The boundaries between the different types of publishing just keep getting more blurred and more porous.
Amazon and Hachette’s dispute has reached a new plateau, with the respective CEOs writing mass emails to explain their respective positions over book discounting. Amazon is also in a dispute with Time Warner, and has blocked pre-orders of some Disney movies.
About three weeks ago, Amazon spurred news attention yet again with rumours that it’s in negotiations with another Big Five publisher, Simon + Schuster. Some speculated that it may lead to Amazon purchasing this publisher from its current corporate parent, CBS.
In addition to the publishing operations that Amazon already has, this would make Amazon one of the biggest publishers as well as the biggest book retailer.
Is this really new, though? Remember the Doubleday Bookstores, which were the most prestigious in the US until they were bought by Barnes & Noble in 1990.
Major corporations straddle boundaries
One of the raisons d’être for the commercial publisher is to provide those essential selection, editorial, design and manufacturing services that ensure audiences get quality books. Self-publishing, according to this argument, just cannot measure up to the professional standard of major publishers. I’ve ripped this argument apart a number of times already, so suffice to say now that it’s not backed up empirically.
But several major publishers have invested millions and more in self-publishing platforms. Penguin launched Book Country in 2011 and then bought Author Solutions a year later. Simon & Schuster has Archway Publishing, a vanity publisher. And they’re not the only ones.
So, now we have vanity publishers owned by major commercial publishers, in an embarrassing and disingenuous pissing match with the biggest retailer, which also owns the most successful self-publishing platform.
Neither side in this argument is being open
It’s kind of hard to understand just why Amazon is going to such lengths in this dispute. After all, they make a lot of money reselling publishers’ products. Why should they care what price the publisher sets? But remember that Amazon also sells a particular brand of e-book reader. Lower prices for e-book versions of the world’s favourite, bestselling titles will encourage Kindle sales.
The dispute between Amazon and Hachette or Time-Warner is over how much of the money readers pay they get to keep. The author isn’t part of the dispute, even though both sides like to repeat how important the author is to them.
“Brick and mortar” bookstores are another trope in the sympathy pleas of both sides. “Amazon is putting brick-and-mortar, physical bookstores out of business.” It’s hard to argue against that, particularly following the loss of Borders and uncounted independent booksellers.
As for the independent booksellers, though, they’re getting squeezed not only by the Internet, but also by the growth of big-box corporate bookstore chains. And if it weren’t Amazon, it would be some other company that uses the efficiency of the Internet to grab market share.
Amazon, for its part, does what it says it will do, and efficiently. Whenever I have ordered anything from Amazon, it’s arrived in a breathtakingly short time.
In this light, I have a hard time finding sympathy for big publishers, multinational corporations that are self-appointed gatekeepers of the written word.
What if we change the question
What if we shift our focus from the publisher and bookseller to the author? What if the authors, the people who put most of the work into producing a book, got the greatest part of the proceeds? What if publishers and printers and retailers were only incidental to the value chain?
It would be an ideal world. But I’m not hopeful it will arrive.