Print Protectionism Rules The Day…For Now

So Amazon came out with a statement a week ago detailing its position on ebook prices and, not insignificantly, it’s belief that authors are being short changed on royalties by publishers. Not surprisingly, it was met with a collective shrug by the mainstream industry, if not outright contempt. One thing this has done, however, is bring the belief that publishers’ actions on ebooks are all about protecting print out of the implied shadows. Here’s a variety of quotes from various sources critical of Amazon in response to their statement. Read on:

“Amazon doesn’t quantify what lower e-book prices would mean for sales of physical copies of the same books. Authors who work with traditional publishers like Hachette tend to make more, per copy, from hardcover sales than from e-books. If cheaper e-books draw people away from hardcovers, that could hurt these authors financially.”

“If lower e-book prices were to eventually destroy the market for physical books entirely—or even shrink it enough so that it wouldn’t make financial sense for traditional booksellers to publish them—that would help Amazon consolidate its power, which would ultimately be dangerous for authors.”

Literary agent Brian DeFiore in The New Yorker

“Lower e-book prices aren’t necessarily the best thing for writers. We get a percentage of the price as a royalty. You also have to take into consideration the price of the hardcover. Yes, it’s cheap to make a digital book but it’s expensive to present a book in hardcover.”

Roxana Robinson, Authors Guild President in Wall Street Journal

“Amazon’s assumptions don’t include, for example, that publishers and authors might have a legitimate reason for not wanting the gulf between eBook and physical hardcover pricing to be so large that brick and mortar retailers suffer, narrowing the number of venues into which books can sell.”

John Scalzi from his blog

“It is true that ebooks live in a world where they compete with other media. It is also true that the they live in a world which includes print, also an important component of a publisher’s and an author’s economic world. This analysis is very short on measurements of the impact on print sales of lower ebook prices.”

Michael Shatzkin from his blog

“Their figures consider a world of ebooks only. Their “total pie” is really just a piece of the pie. But publishers and authors are looking to maximize revenue across all formats. “Total revenue” on an ebook is only part of the “total revenue” for a new release book, and the hardcover edition still generates substantially more revenue per unit.”

Michael Cader from Publishers Lunch via Joe Konrath

“Even if ebook prices are the focal point of the dispute, that does not mean (Hachette) should not be looking at the effect across their total business, and their total account base.”

Michael Cader from Joe Konrath’s blog

What do all these have in common? The belief that the ebook is not only inextricably tied to print, but must, in some way, be handicapped to shield the older, more expensive and inefficient model. So what we’ve got here is the key issue in modern publishing, do you believe that digital must necessarily be hamstrung in some way to the benefit of print?

If you’re a Patterson or King or someone who gets the benefits of large numbers of hardcover sales in physical bookstores, that answer seems to be a resounding yes. But if you’re not one of those very select few, the question becomes much more difficult to answer. How does it benefit the midlist author or the debut author to have your ebook prices placed higher to support brick and mortar hardcover sales that benefit a much smaller number of superstar writers almost exclusively, and very likely, not you? As for the indie authors, it clearly doesn’t seem to benefit you to link print and digital in this way at all.

There appears to be two schools of thought on this. One is that print must be protected from lower priced ebooks because they will hurt physical stores, shelf space will decline and Amazon will reign hellfire over the industry forever and ever, which will result in damage to all authors in the long run. This is a call for all but the publishers and most fortunate authors to sacrifice in order to preserve an ecosystem that doesn’t really help them. You must sacrifice now in order to prop up a network where, unless you’re extremely fortunate, you must sacrifice in perpetuity, essentially.

The second school of thought is that ebook prices must necessarily be higher (and royalties lower) because the revenue generated pays for the totality of the book. This line of thought is that profits from ebooks aren’t really profits at all but a portion of the total revenue of a book that includes high print expenses that must be paid. This is a call for authors to sacrifice on ebooks to pay for the publishers’ print expenses even though they’re already being paid for that with a royalty structure on print that was designed and implemented to cover all the costs of bringing the book to market. You’re basically donating 75% or so of your digital proceeds after the retailer’s cut to your publisher for generating and uploading an epub file.

Either way, the presumption is that ebooks can’t be allowed to grow independently of print. They must either be restricted to prevent the erosion of print sales or a large portion of their revenue must be siphoned off to pay for the print infrastructure. There is also the assumption baked into this that the future of bookstores depends on the continued furtherance of $25 or $30 hardcovers. Also that any contraction in the print market (and conversely any unchecked growth in ebooks) will lead to Amazon consolidating even more power. Both assumptions rest on the belief that ebook and print revenue exist in the same continuum as hardcover and paperback revenue did in the past.

Here’s the thing about that, paperbacks didn’t undercut hardcovers because they were windowed. Windowing doesn’t work with digital. So the only means they see to prevent hardcover sales erosions is to actively lessen the sales of ebooks. Presumably, I would think, once the hardcover cycle runs it’s course, the high ebook price should come down to old mass market paperback levels, if not less, but that’s not really what we’re seeing.

All of this rests on the belief that digital sales can be essentially capped at 30-35% of the industry. And further, that print, particularly pricey hardcovers, won’t erode anyway due to other factors irrespective of ebooks or that the large and growing segment of the industry that simply doesn’t care about the hardcover/bookstore ecosystem they’re essentially locked out of won’t undermine the higher ebook prices to the point that publishers lose out on both print and digital sales.

Protecting physical bookstores is also a tenuous ideal from this two-pronged perspective. One, ecommerce is not going away. In fact, same day delivery is being rolled out by multiple players, not just Amazon. That has nothing to do with the price of ebooks but a more existential question on the nature of consumer shopping choices. Two, print on demand technology will become better, cheaper and more pervasive, possibly even resulting in kiosks that have the potential to do some of the same things Redbox did to video stores. When was the last time you visited one of those?

Are publishers going to withhold books from these kiosks? Will they demand near-hardcover prices for the trade paperback products they produce? Are they also going to demand higher prices for print books sold online? All of these elements will eventually erode bookstore sales and if publishers’ interests rely on protecting those stores, then these acts would be totally consistent with the higher ebook price strategy. It also means that publishers would be intentionally harming virtually every new publishing technology that increases efficiency, lowers prices to readers and increases sales in favor of their one preferred sales channel and format. One that, it can’t be understated, makes books more expensive, more inconvenient for readers to buy and less lucrative for writers overall.

If you’re James Patterson, Stephen King or Douglas Preston, these strategies may make some sort of sense in the immediate term. If you’re any of Hachette or any other large publisher’s thousands of non superstar authors, however, this doesn’t make a whole lot of long-term sense. Remember, you’re not just making less money on a contracting print market, you’re covering the publishers’ revenue declines in that respect through lower ebook royalties. The only way declining hardcover sales and rising ebook sales harms these authors is if the publishers are saddling you with a much-too-small cut of ebook proceeds. Amazon is right in this respect. If publishers were paying writers fairly on ebooks, then you stand to make more money on more sales at cheaper prices for readers. Their strategy is going to make you less money on fewer sales at higher prices to readers. The fact that there’s one single non-superstar writer who signed on to that Authors United letter is another illustration that, much like politics, dogma can and does lead some people to make choices that run counter to their own economic self interest.

Also consider, much like ebooks, independent authors will jump all over POD kiosks and the opportunities they bring. After all, when you’re looking at a physical store ecosystem that actively discriminates against you, protecting their margins or even their very existence is likely a non-factor in your choices if not a potential negative to you to do so. This is something bookstores would do well to keep in mind. Continuing to block, ignore or alienate indies is creating an entire giant class of increasingly successful writers who are ambivalent to your problems if not outright hostile to you. You might want to knock that off.

Basically, this strategy that the big publishing houses are engaging in is not in the best interests of readers or the vast majority of authors. The concern that Amazon will dominate everything is a very real one, but this isn’t a particularly practical way of dealing with that. I want a diverse ecosystem as well but asking me to sacrifice to the benefit of organizations that aren’t willing to do so in return isn’t going to work for me. Amazon’s market force is a different problem in need of a solution as innovative as the ones Amazon has used to gain that position. I think it’s fairly safe to say any such innovative competition is not going to be any more friendly to the publishers’ 20th century business strategy.

Let’s say I self publish a few books and my sales take off. A publisher comes to me with an offer. Ignore for a moment that the advances being offered barely cover a few weeks worth of sales in some cases, let alone life of the book. Let’s say I sign it anyway. That offer would require me to pull currently good selling material from the market for months in some cases. When they do return, my ebooks are now two or three times the price, the share of which I receive is less that what I was making per book on my own. I’m locked out of doing anything about it. I’m also hoping that bookstores stock my books in a way that generates sales rather than just another title on just another shelf and that declining physical sales doesn’t cost me even more money. I can’t get my books into libraries without the crazy high prices and restrictive terms publishers impose on them. I can’t take advantage of POD opportunities without my publisher’s approval and even then only on terms they set. On top of that, I have little means of having a viable route to rights reversions should everything go south. I have to hope I get lucky enough to generate hardcover sales (if I even get a hardcover print run) at a high enough volume that my next contract can get more favorable terms or a bigger advance, if there’s a next contract at all. The icing on this particular cake is that my material that was finding a foothold on my own may now be stagnant and trapped with that publisher for at least 35 years unless I can afford a good lawyer and a drawn out legal battle to get my rights back. And all because my publisher chose to emphasize its most difficult, expensive and inefficient product line for a litany of reasons that have little to nothing to do with benefitting me. Why would I sign that? Why would anyone?

I’m of the opinion that, if I were to sign on with a publisher to handle my print business, I absolutely do not want that same entity to also be in control of my digital business. They will almost inevitably do just as these publishers are, handicapping the digital to prop up the print. What should be happening here is another round of disintermediation, this time separating the print and digital products entirely. Focus on finding a way to maximize print that doesn’t involve sacrificing digital. That could mean exploiting POD technology and finding ways to actually cut the cost of physical books to readers (and bookstores), not raise the cost of ebooks. Can it be done? Maybe, maybe not. But what you won’t be doing is handicapping the emerging market that customers’ dollars are flowing toward. $30 hardcovers of mainstream genre fiction is not a long-term growth market, just as $20 compact discs weren’t for the music industry and multi-thousand dollar print ads weren’t for the newspaper industry. Their respective businesses may have been dependent on those things at one point, and they may have seemed reasonable at the time, but they weren’t a strength, instead a major weakness making them extremely vulnerable to technological change and shifting consumer habits.

The music business lost nearly half of its CD sales revenue in a just few years. Newspapers lost near half of their print ad revenue in just a few years. Sometime in 2025, will this paragraph be finished off by saying book publishers lost nearly half of their print revenue in just a few years? Those other two businesses refused to adapt, engaging in protectionist strategies under the mistaken belief that digital alternatives would top out at a lesser market share and the physical product would still retain primacy. Sound familiar?

Ask yourself this: if I sign on with a publisher whose entire strategy is to use digital to support the furtherance of print, what happens to me if print drops precipitously anyway, as there is clear precedent for? How you answer that question may well determine which writers still have a career a decade from now.

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

The Bookstore Conundrum: Value Propositions Part Two

Earlier today, I wrote about value propositions, mostly in reference to the reader/bookstore and writer/publisher relationships. Almost as soon as I clicked post, I started thinking about bookstores and how we perceive what they do. More importantly, how the talk coming from some quarters there is actually producing contradictory results to their stated aims. Basically, some of them seem like they don’t really want to succeed, they want someone else to assure success for them. Now obviously, I’m speaking in generalizations. But that’s what we trade in here in publishing land; generalizations. Big Publishers, indies, writers, readers, traditional, legacy, hybrid…these are all broad generalizations, just like bookstores. All these various groups are built of diverse collections of individuals. Your experience may vary.

We have this notion of bookstores as historical artifacts, a gut feeling of their necessity to literature and the publishing industry itself. But it’s not accurate. Certainly they’ve played an important role to get us to this point in time, but at the risk of sounding callous, what have you done for me lately? Just because you played an important role in my life in the past isn’t reason to belive yourself entitled to that position or one like it in the future.

I used to love going to Blockbuster, too, and record stores! I remember the first time I set foot in a Borders. A book store and a music store! Together! Can I just move in? I’ll sleep on a couch in the cafe. I spent huge sums of money in Borders over several years. But eventually, I found the urge to go less and less prevalent. There were even times I went and left empty handed, a possibility I wouldn’t have even considered before. I had stopped spending money in Borders years before they finally went belly up. Somehow, somewhere along the way, they stopped providing what I needed to get me in their doors.

I’m not even sure what it was they did wrong, maybe nothing. What they were doing just lost all relevance and attraction to my life. That’s where bookstores are finding yourselves right now. You’re still there, providing what you’ve always provided, offering the value we used to love and not be able to live without. But we increasingly aren’t interested anymore. We no longer value you the way you think we should. It’s not your fault, it’s us. We encouraged you to keep doing what you were doing for our own selfish ends and now that our interests have changed, you’re understandably confused about how to win us back. I don’t know the answer to that question, but I can tell you one thing for certain, doing more of what you used to do, that made us love you in the first place, isn’t going to work.

Take a hard look at the ground many of you have staked out; you don’t have any true allies. The Amazon hatred at all expense, even against the interests of your own customers, is alienating the emerging independent writer community. The 1% traditional writers are saying nice things about you, mega-best seller James Patterson even giving out $2 million in grants to bookstores. Sure, it’s divided up amongst so many stores that it’s in increments too small to be of any real help, but every little bit helps. You just have to ask exactly who that little bit helps. Is it the bookstores getting checks so small in some cases that it wouldn’t even cover a couple months rent or is it the image of James Patterson, literary philanthropist; a man who sold 50 times that total amount in books last year alone? It’s like me walking into 40 or 50 bookstores, handing them a $10 bill and saying, “this is for your future.” Ask yourself why he isn’t giving $25,000 or $50,000 grants to these stores, amounts that could actually help. He can certainly afford it. Is this about helping bookstores or is it about a rich guy’s tax write-off and good PR from the illusion of helping bookstores?

The publishers are also out there saying nice things about protecting bookstores and you’re importance. But why in the world would you believe them? Not long ago, they sold all your asses out to the big box stores and discount warehouses, quite literally putting a Target on your back. The carnage got so bad and so prevalent, it became the subject of a Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks rom-com, for God’s sake! Did you forget all that? Just block it out of your memory once they started complimenting you again?

You know why publishers are being so nice to you right now? They need your shelf space to prevent a mass exodus of writers because brick and mortar print sales are the last value hook they’ve got to hang their own hats on. The second they don’t need you anymore, they will throw you out like last week’s trash. They’ve done it before. At nearly 40 years old, one of the things I hold as a near immutable fact of life is that if someone has the will to do something to you once, if you give them the chance, they will do it to you again. Publishers are not your friends, not even by association. I’d have thought the past couple decades would have taught you that only too clearly.

It makes the indiscriminate Amazon hatred many of you show even more absurd. You should be thanking Amazon. They did you a massive solid by killing your most immediate threat, the big box stores. Amazon bought you crucial time to figure out a way to adapt and survive. If you’re just gonna sit around and bitch that people aren’t buying books like they used to, you will get burned. It might be Amazon that gets you, or the publishers. And that’s only if your own so damn customers don’t burn you first.

You could have allies on the indie side if you drop the Amazon spite and lose the last remnants of the bias toward self publishers you developed back in the true vanity press era. But instead you seem to just enjoy whining on about how things were better back in your day and the doom you claim we’re all heading for. Bookstores are for-profit businesses, and as such, the entire point is offer something people are willing to pay enough for that you can keep your doors open. Bookstores that struggle don’t do so because people arent buying books, it’s because they’re not buying books from bookstores.

The industry won’t collapse without you. In fact, the industry is actively moving away from you. Book sales aren’t plummeting as you make fewer of them. When you call for “the need” to help bookstores, what I hear isn’t someone saying help us to adapt, it’s someone saying help us keep doing what we’ve always done because it’s valuable. Here’s a hint: if, as a business, you can’t sustain yourself on what you offer, then it’s not that valuable. If we help you keep alive a model that is getting less and less economically viable now, when does it stop? Are you proposing we make bookstores permanent charity cases? If so, how does that make you different from libraries, which we already support for all the same reasons you cite for supporting bookstores?

And full circle back to my point from earlier today, what’s the value proposition for readers then? It’s not selection, knowledge, convenience or price; we’ve found all of that elsewhere. What is it, exactly, that you think benefits us by saving you? Or is it as I suspect, you don’t really care about benefitting us, just assuring your own continuation with a minimum of upheaval? If the latter has any truth to it at all, then that, not Amazon, is your biggest problem and the answer you’re looking for. Do you see it?

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

Value Propositions

Here’s the thing, we can all talk until we’re blue in face about ebooks, bookstores, publishers, writers, et al (a point some would say we already reached sometime in early 2012) but none of it means a damn thing. The only thing that matters is the value proposition offered to us and how that informs the choices people make. Everything else is bluster. Worse yet, it’s meaningless bluster that far too frequently merges with wish fulfillment of the person doing the blustering. “Ebooks are dying.” “Bookstores are crucial to the future.” “Writers need publishers to be the best they can be.” And my personal favorite of wishful thinking bullshit, “Amazon is evil.” None of those things are true. They also aren’t necessarily false in all situations. It depends on the context in which those lines are parsed. And that context depends entirely on the value proposition to the individual.

Twenty five years ago, if I wanted a new book, I had a few choices. There was the library (a brick and mortar bookstore that’s basically free for readers), used bookstores (brick and mortar store that’s cheap but whose offerings are dependent on readers getting rid of their old books), rotating racks of best sellers in retail stores (having little to do with book discovery and everything to do with pushing already known entities to impulse buyers) or bookstores themselves (who offered the best selection and knowledge about books available at the time).

In that environment, the value proposition to readers was on the side of bookstores. The time, effort and extra money necessary to patronize a bookstore was a fair trade off for what we got in return; a wider selection of books to choose from. Today, however, that value has flipped on them. Bookstores, with their real world physical constraints, inherently offer a limited selection of books. Online, however, has no such trouble. Online, you can find and buy every book. All of them. So now, bookstores have gone from having the best selection of books available to having a limited subsection of books. I know it’s frustrating because they haven’t really changed. The environment they operate in has shifted beneath them. What was once their greatest strength has now become a weakness to overcome through no fault of their own. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less of a weakness.

With ebooks, online print book sales and rapidly approaching explosion of print on demand technology, the value proposition to readers of frequenting bookstores is a problem. When they had the best selection and a knowledgeable staff that wasn’t easily reproducible, we thought nothing of the outlay in time and effort to shop there. We didn’t mind paying a few extra dollars on the price of a book to support their infrastructure when they provided a service that we valued. Today, though, shopping at physical bookstores requires readers to sacrifice. We need to give up our time and effort to get there, then pay those extra few dollars for the privilege of shopping in a limited pool of material. We need to choose to give up value available to us in order to use bookstores. I can find any book I want online, without the premium price they need to pay the rent and employee salaries, without ever leaving my couch. Hang on a second…there, I just did some book shopping, bought a book and now it’s open to chapter one in another window on my smartphone in slightly more time than it took me to type those ellipses. But only slightly.

When the value proposition changes from one where I pay out because you bring me value to one where I pay out to bring you value, that’s not going to end well for you. You can discuss bookstores’ place in literary history and culture all day long, it doesn’t change the simple fact that the value you once earned your coin with simply ain’t what it used to be.

This applies to the publisher/writer dynamic as well. Twenty five years ago, if I wanted to be a published writer, I had to go through the slow slog of querying agents, editors or whomever, piling up rejection after rejection until I get lucky enough to be offered a contract that paid me pennies on the dollar from the revenue my work generated. Not only did writers accept this, we fetishized it to the point where there are still writers who have inexplicably fond memories of taping rejection letters to their bulletin boards. The fact was, if I wanted to be published, that’s what I had to do. The value proposition of going through that crucible was worth it because it was the only way to reach the goals we wanted. Today, though, I can write, format, and offer a book for sale to anyone with an Internet connection without so much as saying hello to an agent or publisher and be selling books tomorrow. The value proposition of the publishing industry gatekeeper-rejection logjam has been gutted. The time, effort and low pay you offered to get published seems vaguely insane now that getting published and selling books at much higher compensation rates is as simple as clicking a button. Publishers, like bookstores, didn’t change, the circumstances around them changed through no fault of their own. In fact, it’s changed and is still changing despite their concerted efforts to fight those changes. Pissing into the wind may be a popular corporate response when social behavior shifts leave them behind, but that doesn’t make it an effective response. It only makes your pants wet. And smelly.

Publishers and bookstores carefully crafted the value they brought over decades, some would say centuries. It does seem a bit unfair to people who have dedicated their lives to those ends to see that value knee-capped in less than 10 years. But that’s life. Sometimes, the things we value are life-long, sometimes they only last a matter of days or weeks. The thing is, you can never really tell when that value is going to vanish. And once that happens, you have to look toward the value you actually possess today and going forward.

When you hear people talk of the role of bookstores and their value to society, ask yourself, are they referring to the value they offer right this moment or the value they offered a quarter-century ago? Same with publishers. Is what they do today valuable or are they still treading on what they did that was valuable two or three decades ago? It doesn’t matter that Borders had a great selection of books that made people happy to shop there in 1995. They’re bankrupt and gone now, not coming back. It doesn’t matter that publishers frame themselves as great curators of the written word because of their gatekeeping of the past. Their gates have been kicked down and trampled into the dirt.

What matters is that when I want to buy a book as a reader or publish a book as a writer, what I’m willing to put up with to do so. That’s the value proposition you offer us and, increasingly, it’s one that isn’t trending in a direction that’s helpful to past paradigms or the dominant businesses that profited from them.

Take a long, hard look at what people value today and what they’re willing to do to acquire that value. That’s where the path to the future rests. Reminiscing about the value people appreciated in a different time and a different place, and doubling down on nostalgia isn’t going to fend off the bankruptcy judge for very long.

Read Part Two of “Value Propositions, The Bookstore Conundrum” here.

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

Second Hand Blues: First Sale Rights and Used eBooks

That sound you just heard was the collective heads of everyone in the traditional mass media industry exploding as news of Amazon filing a patent for a process to resell digital goods spread. Many of them are having enough trouble keeping their heads above water in the current digital marketplace as it is. Now, suddenly, they might have to deal with competition from an area they thought was locked down, resale rights of customers. Oh shit.

Personally, I’m all for this development, although I would much rather someone other than Amazon be the one to push this possibly emerging market. However, the fact that they’re taking steps to be prepared for it again shows why they have essentially made fools of the traditional industry. They think ahead, they pay attention, they prepare and, most of all, their business model adds value for their customers instead of taking it away.

I’ve long been a proponent of an aftermarket for digital goods. I believe it’s lack is the one key flaw in the ebook market. In fact, I’ve started to develop a little theory about this. Far from being just simply a loss of value for consumers, I’m starting to get behind the notion that the lack of an aftermarket is a primary cause of three of the most troublesome issues with ebooks and other digital media; piracy, discoverability and the downward pressure on prices.

1. Piracy

I usually take issue with even defining the activity of file sharing, even obviously infringing file sharing, as piracy. I just don’t think it is. I also think it clouds the issue by broadening the scope of conduct corporations would like to monetize into a individual crime, which hurts efforts to combat actual, destructive commercial-scale piracy. But for the sake of brevity, I’m just going to use the term piracy here. It’s easier to type than “possibly infringing and much maligned but potentially fair use protected file sharing,” which would be a far more accurate description of the conduct to which the industry objects.

The biggest joke of all from the anti-piracy brigade is the assumption that every download is a full price lost sale, complete with lost royalties for the creator. That’s obviously a skyscraper-high pile of horseshit I’m not going to waste time refuting. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it’s somewhat true, who’s to say that lost sale would have even been one that affected the industry or artists at all? It’s easy to suggest that someone downloading an ebook wasn’t going to buy it anyway. But what if they were going to buy it, only a cheaper second hand version? Even if it was a lost sale, it wasn’t one that would have earned the industry a dime anyway. Or any royalties for the artists. Amazon routinely lists used alternatives to new versions right on the product page, always significantly cheaper. Is it really a stretch to think that people who choose downloading for free over buying full price wouldn’t also choose to buy cheaper used than new? Even if every download were a lost sale, if those sales were going to be of the cheaper, used variety, the industry and artists lose nothing. And it’s perfectly legal under the first sale part of copyright.

Ebooks circumvent first sale by being sold as a license for use. When that happens, customers lose the ability to resell those goods (among other things). It’s why I can’t just sell the ebook I bought last week from Amazon to somebody else on eBay. But the book publishing industry has long existed side by side with its used counterpart. There has always been a place to buy books at a significantly discounted price. When eBooks took off, however, there was a vacuum left where that discounted market used to be. Isn’t it possible that piracy grew to fill this very gap that the loss of first sale left in the digitized side of the market? We went from a system where you could get books full price new, heavily discounted used, or free from libraries to a system where it was full price new, extremely limited and inconvenient from libraries or free through piracy. The industry, through the means it chose to sell ebooks, removed the discounted option completely, hamstrung the legal free option and then loudly wondered why people pirated.

I think a lot about rights, I am a writer, after all, and I spend a fair amount of time complaining about rights grabs from publishers. But it just dawned on me that I’ve essentially missed the biggest rights grab of all. The way ebooks are sold protects publishers under copyright law, protects authors under copyright law (although I would argue in too ancillary of a way through publishers but that’s for another day) and takes away almost all the rights of consumers under copyright law. It is pretty egregious when you look at it. The first theft was committed when publishers agreed to the licensing scheme and took away customer rights. Then they turned right around, started pointing fingers and yelling, “Thief!”

Removing first sale rights created a vacuum in the ebook market and piracy was what grew in its place. Nature does, indeed, abhor a vacuum.

2. Discoverability

Here’s another thought that’s been kicking around in my head: what if, instead of causing the drop in sales, piracy actually prevented that drop from being significantly worse? Think about it. When digital music hit the scene, that industry panicked, fought the rudimentary early age file sharing spots like Napster and Limewire tooth and nail, right down to suing their own damn customers. At that point, broadband was slower, not nearly as widespread, and most people didn’t know how or have the capacity to download sometimes large music files. As first sale rights fell away, the secondary markets thinned, discovery was hampered and sales dropped precipitously. When ebooks hit publishing, there were well-established file sharing networks in place, broadband was much faster and more ubiquitous. The discovery hit from loss of first sale was mitigated somewhat by piracy and the drop in sales was much lower. Book publishing, quite possibly, was somewhat protected from itself by the very pirates it so loves to demonize.

Look at it this way, when I buy a print book, I can go sell it to someone else. They in turn, can sell it again, the next owner can sell it, then that owner could donate it to the library where it can be checked out over and over again. That one book could pass through numerous hands, all legal and all based on one sale, the first sale, from which publishers and creators reap their proceeds. The rest of that book’s lifespan constitutes exposure, or discovery, if you prefer. Now, if I buy an ebook, other than a limited ability to share with a few people under specific conditions, the life span of that ebook essentially dies immediately after the first sale. All of that exposure and discovery that was present with print books sold with first sale rights is washed away. And again, the industry is perplexed about why people aren’t finding new books as easily as in the past. That kind of thing happens when you destroy the primary mechanisms of discovery by swiping rights from customers.

I’ve seen numerous polls that suggest bookstores are the number one place for discovery of new works but I’ve never seen one differentiate between what kind of bookstores they’re talking about. Is it more likely you’ll try out new authors in Barnes & Noble where you’re paying $10-25 or so on average per book, or in a used bookstore where hardcovers are $2 and paperbacks can be had for 50 cents? I suspect discovery has been done far more at bookstores selling heavily discounted used books (and libraries, where it’s free) than at stores selling only higher priced new books.

Everybody seems to be wondering why online book discovery is struggling so much. Could it be because publishers have hamstrung libraries and blocked the development of discounted used ebook stores by eliminating consumer rights to resale, places where discovery is far more likely to happen than full price, brand new alternatives? Nah, couldn’t be that, must be the pirates, you know, the only place actually emulating the primary means where book discovery was done in the past.

3. Downward Price Pressure

Taking away first sale rights from consumers does one other key thing, it takes away the customer’s ownership stake in the product. If you can resell something, that has value, and when you buy a print book, it retains that value because of first sale rights. But with ebooks, the monetary value drops to zero immediately after you pay for it. Don’t think for a second people don’t understand this basic fact. The loss of an ownership stake, and the instant elimination of any monetary value necessarily degrades a product in the customer’s eyes. By swiping first sale rights, publishers have devalued their own products. It’s the reason why so many people complain so loudly about ebooks priced anywhere near what print versions cost. We’re not stupid out here, we know damn well you’re selling us a product that doesn’t have anywhere near the tangible value of a print book, and that has nothing at all to do with the quality of the book. I can’t sell it and its uses are limited. I possess significantly fewer rights with ebooks. Consequently, it makes no sense to pay print prices for way-less-than-print value.

Then, there’s this. With the aftermarket for ebooks nonexistent, wiping out a highly discounted layer of sales, it created a huge gap between the prices of trad pubbed ebooks and indie books. That, in turn, created a situation where indie books could be priced much cheaper and attract significant sales through super-low prices alone. That, then, set off a race to the bottom fight for those sales, culminating in 99 cent novels, and generally increasing the downward pressure put on all ebook prices. But consider, if there were a used layer there where trad pubbed ebooks could have been picked up for $2-3 or so, the massive gap in prices between indie and trad books never would have happened, the severe price advantage wouldn’t have sparked the uptick in sales that set off the race to the bottom. Indie authors would have been forced to compete on factors beyond simply super-low prices, and the downward pressure they’re experiencing now declines appreciably. Also, if those same customers now bitching about $15 ebooks knew that could get a few bucks back on them through resale, they wouldn’t be so likely to complain about price. They’d retain their ownership stake, and very likely, not balk at paying a few dollars more. There’s two key elements right there driving prices down that go away if customers hadn’t had their first sale rights taken from them.

First sale rights are hugely important. I’m of the mind that swiping them from consumers as ebooks have is responsible for most of the biggest problems in a growing industry segment. An aftermarket isn’t something to be afraid of, it aids discovery, maintains value in the product chain and gives your customers not just a right to resell, but an actual ownership stake in the product, albeit a small one, relatively. It now becomes in their best interest to maintain the value of ebooks because they have some skin in the game. Take them away, and it seriously damages discoverability, drives prices down as the reality of lost value sinks in, and it drives possible customers to alternatives like piracy.

Whatever the technical difficulties in creating a digital goods aftermarket, or giving consumers back the first sale rights that have been swiped by the ebook licensing scheme, the consequences will be far less severe than continuing to treat customers as naive dullards who don’t mind being gouged by higher prices for a lesser product. There’s a good reason first sale exists as part of copyright law, free markets don’t work when one party has too much control over economic activity. If we don’t change course soon, the ebook market will find out exactly how dysfunctional things can get when the playing field gets unfairly slanted. Customers have rights, too, and it’s high time publishing remembers that.

Truth Be Told: Five unalterable realities of the approaching publishing landscape

After a week or so of reading, writing and ranting about the Amazon-Big Six-Apple-DOJ battle for the fate of the publishing universe, I’m a little sick of it. Besides, at this point, what the hell else can be said that hasn’t already been said bunches of times over? Amazon is an evil monster hellbent on destroying the publishing world or they’re not. The Big Six minus one and Apple colluded illegally to fix prices or they didn’t. The DOJ is over-reaching and doing more harm than good or they’re not. Agency Pricing is a racket used to shield print and slow ebook adoption or it’s not. Everybody’s got an opinion, and many of those overlap depending on which side of the old/new debate your sensibilities reside. Either we’re cheering on the damage publishers inflicted on themselves or we’re bemoaning the inevitable end of literature, culture and the publishing industry.

The thing I’ve finally realized is that none of this really matters in the grand scheme of things. There are a few basic realities that will carry on regardless of what any of the parties involved in this debacle decide to do. Amazon will become a monopoly or it won’t. The publishers will see their preferred business models smashed to pieces from the fallout of the various lawsuits or they won’t. Doesn’t matter either way in either case.

Truth #1– Digital Publishing and eBooks are here to stay

There’s no turning back now. The massive print infrastructure that roadblocked so many writers from reaching the marketplace for readers is no longer a real obstacle. The so-called Big Six can no longer stop anyone from selling their wares on equal terms. They can no longer steer customers to the limited options they prefer at whatever price points they want. Protectionist actions like the Agency Pricing deal that got them sued are ineffective and counter-productive.

Digital publishing hasn’t just kicked open doors that were long shuttered, it has blown the whole side of the building wide open.  Trying to stack up some boxes or slide the dresser in front of the gap of their gatekeeper controlled entry points won’t work. The passage is clearer now than its been in a long time, maybe ever, and we’re only at the very beginning of the changes yet to come. Things are going to get a whole lot worse for those who formerly controlled the industry before they get better, if they get better at all. Digital reading will become ubiquitous sooner than later, and it will dominate the market no matter how many warm, fuzzy memories of the past we conjure up.  Nostalgia is not a business model.

Truth #2- Amazon’s perceived dominance is fleeting

When discussing Amazon, the conversation almost inevitably turns to monopoly and now its first cousin, monopsony, too. This is a mistake because it superimposes economic conditions of the physical world onto digital. Long standing monopolies are exceptionally difficult to build and maintain in the virtual realm, and that’s only going to get harder to achieve over time. Amazon may hold most of the cards right now, maybe even the entire deck, but the thing about digital is that there are infinite decks from which to draw your hand. They’ve built up their position today because they have all their bases covered–cheap prices, overwhelming choices, a reasonably priced device most people find unobjectionable and the single best store interface in existence for both consumers and sellers. But that’s the rub. They may have the bases covered right now, but the instant they leave one unguarded, someone somewhere is going to jump all over it. To make matters worse, it might even be a base (or several bases) they didn’t even realize was on the field. We haven’t even scratched the surface of the changes yet to come.

One nice idea from some other quarter has the same potential to pull the rug out from under them that they’re innovations had for the traditional industry. And companies, as they get bigger and more complacent about their positions tend to miss important things. Amazon today may not ignore a game-changing reality, but what about tomorrow? Or the next day? Amazon is currently competing with an old school industry stuck in an industrial manufacturing, physical goods past. In that regard, they look for all the world like an unstoppable force. The next generation of competitors, however, won’t be tied to a bloated and inefficient past. They’ll be digital natives building from the advancements of Amazon itself. When the disruption has finished chewing up traditional publishers, Amazon is next on the hitlist.

Truth #3- Bookstores are doomed in every possible circumstance

How many record stores do you see around these days? How many video stores are left? Bookstores are the next to fall. As digital reading inevitably continues its ascendancy, eventually becoming the default manner in which people read, the notion of a shop specifically catering to an outdated product will seem quaint. Physical books in the future are far more likely to be found in antique stores rather than their own dedicated shops.

We will soon reach a point where the physical bookstore becomes a losing financial proposition both from the customer and the retailer standpoints. Nothing that can be achieved by a trip to the bookstore won’t be done faster, cheaper, more thoroughly and efficiently online. Barnes & Noble and what’s left of the big box book retailers will fall first, followed by a steady stream of independents until all that’s left are a smattering of tiny shops, very likely willing to lose money on books just to keep the doors open. I’m not reveling in their demise, I love bookstores, but I loved music stores, too. It would be nice to see them thrive, but it’s unrealistic. When every service you offer can be done better and more conveniently by your customers from their own living rooms, your days are numbered. Talk about literary culture and their place in publishing history all you want, but it’s not going to alter anything. Again, nostalgia is not a business model.

Truth #4- Publisher’s whining about ebook prices is irrelevant

Traditional publishers are stuck between the rock of their expensive print-centric business models and the hard place of cheaper, more efficient digital-centric changes to the industry. Given how quickly digital is eating away print’s market advantages, that is a very bad place to find yourself. Many small publishers and independent writers know that ebooks are almost insanely cheap to produce and distribute. They have direct, first hand experience selling ebooks very profitably at half or less of the price traditional publishers claim is too low for the industry to survive ($10). They, and everyone else including readers, know it. When the head of a Big Six publisher says that ebooks are only 10% less expensive to produce than print, it sounds like bullshit because we know it doesn’t have to be that way.

Print’s share of the overall market is as high today as it’s ever going to be. There’s nowhere for it to go except down. If you’re a publisher who’s business is built on a print infrastructure packed with layers of middlemen trying to squeeze ebooks into the identical framework, you’re screwed. As digital continues to grow, bookstores die off and other physical retail outlets discard large book sections, that print-first dynamic will become ever more untenable. Publishers are making a crucial error in trying to unilaterally increase ebook prices in the service of supporting print infrastructure. If they can’t profitably sell ebooks today at $10 or less, they need to make changes to their businesses so that they can. Whining about market forces and taking actions in opposition of your own customers’ desires and beliefs isn’t going to magically turn things around, and will very likely make it much worse for those that do. Yes, publishers have built virtual empires on the back of expensive print-based models. But the market is moving away from that model. If publishers don’t follow it, their predictions of doom will become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Truth #5- Writers who succeed in the future will be their own publishers whether they like it or not

Conventional wisdom suggests that publishers will eventually adapt and reclaim their positions as the principle gateway for authors to get their works to market. I don’t agree, unless, and this is a big one, their adaptations convert them into a service industry catering to writers. Thus far, I’ve seen nothing to indicate that’s going to happen. So, a far more likely outcome is that writers will, in most cases, be small businesses responsible for producing, marketing and selling their own material. This entails developing relationships with editors, designers and other services, essentially becoming micro-publishers each representing one writer–themselves.

As digital continues to threaten traditional publishers, we’ve seen more hard line stances taken with regards to writers. Rights grabs, revised contracts, shrinking royalties, non compete clauses and more efforts undertaken to mitigate their risks by cutting compensation and snatching more value from the writers under their collective umbrella. As print’s importance fades, eventually we’ll hit a point of no return where a traditional publishing contract does far more harm than good for a writer. Some have suggested that we’re already at that point for the vast majority. There may be other businesses emerge that service the essential activities of publishers, but I don’t expect their agreements to be significantly less one-sided. This means that the primary means for writers to reach publication will be essentially do-it-yourself.

“I just want to write,” is by far the most commonly used excuse by authors to place themselves under the endentured thumb of publishers, and, from a business standpoint, it’s not a very good one any more. The thing is, if a writer just wants to write in the future, they willingly will have to subject themselves to egregiously one-sided agreements where they’ll be fortunate to earn a pittance of what their work actually produces, even less than is currently the case. The current fight over the ebook market contains only occasional lip service from publishers about the benefits of writers. They seem to be treating it as a battle over who amongst the corporate giants gets to reap the rewards from writers’ efforts. The far more viable, and sound business choice for writers will be to become publishers themselves. The control, creative freedom and ability to earn the lion’s share of revenue from your efforts will make it worthwhile. It will also pose a greater risk, but that’s a tradeoff. No matter how much digital changes things, you still don’t get something for nothing.

There will be a contingent of writers who ultimately will bristle at the notion of having to expand their skill set and devote more time, effort and resources into pursuing their own success, but that’s the breaks. Traditional publishing seems to be trying to establish a pattern of poaching independent writers once they reach a certain level of success. That may make some sense, depending on who you ask, given the benefits they can potentially bring in the physical print market, but as print declines, those justifications from going indie to traditional will evaporate right along with it. If a writer puts in the time and effort to reach a level of success independently, the benefits of signing a traditional contract in a principally digital world are almost exclusive to the publisher. Sure, you might be able to no longer worry about things you don’t want to, but you will pay dearly for that “convenience.” It’s also highly debatable you’ll get the benefits you think, particularly when it comes to marketing, which is a burden already being shifted to writers today.

We may well develop a two-tiered writer system–those who are essentially lowly paid employees of publishers and those who become publishers themselves. In that environment, the big winners will come from the second group. Some writers may not like things going in that direction, but just as everyone is so keen on the notion that publishers will have to alter their conceptions and business practices, writers must also adapt to the new realities. No one on any side of the disruption is immune to having change thrust upon them.

Published in: on April 20, 2012 at 9:20 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Defenders of Literature and Cultural Heritage? Ha!

In the past week, there’s been several long-winded screeds written about the end of days for publishing at the hands of the exploding supernova that is Amazon.  This isn’t altogether a rarity, but I’ve noticed, as print sales continue to decline, ebook sales continue to pick up, and the traditional ways of doing business continue looking more and more like a quaint remnant of a past soon to be forgotten, the bile and vitriol thrown around at those who are at the vanguard of this vast cultural shift have gotten more pressing and severe.  First there was Scott Turow’s “Grim News” letter defending big publishing’s (alleged) collusion and price fixing.  He followed that up with a somewhat more tempered but still massively slanted and misdirected interview on Salon a few days later.  I myself, along with several others, took a swing at the hanging sliders Turow threw into all of our wheelhouses here.  After that, there was Harper’s Magazine publisher John MacArthur’s rant on what he calls the “internet con-men who have ravaged publishing”.   I fully intend to expound upon his comments a little later, as I did find myself agreeing with bits and pieces of what he had to say about the newspaper business’ futile  addiction to elusive web ads, but his overall missive was still very much misplaced.  Finally, I ran across this piece by Bryce Milligan, publisher of Wings Press, on what he calls Amazon’s assault on intellectual freedom.  It’s been a pretty busy week for the dinosaurs of the publishing industry.

None of this is particularly surprising to me.  I’ve seen a lot of this before, watching the legacy newspaper industry’s response when the internet first started to really take a bite out of their once whole-ly locked down apple.  The newcomers were usurpers, illegitimate, doing nothing but stealing their hard-earned positions and work.  The folks heading the industry at that time were so caught up in the belief that the mechanisms they had been in charge of were the pinnacle of their business, and virtually omnipotent, that they failed to see the handwriting on the wall.  It was much easier to lash out and demonize the agents of change than to actually admit to themselves that they had to change as well, or be left on the scrap-heap of history.  So bitch, moan and complain they did.  For years while their revenues shrank, their marketshare plummeted and their customers–both advertisers and readers–moved on to bigger and better things.  The newspaper industry today is roughly 40% the size it was only a half-dozen years ago and still contracting.  Their big plans for the future are website paywalls, an argument that really should have been settled somewhere around 1998.  They slipped, ignored the reality of change by spending too much attention to the quirks of those bringing it right to their doorsteps and, in the process, doomed themselves to a slow, wasting death.  Look closely and you can see the same thing happening to parts of the book publishing segment.

So this isn’t exactly an unheard of development, the disrupted lashing out at the disrupters, and it is more than predictable to see their points of view on the precise business aspects of the issue.  Obviously, they will violently defend the status quo mechanisms while disparaging the strange, new and different ways others have found to achieve the same ends, that being to put written works in the hands of readers.  That, I expected.  It still strikes me as living life with blinders on, but at least it makes sense from a business perspective.  After all, the new digital revolution is barely a few years old.  The legacy bookselling model has existed, pretty much as is, for decades, if not centuries.  You don’t make money that well for that long without developing a nearly-religious belief in your business model.  That faith won’t save them, but it is understandable.

One thing, however, that has begun to emerge in these anti-Amazon (truthfully, more anti-future and anti-change) rants is the notion that legacy publishers, editors, distributors, agents bookstores and the authors entwined with them aren’t simply defending a means of doing business; they are beginning to position their plight on a higher plane.  They aren’t simply disrupted business people, they are pious defenders of literature, heritage and the very culture itself.  Every time I see one of these comments, I can’t help but snort.  I’ve even taken to putting down my drink whenever I get the slightest hint I’m reading one of these for fear of shooting some of said drink out of my nose, a fate I’d like to avoid if at all possible.  It’s one thing to defend your business and how it operates, even if you do so in absence of facts, reason and rationality.  It is quite another to pretend to be martyrs on the cross of literary heritage.  Of course, it’s entirely possible they’re not pretending and that would be telling in and of itself.  I’ve always approached these types of backwards defenses as willful blindness by those so worried about losing their meal tickets that they refuse to acknowledge the validity of the opposing arguments.  But, perhaps, what we are dealing with here are actually “true believers” so indoctrinated by legacy publishing’s dogma that anything challenging its preeminence is immediately treated as heresy.

When a Konrath, an Eisler or any of the other outspoken proponents of the changes that have torn through the industry advocate their positions, is it possible that these true believers don’t see a reasoned argument supported by observation, statistics and facts?  Does Turow look at Konrath the way the Pope looked at Galileo when he challenged the notion that the Earth was the center of the universe?  Did he consider the matter at hand, looking at all the available evidence and make a reasoned judgement or does he simply launch into an inquisition-style defensive assault that twists logic like a Philly soft pretzel to suit his preconceived beliefs?  I sincerely hope it’s the former because, even though I believe he’s wrong, at least he would still retain the possibility that further evidence and reason could have a positive effect.  If it’s the latter, no amount of reason will have any effect, except to make the vitriol even stronger because if there’s any one trait that defines true believers of any stripe, it’s that they almost always double down against things that challenge their faith, no matter how logical or reality-based they are.

Read each of the four pieces I linked to above and look for the similarities in their arguments.  Far from simply a discussion about the difficulties of transitioning from a print-centric business model to a digital-centric one, they each pine for the glory days of yore, nostalgia for the way things have always been done literally drips from their words.  And they each, at various points, make the proclamation that, as the new digital frontier continues to spread over the old physical one, our culture and even literacy itself will suffer for it.  The literacy point is somewhat inexplicable to me.  How, exactly, can literacy decline through the act of more people reading more than ever?  It’s seems a lot like Barry Eisler excellently pointed out on Turow’s allegation that Amazon is trying to destroy bookselling, apparently, by selling lots of books.  I guess when logic, reason and facts fail to produce a convincing argument, scare tactics are a consistently easy fallback.

“The end is near!  If our business fails, the world will be consumed by hellfire!  The people will become illiterate slugs if we’re no longer around to tell them what’s worthy of reading and spending their money on!  Without us, our culture will collapse into an horrific hodgepodge of things regular people actually enjoy, without having a gatekeeper like us to tell them it’s okay to like it!  What about our heritage?  Won’t somebody think about the children and how they’ll be able to learn of their heritage on their own, god forbid, without the facts they’re exposed to being vetted and approved by we professional keepers of what’s right and just!  It’ll be the end of days!  The horror…the horror…”

Publishing is a business, folks, not a religion.  They operate, as they always have, on a business model that allowed them to make money on the written word.  Technology has changed the ways in which people can access those words, undermining publishing’s long-standing business model.  Now, if they want to survive, they must transition to a model that fits today’s (and tomorrow’s) readers.  That’s all this is.  The world won’t end.  Great masses of people won’t suddenly lose the ability to read.  The written word will continue on as it always has, only now with the means of reaching more people more inexpensively and efficiently than ever before.  Our culture will not suffer.  Our heritage will not evaporate.  In fact, they may well be greatly enhanced by what’s coming.  The fact that a relatively small number of people who used to make a living putting words in ink on blank sheets of paper and selling them could possibly be out of work isn’t going to doom civilization as we know it.

Print publishing has had a good run.  They’ve existed as an industry largely undisturbed for numerous generations, far more fortunate than many, much more successful industries before or after them.  Change in life is inevitable.  How we deal with that change is what separates the people who keep moving forward, whatever the obstacles and the people who just whine about how much better things were back in their day.  Some of these old-guard folks sound to me like they’re desperately in need of a rocking chair, a tall glass of lemonade, a quilt to keep the evening chill away and a nice front porch to retire to.  Put enough of them together, and they should have plenty of tales to share amongst themselves about how great things were back in the good ol’ days.

As for the rest of us?  We’ve got things to do.  There’s a disruption going on, don’t you know?

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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