Royalties, Oh Royalties, Wherefore Art My Royalties?

“It is our hope that Hachette, in light of the loyalty its authors have shown throughout this debacle, takes this opportunity to revisit its standard e-book royalty rate of 25 percent of the publisher’s net profits.” Roxana Robinson, president of the Authors Guild

So here we are. Hachette has a deal. Simon & Schuster has a deal. They have the pricing responsibility they wanted. Amazon has its “specific financial incentives” to compel them to use that power to price lower. Now we’ll get to see just how badly publishers want to institute a price-based windowing system for new releases (I’m setting the over/under on new release ebook prices at $16.99. And I’m taking the over.) But what did writers get out of this? I’m glad you (rhetorically) asked, because nobody else seems to be.

I’ve read all the coverage I can find and, as far as I can tell, the sum total of what writers got from this is that Hachette writers will have preorders reinstated and be back on two-day shipping. That’s about it. Oh yeah, there’s all the sales they lost during the past seven months. They’ve got that, too. There’s no Macmillan-like pool of recompense for those folks; no extra royalty payout for the damage done to their business. And they’ve got the hit yet to come from all those lost sales when their next contract rolls around. But at least, like the Robinson quote above, they’ve got hope that possibly Hachette (and others) maybe might take some time to reconsider their ebook royalty rates, if it’s not too much trouble. Because loyalty. My dog is loyal, but if I screw with his food, he bares his teeth and growls. I don’t screw with his food. Loyalty unrespected is subservience.

The blatantly obvious here is that anyone who thought writers would get anything but screwed on this was deluded. Especially after their authors interjected themselves into it in, bluntly, the stupidest possible way. They threw all their weight behind one side, not coincidentally, the side that needed them and they had leverage with, and asked nothing in return. Now we’re told they did it out of loyalty as if that’s some kind of honorable thing and not horribly misplaced naivete. Now we’re told authors are going to try to get better terms. My thoughts on that strategy were summed up nicely:

“What opportunity would that be? The one where they’ve settled up with Amazon, already have you all under contract at that standard, and don’t need to name-drop you morons in an obviously coordinated PR assault on a rival anymore? The opportunity to do a hell of a lot more than “hope they revisit the standard” was the past seven months when Amazon had Hachette over a barrel and the other publishers were all worried they were next.”

But don’t take my word for it. Let’s see what some publishing executives have to say:

“Speaking at a Society of Authors (SoA) panel on hybrid authors, Little, Brown CEO Ursula Mackenzie defended publishers from criticism by audience members that they now only take on books that will make money.

“Every book can’t make money,” she said. “There are careers we support for years…there are many books we publish lovingly where we don’t make money.”

Mackenzie said that publishers “are not taking a disproportionate part of the profit”, and that “no one benefits if publishers go out of business.” Little, Brown has a “fair rate for our e-books,” Mackenzie said.”

Good luck parsing the logic out of that one. “We publish lots of stuff that doesn’t make money, so we can’t pay you fairly for the things that do or we’d go out of business.”

That’s a helluva sales pitch. So even if I’m succesful, I’ll still be underpaid? Where do I sign up?!? This is the ultimate conclusion of the cultural enrichment argument. They’re not regular businesses, they’re a public good. So you can’t expect to be paid like a regular business. The company has to reap most of the proceeds so they can continue to underpay you to pay for all the stuff they produce that nobody wants. It’s all bullshit, of course, and pretty blatantly so. These are all huge, multi-billion-dollar publicly traded corporations. Do you think they’re shareholders are down with pissing money away in business-threatening chunks for culture’s sake? Or are they simply feeding you a line they know plays to your sensibilities to justify squeezing suppliers (you) to maximize profits?

Think about that last part for a minute. Just the idea of paying a better royalty rate caused her to pull the going out of business card. If you can’t even consider paying me a fair (or even just slightly higher) ebook royalty without it triggering fears of going under, does that make you more or less attractive to me as an author? You’re leveraged so thinly that fair recompense to writers can threaten the very existence of your company? What’s the upside for me to sign with you? A “quality” product no one buys or a product they do buy but I don’t reap fair reward for?

Now, of course, she claims to think their ebook royalty is fair, which is the problem. I don’t really believe she thinks that but enough of you do that they can continue to get away with pushing this nonsense. Here’s another:

“Questioned on author earnings, CEO Tom Weldon said that Penguin/Random House was always looking at how much authors were being compensated, but for the moment the 25% digital royalty rate would not be changed.

“Authors are, alongside readers, the foundation of our business,” he said. “We are always, always looking at our commercial arrangements with authors to make sure they’re fair and equitable. With e-book royalties, firstly and most importantly, the business model is as clear as mud. Rather than arguing about what slice of the cake we should distribute, we need to work out how big the cake should be.”

There you go, fair and equitable and the rate would not be changed. Get a load of that last sentence. We need to work out how big the cake should be? What the hell does that even mean? Is he talking about pricing? Is it a more ominous suggestion of further attempts at limiting the ebook market itself to a certain market share? Or even more ominously, is he talking not about how big the whole cake is but deciding how big the portion of the cake is that your portion comes from? The cake is a pretty big one, dude, I think portions are an appropriate topic of discussion at the moment. Look at how he phrased that, too: “Rather than arguing about what slice of the cake we should distribute…” They’re planning on keeping the whole damn cake and then deciding what tiny sliver they can afford to slice off for you. Do you need any more evidence that they see the proceeds from your book as “their cake”? Funny how they’re not waiting to work out how big the cake should be before touting the increased profits they’re reaping from this particular literary confection. But let’s not argue about it. Then they might actually have to address the issue rather than keep enjoying all that delicious extra cake they’ve got. Did you catch him wiping the crumbs from the corner of his mouth as he said “fair and equitable”?

Even the Author Guild itself admits the publishers have no will to even consider making a change in ebook royalty rate:

“Jean Craighead George’s original decision to publish an e-book edition (of Julie of the Wolves) with Open Road (which pays a 50% e-book royalty)—rather than with HarperCollins, her longtime publisher—was a principled rebuke of the major publisher’s measly 25% net e-book royalty. HarperCollins’s aggressive strategy (the publisher spent over $1.5 million to litigate a case that ended up being worth only $30,000) illustrates the importance to publishers of keeping e-book royalty rates at 25%.”

So if you already know this, please explain why you failed to do even the slightest bit of advocacy during the past year when the Big 5 in general, and Hachette specifically, were more vulnerable than they’ve been maybe in all of our lifetimes? You think it was a good idea to show unbridled loyalty to companies who, by your own admission, are being miserly with ebook royalties and intentionally underpaying your membership? Something you’ve been complaining about since, at least, 2009? That’s five years of talk with zero tangible results. Loyalty is a positive thing in some cases, but in this one, it’s high past time to bare your teeth. The question increasingly being asked, and rightly so, is does the Authors Guild have any teeth to bare? Instead of falling lockstep in line with the publishers, why didn’t you take advantage of this opportunity to make some progress? That’s what real advocacy is. What you’re doing is no different than what I do, talking. Only I’m not collecting dues or pretending I’m representing anyone’s interests.

Speaking of the blind leading the blind, here’s the Authors Guild meeting with members of Congress ahead of an upcoming review of copyright law:

“Executive Director of the Authors Guild, Mary Rasenberger’s speech was part of a panel co-hosted by the Authors Guild and aimed at giving the Congressional group a behind-the-scenes look at “a book’s passage from manuscript to marketplace.” The panel consisted of authors, editors, and publishers.

In her speech, Rasenberger focused on the “urgent state” of authorship today. “Even authors who made a living writing books for decades now need to find alternative sources of income,” she told the assembly. “This means they write less—and, in some cases, not at all. Fewer professional authors means fewer types of books that might take years of research and writing. These are precisely the kinds of books that further the knowledge and learning that copyright is meant to foster.”

Do you think her presentation of “manuscript to marketplace” included even a word about indies who skip the publisher involvement altogether? I don’t either. I’m certain it was a glowing testament to how essential publishers are, with writers and editors simply add-ons to the process, shepherded by their greatness. Maybe the urgent state of authorship wouldn’t be so urgent if authors had effective advocates. Maybe there wouldn’t be so many authors needing outside income streams if you did something about low royalties other than hope and talk. Don’t miss the loaded use of the term “professional” in there either. Who does this woman represent? They’ve done nothing about the royalty rate, they are dismissive of indies in presentation and implication if not in direct language. And they just came to heel when the publishers blew their dog whistles over the past few months, a time when they actually had some leverage to get something done. Amazon was practically begging them to do something. Is it any wonder publishers think they have you all locked down?

The question I’m asking is can authors get some real representation at these things? The only seat at the table we get is through groups like the Authors Guild, and sometimes that’s even less useful than having no seat at all. So what were they talking about at this congressional get together other than how crucial publishers are? Here’s the release from the committee:

“Great books, both fiction and non, have an incredible ability to capture our hearts and minds, taking us to another place or time with words on a page. Yet many of us do not think about the hard work and collaboration that goes on between authors, publishers, and many others to help take a book from manuscript to marketplace,” said Reps. Judy Chu and Howard Coble, co-chairs of the Creative Rights Council. “Together, this collaboration is at the heart of a $27.2 billion industry, but challenges like digital first sale, unreasonable expansion of fair use, and online piracy are threatening the livelihoods of the hard working men and women who bring these works to life. We are proud to have hosted this important panel in order to influence the conversation on copyright law as we continue moving forward.”

Notice authors is mentioned only once, in the context of the collaboration. Is it authors’ livelihoods they feel are threatened, because, as everyone should have already been expressly aware, the vast majority of traditional authors don’t have livelihoods from their work to be threatened. And that is in no way a recent development, rather a consequence of the industry’s very structure. So get ready for copyright law as publisher bailout (none of the benefits of which will even trickle down to the writers), coming soon to a congressional hearing near you.

It’s telling that both first sale and fair use were specifically cited as “threats”. Is this how the Authors Guild presented them? What exactly does Rasenberger mean by what “copyright is meant to foster”? First sale and fair use are both consumer rights granted by copyright (yes, consumers have rights under copyright law, too. Although maybe not for much longer if these folks are any indication.) How about we discuss life+70 that flies directly in the face of what copyright intended as a limited time of exclusivity for creators. It exists not for the benefit of creators, but of transferees (not mentioned there, by the way) so they can continue to profit from creators’ works for generations after their death. Or how about the fact that this standard has basically caused the public domain of recent material to wither and die (another element copyright law intended to be vibrant and available for both creators and the public).

But, alas, no. The “threats” here are like they are every time copyright comes up; the rights of consumers are given short shrift, if acknowledged at all, and the rights of creators are subverted, in direct opposition of what was intended, to protect corporate licensees’ profits. If you want to have a frank and open discussion of copyright law, let’s do it. But can we get someone other than the Authors Guild at the table please? I have no faith they’re even on the right side of these issues for authors and won’t simply fall lockstep in with publishers when push comes to shove (again). I’m sure they’ll talk a good game but when it comes time to pick a side to support, they’ll be right there with the publishers, no matter how much more ground creators and the public have to give up so Disney can continue milking Mickey Mouse in perpetuity.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe the Authors Guild, once it sinks in that their loyalty has gotten them squat, will finally break out the snarl and get down to the real business of business and stop validating the publishers’ “enriching themselves while underpaying writers is essential to culture” argument. And maybe pigs will fly.

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

The Case For Why Writers Need Publishers

Um…
Well, maybe…
I suppose they could…
They might…
Huh.

The End.

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

The Two Memes of Destruction

So I’ve reached a point of not being terribly concerned about the people who are still siding with Hachette. Especially after Simon & Schuster has done what’s been touted as the impossible, quickly and painlessly reaching a deal with Amazon. It’s reportedly an Agency-type deal too, and, in my opinion, that makes what Hachette supporters have been saying look even more suspect. I know, I know, we don’t have specifics on the deal. It could be a bad one, S&S could have panicked. Or Amazon could’ve given away the farm to them (the smallest of the Big 5) to put more pressure on Hachette knowing S&S can’t share details without running afoul of Uncle Sam. That’s all possible. But I return to a theory I pointed out a while back. This fight isn’t because Amazon is trying to destroy the world one publisher at a time, Hachette may just have badly overplayed their hand by picking a poor strategy. A strategy, by the way, that needed it’s writers to lose their asses for going on six months now to be effective. Sweethearts, those folks. I’d like to think that what we’re seeing here is evidence that the Big 5 might be diverging a bit. S&S cut this deal quickly and quietly. The same S&S that had a knock down, drag out with Barnes & Noble not long ago. Harper Collins is firing up it’s own sales channel and offering *gasp* to pay writers higher royalties for sales through it. (How much higher and whether it’s sufficient is another discussion entirely.) There’s continued rumbles around various parts of Random House suggesting there’s serious discussions going on about whether to ditch DRM in some way. All these are good signs. The DOJ’s actions may have had the unintended side effect of disrupting the regular cartel-like coordination of these companies far deeper than simply in their dealings with Amazon. We may be entering a period where the Big 5 function as five totally separate entities, and that alone would make what the DOJ did worthwhile, not to mention the tens of millions readers got back after being ripped off by the illegal collusion. That was pretty cool, too. It may truly be a brand new world. Or so I hope, anyway.

But if you’d like to continue to support them, have at it. It’s your funeral. Something Patterson said recently about this being like a religious war rings true. I’m not sure why he thought it was appropriate or anything short of insulting to portray traditional supporters as terrorists. Hey, I disagree with you all quite a bit and I’m not even going there. And he’s on your side! I think many of you are misguided, confused, uninformed, stuck in a past that’s always been more myth than reality, yada, yada, yada…but I don’t think you’re jihadists. No word yet on whether Hachette is promising it’s writers 72 virgin customers for writing an Amazon hit piece, you know, suicide bombing their own credibility. It’s just ridiculous. And now we’ve got a once and future king-maker agent (so he hopes) comparing Amazon’s distribution system to ISIS. That one’s too inexplicable to even criticize. Seriously, could someone give me any clue to what the hell that means? It’s like he just picked the most negative term in the news that day. “The Big 5 offer ebola like contracts!” Two can play at that game.

But one aspect of the religious war narrative does make sense. Those folks are either true believers where facts or logic don’t apply or they’re the leaders pulling the strings of the true believers to serve their own agendas. I’ve seen it said that indies are behaving like zealots but that perceived zeal comes from, you know, actually having options now in an industry where we largely had none. The irrational arguing is mostly from the traditional side. We might be loud and angry but we also tend to have arguments that don’t Involve simply shouting at people who disagree with us “you just don’t know how publishing works” without actually explaining what they mean by that or refuting the point made that led to it. Probably because they themselves don’t really know (or want to publicly admit) how publishing really works, preferring the myth to the reality. That does seem to be an increasingly common response-type. The converse of that is the people who argue with reasons in support for their positions. I won’t always agree but I’ll always respect someone who put some thought behind what they believe, not just trot out more myths, half-truths and nonsense like Paul Krugman.

Implying that Amazon is some kind of a right wing propaganda arm because Paul Ryan’s book was available but a negative biography of the Koch brothers was restricted? Did it occur to you that Amazon wants to sell books, even during the dispute? That you and I might think he’s a clueless asshole, but Ryan’s book has a virulent tea party audience that will actually pay good money to read his nonsense? And that a Koch brothers biography may be a fantastic book and important subject matter but if the only people likely to buy it are the 12 remaining Michael Moore fans and a small subset of the folks who drive a prius and want to have the book on their coffee table so they can look socially conscious to dinner guests, why would they give it extra attention that other Hachette books aren’t getting during the dispute? Besides, haven’t you heard? Amazon tells the DOJ of a Democrat president what to do and Bezos hangs with Obama. Don’t you recall the hell the President caught for touring an Amazon warehouse and daring to say nice things about them fairly recently? But then, Krugman writes for the New York Times. Maybe he simply had to fulfill his quota of negative articles about Amazon for the quarter, and if he could toss in a little of that liberal/tea party brouhaha, all the better for click bait.

What you often see is people describing publishing as a system so incredibly complex that outsiders can’t possibly understand how it works. More than that, it’s complexity requires special exemptions from even the most basic market forces. In this world, Amazon is a monopolist, indies are simultaneously pawns used to destroy publishers and junk merchants that are devaluing books and destroying literature, and publishers are the ones defending the world from the evils of competition, innovation and progress one overpriced ebook at a time. The problem with this is that the system isn’t really all that complicated, nor difficult to understand. If you dig a little deeper, you’ll find most of that complexity is an invention of the publishers themselves, or some elaborate combination of the arrangements they’ve made with distributors and retailers. Tried and true. Make a simple situation appear impossibly complicated and reinforce your position in the chain because writers and uninitiated outsiders believe they can’t possibly navigate these choppy waters or understand why things are done this way without publishers to handle that for them. That the publishers are the ones creating the chop is often overlooked. In any event, it’s bullshit. Write a book, publish a book, sell a book. It’s not complicated in the slightest. It’s not easy, mind you, but it’s not quantum physics or nuerosurgery, either. In that sense, they’re a bit like credit card service agreements, so much complicated fine print that what really is a simple circumstance becomes shrouded in confusion, which is then used to great effect to obscure the unsavory things going on in the margins.

With that in mind, here are the basic fallacies of the Seven Deadly Sins of anti-Amazon bullshit:

1. No one is “buying” ebooks. They’re licensed, not sold. You probably should understand the difference.

2. Hachette does not have a “right” to force a retailer to price like it wants against that retailers’ will. They have to successfully negotiate for that. Just ask S&S.

3. Amazon does not have a monopoly (or monopsony) on books, ebooks or anything else. They’re big with a lot of influence, no doubt. But a monopoly, they’re not. And no one has been able to point to any kind of statute that says they are.

4. Authors are not being targeted by Amazon, Hachette is. And those authors made themselves part of Hachette when they signed their contracts. Those things are usually binding folks, and they have consequences. That’s why you should read them first.

5. The only people guilty of antitrust violations are the publishers, not Amazon. Just ask the DOJ. But if Doug Preston says so then, hey, what do a bunch of antitrust prosecutors know anyway?

6. Not giving perks to a company you don’t have a contract with is not censorship, boycotting, sanctioning, disappearing or anything else other than hard-nosed business. And it’s not even that hard-nosed. Real hard-nosed business would have them booted out of Amazon’s store entirely. Plus, here’s a point of basic business relationships that no one has mentioned, giving perks to a company you don’t have a contract with just might piss off the ones you do.

7. Publishing is a cut throat industry that runs on hard market principles not fairytales perpetuated by a privileged class paid well enough to look the other way while their author brethren are ground under its wheels.

I understand why the agents, the publishers and the big money writers are fighting this. Their arguments are faulty but their motivations are obvious. They’re trying to stop the gravy train from pulling out of the station. Of course, they could just turn around and see the new high speed rail line that’s bringing in better, more efficient gravy trains every hour on the hour. No one in the industry is in a better position to take advantage of that than they are. But like Plato said, it’s easier to keep watching the shadows on the wall than to turn around and step into the light.

What I don’t understand are the writers who aren’t amongst those groups, the ones still on the outside looking to get in or the ones on the inside who can’t get out of the muddy, horse-shit coated courtyard and into to castle. Why are they supporting a system that’s feeding off of them as the foundation for everyone else getting paid? I’m thinking there’s a confluence of two memes that have always been destructive but is becoming more apparent just how catastrophic they can be.

One is “I Just Want To Write” which endorses pushing the business side of your career away, delegating it to “professionals” so you can focus on writing and cashing the checks. The other is the “Crucible Of Rejection”, the odd fetishization of struggling through years of being told no to get inside those gates. For some on the outside, it’s always the next query that’ll be the one that works. All they have to do is tweak their book a little and they’re in. Any day! Can’t walk away now! The myth tells us that adapting to this rejection forges us into better writers. The truth is it forges us into writers better suited to their commercial purposes. There’s a huge difference. For the more fortunate, they’ve gotten in, but the business specifics are totally in the hands of their publisher and their agent. They don’t know what’s really going on, and it’s not so easy to burn that bridge after celebrating your persistence and years of work to get there, even if there bears little resemblance to what you thought it was. It’s hard to walk away after you’ve put in that kind of effort. Even harder when you’re not getting accurate information and what you are getting is coming from people who have agendas of their own they’re trying to fulfill irrespective of their contractually obligated responsibilities to you. How many publishing contracts come and go quickly and quietly without the author even knowing what was done for the book, what happened and why?

All I can say to those folks, speaking from my own experiences with publishers, if you think you’re starting to smell some duplicity, look to the people in your own backyard before you start sniffing out the guy across town. It’s far more likely to be coming from nearby. The stench is coming from inside the house!

I suspect these memes, and their blinder-producing results, are why you see the argument made so often that books aren’t like other products, or books aren’t widgets or what have you. You don’t have to defend what you’re advocating as feasible in the market or financially viable if you throw the baseline of actual business sense out with the bath water at the earliest possible convenience. Perhaps the most ridiculous argument I’ve seen springboard lately is the idea that publishing isn’t profitable or profitable enough that anyone outside these current set of publishers would be interested in it. Part of that argument is an implication that these pubs are being altruistic by staying in it themselves. It’s total nonsense. My entire working experience across two decades conflicts that point. You also generally see that argument being made by someone who’s collecting a huge check courtesy of the industry. Publishing is, has been and will continue to be, in various forms, an extraordinarily profitable industry, with or without this particular set of publishers, writers and retailers.

Every time I see that line of thought, I can’t help but automatically assume the person speaking has no real-world argument to make, just more pixie dust and fairy tales. It’s kind of sad, too, that they’re “concern” for culture is coming during what is far and away the best time for communication in the history of civilization (no exaggeration). It’s never, at any point, ever been easier or cheaper (right down to free) to get anything you want to say out to anyone you want to say it to across virtually the entire globe. I think that shows the lie in their argument. It’s all about money to them and nothing else. To be clear, that’s a perfectly fine position to take, just don’t bullshit me with cultural concerns when it’s your paycheck that’s driving the argument. If we remove the commercial aspect altogether, it’s still the greatest time in mankind’s entire history if you’re trying to get your words and ideas out to the world.

That’s what I would offer for writers to take away from this. Open your eyes and take a look around. There are opportunities emerging everywhere every day. What we can do today and the numbers of people we can reach is truly amazing, unprecedented in human history. If you get so wrapped up in worrying about Amazon, you’ll miss it. Don’t get hung up on the whines and howls of folks who are just pissed that the world moved their cheese. You want a career in writing? Go and take one. Dump the bullshit memes of the past and get down to actual business, the kind those memes and the folks who propagate them have blocked writers from pursuing for decades going on a century.

Don’t make the mistake of previous generations of writers and think any of these people are your friends. Amazon’s not, nor is Barnes & Noble, nor any of the 2,000 small bookstores. They offer opportunities in various forms and shapes and sizes. But just like the opportunities publishers offer, they come with a cost. If you don’t know that cost, one day, a hefty bill may come due. And don’t weep for the agents and publishers, either. They were never your friends, though they liked to imply as much while they kept you ignorant of everything except the one act you do that directly makes them money. All they want is your book and the less you are involved past that, the better for them. Don’t wait for one of those assholes, whether they hail from a publishing house, an agency or a retailer, to come down from on high and grant you the keys to the kingdom. Odds are, you’ll be dust in your grave long before that ever happens. Requiescat in pace.

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

Can I Raise the Dead with the Amazonium Codexorum?

Now, back to where I started when i was so rudely interrupted by Kathleen Hale and her “light stalking.” I’m still not sure where light stalking rests on the hierarchy of criminal complaints; somewhere between a dash of armed robbery and a smattering of homicide, I think. But enough about her ridiculousness. This is what I was working on when I was sidetracked. Anti-climactic, I know, but then being sane and rational is always more dull than batshit crazy.

I got into a bit of a pissing contest in the comment section of a pretty solid piece on how crucial (or even accurate) the advance system used by publishers truly is by author William O’Neil on The Digital Reader site a couple weekends back. Normally, I let these things go, but in the last comment left by author Rick Chapman, in response to the moderator admonishing him for being too confrontational, he conveniently left a bullet point list of areas where he thinks I’ve been misled or not properly informed. Personally, I do so enjoy a good confrontational argument, so let’s go through it point by point. The discussion, by the way, bounced back and forth across various comments to the post. Feel free to go check out the entire thing at the above link, if you’re interested. Here’s the full comment, in italics, with my thoughts interspersed in plain type.

“I have been completely factual in my statements. Facts aren’t confrontational. Facts and dispassionate analysis are always acceptable. Dan, on the other hand, has made repeated misstatements of fact. I believe he has read too many times on too many sites assertions about Amazon that are misleading and untrue. These include:

* Amazon pays royalties. Amazon pays no one royalties except with the exception noted. Amazon should immediately stop making that claim and accurately describe what it’s charging you. A “retail usage fee.” A “download fee.” I’ll let them define it. But it’s not a royalty.”

I didn’t say anything about whether it was a royalty or not. I’m not sure it really matters, though. Generally speaking, a royalty is a negotiated percentage paid from the revenue (or some version of net) generated when you license a work for use. When I put something up on Amazon, I am licensing them to sell, reproduce, distribute, etc, the work. For that, under the terms of the license, I get 70% of the gross in defined price ranges and 35% of the gross in others. You can make a case that it is, at least, a form of royalty.

I don’t think it matters what you call it, however. The important thing to remember is the difference in the type of payment you get from a publisher and what you get from Amazon. With Amazon, the payment hasn’t had any production expenses incurred backed out or accounted for. It’s up to me to determine how to use that payment, in what percentages, to recoup my expenses. In this sense, I agree that it’s not always made clear and can often be presented as an apples to apples comparison when it’s not. Arguing whether or not it’s a royalty, a fee or whatever is a semantic exercise that has no real bearing on the facts at hand. Amazon’s payout is before production expenses are backed out or accounted for, one from a publisher is after. This could be made more clear and the 70% to 12.5% (or what have you) comparison is not strictly accurate.

To use a somewhat imperfect construction analogy, Amazon’s payment is like the check a contractor gets for work from a homeowner. The contractor has to pay labor wages, materials, etc, from that. A publisher’s payment is more like the paycheck a laborer receives from the contractor. You can make a good salary as a skilled laborer, but everyone in construction knows the real money is in being the contractor. I saw this phrase the other day and I like it, so I’m gonna co-opt it here. It’s called “Controlling the Capital.” Call it a royalty, call it an expense, you get a cut of the gross and you retain your IP. The cost of that is 30% and you cover production expenses (which you also control).

“* Amazon complains about agency pricing but imposes a modified version of it on indie publishers. Their margin is locked in a la agency; you have very limited pricing flexibility as I’ve noted. Accurately. And not every author is writing a book about the Zombie Apocalypse. Or Vampire Love. Or Dating Werewolves.”

Amazon still retains ultimate control over the pricing. As such, any price flexibility I have is at Amazon’s discretion. I’m not sure how much “agency” one can exercise when their actions are entirely at the discretion of another party. You can call it modified agency but when the modified part serves to restrict the agency part, it seems to be a bit of a misnomer. But again, it doesn’t really matter what you call it. I have no right to tell Amazon what to do, Amazon retains that power in total in its agreement with me. A big part of Agency type agreements is that the supplier has some or all of that control. I don’t. Amazon encourages me to price within a certain window by offering a higher cut of the gross in that range. I have limited freedom to price how I choose, even outside that range where I’d incur a lower cut of the proceeds.

But Amazon could change it at any point and I’d have no recourse to stop them, other than to pull my material. That’s an option not available to me if I’m under contract to a publisher, by the way. Can’t just pull my book from them if I don’t like what they do for me. That’s another benefit you’re paying for in that 30% cut, too. Flexibility is underrated and can be expensive if you give it up. Call it modified agency if you like, doesn’t matter. It’s not the same thing as a deal where the publisher can restrict or prevent discounting or otherwise dictate terms to the retailer. What it is is far more important that what it’s called.

“* Amazon is attempting to create a pricing codex. It says so on its website. I note that no one here will address that truly remarkable statement. If you would like to, I would like to hear your speculations on how the codex will be created, maintained, and enforced.”

(First off, here’s a link to the author’s piece about the pricing codex he believes Amazon is trying to impose, as background.)

I’m not sure what you’re point is here, that Amazon is trying to set up a pricing framework for different types of ebooks within its store? Why wouldn’t they? And how’s that tangibly different from the pricing structure publishers have put upon books forever now? Or is it just sheer random coincidence that books of similar style and form all seem to be priced within a few dollar range of one another? In fact, I’d argue that most of the more dramatic swings in pricing you see come from the retailer discounting or otherwise setting their own pricing. In this way, it could be said that the retailers ability to control prices has prevented publishers from establishing a hard and fast pricing codex, as you call it, of their own. The healthier, more competitive market, in my opinion, is when the retailer has more power over the consumer-facing prices rather than the manufacturer.

“* Amazon buys MOST of its E-books via wholesale, not agency. Amazon wants to stop agency pricing because it want to gain control over the E-book pricing structure. I neither condemn nor approve them. This is business. But their pricing box is part of that strategy. Again, I describe the motivation of both sides on my blog.”

I think you’re missing my point here. I’m not disputing whether Amazon is getting ebooks from publishers under wholesale, agency or any other terms. My point is that when you say they’re buying ebooks wholesale, that’s not correct. You could get me to agree that they’re buying licenses wholesale or they’re paying an agreed wholesale price with each license they sell, but they are not buying the ebooks. Ebooks aren’t sold, they’re licensed for use. You say they’re buying ebooks wholesale like they’re buying a pallette of print books and that isn’t the case. It may amount to the same ends but the difference between a sale and a license has huge implications for use and buyers’ rights. Amazon is clearly getting some sort of right of resale but they’re not getting it through first sale like they would if they were buying physical books. They’re getting it as part of the terms of the contract or the license they are acquiring to sell the end-user ebook licenses to consumers. What no one at any level is doing is buying the ebooks; wholesale, retail, agency or otherwise.

I think too many people play fast and loose with the term “sale” when discussing ebooks (myself included, sometimes). A sale has implications of title transfer and relating use and resale rights. None of that exists with ebooks. Now I’ve often argued that they should because the ways ebooks are distributed through retailers is nearly indistinguishable from a genuine sale. I think the licensing arrangement is a bit of a scam designed to both give the supplier more power and restrict the rights of consumers. But right now, that’s how it is. That doesn’t mean the basic differences between a sale and a license should be conflated. Especially when it directly impacts the rights one party in the transaction has with respect to future use.

“* Amazon’s pricing box HURTS indies. I’m not going to break it down in detail here; I’ll do that on my own blog. But you don’t have to be a marketing genius to figure out what’s wrong with a seven dollar pricing box.”

I’m not sure I agree with you here. There is a case to be made that heavily researched nonfiction work combined with Amazon’s pricing strategy can be problematic. Even Amazon said so. That sentence from them seems to be the basis for you codex theory. I just said it too. Am I tying to institute a pricing codex? It’s a fact that seems self evident. Ebooks are an extremely young market. Not every sector or contingency is properly served as yet. This is one of them, in my opinion. There are situations where $9.99 may not be adequate.

However, for the vast majority of writers, a $7 per book cut is more than sufficient and in most cases, downright great. In fact, that number amounts to several dollars more than a traditional author will be bring in per book on a $25 hardcover. That’s more than adequate. When you subtract the actual physical production/distribution costs with print, it’s more than most publishers’ take on that same $25 hardcover.

The $7 box you refer to constitutes a sizable range with margins from $2 to $7 per book. Indies writing strictly fiction aren’t harmed by that at all. In fact, it’s the range many of us, independent from Amazon, feel that the books should be priced. Even if I had total pricing control at 70% up to any list price I want, I still wouldn’t be putting up $12 or $15 works of fiction. That barrier at $10 isn’t even relevant to me because exceeding that price isn’t a consideration. It’s not harming me because it’s not even a factor.

I believe you could argue that by encouraging indies to stay in an optimal pricing range, they are actually increasing your overall margins on a book with the multiplier effect of increased sales at lower prices. For some nonfiction works, I agree, this can be problematic. For fiction, though, the $7 box isn’t destructive or harmful. It’s what most of us would be doing anyway.

“* The big publishers DO NOT have to live in that pricing box. Only indies do.”

Yeah, so? They have infinitely more influence, money and leverage than your average indie does. They can negotiate out of it. Or not, possibly, from what I hear. There’s some speculation that the S&S/Amazon deal has some sort of descending cut at higher prices. Still very likely better than having your take cut in half at $10, but enough to be a serious consideration in pricing. Besides, the “ceiling” of that box doesn’t matter when your best case for maximizing revenue doesn’t even approach that figure. If and when that factor changes, the discussion does too.

“* 30% points to use a downloading service is a very steep price to pay. Amazon’s NET margins on indie sales is close to 30 points because E-book publishing and distribution are electronic. No warehousing and shipping. Now, of course, you are free to not use their service. But it is accurate to note that 30 point margins are incredibly wonderful in most channels, never mind book channels. 65 point margins are beyond awesome but for an indie, ruinous.

Fortunately for the publishers, none of them are paying 65 point margins. Only indies face it. How nice for us.”

Fortunately for us, we’re not paying any kind of marketing fees or anything like that. Is 30% too high? Not really. Is 65%? Yes. I’m in complete and total agreement with you on that. As I said in one on my comments, I’d rather see a sliding scale where the percentage declines gradually in proportion to the increase in price in a way that still serves as an inducement to generally keep prices low but also allows for books like what you describe; higher production costs, a limited less-price sensitive audience, not likely to get a low price multiplier bump; to be able to collect a larger per book total revenue figure.

Amazon is providing access to millions of potential customers on by far the most popular ebook platform in the world. That’s worth something. I’m in the minority, though, who isn’t concerned that that percentage will drop. I actually think it will increase over time for two simple reasons. One, it’s a volume business. Higher volume means more sales means more revenue. That’s Amazon’s core belief. And two, anyone who wants to compete with Amazon in this space and attract quality work is going to have to offer a better cut, and that will drive an increase in the percentage available to indies. Don’t underestimate subscription services, either. If it comes to show that Kindle Unlimited makes some kind of dent in sales, Amazon may well have to sweeten the pot to keep writers and their books in the program.

“Amazon’s pricing strategies undercut the entire theme of your article. Let’s say you do want to write a piece of “literature” or perhaps a specialized history on a topic most people find obscure. That means you have a far more limited audience that someone writing about Vampire Love. Or Dating Werewolves. Or Bondage with Billionaires.

Yet, the time and effort to produce that work will be as great, if not far greater, than that required to do your research on the best way to flog a besotted masochist.

And then you are stuck in Amazon’s pricing box trying to sell a book that can’t pay back your time and effort at $9.99. The audience isn’t big enough to make up in volume what you’ve lost in revenue. And, of course, since you are an indie, you’re going to have pay for ALL the expenses incurred by having to market and sell your book. And you will have 30 points less revenue to do it because you will be paying that money over to Amazon right up front (and don’t forget the transmission fees, which you also pay).”

Here’s where I can see your point. The problem, though, is that if you have a book with an inherently limited market, good luck getting a publisher to fork over a sizable advance or do any marketing at all for it. If it’s a captive audience at a high price point who will pay $15 or $17 or more for the ebook, the assumption you’re making is that a lower price point isn’t going to increase your overall market. I’ve seen this argument from writers before with the notion that anyone who will pay $8 a book will pay $12 and you’re just leaving money on the table. I didn’t buy it then and I don’t buy it now, with very few exceptions. And those exceptions, in my mind, are almost entirely complex scholarly work. I don’t think that’s reasonable. That doesn’t mean I don’t think higher prices are justified for some work, just that I’m not sure that high prices combined with a publisher getting 70-80% of the proceeds (or more) is going to pay back your time any more than you keeping 70% at a lower price point. As for 30% percent being too much, remember, that’s the number the publishers themselves imposed on Amazon with their collusive agency deal. If it’s so egregiously wrong, why did they break the law to Institute it themselves?

“Indies in these markets are driven, by necessity, back to the major publishers who may be able to price your product at a level you hope will make your time and effort somewhat profitable. And relieve you of the cost of marketing. Because they don’t live in the box.

Or, maybe, they can apply to be a member of Amazonium Codexorum. If they can demonstrate the “legitimate” reasons to be on the approved list.”

I love the phrase “Amazonium Codexorum” by the way. Every time I see it, I can’t help but think of some dark tome bound in human skin and written in blood that Jeff Bezos is using to cast his evil black magic to raise the dead and dominate the world. You seem to be thinking that Amazon is planning to create some beurocracy that gives thumbs up or down like a Roman Emporer on a case by case basis on whether they’ll be allowed to price above $10. I don’t think that’s the case. I believe it’s far more likely that they’ll try to institute a pricing range, much like KDP, that aims to find an optimum price for maximizing revenue for these works and incentivizes it by paying higher percentage in the preferred range. Amazon won’t be deciding anything. Publishers will be self-segregating in those ranges because it’s in their best interest to do so, making the granular case by case decisions on their own, just like indies do.

As for high-cost-to-produce nonfiction, I’m not sure why you assume $9.99 isn’t sufficient to generate a good return unless you’re presuming a market with a hard ceiling, i.e., a strictly limited potential paying audience. But if that exists, publishers aren’t exactly going to be lining up to dump resources into it either. You’ll still be doing most, if not all, of the marketing and getting a far smaller payout at the end of the day.

But here’s the kicker, if what I have to do to be successful doesn’t fit with what’s available to me through Amazon, I won’t use them, or I’ll adapt what I’m doing in some way so what they offer serves my ultimate ends. Amazon is known for its commitment to low prices. If you have a project that needs high or, at least, higher pricing, the low price store may not be the way to go. If I had a high-end designer clothing line, I’m not trying to cut a deal to get my wares stocked in Dollar General unless I’m prepared to sell them at $5 a shirt. I’ll look to outlets that support my needed price and can produce the customers who will pay it. It’s entirely possible that neither Amazon in its present form nor the publishers in their’s are the best choice for this kind of work.

As I said, ebooks are an extremely young market. This is a potential class of books that’s underserved by what’s currently available to them. I’d dispute that you can’t make a good return on $9.99, considering you still retain the IP (control the capital). Maybe you can’t make it all from Amazon, but nothing is stopping you from exploiting that property in multiple ways. In my opinion, Amazon is best used as one stream of many. Some trickle, some roar, some are steady year round while other others run high and low seasonally. And some do inevitably dry up. If the pricing structure for one particular product form for your IP at one particular retailer, no matter the size, can make or break you, you need to get more baskets and spread those eggs out a little.

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

Published in: on October 30, 2014 at 4:12 pm  Comments (7)  
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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

Sharing stifles creativity? Why this guy is just flat-out wrong

So I read this article today with this guy whining about piracy, file sharing and the music business and I’m compelled to make a few points. No sense in beating around the bush, let’s get started at the beginning, with the headline.

“How a generation’s freeloading has starved creativity”

Starved creativity? The last I checked, there is more music being produced today from a wider range of artists with a more diverse sound than ever before, and that’s expanding. There’s more books being written and available by a wider range of authors with more diverse styles than ever before, and that’s expanding. Creativity hasn’t been stifled at all. It’s been unleashed in a major way. The studio system (and the traditional publishing industry among others) is what stifled creativity. If you want to argue that the changes have stifled these old school media conglomerates’ ability to dominate their respective industries, I can get behind that. But it has in no way stifled creativity. Just the opposite, in fact. It’s generally a bad sign when the headline of your piece kicks off with unsubstantiated bullshit. You’re basing your argument on a false assumption right off the bat, and an easily refuted one at that.

“Things changed for me when I got a job in a Brooklyn café in the late 2000s. Many of the most respected and critically-praised bands of the day were customers there, but my excitement at getting to know them was dimmed when I realized that rather than enjoying the fruits of their success, they were, well, just as broke as I was.”

And if you’d gotten that job in the pre – Internet ’90s, they’d still be just as broke as you were. Same goes for the ’80s, ’70s, ’60s etc, etc. Conflating that with the coincidental emergence of file sharing is a mistake. He goes on:

“Apologists for digital piracy advanced one fantastic new rationalization after another—that artists would actually be helped by their rights getting trampled; that old-timey models like touring and merchandise would magically become a cash cow; that you could solve the whole problem by just letting fans “pay what they want.”

If you retain control of your rights, you have the choice to allow sharing of your music or not. Unless you’re signed on with a big label, in which case you have no choice in how you’re music is distributed or shared. That’s evidenced by this guy, the musician Kaskade, who is directly opposed to his label suing for copyright infringement but he has no legal right to stop them or to determine what he considers an acceptable use of his own music. In that sense, you’re correct that artists’ rights are being trampled, by their own labels.

Touring and merchandise are old timey? How much do you know about the music industry? Touring and merchandise were where artists made their money in the past. The labels made their money from album sales (whatever format) with contracts structured so that even some of the most successful bands ended up owing money to the label when all was said and done. If touring and merchandising aren’t cash cows, then why are record company contracts increasingly demanding large cuts of any revenue bands earn from both of those areas? Bands are broke because of the labels and their exploitative advance structure, their accounting practices and increasingly grabbing revenue from touring and merchandise that bands themselves generally controlled in the past. These aren’t problems the internet or file sharing created, this is the result of the standard operating procedure of the labels.

The book industry isn’t quite as exploitative as music, but they’re not far behind. They, too, use an advance system and accounting practices that virtually guarantee the majority of books never get to the point of earning royalties above the advance (and not because advances are high or because the books themselves aren’t largely profitable). They, too, try to lock up other rights so authors can’t generate any other income streams on the material, even when they have no intention of exploiting them.

Did you see the recent UK report that showed writers’ incomes shrinking? Most of those writers were longtime traditional writers. Publishers have been establishing a low rate for ebook royalties that pay them more but authors less than on a regular print edition. They focus their sales efforts on ebooks and high discount print books, both of which cut authors’ compensation per book dramatically. The internet isn’t causing these authors’ incomes to shrink, their own publishers’ actions are. And not coincidentally, the publishers are reaping sometimes record profits.

And fans have always paid what they want. If they want it new, they’ll buy it. If they don’t, they’ll get a copy from someone or they’ll buy a used cd for a few dollars. Today, they may download it. They used to record it from the radio or television. But if you only offer one full price option, and somehow magically eliminate any possibility of obtaining any other copy, you won’t see more sales. You’ll see significantly fewer. Not to mention a whole lot of pissed off people with money in their pocket that might have decided to spend it with you now and in the future.

“The people who fought against copyright in this battle would have to confront the fact that they were never carrying the flag for freedom or “openness”, but for aggression, entitlement and selfishness.”

Like it or not, we live in an increasingly on demand world. You can call it entitled and selfish all you want. It’s not going to change it. The people you’re trying to sell to want what they want when they want it. The technology exists to give them exactly that. And everybody knows damn well digital distribution is far cheaper than physical, so prices must reflect that. There’s a huge stream of people looking for music and books 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Not providing what they’re looking for in the price range they’re looking for, that they can access in the way they want to is their failing, not the internet.

Even then, people will still seek out free alternatives. I downloaded my first song in 1998 on AOL dialup. I had been a huge music collector for a full decade prior to that. At no point in those 10 years pre-internet, was I ever not able to get a copy of any damn thing I wanted for free. The internet didn’t invent this behavior, it’s been with us for a long, long time. What happened to the music industry as technology proliferated to allow people to make and acquire copies of music on their own? It grew exponentially. When did it shrink? At the precise time they chose a strategy that openly attacked the sharing of music. That’s not a coincidence.

“Don’t make the mistake of thinking the torrent-indexing websites that popped up in my search results are just rambunctious, boundary-challenging adolescents swapping files with their friends, as Napster disingenuously spun themselves.”

That’s precisely what most of the people using Napster (and later Limewire) were. The music and film industry stomped on them, leading to the development of torrents that let little pieces of files be downloaded to and from multiple sources so no one except the few souls who seed ever actually made a full file available for download. It drove them from their own communities into the arms of the profiteers like Megaupload. The persecution of which, by the way, regardless of what you think of them, is a disgusting abuse of law and power. Read up on it.

It’s a bit like the gateway drug problem, I think. These sites make millions precisely because the actions of industry drove sharing amongst individuals underground. Without those acts, people would be openly sharing within their own communities now instead of enriching parasites. If there’s any gateway effect to marijuana ( and I don’t think there is) it’s caused by the prohibition. The only place you can get pot is from that sketchy guy on the corner who’s also got meth, heroin and some blow. Take out the prohibition and exposure to genuine bad elements drops dramatically if not altogether.

Black markets come about when there’s a gap between what a sizable portion of the public wants and what’s available to them. Drive off the safe alternatives and you’re left creating many more problems than you solve. I don’t get down with media companies decrying the black market when their own actions created the problem and made it exponentially worse.

“The big question is: how would things look if the illegal free option weren’t as convenient? Would Hollywood not be quite as dependent upon comic book blockbusters and take a few more chances on new stories? With stable promotional budgets for record labels and studios, a few more daring artistic voices might find an audience, and charge their way onto the pop culture radar, and even change the way some of us think about the world.”

Hahaha! No. I’ll tell you what it will look like, exactly like it looked in the late ’80s, stagnant and repetitive. The only time new voices got through was after an independent movement somewhere built the momentum for it. And then, the labels would descend, sign up every band that remotely sounded like the new in-thing, saturate the world and squeeze every last dollar out of it before moving on to the next hot movement (see: Seattle in the ’90s).

On top of that, with increasing digital sales yet no free option, discoverability, which largely happens word of mouth from sharing, would take a huge hit. Sales of all but the biggest names would plummet and we’d be left with far fewer risks being taken and far less unique voices ever getting a chance. You know, precisely what was happening before the internet came along.

“Forging an internet that takes individual rights (including privacy), cultural diversity and sustainable progress seriously also requires that consumers get on board.”

Ah, yes. Please pay considerably higher prices so we don’t actually have to adapt or alter our ridiculously outdated and inefficient corporate structure, or even pay lip service to giving you what you actually want for those higher prices. Get on board, already!

“We are all entitled to fair compensation for our work.”

I see, customers are entitled in a bad way for wanting what they want for their money (or not) but labels and artists are entitled in a good way for wanting what they want for your money. Nobody is entitled to make one red cent. You have to convince people to want to pay you willingly. That means convenience, price, format, restrictions on use; everything must be done to appeal to the guy holding a credit card and deciding if he wants to use it. “Hey you! You’re gonna pay more and we’re gonna tell you what you’re allowed to do with it and you’re gonna thank us for it” is a bad strategy.

I do agree in one way with being entitled to fair compensation. But that argument isn’t directed at the internet or consumers. It goes to the media companies. Stop ripping off your artists! You think artists aren’t being paid fairly? Changing conditions so media companies make more money isn’t going to change that. It’s just another version of trickle down nonsense. The labels make more money and those musicians in your coffee shop, they’ll still be just as broke. The copyright argument with file sharing has nothing to do with rewarding artists, it’s all about further enriching large media conglomerates.

“Just as US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr said of taxes, consider it ‘the price we pay for civilization.'”

The price consumers pay, you mean, in high prices that have no bearing on production costs or market value? Or the price artists pay in exploitative contracts and shriveling compensation from their corporate “partners”? The media conglomerates here don’t pay any price, for civilization or otherwise. They simply reap the rewards of squeezing the only two irreplaceable cogs in the industry machine, consumers and creators.

Why should we as artists have to accept pittance payouts? Why should consumers have to pay more for less? Why shouldn’t these corporations have to alter their business models, ones that developed in a different time and a different set of conditions, to meet the new realities? Why should we have to severely restrict the conduct of people that has far pre-dated the internet and file sharing?

You are conflating the business difficulties of large, once dominant corporations that are becoming increasingly obsolete with a decline in the industry and creativity itself. That’s a mistake. We don’t need record labels. We don’t need publishers. Before much longer, we won’t need film studios either. What we need are artists willing and able to create and customers willing and able to buy. Restrictions and higher price points to support corporate bottom lines achieve neither of those ends.

Piracy and file sharing isn’t the problem. The old industry titans who choose to stand in the way of what artists want, what consumers want and what civilization in general wants; they’re the problem. Advocating for a system that enriches them by taking money out of the pockets of both artists and consumers achieves nothing.

As a final point, there seems to be a thread to the piece that assumes people getting music for free is not good for commerce. Well, take a look at The Live Music Archive. There are over 6,000 bands and 130,000 separate concerts available for download or streaming absolutely free and totally legal. Concerts range from 40 years or more ago right up to yesterday. Many of the artists in here are very well known, many are unheard of independents. But they all allow fans to bring equipment, record their live shows and freely distribute them however they choose. In fact, the one thing they are prohibited from doing is selling them. And the community itself polices that kind of conduct very nicely. There’s a huge sub-industry in music totally outside of the major label system that not only encourages the free sharing of their music, but thrives on it. The most famous band to take this track is the Grateful Dead, who pioneered much of this and parlayed the touring and merchandising you dismiss into being one the highest grossing bands of all time, almost totally outside the label system. Their big label studio albums were almost an afterthought to their career accomplishments.

And as for bit torrent, which you sited as a particularly egregious tool for piracy, look at this. Etree.org has a huge, ever changing list of torrent files for concerts totally free and legally available for download. Bit torrent is far from simply an elicit tool for piracy. It’s used here to great effect to freely distribute music from bands who aren’t cowering in fear of consumers or sharing, bands that are building careers one fan at a time, without so much as a dime of support from the label system. I’ll guarantee you’ll find a wider array of music styles and talent here than any label-driven alternative. Giant media companies, as more of us are learning every day, aren’t the only way to pursue a career in the arts. They’re likely not even the best way.

There are problems with the internet, legitimate problems with piracy, too. But what you advocate benefits a portion of the industry, who also happen to be the richest, most entrenched, afraid to adapt element of it and does nothing to further anyone’s ends but theirs. Take a wider view of things. Track the problems you site deeper than simply, “Oh, Napster caused this” and you may find issues like artist compensation and stifled creativity far predate the internet itself. And who was running the show back then? These same giant media conglomerates. Huh.

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

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

Sunday Morning Analogy

Anyone who’s ever worked in an office will know the kind of people I’m about to describe.  When you start a job somewhere, naturally you work hard, try and do well, and integrate your way in as best as possible. But after a while, you realize there’s these other people, folks who’ve worked there for 15 or 20 years, who hardly ever seem to actually be doing anything. Except for the few times when they are. You’ll instantly know those times because they’ll be sure to tell you, loudly and repeatedly, about how much they have to do that day and how exhausting it all is. They routinely stroll in late, knock off early, and often take two hour lunches. You can count on them calling in sick at least twice a month. And if you engage in shop talk around the coffee maker (the one they always drink from but never brew or contribute to) they’ll toss out a “this place would fall apart without me” line at some point. You try to figure out what it is they do, exactly, and your best guess is as little as possible, while complaining to the boss often enough to somehow keep getting regular raises. When they go on vacation, the person who gets stuck covering for them quickly realizes it only takes about 6 hours to handle the entire weekly workload they constantly bitch about. They’re lazy, complacent, slow and entitled simply because they’ve been there for years. They never bring anything new to the table, they resist everything new that might upset their treasured routine. If another employee shows some drive or ambition, that’s when the resentment kicks in, followed by the vicious gossip, trying to undermine that person. It’s clear their interest is in maintaining their position rather the work they’re supposed to be doing. These people are the living embodiment of the inefficiencies the office environment creates over time. And they’re virtually indistinguishable in spirit and approach from big corporate publishers.

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

A Wolf in Agency Clothing Is Still Vertical Price Fixing

First off, I’m not a lawyer but with all the talk about monopolies, abuse of market power and antitrust violations going on in publishing these past few years, I thought I’d dig a little into the laws themselves and see if I can make sense of what’s what. Again, not a lawyer. This is an enormously complicated and often contradictory issue that’s bounced back and forth between various stages of legality and illegality, the enforcement of such dictated by a convoluted mess of legislation and court precedent. So here goes, down the rabbit hole as I best understand it.

Agency Pricing is basically a Resale Price Maintenance agreement where, in this case, the producers (publishers) want to take control of the pricing of their products at retail (Amazon, etc). It’s vertical price fixing because it occurs between layers of the chain, suppliers controlling prices at the retail level. It was banned in a Supreme Court decision in 1911, as the ruling stated, because these types of agreements are “economically indistinguishable from horizontal price fixing by a cartel.” Horizontal price fixing being sellers fixing prices amongst themselves to their collective benefit.

A series of laws and exemptions to The Sherman Antitrust Act were passed in the ’30s that allowed resale price maintenance agreements to again be legal, but that ended poorly as the results were so unpopular, they were later repealed. These agreements were then per se illegal (inherently illegal) from about 1980 until 2007 when another Supreme Court decision found that they could be allowed under the Rule of Reason and the circumstances surrounding their use are considered. Basically, the business justification and resulting economic consequences play a role in determining if they’re allowed, not simply outright banned automatically in all cases. As such, Agency agreements can happen. The DOJ settlement with the publishers in the ebook case openly admitted as much. But as SCOTUS ruled, only if the Rule of Reason is applied.

A big component in imposing the Rule of Reason standard was the notion that the absence of Resale Price Maintenance agreements could allow free riders, or some sellers to piggyback unfairly on the benefits of promotion done by larger sellers. I think this point is a particularly important one to make. Keep it in mind.

The above is just a summary, somewhat simplified, of what I think are the pertinent points in the background of Resale Price Maintenance agreements as it relates to the current state of things in the publishing industry as I understand it and am about to speculate on. It didn’t happen in giant leaps, but fits and starts; laws passed and repealed, court rulings made, overturned and overruled again. SCOTUS has weighed in on these matters more than a few times, and likely will again, maybe even in the Apple case. So before I do a little extrapolating, here are some links to some relevant readings. Look for the various links to the actual court rulings and texts of the laws involved if you really want to dive in deep.

Resale Price Maintenance
Sherman Antitrust Act
Price Fixing
Rule of Reason

First two disclaimers: Everything that follows is strictly my opinion as a suspicious, cynical guy who’s read too many Agatha Christie novels. And we have no idea if Hatchette or anyone else is pushing for another Agency-type deal. Everybody and their brother seems to be assuming it is, on both sides of the issue, including me to a point, but I think it’s important to remember that we just don’t know. Amazon’s statement a few days ago referenced a lot of things that implied the dispute was, at least in part, about co-op fees and such. And Hatchette’s kept repeating the matter as “Amazon’s demands for better terms.” It could just simply be a fight over co-op, much like the S&S/B&N dispute a while back.

I couldn’t find any direct info anywhere on who actually won that battle, but I’d be willing to bet Amazon knows, or at least thinks it does. Going after co-op might mean B&N got a bump there or at least Amazon thinks they could succeed where the bookstore chain may have failed. The question really seems to be is Amazon abusing it’s market position to push for that by doing things like stopping discounting, cutting back on stock and taking away preorders? Barnes & Noble took some of the same actions, so it’s not exactly unprecedented.

I would say that’s it quite possible that they are, with some heavy qualifiers. At the very least, they’re walking an extremely fine line in the actions they’re taking. Amazon, given the size of their market share, is in a position where, as they continue to grow, that line is going to squeeze in tighter and tighter on them. The more power they accumulate, the worse these actions will look. Some would say they’ve already crossed it. And they may well be right.

However, Amazon is extremely smart. They know the general judicial trend is to allow more latitude to larger entities wielding power so long as they can show some kind of valid business reason that isn’t simply “we will crush them!” I suspect that’s why a sizable portion of their statement was an explanation of their business reasons for what they’re doing. Even if they did cross the line, you need evidence. Amazon isn’t going to leave any lying around. I’d argue that if it hadn’t been for the bungling publishers, Apple never would have gotten caught either. For Amazon to get nabbed for this kind of conduct, provided the conduct is even illegal or aggressively monopolistic, neither of which we know without knowing the terms they’re fighting over, they’re either going to have to be a lot bigger and these acts much less legally defensible or escalate up into more openly egregious actions.

Now, my attitude on this changes completely if, in fact, Agency or some kind of Resale Price Maintenance agreement is in play. If you’re going to give the producers leeway in trying to fix prices vertically, I think you also have to give some leeway to retailers in using their power in dealing with it. You can’t just say, “We’re going to let your suppliers fix prices and we’re going to stop you from doing anything about it.” That would ultimately end up with exactly what the original 1911 SCOTUS ruling said, economcally indistinguishable from horizontal price fixing. So, when faced with an opponent seeking to limit their pricing ability, they have a strong business reason to act as they have, I think. Remember, Barnes & Noble just did some of the same things and nobody’s suggesting the DOJ ring them up, so the argument against isn’t the act itself but the market strength behind it, a variation on the Rule of Reason and consideration of the circumstances that would allow Hatchette or any publisher to seek a vertical price fixing arrangement in the first place.

Some may suggest this is same argument publishers made in their defense only in reverse; “Amazon is behaving monopolistically so we had to do what we did to deal with it.” But there are limits. Amazon is a single entity, wielding only the power it’s managed to gather for itself, albeit a sizable amount. The publishers weren’t prohibited from pushing for price fixing to combat Amazon, which in and of itself is granting them leeway in their actions. Where they went off the rails is when they colluded together to do so. Price fixing situationally under justifiable conditions is ok, colluding to impose price fixing is another matter entirely. Nobody’s getting any antitrust latitude in the face of that.

The original seeds that ultimately became the reasoning behind shifting Resale Price Maintenance from per se illegal to overseen by the Rule of Reason was the notion that the absence of these agreements could create an environment where free riders benefit from larger sellers promotional activity. In the present environment, relatively free of Resale Price Maintenance agreements, there’s really nothing that, say, Barnes & Noble can do to free ride on Amazon. Install a vertical price fixing regime, however, and not only does it become possible, it seems to be what they intend to happen. Eliminate price competition among retailers, and with it, what they perceive as Amazon’s principle competitive advantage, and competitors like B&N can benefit from Amazon’s past and existing efforts to build and promote the ebook market without having actually contributed to them. They’re using a Resale Price Maintenance agreement to create the very conduct the court ruled we needed Resale Price Maintenance agreements to prevent.

Giving consideration to these circumstances, and the fact that, during the brief time Agency was imposed prior to DOJ action, one clear economic consequence we saw was higher ebook prices to consumers and considering this publisher and most of the others likely to push for these deals were just caught and punished for colluding to institute a vertical price fixing system in an attempt to attack one specific retailer, I don’t see how Agency deals should be allowed for any of these publishers, even under the Rule of Reason. I would go one step farther and say SCOTUS was mistaken to change them from per se illegal to begin with, especially since we’re possibly seeing their root reasoning for doing so directly contradicted in practice. There’s probably a damn good reason that vertical price fixing never stays outright acceptable for extended periods of time. It is price fixing, after all.

Which leads me to what I think might be the ticking time bomb in all of this, the 25% of net ebook agreements that very suddenly became almost inescapable industry standard. Check the dates on these two quotes:

“We’re confident that the current practice of paying 25% of net on ebooks will not, in the long run, prevail.”
From the Authors Guild, Dec. 15, 2009

“In a strongly worded message on its Web site on Sunday, Amazon said that while it disagreed with Macmillan’s stance, it would bow to the publisher’s plan.”
From NY Times, Jan. 31, 2010

We know now that the fight that Macmillan picked was the first strike in the collusion to install Agency that got them smacked down for antitrust violations. We also know the Authors Guild turned out, per usual, to be dead wrong. Do you think it’s a coincidence that this 25% of net rate became almost unilaterally imposed across most of the industry at the exact same time that most of the publisher’s pushing it hardest were colluding to fix prices at the retail level? That it was just a happy little accident for them that they managed to both fix retail ebook prices higher and impose ebook royalties to authors at a low level near simultaneously? This is a lawsuit and quite possibly another antitrust action waiting to happen. I can’t believe authors that got pushed into these aren’t looking at the breakdown of how bad a deal it’s turned out to be for them and how their publishers were colluding with one another to the point of attracting legal consequences at the same time and not putting their lawyers on speed dial. Look at the amounts they paid out in damages in the ebook case. If it were to be discovered that this was the result of similar collusion, that number would be much, much higher.

Ultimately though, I think these publishers would be insane to go anywhere near any kind of vertical price fixing deals right now. And if the strategy includes them having to do anything that even slightly appears like it’s being done in unison, they could be unleashing hell on themselves. If you get popped for drunk driving and as soon as you get off probation, go right out and get another one, the judge is going to throw the book at you. And, oh, if there’s this other DUI charge they were unaware of at the time they punished you for first one, too? I’m not totally sure how liability works in situations like this, but what’s the point, if there is one, where these things can go from being a civil matter involving corporate penalties and fines to somebody’s going to jail? Collusive vertical price fixing that extends to both retailers and possibly their own suppliers and then maybe a fresh collusive action at the first possible opportunity to top it off probably ought to be that point, in my opinion. Why even risk the appearance of such a thing, especially to pursue a strategy that is historically back and forth between legal and illegal that just happens to be mostly legal at this moment? How desperate are they, exactly, and how much is that desperation feeding Amazon’s negotiating position? You don’t walk out into the ocean with a big, bleeding wound and then complain when something tries to take a bite out of you.

Like I said, we have no idea if Hatchette is pursuing an Agency-type deal. And the ebook royalty looks suspicious as hell to me but it could be all above board. Amazon could be simply throwing its market weight around in ways that run afoul of antitrust law themselves. I hope they’re not. And I hope the publishers steer clear of vertical price fixing as a strategy. But even if they do, that ebook royalty is going to be a problem, I suspect. Upping that pretty quickly might be a good idea. Raving about the ebook profits you’re making while refusing to budge much, if at all, is going to piss someone off enough to start poking around. And who knows what they might find or what other bodies might be dug up in the effort?

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

Amazon the Great and Terrible

So I’m sitting here this fine Sunday morning patiently waiting for David Gaughran’s promised blog piece on the PR campaign Hatchette may be running in its now six-month contract dispute with Amazon. (Warning: profanity ahead because some of this shit just pisses me off.) I, for one, am not buying the “poor helpless little Hatchette being bullied by big, bad Amazon” meme that’s so popular these days. It’s making the rounds everywhere, which I find fascinating due largely to the fact that nobody outside the negotiating wing of those two companies has any knowledge whatsoever about the dispute, and they’re not talking. Well, Amazon, per usual, isn’t talking. Hatchette isn’t talking about any of the issues at hand either, but they are going through great pains to play the wounded party, and igniting the entrenched Amazon hatred out there to do the rest of the heavy lifting.

I’d think people would be more suspicious of things like that. In my experience, when someone in a position like Hatchette is playing the victim card, without clearly backing it up, odds are, they’re conveniently leaving out the parts where they are anything but victimized. So my opinion, knowing nothing about the specifics of their negotiation but strictly looking at the outward actions of the participants, Amazon is going about its business and Hatchette is playing a totally different game. Are they justified? Possibly but I get a strong sense of Hatchette trying to control the narrative and I don’t much care for being manipulated.

“Scott Turow said that Amazon recently raised the price of his most recent book, “Identical,” a move that he said would depress sales.”
–From Washington Post, May 16

Ok, what? First off, that quote’s from the Washington Post, you know, the newspaper Jeff Bezos owns. So much for slanted coverage huh? The difference I see between the Post’s coverage and most other coverage is that the Post consistently uses phrases like “could be”, “might be”, “industry insiders suspect” and things like that when discussing the negotiation. They’ve presented the argument without validating it, which is exactly what all these papers should be doing, unless they actually have hard evidence to support it, then they should print that. But they don’t. It’s rumor and conjecture presented as fact when the people writing can’t possibly know if it’s true.

Secondly, WTF Scott Turow!?! You’re actually bitching that Amazon isn’t discounting your book? Didn’t you just spend two years telling us Amazon was destroying the industry by discounting books? Is there any coherence in your argument at all? Are you just going to complain no matter what Amazon does? Or are you, as is the case with many political pundits, just going to spout the party line regardless of whether it contradicts what you just said. “Amazon’s discounting is killing us” is so last month, I guess.

So here’s my assumption about you based on your own comments. You’re a writer and a lawyer, for God’s sake, so it defies credulity to me that you don’t see the obvious contradiction in your own statements. So I must conclude that you do see it, and just don’t care. You likely never gave a shit about other writers, the industry at large or Amazon’s discounting. You were playing a mouthpiece for your publisher because you thought it was in your best interest at the time. And you did it in defense of a criminal conspiracy by your own publisher and others to violate antitrust law. But now, Amazon’s not discounting and that may hit you in the wallet, so discounting suddenly is no longer destroying the industry but necessary, and you’re statements have shifted accordingly. Credibility all day long, I tell ya. My conclusion is that you’re full of shit, and acting out of your and only your own self interest. Let me ask you, what’s your statement going to be if we find out Hatchette’s trying to reinstitute Agency in some form, limiting or eliminating Amazon’s ability to discount? Actually, I don’t even need to ask, I already know. Assumptions are a bitch, aren’t they?

“Amazon has begun discouraging customers from buying books by Malcolm Gladwell, Stephen Colbert, J. D. Salinger and other popular writers, a flexing of its muscle as a battle with a publisher spills into the open.”
–From the New York Times

“Hachette has continually assured us all orders were shipping “in a timely manner” and Amazon was to blame for placing small orders. We’ve asked for copies of the purchase orders and confirmation of the shipment dates from my publisher but have been told, ‘It is not information we would like to be shared with any third party at the current time.'”
–From Digital Book World

The first quote, from the New York Times, contains no “could be”, “reportedly”, or “may be”. It’s “Amazon is”. They don’t know that, only that Hatchette is telling them that. Mightn’t they have an agenda? So does the Times, of course, but that’s a different article. The second quote is from an actual Hatchette author trying to get his publisher to prove what they’re saying. Look at the response again: “It is not information we would like to be shared with any third party at the current time.” No shit. Wonder why?

Here comes some assumptions again. Say I’m in a business arrangement with someone and they get involved in a dispute that negatively affects me, and they’re telling me “It’s not our fault. Those bastards over there are doing it to you.” My reaction is going to be exactly like this guy, “then you’ll have no problem proving to me you’re doing what you say?” If they come back with a response like he got, I can only conclude that they’re lying to me about something.

And are you telling me the writer is a third party in the distribution of his own fucking book? He’s not entitled to see proof that you’re not lying right to his face and actively harming what he contracted you for in the service of your interests elsewhere? Sales that, in the traditional world, operate in a very short time window and can have disastrous consequences on any future career? Fuck off with that noise. Whatever the negotiating battle is being fought over, this little tidbit of information may be the most important of all for writers. Hatchette doesn’t respect this guy, and they certainly aren’t treating him like a business equal. And their refusal to back up their attempt to escape responsibility for something that’s hurting their own authors even to those authors themselves, should be unacceptable. But writers, please remember, you all signed the contracts that made it this way. This Hatchette writer certainly does and is factoring that in to his future choices. So should we all.

What saddens me about this is that there are all these writers out there who see Amazon as a rival of sorts but don’t see the publishers that way. The Hatchette/Amazon dispute, and the ones like it certain to come, is a fight between billion dollar enterprises over staggering sums of money and that’s all it is. The Amazon haters are right about one thing, Amazon is not your friend. But neither are publishers. And if you’re looking for friends in a contract, anyway, you’ve got bigger problems. The best you can hope for in a business arrangement is that your interests and the interests of the other party align and flow in the same direction. You get into one where your interests diverge at some point, you may well find yourself screwed by your own signature.

I can cut off all business dealings with Amazon in the half hour it takes me pull my stuff offline. If I was signed with Hatchette or some other publisher, that type of action is simply unthinkable. I’m stuck with that contract maybe for the rest of my life, or 35 years at the least. And I don’t even have the right to verify they’re living up to their end of it. If the New York Times or Salon or the Wall Street Journal or Scott Turow want to talk about power imbalances, how about we address that one first? Who, exactly, is that man behind the curtain we shouldn’t be paying attention to?

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

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