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Thursday, April 12, 2012

A Catastrophe for Publishing--and Ultimately, Writers and Readers

This is slightly off the beaten path, but I hope you'll indulge me. Thumbnail context: on Wednesday, the Justice Department sued five publishers and Apple, contending that they colluded to fix e-book prices. They had forced Amazon, the US's major e-book retailer to accept the "agency model," which allowed them to set prices on e-books. Previously, Amazon set them at very low prices to corner the market--sometimes taking a loss. Why should you care?

The Times pick up the story:
Amazon, which already controls about 60 percent of the e-book market, can take a loss on every book it sells to gain market share for its Kindle devices. When it has enough competitive advantage, it can dictate its own terms, something publishers say is beginning to happen.
Because Amazon not only sells books but the device on which to read them, they could keep prices low enough that traditional publishers get put out of business or are forced to drastically cut back on the services they provide. What people don't realize is that the cost of a book has very little to do with the ink and paper (or bytes) that constitute its physical existence. The real cost is in the editorial and design oversight that goes into a book.

The process begins with an acquisitions editor--someone who goes out and finds the writer. This person may work with an author's idea or generate the idea herself and then find the author. In the case of both The Beer Bible and the Beer Tasting Toolkit, the ideas came from the publisher. This person shepherds the book through the contracting stage and gets the writer on his way, helping to shape the structure and concept.

Once the manuscript is completed, someone (or ones) edit the thing. This is huge. Having done a lot of internet writing, I can tell you that the stuff that comes from my fingers and straight to you is substantially inferior to that which gets a thrice-over by editors. Editing is an advanced professional skill (quite different from writing itself) and it makes a huge difference. If we end up in a self-published world, we'll have nothing but misshapen, incomplete works.

Finally, there's layout, design, and promotion. It's possible for self-published books to find an audience, but not damned likely. It's much harder for niche books that require elbow grease to get in front of the right readers. After The Beer Tasting Toolkit was complete, two nice gentlemen from Chronicle Books called to tell me what they were going to do to sell the book. They'd already had early success, finding buyers in the UK and Sweden. Oh, and they're taking care of the Swedish translation, too.

It's already very hard for writers to make enough money writing books to live, and Amazon driving prices down will make it even harder. If they manage to destroy the infrastructure supporting the publication of professional books--a job that requires a team, not just one writer--it won't be long before the effect will trickle down to the reader. A guy like Michael Jackson could not exist through self-publishing, and obviously, guys like Michael Jackson are very important to have around.

This isn't just theoretical. The toll has already begun. Publishers are having to cut way back on things like editors, fact-checkers, and publicists. Books are demonstrably less professional, less polished, than they were a generation ago. If Amazon gets its way, things are going to get a lot worse in the next decade. Let's hope that doesn't happen.


  1. And the problem with Apple is also a different one, as reported here.

    All in all, I think self-publishing is a very good thing, for authors, readers and publishers, but I agree that the supermarket chain strategies of Amazon, etc. are far from possitive.

  2. Kindle to Me is a Evil. Nothing compares to A Books Feel. This Blog just confirms My Fears. Library,s are under threat. Thankfully some people realize this.

  3. The interesting issue is that the whole complaint almost always revolves around ebooks. Do you have an issue with prices around regular books?

    My biggest problem with the "agency model" is publishers are notorious about not lowering their ebook prices properly. Too many times I've seen "Paperback: $6.99" but "ebook: $12.99" because they haven't bothered changing their prices and Amazon isn't allowed to do so.

    On top of that, so many professionally published ebooks have glaring layout issues, terrible spelling mistakes, and other stuff like that. I sometimes saw issues in real books but never to the extent that I see them in ebooks. Maybe if they want us to side with them they should put some effort into the format instead of just trying to charge us more for it.

    And don't get me started on the way Apple runs things. If people think they'd be any better than Amazon, they are crazy.

  4. I'm a professional writer as well and I also like to get paid. A lot.

    But I'm also an avid reader, and let's be honest: ebooks are far too expensive, and that's not going to change until publishers change the way they do business. Some publishers are catching on, but the big ones that still make their money from $30 hardcovers written by famous authors are going to be slow.

    There's no easy solution, but publishers setting artificially high prices on data that can't be displayed on bookshelves nor loaned to friends certainly wasn't it.

  5. Rich, I'm not a huge defender of the agency model per se--but Amazon's control of the market creates an interesting challenge. It's clear their business model is designed around selling books as cheaply as possible and taking razor-thin margins. I am definitely opposed to that: writer royalties are affected by bargain-bin pricing, so this has bad downstream effects.

    Ebooks are so new that the publishers haven't figure out how to handle them. When I negotiated my contract with Workman, there was a long section on how royalties would be paid based on various book formats (hard/soft, two/full color). There was a paragraph dealing with ebooks. When I asked whether we could create an app for the book, they said I could, but that wasn't anything they'd thought about. Publishing hasn't caught up yet. That's inexcusable, but it's not permanent. That's the future of the market and they will begin to put more and more attention on ebooks.

    FWIW, Kindle is one of the reasons ebooks suck. They're the ones who have driven things in the stripped-down, uber ugly direction. I converted my self-published novel to Kindle and I couldn't believe how rudimentary it was.

  6. Joe,

    It's very difficult to defend the major publishers, who have abandoned good business practice in favor of the movie model of chasing rainmakers. (In the past, they nurtured authors, made modest profits on a large stable of writers, and earned a substantial part of their money from backlist titles. When corporations got involved, they started trolling for Hunger Games and abandoned steady profits. Idiots.)

    The ebook phenomenon on its own will change publishing forever. That's a good thing. But I worry that it won't evolve in a wholesome, market-driven pattern if Amazon holds de facto monopoly power over pricing. That perverts the market.

  7. Jeff,

    That's an interesting point that it's the kindle format that is at fault for the layout issues. I never thought about it but it's not terribly surprising considering only one company updates that code base versus everyone being able to update epub. I'm not sure that excuses the piss poor text errors in a lot of them but it would excuse some layout issues if the publisher can't spend the money to fix kindle's specific issues.

    It's certainly an interesting issue and basically no side is without fault.

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  9. What you say is absolutely true. Books created via a set of professional processes are a lot better than what you or I can produce on our own. Same goes for record albums...they were better when they we produced by pros. The record labels were arrogant and reckless and their power was undermined because they charged too much for their product, which encouraged piracy. And piracy has killed them.

    I suspect piracy won't kill book publishers. The pressures they face are the result of the various eBook readers...and the fact that people think eBooks should be cheap because they don't include a piece of dead tree. Digital publishing is a mess right now. They haven't figured out pricing (such that it won't kill the publishing business) or book layout (too many hoops to jump through with little effect). Amazon has put itself in the role of evil empire because it controls so much of the market. Monopolies (real or virtual) are never good. Things are going to have to evolve.

  10. The more I read about this, the more I think that there's more than enough blame to go around. The big publishers really shot themselves in the foot. Amazon went along with it because it allowed them to capture the market and are now pushing towards monopoly heights, at which point they'll really start throwing their weight around, which won't be good for anyone (publishers, authors, consumers).

    I think this article captures the situation pretty well:

    As for the Kindle itself, I think it's a dream to read that e-ink display - very much like paper, doesn't hurt my eyes, etc... But only for text-heavy books. This tends to be the majority of what I read, but still, books with a lot of graphical elements definitely don't work well. I don't think that's a huge knock on the Kindle though, as the technology isn't really there yet (but it is coming, hopefully soon).

    Also, it's intensely frustrating when the physical format is cheaper than the ebook. I don't think it's unreasonable for consumers to expect at least a marginal discount on the electronic version.