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

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