Monday, August 11, 2014

Where do you stand when the boundaries blur?

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’ĂȘtre 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.


  1. Good points as always. Only time will tell, but if the name of self-publishing is not to be forever tarnished then Indie writers will also have to polish their editorial act or we'll be in a position where the large percentage of self publishing writers will be seen as a bunch of careless hacks, prompting the people we all strive to impress to continue buying from traditional publishing houses.

    1. Yes, good points. Shouldn't the author be involved in deciding the price of their book? I think Amazon is right in keeping the prices low. I don't buy e-books over $6 because it just doesn't seem worth. More and more, I'm thinking self-publishing is the way to go.

  2. If you read the letter by Amazon to authors, they make it clear they've already done the analytics. They stand to make MUCH MORE MONEY when the price is lower. I would listen to them. These guys know every move people make on their site and the selling patterns, etc. If they're fighting it's because it makes them more money, PERIOD. The Publishers think it devalues their author's work. I understand they should be allowed to charge whatever they want - so then, don't use Amazon to sell you books - that's it. Go find another bookseller to peddle your $15-20 e-books.

  3. Interesting thoughts. I'm just coming into this world for the first time as I try to self-publish my first book, and to be honest it's all a bit overwhelming. I had no idea it was this complex, and I'm still scratching my head trying to figure out how and who with I should self-publish my first book. This opens my eyes a bit, so thank you.

  4. Until there is a more effective channel than Amazon, e-tailers, and traditional publishing, it's pointless to speculate about authors being in the kingpin position here. Authors aren't going to magically rise up and claim ownership of the supply chain. That's silly. Authors are pawns in this drama and will remain so for some time to come. If you think you can do a better job of selling your books than Amazon (or Hachette or whomever) then go right ahead. No one's stopping you.

    Most authors have no distribution channel at all and are completely reliant on the current owners of these channels (and on luck, frankly) to get books into customers' hands. Few authors have enough of a platform to break away from the rest of publishing. Most authors struggle to get blog visitors, Twitter followers, etc. Most self-published authors have no idea what they're up against (until they go out there and find out the hard way).

    Blogs like this one are valuable, but let's not delude ourselves that authors are in a position of power here. We're not. And it's hard to see how that will change any time soon. I don't say it's impossible. I'm saying, most authors are unable to generate meaningful sales on their own. We should be talking about how to change THAT.