’s got their own reasons for the decisions they make, but if I get to the point where I’m finding enough independent success that publishers come calling, they’d better have hat in hand with contract terms where I’m in creative control, I make most of the profit, and my rights are only limited to the book(s) in question and then only for a limited time, five years tops. The industry is simply changing too much, too fast to sign lifetime copyright agreements. In short, I’m trying indie for real, not as a backdoor for a contract. My intent is to find success. The very last thing I’ll be doing is sacrificing my rights, my freedoms, my money for corporate free riders who wanna piggyback on my hard work. Not gonna happen.
There are some indie champions out there who’s work I respect very much, like Dean Wesley Smith, for instance, who believes the bookstore system can still thrive and ebooks will top out at about 30% of the total market. As much as I love his writing, and agree with much of what he has to say, this is one area I have a very different view. I just don’t see how bookshops have much of a life left. Digital isn’t going to stop at a third of the market. In the long term, I believe it’s going to be the market. If print somehow manages to hold on to 30%, I’ll be surprised. Technology is pushing hard in the wrong direction for purveyors of paper and ink. It’s really just a matter of time before print is winnowed to two categories–print on demand and the high end specialty craft books that are more display objects than reading material.
How far are we, truly, from book kiosks like redbox video rental machines? Yes, we have the Espresso machine today, but it’s still in the early stages and still very expensive. The cost of that is only going to fall. And once we can buy a print book or two at reasonable prices from a boundless catalog during a trip to the grocery store, what’s the point of dedicated book shops on a wide scale? Make no mistake, POD is the future of printed books. That makes the bookstore argument from indies ring a bit hollow to me. I’m not convinced bookstores on any significant scale will still exist in 10 years. From a business standpoint, the last thing I want to do is have my work locked up in a system designed and built to exploit a sales avenue that is on the way to obsolescence. Maybe I’m wrong and bookstores will be thriving for years to come, but that’s even more reason to limit the length of any traditional contract. I just don’t know. And if they’re still there in five or ten years, nothing’s stopping me from signing another contract. But if they’re gone, or severely diminished and I’m in a lifetime copyright contract, I’m screwed. I’d prefer not to be screwed.
The book selling market we have today was close to unimaginable five years ago. What will it look like five years from now? Can anyone say with any degree of certainty? Stay flexible, my friends, and don’t get locked into long term deals with anybody. Unless, of course, they’re handing you a truckload of no-strings-attached money. Then all bets are off. And when I say truckload, I’m talking well into seven figures, paid in full, up front. Probably not gonna happen, so my original point stands. Build for your own success, and when you find it, don’t sell it out for short term gain, especially in a market changing as rapidly as this one.
3. Does anyone represent the interests of writers?
The Authors Guild sure as hell doesn’t. Neither does the literary agent group AAR. Bookshops don’t. Publishers don’t. The DOJ antitrust suit is about readers not writers. About the only group that actually gives a damn about writers is readers, and then only so long as you’re producing work they want to read. For the one absolutely essential class of participants in publishing, writers sure do get shit on quite a bit. We’ve been turned into fodder used and tossed aside to provide a living for any number of middlemen. Yet somehow, we don’t get to benefit from our work until all these other groups get theirs. Whatever tablescraps are left over, then we might see some. Maybe.
We’ve been infantalized, conditioned to believe that we’re dependent on these hangers on or else our work would never be good enough to see the light of day. We can’t edit, we’re told. We don’t have the skills to recognize quality design, they say. We would never sell anything without a publisher marketing it for us, so I’ve heard. Many writers have even allowed themselves to be sold so far down the river that they actually accept the “validation” of being published as a badge of honor rather than the condescending slap in the face it actually is. Even higher education ingrains in us the belief that we don’t deserve or simply won’t earn a good living, perpetuating the starving artist model.
When so many writers simply don’t believe this is a business first, last and always, and that we are the fuel it runs on, and that we deserve fair treatment and to be paid on par with our level of importance to the industry, we’ll continue to be second class citizens, fresh meat for the publishers’ grinder, as it were. I can’t say this enough…digital has flipped the script. Writers and readers are all that matter, everyone else is in the process of being marginalized. They’ll fight it tooth and nail, of course, but that doesn’t mean we have to help.
Writers are the publishing industry, period. Everything else about it built up around us and our work. Over time, we became trapped inside this framework of termites that continued to eat away at our creativity, freedom and bank accounts to the point that many of us actually still believe publishers positions should be higher than writers in the ecosystem. They’re not and they shouldn’t be. The changes going on today have given us the opportunity to leap back to the forefront. We gave that position away once, we shouldn’t waste this second chance.
The fact that there really are no institutions that represent writers ahead of the ecosystem that exploits us should tell us all we need to know. There are none because we controlled ourselves, we willingly abdicated our proper position in the industry and allowed others to dictate how, or even if, we work, live and survive. Nobody’s looking out for us because we’ve never demanded it, and we stopped looking out for ourselves long ago. In the digital future, the cliche “Content is King” is more true than ever. And he who makes the content should be wearing the crown. We’ve got a chance to usurp the throne we once abdicated. Let’s not waste it.