Thursday, September 25, 2014

Publishing Establishment: "Okay, We Suck, But Amazon Might Be Worse!"

If you haven't seen it already, don't miss this discussion between Joe Konrath and Lee Child about the causes and consequences of the battle between Amazon and Hachette. The topic interests me a lot, and here I'd like to take a probably thankless stab at getting to the heart of what’s going on between publishing’s establishment and publishing's revolutionaries…

Writers like Lee believe that fundamentally the legacy publishing industry is good, and therefore that anything threatening that system must be fundamentally bad.

Writers like Joe believe that fundamentally the legacy publishing industry is oppressive to readers and writers; propagandistic (all that hokum about “nurturing”); and cartel-like, and that anything tending to force that system to engage in more enlightened business practices must be good.

Lee perceives Hachette and the other “Big Five” (the cartel is right there in the name, no?) to be under threat, and wants them protected — “Apres moi le deluge.” Joe perceives the Big Five as already being protected by their paper oligopoly, and in need of real competition for the sake of readers and writers.

Obviously I’m with Joe on all this, but that’s not the point. The point is, if you believe legacy publishing needs to reform, what might bring that reform about?

The debate reminds me of a discussion I sometimes get into with Democrats who support Obama, most of whom have been forced over the course of two terms to acknowledge something along the lines of, “Okay, he sucks—but a Republican would be even worse.”

It might be true that a Republican would be even worse (given Obama’s record, I don’t think that’s an easy argument to make—for example, Obama has bombed seven Muslim countries so far, while Bush bombed four—but leave that aside). My concern is that whenever you signal to an incumbent that you will back the incumbent *no matter what*, you have surrendered all your leverage.

Which is why my attitude toward the legacy industry is, “If you want a shot at my support, immediately double digital royalties to all authors; immediately begin paying all authors once a month instead of twice a year; immediately eliminate rights-of-first refusal, non-competes, and other draconian clauses from your contracts. Short of that, I’ll know the only thing you’ll respond to is pressure — and I’ll be sure to support the party that’s applying it."

Like a Democrat effectively saying, “Vote for me or I’ll turn the keys over to John McCain and Sarah Palin,” the Big Five and their supporters are effectively saying, “Support us and our cartel-like business practices because Amazon could become even worse than we’ve been.” I don’t buy that bullshit when I hear it from Democrats, so why would I buy it from legacy publishing?  I’m willing to take that risk, recognizing the only way things might get better is if I’m willing to ignore self-interested threats to the effect that “Without us, it might get even worse.”

To put it another way: the Big Five and its supporters in Authors United and the Authors Guild are playing a game of chicken with the 99% of authors who have been ill-served by the business practices the establishment refuses to reform. I’ll be damned if I blink first in the face of that.


JA Konrath said...

The central theme of the graphic novel Watchman was that the only way mankind would stop destroying itself is if it united against an alien threat.

Maybe. But an alien threat doesn't excuse all of the violence, war, rape, torture, slavery, and inhumanity we've inflicted on one another.

In this case, rallying against Amazon isn't an excuse to get everyone to treat each other better; it's an excuse to let the subjugation of writers continue. Even worse, it's asking those writers to participate in their own subjugation because of some perceived future threat.

Nope. No thanks.

Ken Prescott said...

Any competitor's barrier to entry against Amazon is a lot lower than the barrier to entry against a dead tree publisher. That fact alone will encourage better behavior on Amazon's part.

Will the terms change? Of course they will, as the market evolves and changes. And it always does. New competitors will arise; someone well-established in the biz will make a fatally bad misstep. Will the readers notice? Maybe, maybe not. Will they care? Probably not.

Heck, a sufficiently ruthless Big 5 CEO could revitalize his company's fortunes right now by bringing his business processes into the 21st century. They'll pay higher royalties to get authors on board, but make massively more money and lose a lot less of it. All it takes is one CEO deciding to break the cycle of decline, and the rest will follow his path, or blaze others.

Change in inevitable, unless you're dealing with a vending machine.

shugyosha said...

Mr. Prescott,

I'm not sure that's true, anymore, about barriers to entry. Witness WMG Pub.

The only significant barrier I see right now is non-US printing of books. If there was a network of PoD services, and you could send files to be printed, at the same standard, in France or Taiwan or Brazil, things might change, again. I think it'll come to that.

Beisdes that, the barrier is IP. I know readers are not supposed to care about publisher, *but* there's a certain... "Oh, these guys are new, let's see what else they have", maybe specially in genres.

Do big publishers have better margins with big printings? Sure. But that's not a barrier, and I'm not sure it doesn't push them wrong, as in they might better look for profit if they didn't have those margins "built in".

Take care.

Ken Prescott said...

The big barrier in competing against the Big 5 isn't getting the books printed (although doing that at a profitable-enough margin is a significant barrier).

It's getting your books into the prospective customer's hands.

(Aside: Things are a pain in the neck. Things have to be made; they have to be stored in an environment conducive to keeping them intact; they have to be shipped from manufacturing to point of sale. Costly, and also SLOW--and time is money.)

If you're printing dead tree books, customers want to crack it open in the store and look at the first chapter. And that means getting a deal with the distributors to get it into bookstores. That might not be possible.

Ebooks don't have this limitation--you can let the customer preview it on their tablet or ereader, no problem. An indie ebook publisher is, AT WORST, on a level playing field against the legacy publishers. Usually, they're in a better position.

The big challenge in going up against Amazon is computing infrastructure--but that's fast becoming a commodity product with all manner of options for IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS, along with a bunch of other acronyms (including, for all I know, Acronyms as a Service, or AaaS. No, I'm not going to tell you how to pronounce it.)

If you're sufficiently cheeky, you can rent some cloud from Amazon itself to host your competing-with-Amazon (Amazon as a Service?) infrastructure.

I don't worry about the future of publishing. It's going to change--but I am convinced it will change for the better.

The great miracle of the Internet is the basic nature of the thing: it is a communications system that is designed to not have gatekeepers.

The middleman can only exist in a communications-limited environment--because his only job is to keep the actual parties to the transaction from talking directly to each other. That's not necessary, nor even very useful.

The Big 5 built their entire enterprise around an idea that started becoming obsolete in the 1950s, with the rise of digital communications systems. They're dead men walking. And they end's going to come with breathtaking speed. A lot of people will be hurt--nobody likes getting their rice bowl busted--but a lot more will benefit.