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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Writing Wibbles

Last week’s big news was that the Department of Justice went ahead with an expected suit against Apple and five of the “Big 6” publishers, alleging collusion and price-fixing of eBooks (aka the “Agency Model”). I held off writing about it until this week, mainly because I already had a post queued but also because I wanted to see if any more information came out. Oh well.

As expected, the publishing industry and their media outlets are crying Doom and Disaster. A website called Shelf Awareness, staffed by industry insiders, had this to say:

In a clash of concepts about what best serves the reader — the lowest possible prices or a healthy, diverse book industry — the federal government … came down on the side of the book as a commodity.

In other words, high eBook prices are a requirement for “a healthy, diverse book industry.” I understand the desire of a long-established oligopoly to preserve the status quo, but it’s a pity they can’t be more upfront about their motivations.

The problem is, there are laws against collusion and the DoJ provides prima facie evidence of how publisher executives “jointly acknowledged to each other the threat posed by Amazon’s pricing strategy and the need to work collectively to end that strategy.” If you can’t survive under laws that have been on the books for over 120 years, and aren’t enforced too well anyway, you’re not trying hard enough. In the end, it’s ridiculous to demand that eBooks be priced higher than hardcovers (especially when you’re explicitly forbidden to pass that eBook around the way you can a hardcover). I’ve opined before that the Agency Model was an attempt to kill eBooks; now it’s a failed attempt.

The idea that the producer dictates retail prices flies in the face of the capitalist system (that publishing executives undoubtedly support as long as it benefits them). The “S” in “MSRP” means “Suggested,” after all. Everyone in the chain, from the raw materials producers to the booksellers, tries to cover their costs plus some margin — or voluntarily takes a hit on margins (or even a loss) to gain some longer-term advantage. I doubt that even Stephen King would, for example, tell publishers that his books must sell for a certain price — so why should publishers tell Amazon what they can do?

[I should point out that, long-term, I’m not convinced that Amazon’s intentions are all wonderful for authors or readers. On the other hand, given what Barnes&Noble and Borders did to indie booksellers, I don’t weep much for their predicament now either.]

I think there’s still a role for Big Publishing, but they’ll have to update the way they do business. In my opinion, they could start by treating authors as partners rather than chattel. The average advance is the same as it was 30 years ago — i.e., much less when factoring in inflation — while book prices (and executive compensation) have increased accordingly. The games publishers play with sales figures are well-documented, and it’s funny how those “mistakes” never benefit the authors. Those kind of issues need to be addressed, instead of clinging to a business model that’s incompatible with new technology. In the Depression years and afterwards, it was possible for many authors to make a living from writing, even by writing short stories for the pulps. Top-shelf novelists were the rock stars of their day. By shooting for the lowest common denominator, the publishers have brought this new world of Amazon on themselves. IMO.

Under the current circumstances, going indie seems to be the smart move. A friend of mine cleared twice her dayjob pay in March, and circumstances are now pushing her into writing full-time. She’s a talented cover designer, and her books aren’t full of typos, so that helps. Not everyone gets that kind of success, but I think people who put a lot of effort into their work have a better chance of success by bypassing the publishers. When publishers acknowledge that they’re no longer the 800-pound gorilla, and start acting like they know it, the pendulum will begin swinging their way again.


  1. Well, I'm considering Indi Publishing for my novella, I like the freedom of it, and fortunately I have a graphic designer for a husband so front cover will not be an issue.

    I hate that publishers are trying to close the market in order to keep themselves safe.

  2. Some of this is reads as highly disingenuous, Larry. When the Big Six colluded with Apple, they were pretty obviously recognizing that none of them were the "800-pound gorilla," and plainly had the real gorilla in sight. And the very price-gouging Amazon acts in reduces the funds publishers would have to pay their authors the way they deserve, putting that chattel-reform further out of reach, not to mention hurting what the average buyer thinks a product should be worth.

    Borders and Barnes & Noble did some shady things to indies and the Big Six have all been caught fooling their authors. The collusion was just the latest case of stink in the field. I mourn for those that fall, though, because it reduces competition. If publishing does ultimately come down to Amazon alone, it takes only one night's work for every gay author's work to disappear - as has happened on Amazon before - but with nowhere else to find their books, it'd be unprecedented cyberspace censorship. There are a lot more fears than just a rich suit switching to off-brand brandy.

  3. There's a lot of work involved, Helen, but I think it's something worth trying. If nothing else, you learn what-all goes into the process!

    John, I don't think there are many innocent players overall. The thing is, I don't see Amazon as the gorilla here. eBook sales are still a small (but growing) fraction of the overall market. Sure, Amazon is the Big Kahuna for eBooks now, much like Apple is for music, but it's still a pretty small pond by comparison.

    Things can change, and probably will, but I think it will take 10-20 years. I've said many times that eBooks won't kill paper until the readers sell for $20. Perhaps Jeff Bezos has realized that — by democratizing (or commoditizing if you prefer) one segment of the publishing industry, Amazon changed the rules of the entire industry. The sooner that publishers realize this, and stop trying to turn back the tide, the better off we'll all be. Including Amazon, in the long run.

    I understand your fears, and hope the DoJ will keep a stink-eye on Amazon as things progress. But I've been around a long while; I've seen plenty of technology giants who stumble and fall (and sometimes never get up again). Amazon will eff up sooner or later, and then someone else will swoop in and grab their golden goose.


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