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Thu 04
Mar
2010

My Stupid Industry

Writing Lately the publishing industry has been trying to commit suicide over electronic rights. It’s funny because every time in history a revolutionary new way to do business comes along, the first instinct of all established players is to strangle themselves with it. Movie studios fought the VCR. Microsoft fought the Internet. The music industry fought MP3s. TV networks are fighting PVRs. Eventually, these turn into important markets, fully embraced by the companies that tried to kill them. But until then everyone spends a lot of time throwing lawyers at anything that doesn’t look like a traditional business model.

The first e-madness was DRM, of course. That’s the code they wrapped around electronic books to ensure they couldn’t be pirated. Well. “Ensure” is a big word. I’m not sure that any piece of DRM in history has survived an interested hacker. What it did ensure was a steady trickle of emails to my inbox from people who couldn’t find an electronic copy of Jennifer Government in the right format for their device, or could but after they paid their money it didn’t work.

Next came e-delays, where publishers held back electronic versions for four months following print publication. “The right place for the e-book is after the hardcover but before the paperback,” said Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy. This is a brave counterpoint to the more common wisdom that the right place for selling something is wherever customers want to buy it. So we were not just restricting e-books to particular formats within particular territories, but also to particular windows of time.

But that wasn’t enough. Publishers didn’t like the fact that Amazon.com started selling e-books for $9.99 each. (They thought that was too cheap, if you’re wondering.) It didn’t affect publishers’ margins, nor authors’ royalties, since Amazon.com was selling below cost to promote its Kindle platform. But still, publishers were uncomfortable with the idea of books being that cheap. So they went to war and forced Amazon.com to bump up prices to $13-$15, in exchange for taking a lower royalty on each sale.

Let’s review. Amazon.com was eating it in order to allow you to buy books for ten bucks, instead of twenty or thirty, while paying authors the same royalty. Publisher intervenes, and now books are more expensive for you, while the author gets less. Also, the publisher gets less. Oh, and I didn’t mention this, but during the war, Amazon.com took down all the “Buy” buttons for Macmillan books, so you definitely couldn’t buy them no matter how much you wanted to and nobody made any money at all.

I won’t say it’s impossible for an industry to push retail prices up while pushing their own margins down and be successful. I’ll just say that’s not the way it usually works. Also, as a general rule, when customers want to buy a product, it usually works out best if the company lets them. I don’t think there have been too many examples of companies making money while refusing to sell their products in the formats their customers want while also forcing retailers to charge more and pocketing less themselves. I’m not sure. But that’s my feeling.

Meanwhile, rocked by the Global Calamitous Money Disappearing Event, publishers began cutting back what they do. Ten years ago, a publisher gave hopeful authors editorial advice, a printing service, a promotional budget, and access to bricks and mortar bookstores. There was really no viable alternative, short of becoming a small publisher yourself. To become a successful author, you needed a publisher.

Today, the promotional budget is more likely to involve encouragement to do something on the internet rather than a book tour. Publishers are still fantastic at getting you into bookstores, and physical books still comprise the vast majority of the market: you need them for this. But in e-books, you can click “Export to EPUB” as easily as they can, and without giving up 75% of revenue.

Also, publishers are getting less willing to make risky bets. Instead of taking an unknown author and striving to find her an audience, they want authors to establish their own audience in advance, via a website or similar.

Now, publishing is full of terrific, smart people who love books and want to promote authors. I haven’t met a single person in publishing I didn’t like. I even love my old Viking editor, who dumped me via relayed e-mail message. I forgive you, Carolyn. I really do. But the people in charge there are trying to sue the VCR. If publishing gets tomorrow everything it wants today, it will be smaller and less relevant. Imagine the world in in ten years, when e-books are 50% of the market: What will publishers offer authors? Not the ability to find an audience, if they’re pushing that onto authors. Not the distribution network: anyone can get their book into an electronic store. Not promotion; or at least, not much of it. That leaves editorial and distribution of hard copy. Not to be sneezed at, for sure. Editorial in particular is often the difference between a great book and a mediocre one; I can attest to that. But if I’ve got a web site and a hundred thousand visitors, I’d think seriously about whether editorial and print is worth giving up 90% of my income. I would, at the least, drive a harder bargain with a publisher than if they were providing more services I really needed.

The publishing industry is trying to think long-term, like every industry that faced a revolutionary change before it. But please, this time, can we not batter ourselves to death? It’s not that complicated, Publishing. I write stories. I want people to read them. I want as many people to read them in whatever format they want, wherever they want, as cheaply as possible, while I earn a living. I don’t want lower royalties in exchange for higher retail prices. That’s the opposite of what I want. I don’t want to get emails from people saying they wanted to buy my e-book but they couldn’t because it wasn’t available or didn’t work. This is text. It’s not hard to put text on an electronic device. It’s only hard because you make it.