A Thought on the Shifting Ideal of Value and Price

I read this piece in the Bookseller today and there were a couple of comments I’d like to address. First, here’s one from everybody’s favorite literary crusader, Doug Preston:

“I think Jeff Bezos is an evangelist as much as he is a businessman. He believes he’s making the world a better place and I think he’s less concerned about making a profit. Now that might sound like a nice thing but if you study history you’ll realize it is the people who believed that they were right, believed it absolutely, who are the ones who do the most damage.”

Can’t disagree with him there. It is very true that people who believe that they’re right even in the face of mounting contradictory evidence, are capable of doing the most harm. All I can say is, as such, Preston himself needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror.

But his relative cluelessness and lack of self-awareness notwithstanding, there’s another quote in the piece that I find far more interesting. It’s from author Germaine Greer:

“Amazon wants to sell e-books at less, so they should. They should cost less because they don’t have to be put together, stitched, printed, designed, blah, blah, blah. If you skip all that and all you have got is a ribbon of text on a Kindle, then it should cost you pennies, frankly.”

Now this is obviously going to set some people on edge. I, for one, am not down with the pennies assessment, but I do agree that the pricing for ebooks should reflect the far lower production costs. As a side note, does anyone else find it kind of ridiculous that many publishers are now openly dismissing production costs as not that big of a deal yet at the same time arguing royalties need to stay low to cover those expensive costs? Which is it? I think it’s pretty obvious that they’d like it to be both, depending on the question they’re answering, and who they’re answering it to. Remember, just a couple of years ago, these same publishers were swearing up one side and down the other that ebooks weren’t cheaper to produce than print, and some even went so far as to suggest they might actually be more expensive. The massive profits publishers are pulling in from ebooks today shut that line of thought right up, exposing it as the lie it always was. Anyway, back to the quote…

Here’s a tweet I found in response to it:

“Ebooks should cost what readers are willing to pay for good writing, editing and design. Many readers value those far more than pennies” — Caleb Woodbridge @calebwoodbridge

Here’s where I have an issue. The word “should” in respect to what readers want to pay is out of place. There is no place for should there. Readers will pay what they want to pay, be it $20 or just the pennies that Greer suggests. There’s no should involved, only what the market will bear. But this got me thinking about the notion of value and how that relates to price. Sure, it would be nice if readers were interested in paying high dollar for concepts and ideas within a story but, and here’s the kicker, they never have. Nobody in the industry had a problem with that, either, up until they lost control of pricing and fell behind the curve on reader expectations.

I’ve found myself comparing newspapers and book publishers a lot lately, mostly because the Amazon/Hachette dispute has exposed more of the underlying strategy of the publishers. It’s a strategy that appears, on its surface, to mirror the strategy that newspapers used to decimate their own business. This is another example of that, I think.

Contrary to what you may have been told, newspaper readers never paid for the content in the paper, they paid for the bundle of services including coupons, circulars, classifieds, etc, etc. The bundle they bought wasn’t even priced to reflect the value of the content. It was done so to maximize the audience to better support the exorbitant ad rates because that, and not selling content to readers, was where most of their revenue came from. But as the value of their bundle declined, the industry decided people should pay for the content. Not only that they should, many believed almost religiously that they would. They were wrong. Some have but most won’t, principally because they were not paying for that content in the first place. Nobody in that industry segment had any problem with it, either, so long as the ad sales kept flowing. Once that dried up, though, their argument switched to one of value and what readers should do.

Books are having the same problem. It’s popular in some circles to claim books aren’t commodities but that’s disingenuous. People have always paid for the container not the content. Pricing for books of similar form have always been eerily consistent based on the form. There was never any kind of premium pricing going on between similar books that I’ve ever seen. In fact, the more popular books were usually subject to more discounting than others. Oddly, ebooks are exhibiting a far greater range of pricing relative to its form than almost any other type of book, yet that’s hardly ever mentioned when folks start discussing the issue of pricing. Funny, that.

Now that the value of those older containers have diminished somewhat, and ebooks have emerged as a potentially very cheap type of container, the discussion is starting to turn to one of the value of the content. Just like newspaper readers never paid for the content but the packaging, book readers have never paid for the content, just the packaging. And that’s leading to suggestions about what readers should do. According to some, they apparently should now pay for something they’ve never paid for in the past. That argument simply doesn’t fly and, unless you’re interested in watching book publishers piss away their business like newspaper publishers did, it’s not one anybody should be interested in pursuing.

The difference here is that should absolutely applies to people producing and selling books. People buying them, however, are under no such requirement, nor will they ever be. The pricing structure for newspapers was to sell to a mass audience to support ad rates. Pricing in books was to sell mass numbers of similarly commoditized books in total to stores and other retailers. There was never any point that the value of the content inside was the principle driver of the price, except to the people buying them. Even then, that value has been established by the practice of commoditizing book prices based on their form. As newspapers learned the hard way, you can’t just shift gears and expect people to pay for something they’ve never paid for when it’s convenient for you to do so. There is no such word as should when dealing with the choices readers will make for themselves.

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

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Pissing Contests Can Be Fun, Just Not Into The Wind

Here’s something I’ve been wondering lately. Amazon’s a monopoly, right, so we’re told? They had a 90% market share in ebooks 5 years ago. Today, estimates of their market share in ebooks range from 55-65% or so. Do monopolies typically lose 25-35% of their market share over 5 year periods? Yet we talk about Amazon today as if they’re more dominant than ever. Maybe they are, but something about that doesn’t seem quite right. It looks to me like that 90% was, as the sports analytics guys like to say, the result of a small sample size (very young market and they were the only player going all out after it). But that would mean they’re not actually a monopoly but a highly competitive company who grabbed a commanding lead in the market. And a commanding lead is a far cry from a dominant monopoly. Just ask Barnes & Noble.

What I find interesting is this assumption that Amazon will become abhorrent, they’ll destroy publishing, tear the fabric of time and space, and we’ll all suffer with no recourse forever. Anybody actually watching the lifespans of these tech companies? The pace of everything has sped up. We’re in a world where an unknown startup can become a beast in a few short years. But it’s also one where the beasts can fall on their faces just as fast. Nobody is afraid of Microsoft’s market power anymore. I hear Yahoo is getting into TV shows these days. In fact, that’s the first thing I’ve heard about Yahoo in months. AOL still exists, apparently. At least they pop up now and then to piss away money on some new acquisition they’ll proceed to run into the ground. When was the last time Google did something truly innovative that didn’t turn out to be all hype? Even Apple just dropped billions on a questionably-profitable headphone maker to get their hands on a flailing music store and seems more interested in protecting what they have rather than continuing the innovation they earned it with in the first place.

I think this reflects a bit of the problematic thinking that’s infecting the industry. Self published writers aren’t real writers or they’re disgruntled trad rejects or they’re a substandard slush pile gumming things up with bargain basement prices. They don’t truly believe any sizable numbers of indies can produce work as professionally or more so than they can. It’s unthinkable to them. They have the same problem with Amazon. They don’t understand where Amazon came from and they have no idea how to deal with them. I feel extremely safe in saying that when real competition comes to Amazon, and it inevitably will, it’ll be another publishing outsider that brings it, someone who can and will find weaknesses in Amazon to exploit when they appear. I’m also certain that publishers won’t like them any more than Amazon, either. Publishers would clearly rather force all retailers into the party line that’s escorting B&N on a slow walk to the bankruptcy judge. They don’t really want genuine competition with Amazon to emerge because what that requires isn’t going to bring back the good old days for them, either.

I watched (most) of that Amazon hate panel at the New York Public Library the other day. The most telling comment of all, I think, was when one of the panelists said that tech companies needed to learn manners. By that, I took it to mean why aren’t they acting like everyone else? Don’t they know they’re supposed to be making as much as they can squeeze out of readers, not us? And it’s just rude of them to undermine our leverage with writers by giving them real options and a sizable cut. Where are your manners? Get with the program, already!

Which brings me to the dueling petitions circulating, one from traditionally published writers “not taking sides” by bashing the hell outta Amazon and a response to that by independent writers. The former was ridiculous and embarassing, I thought, and it showcases either the ignorance of these authors to actual business dealings above their station or is simply a disingenuous attack designed to protect their personal paychecks. Either way, I thought it was unseemly. How can you claim to not be involved in the dispute in a document specifically designed to inject yourself into the matter and pressure one side over the other? It’s dishonest.

The latter petition, while I agree with much of what it said, did come off a bit preachy to me. I totally understand the desire to counter what you (and I) see as the slanted misinformation and fear-mongering going on out there. It’s hard to understate the freedom writers have now. We can literally do anything we can think up, produce it and distribute it to a wider audience than ever before and not have to sell our souls, rights and most of the proceeds to a middleman. It’s so obviously beneficial that I often wonder how there are writers who don’t see this or worse yet, seem to actually be afraid of it. We now live in a world where it’s possible to make money directly on our copyrights without being forced to give them up in perpetuity. That’s a huge development, and something that was very nearly impossible to consider a decade ago.

It probably shouldn’t be surprising that some writers haven’t grasped the full implications of this yet. It’s a major change in conditions that had been static for decades, if not longer. How much longer they can continue to ignore it is the question. I suspect many of these writers have the unfaithful girlfriend or boyfriend problem, with their publisher playing the roll of significant other. They suspect he or she is cheating on them, have bits and pieces of circumstantial evidence that something isn’t right but they don’t want to admit it to themselves because admitting it means a necessary major upheaval in their lives. So they rationalize away the concerns staring them right in the face. Given the sometimes irrational and conflicting nature of that petition, and other similar sentiments I’ve seen recently, I suspect many are at the point where they’re going to come home from work early one day soon to find him/her in bed with someone else and not be able to avoid that particular elephant in the room any longer.

As far as the indie petition goes, while I like and appreciate the sentiment behind it, I just don’t think it needed to be done. I’m all for calling out bullshit, but to do it in a similar format with a bit of a rah rah attitude, even if it’s totally justified, gives the people who ought to be paying attention a ready excuse to dismiss it. To rationalize away finding a pair of panties that don’t belong to you under the passenger seat of your boyfriend’s car, as it were. “They must be his sister’s.” Uh huh. The original letter was a back patting exercise, preaching to a choir that’s not currently going to be convinced of anything other than what they already believe. Unfortunately, I think the indie petition is the same sort of thing. My opinion is who gives a damn what those other authors think? Let ’em look foolish, let ’em slap their names on something that’s fairly easily refuted and, frankly, not particularly well written. When the entity you’re yelling at is more responsible for making you money than the one you’re giving most of the proceeds, you’re in for a sizable wake up call in short order. I’m not convinced slapping them in the face with their own format will do anything but make them more entrenched in their beliefs, no matter how well intentioned or how clearly we see they’re setting themselves up to be burned.

You can’t stop people from making their own mistakes. Our copyrights have direct benefits to us now, something they essentially never had before, and that alone makes them more valuable than ever. Yet royalty rates are anywhere from “meh” to outright terrible. All reports also indicate advances are shrinking as well. At what point does it become obvious that what you’re giving up far exceeds what you’re getting in return? The man who hired me at my very first job in publishing used to talk about the law of diminishing returns all the time. He was usually talking about circulation, the point where the costs of increasing it would outweigh the return you got from it. That’s where we’re heading with publishers, I think. The cost of doing business with them is outweighing the return. A much larger cut of the proceeds should be the very least we should expect from publishers but we’re getting the opposite with threats of even harsher cuts in the future. And by much larger, I’m talking double or triple what they pay now, at least. And none of this lifetime copyright, or non compete, or discount clause nonsense anymore. It’s not my or any writers’ job to leave money and control of my career on the table to lifeline your business infrastructure because you can’t afford to pay the freight. Writers’ offer more value than ever, Amazon’s retail platform offers more value than ever. Publishers’ problem is that they’re one of the few in the loop who’s bringing less value today than a decade ago. Basic rules of business would dictate that when you become less valuable, you can no longer command as big a paycheck. What’s at issue here is that publishers and some of the writers still being paid by them as they always have, don’t truly understand their value has fallen off and continues to do so. Look no further than the fact that ebook profits (built on low standard royalties to authors, btw) are the only thing keeping many of these publishers out of the red. If the traditional business model is so valuable, then why are your profits basically gone without the contributions of the non-traditional?

Writers on the whole were never really compensated for giving up our rights anyway. For most, they had no value at all without a publisher, and you giving them up was a required condition. Writers were paid based on sales. The rights were a necessary toll basically sacrificed for access to the market. The value of those rights to us have increased while the rewards of signing them over have gotten smaller. Yelling at Amazon isn’t going to change that. Do you think if Hatchette gets higher prices, you’ll see any more of that money? Will they up standard royalties? Chances are you’re on a contract where the more successful your book is, the more money you’ve left on the table. Go back and do the math. If Hatchette gets what it wants and mitigates the competitive impact of Amazon, do you think that makes them more or less likely to improve writer compensation? And given the nature of these publishers, generally working in lockstep, what one settles into, they all likely will shortly thereafter.

The question in my mind isn’t why aren’t indies rooting for Hatchette, it’s why aren’t trad writers rooting for Amazon? (Well, the question after “why should we be rooting for either?” anyway. What we should be doing is advocating for the best possible treatment from all sides.) I’ll tell you why, because Hatchette owns your rights. If they run themselves into the ground, you’re contractually obligated to eat a face full of dirt with them. If Amazon (or any other retailer) destroys themselves, I just move on to another one. Amazon doesn’t own me. Hatchette (and other publishers) do own you. If you can’t see the inherent long-term danger in that, and you obviously can or else you wouldn’t be bitching at Amazon rather than your own publisher, then no petition, no logic, no facts, no amount of fisking is going to help you.

By the way, your letter basically demands Amazon cut a deal immediately and go back to discounting your books. Do you realize it’s highly likely Hatchette wants the ability to restrict Amazon’s discounting as part of any kind of agreement? How’s do you expect that’ll work out for you? “You should settle so you can go back to doing what a settlement with my own publisher will prevent you from doing.” Good luck with that.

One part of the indie petition I liked very much was the thank you to readers. We should all do that far more loudly and often than we do. But readers don’t care about this conflict. Most don’t know Hatchette from Heineken. They do know Amazon and seem to like them in overwhelming numbers. No petition from a handful of best selling and/or famous authors is going to change that, especially when the argument behind it is higher prices for them. Supporting culture and literature against cold corporate business sounds great until you say, “Oh, and all our ebooks are going to be $12.99 from now on.” Good luck with that, too.

I believe very much in the “look where your bread is buttered” school of thought. Amazon offers a fair retail platform at a fair rate. Publishers may offer you the butter but you have to lease the bread from them. And the knife you need to spread it, well, that’ll cost extra, too. Maybe Amazon ends up like them someday, but that day is not today. And it also discounts the idea that, hey, maybe they won’t because, as a tech company, they know better than most the second they do, someone else is going to pounce. “We want competition by preventing the circumstances where competition can actually develop” is not a viable plan.

Everyone is ultimately going to make the choices they’re going to make, and they’re going to face the consequences of those choices; good, bad or some of both. I’m not sure dragging readers into the middle of a pissing contest between two groups who really should be in agreement on most things furthers anyone’s ends, regardless of who started it. And that’s what I think about that.

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

Value Propositions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snowflakes Need Not Apply: Publishing is a commodity business and Amazon built a better mousetrap. Get over it, already.

I’ve been anxiously awaiting the judgement in the Apple antitrust case because I knew the tech giant was going to lose (they deserve it) and I knew that, when that happened, there’d be some woe-is-publishing stuff popping up on the web that I could have a little fun eviscerating. Well, imagine my glee as I read this piece by Michael (no relation to Jason, I hope) Bourne on The Millions website. At first, I thought it would be a run of mill twitter link with a handful of argumentative tweets in analysis, but low and behold, this thing got so confoundingly ridiculous that I had little choice but to go all-in blog post on it.

In fact, I started writing this a few hours ago and that morphed into a totally separate blog post bemoaning the stunning lack of logic in believing Amazon’s potential monopoly is so scary we all should run straight back into the arms of the publishers’ old cartel. This one’s juicy enough I got two blog posts out if it. Here we go:

“…it is altogether possible that the government is right that Apple and publishers conspired to set prices higher than Amazon would charge, which would have forced consumers to pay more for e-books in the short term. But to see this case in this narrowly legalistic light is to completely misunderstand how the book business actually works.”

This is a pretty common theme in publisher-defending circles, either outright admit or strongly imply that the charges are accurate and they broke the goddamn law but then claim it’s not important. The simple fact is there’s no legal exception for breaking antitrust law, even if done in response to illegal activity. Amazon’s shipping boxes coulda been made out of corrugated baby skin and it still wouldn’t have given Apple and the publishers license to collude against them. They broke the law and have to be held accountable, regardless of their reasons. To do otherwise sets a dangerous prcedent that would definitely find its way into other industries and that would be extraordinarily bad for consumers of all kinds of stuff, not just books. I don’t know how many times or how many judges have to say there is no such thing as a special snowflake and you don’t get to pick and choose what laws you care to follow that best suit your business purposes. Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.

“…books are not bars of soap. When you go online to buy a book, you are not merely paying for a file full of random ones and zeros. You’re buying the original ideas and stories contained
within that book, and frankly nobody has any idea how much those ideas are worth until people start reading them.”

That doesn’t even make sense. I’m pretty sure somebody’s gotta buy the book before they start reading it. And I have a pretty good notion of what that book’s worth without ever seeing it: $27.99 hardcover, $17.99 trade paperback, $12.99 ebook and maybe an $8.99 mass market paperback, give ot take a couple dollars on any of the above. These big publishers collectively crank out tens of thousands of titles each year and they virtually all fall within the neighborhood of these prices. Books have never been priced by the material inside but by the cost structure of the format.

They most certainly are commodities in the purest sense. The newly merged Random Penguin is set to put out 15,000 books alone next year. To them, any one book is meaningless, even the high advance books. The totality of their 15,000 title catalog is their business model. Big name authors get considerably better terms than average writers, meaning the publisher’s margins are slimmer per book. They also get the benefit of marketing and ad dollars, slicing that margin a little more. Yet we’re also told that these big name books are what bank rolls the lesser selling titles, further gobbling up the publisher’s margins, in theory. More likely, the big name books aren’t really the lone profit centers but simply the lure that gets people into the stores where, hopefully, they’ll also pick up a few other books in their catalog on which the publisher is making very sweet margins. It’s a volume game at this level. The cost or success of one lone book isn’t the point, but the collective success of the full catalog taken as one, nearly all resting within a few dollar range of identical pricing regardless of the author. 15,000 similarly priced, interchangeable pieces…sounds a lot like commodities to me.

The part about not knowing what a book is worth until people start reading could be a reference to advances paid by publishers, but let’s glance at how that system works. There are certainly a handful of high advance books, but for each one of those, there are thousands more which get advances that are more like rounding errors on executives’ expense reports than sizable investments. The threshhold to profit for these books is very low and, once met, publishers bank considerably more money per sale than for superstar books that earn out. This advance system isn’t nearly as risky or speculative as it appears. Even if we take the commonly held belief that 80% of books fail to earn out as fact, Random Penguin, for instance, would be left with about 3,000 books next year alone that do, the vast majority of which on publisher-friendly contracts that earn them more per sale.

Books have been commoditized by publishers because they can’t consistently tell which specific books are going to hit ahead of time. So they built up a bulk catalog made up of mostly low risk, low out-of-pocket books as a hedge against those larger risks. They may not be able to tell which books will be the winners but they certainly have confidence that enough of the totality of their catalog will hit to provide profitability. Saying publishers can’t tell what a book is worth until it’s on the market is both true and misleading. It doesn’t matter how any individual book does, only that enough of them do well in totality.

“…like pharmaceutical companies, publishing houses have to charge above-market rates for their successful products to amortize all those failures. If you limit their ability to do this, books will indeed be cheaper, but they also will be lower in quality and variety because publishers will have less ability to finance experimentation.”

You really wanna compare publishers to pharmaceutical companies? What, you couldn’t think of a metaphor for publishers with war-profiteering arms dealers? Or the Indonesian child sex slave industry? I could buy the above-market price argument if not for the fact that essentially all these books are selling for the same damn prices, successes and failures alike. A book’s price doesn’t increase as it sells more copies. I’m also pretty sure books are indeed cheaper and exist in a greater variety than ever before right now. And publishers certainly aren’t the place to look for experimentation. The bulk of the really unique and creative stuff is being done on the independent writer side these days. Publishers may take risks but they’re generally minimal ones within a narrowly established range. They may occasionally venture out of the plastic wrap but rarely do they get all the way outside of the box it’s in.

“…what Amazon really wants to sell is not so much e-books as the delivery system of those e-books, called a Kindle.”

And what Apple really wants to sell is not so much ebooks as the delivery system of those ebooks called an iPad. You got a point here?

“Apple was offering to once again give the publishing industry the freedom to overcharge for all those e-versions of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey flying out the virtual doors to make up for the risks it is taking on thousands of other titles…”

Yup, because customers enjoy nothing more than happily giving billion dollar corporations the right to over-charge them. That always works out well.

“…at heart, the case asks a fundamental societal question: what, legally speaking, is art?”

No, the fundamental question in the case is did five of the six largest publishers and the largest tech company in the world hatch an illegally collusive conspiracy to fix prices at considerably higher levels and squash competition? The legal definition of art has no bearing here, only the legal definition of collusion.

“…in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, the framers noted how important it is “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts” and thus created copyright protection for authors and inventors.”

That copyright protection is the reason there’s any market for artistic works at all. It was granted to give creators limited exclusivity to access to the market. Copyright wasn’t put in place to spare books from market forces, but so the specific creators could take advantage of those market forces. It’s since been perverted, largely by media lobbyists, into an effectively unlimited time frame of control. They didn’t push for life + 70 years to avoid market forces. Just the opposite, in fact, so they could reap the rewards of a century or more worth of access to those market forces. Copyright offers no guarantee that the creators profit from the work, only that they have the access to potentially profit. Publishers themselves have stood for years as a roadblock to that access, demanding those copyrights be turned over as a toll to the marketplace. By usurping the market access for creators provided in copyright law, publishers have undermined the very point of its existence.

“Books and other works of art aren’t widgets, and art does not now nor has it ever flourished in a truly efficient market.”

Bullshit. The publishing industry, at its base, is a multi-billion-dollar enterprise whose main product is creative output, just like any number of other industries. Questions of art are far too subjective to have any meaning in the actual business realities here. If it hasn’t flourished in a truly efficient market in the past, that’s because it hadn’t really had one in a long time, if ever. Publishers gradually monopolized both the supply of books and the distribution. Any inefficiencies in the market exist because publishers’ iron grip lasted basically uncontested for too long and they got complacent. Those inefficiencies shouldn’t be celebrated or vindicated in any way. They are precisely how Amazon managed to earn its position, by appealing to and improving the conditions of the people most squeezed by those inefficiencies, readers and writers. Oh, the irony of a company doing great things for readers and writers yet being pilloried for it by the existing industry who, all the while, claim to be supporters and nurturers of both those groups. And if you don’t like irony, hypocrisy is another term that will work.

If that’s not enough of a sign for you that the industry has lost its way, I’m not sure what would convince you. The interests of the industry and big publishers diverged over time from the interests of the two most important players in it. That foundation has grown so solid that many just presume what’s good for them is good for everybody. But that’s an extreme oversimplification that ignores the reality that publishers are but middlemen of the longstanding type that eventually shift from providing efficiency by connecting suppliers and buyers to squeezing both sides to the advantage of their own bottom line. That is not an atmosphere that screams for propping up the middlemen when the two parties it supposedly connects find ways to be more efficient without them.

This entire article was an odd combination of musings about the supposedly unique nature of publishing, how the standard rules of business–even the law–shouldn’t apply and some indefinable role of art within it juxtaposed by support for legacy businesses who have shown a history of anticompetitive behavior, cartel-like dominance and a decided lack of concern for the interests of readers and writers. Even the widget point he made multiple times is disingenuous. It’s easy to say books aren’t widgets but you lose a little credibility when you then defend publishers who produce large numbers of similarly priced titles in high volume as part of a business model that treats books suspiciously like widgets.

Publishing is not a special snowflake. It’s a business like any other. Publishers aren’t defenders of art but defenders of profit margins, usually at the expense of readers and writers. The law isn’t something you can willfully ignore just because you don’t care for your competition. It’s also not something that can arbitrarily be waived for the sake of art. The industry is bigger than publishers. It may be hard to see it that way since they’ve been in a position to make it look like they are for longer than most of us have been alive.

Arguing in favor of giant profit-driven conglomerates as the path to art for art’s sake just doesn’t make a lick of coherent sense. Modern publishers were a market response to conditions at the time. Even the most virulent Amazon hater has to admit that the conditions under which publishers thrived have changed. Change is hard, especially when your role is the one being mitigated, but it’s the way life, and the publishing industry at large, works. Putting a veneer of art and culture in defense of price fixing and collusive behavior is naive at best, willfully deceptive at worst.

Whether publishers live or die is immaterial to the matter of whether, and how, the industry on the whole reloads. It will carry on regardless, headlined by readers and writers which to my thinking is a far better development than one dominated by middlemen demanding onerous concessions in rights, control and money if you ever want your work to see the marketplace.

So enough with the high-minded talk about art, literature and culture. Those are great and valuable things, but the old system did little more than pay lip service to those elements while behaving as corporate profit-driven enterprises often do, the bottom line rules all. Amazon may one day become that, as well, but you’ll have to excuse me if I don’t buy in to the argument that we need to prop up the old publisher cartel in the hopes of preventing Amazon from becoming just like them.

Bookish: New publisher-backed retail site is game-chan…eh, whatever

I was checking out Bookish today, the new Big Six backed trojan horse, supposed to look like some kinda Goodreads/retail store hybrid thing but really is a not-so-subtle attempt to build their own little walled garden only sans the hardware. Yeah, I’m not a fan, what can I say?

Actually, I don’t really see too much to get worked up about anyway. There’s nothing really new here, and it’s pretty clearly an attempt to regain gatekeeper control by imitating various popular book-related internet properties they could have innovated a decade or so ago if they’d have pulled their collective heads from their assess even temporarily. Late to the party doesn’t usually fly. That and this is traditional publishing trying to be forward-thinking, after all. So forward that the debut was about two years after it was supposed to be. I’m not encouraged by the vision or support behind this if things don’t go instantly great and end up even the slightest bit challenging.

The DRM insistance sucks but not at all unexpected. We’re still quite a ways from the biggest of publishers’ conglomerate masters getting the memo that they’re cutting their own throats with it. The part of the terms of service saying they own all rights to any user generated content is troubling, but again, publishers are behind this. Never met a right they didn’t try to grab. There appears to be a pretty stark “no refunds” policy on ebooks, too, enforceable after download, which, I guess, means store-credit-only if something’s messed up? Of course, shit-out-of-luck is a distinct customer service possibility here, too. Wouldn’t surprise me. By comparison, Amazon gives you seven days to “return” an ebook for a no-questions-asked refund. Not exactly a compelling reason to buy through Bookish rather than Amazon.

I would typically link to their site here, but apparently I would be violating their terms of use if I did so, it containing a provision allowing them to block your link if you disparage them. Lord knows I wouldn’t want to run afoul of their terms. So, good job, guys! Here’s at least one less link to you in the world.

At the end of the day, Bookish to me loses points precisely for what it’s trying to do, be a limiting factor in book shopping, and serve in a gatekeeper type capacity. It’s not so much what’s seen or recommended on their site, it’s what’s excluded that’s the problem. It’s allowing material in from sources which meet some sort of standard of approval, apparently dependent entirely on the publisher. It’ll be interesting to see if this ends up with the big boys getting all the prime, algorithm-tweaking real estate. There doesn’t really seem to be much in the way of involvement for authors, either. But, I’m willing to give most things the benefit of the doubt, so I clicked on the “I’m an author” link in their FAQ. Here’s what I got:

How can I have my book(s) added to Bookish?

Authors should ask their publishers to confirm that their respective titles are in the data feeds provided to Bookish.

That’s it? I’m an author. I’m interested in becoming involved with this innovative new method of doing the same thing other people are doing just more self-servingly and the only acknowledgement or words of advice you have for me is “go ask your publisher”? Is it me, or is the tone of their suggestion reminiscient of when you were a kid and annoyed your mother with some question she didn’t care about to the point she’d say, “go ask your father?” Seems a bit dismissive and condescending. I also find myself wondering at what point the lawyers took out the “If you’re a self-published author, go fuck yourself!” line that I’m pretty sure was in the first draft.

It’s not a bad thing for publishers to try to get some sort of more direct retail channel. But they can’t even get all the big players to back it. Hell, Apple talked them all into breaking antitrust law together, but something that could actually be a practical benefit to the industry if done right? No way! This should have been done years ago. Now, it’s just chasing, piggy-backing on other people’s hardware, yet still trying to build that mystical walled garden through DRM. Authors are pretty obviously an afterthought, and they certainly aren’t treated as any kind of business equals, more like underlings to their publisher masters. I’ll withhold judgement on whether this is useful to readers until we actually hear from some, but I’m not optimistic given what I see so far. If I had to guess, Bookish will err too far toward crass commercialism over genuinely social interactions with readers. Basically, I’m seeing a site that’s talking at readers, not with them, and that’s going to be its biggest problem.

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