Table of Contents - 08/09/12
… If Waterstones starts selling Kindles, we can expect bad comparable store sales, ineffective loyalty programs and customers who think it’s okay to walk into a store staffed by people Amazon does not pay and ask them what they can put on their Kindles. It’s culturalizing what’s already happening now. It’s going to be one of the biggest screw-ups in the history of book retail.
I saw Michael Norris speak to a room full of suited publishing industry professionals (and me, in my jeans and t-shirt) and I have to say I kind of have a data-junkie crush on the dude. ^KE
Whether you like it or not, Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James is the book everyone is talking about. For those of you who don’t know, the book has a questionable and polarizing beginning as erotic Twilight fan-fiction on the internet. After a swift changing of character names and setting, the web-based author Snowqueens Icedragon self-published the racy tale as a trilogy under a new pseudonym. It didn’t take long for word-of-mouth to propel James into a legitimate publishing deal with Random House publishing.
I won’t comment on the quality of writing in James’ books here, because that sort of judgment hasn’t seemed to play a part in its popularity thus far. The most scholarly thing that can be said about the Fifty Shades phenomenon is that Guy Debord has been strangely validated once again.
From a bookseller’s standpoint, the most interesting phenomenon to observe when observing the customer clamor over this trilogy is the shift in publishing attitude… or lack of.
There is a certain amount of elitist fervor among authors, reviewers, and discerning readers who deem the publication of this self-published work as some sort of blow to the legitimacy of publishing, but has that much really changed? I remember the same opinions being thrown about back when Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was published. Anyone who has read the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail could convincingly argue that Brown was writing fan fiction of his own.
While everyone nervously titters about the subject matter and jealously opines about publishing decisions and movie deals, I think it is interesting to note that we are seeing an opportunity arise for writers of worth to get their work into more readers’ hands. As the publishing industry works hard to wrap their heads around the changing landscape beneath them, writers and readers are using their digital voices to affect that change.
A less salacious example is the recently announced publication of Sergio De La Pava’s Naked Singularity by University of Chicago Press. Pava’s novel was self-published in 2008 and gained popularity with the help of a few well-received reviews from interested and respected critics.
I’d like to humbly suggest a call to action in this age when all readers have a voice. Instead of feeding the fires of the print vs. ebook debate, or spending our energies raging against the publishing decisions of a few, let us seek out the literature we love and the books we wish to read and shout about them from our digital mountain tops.
Word of mouth has always been a powerful tool and today it is more powerful than ever. Books have always been a social medium in my life. I read them. I discuss them with others. I pass them along. I recommend them. I don’t spend a lot of time talking about the ones I don’t enjoy… Present blog post excluded.
So, what books have you enjoyed today?
The book world is being rocked by an antitrust lawsuit right now, and all readers, book-buyers, and booksellers will be affected by the outcome. Like all lawsuits, it’s complicated… but here’s how it boils down.
The justice department contends that five of the six major publishing houses made a deal with Apple in 2009 to raise the price of e-books. Amazon.com had been selling most new release e-books for $9.99- essentially, at cost- in order to entice people to buy e-readers. Publishers became concerned that they wouldn’t make any money off e-books sales if customers got used to the steep discounts, and their deal with Apple essentially forced Amazon to accept “agency-model” contracts with these publishers. This meant that publishers set the prices, not Amazon. Three of the five publishing houses have already settled on terms very generous to retailers- meaning Amazon- and the repercussions of this will be large.
While at first glance, five publishers and Apple colluding to raise the price of e-books is disturbing- and it is- the effects of this lawsuit may be moreso. Essentially, the justice department has prohibited publishers from: disallowing deals on e-books, even if they’re sold at a loss (so long as the entire publishers catalogue isn’t sold at a loss… though this doesn’t help when bestselling books aren’t making money for their publishers); negotiating with retailers as a group so that they may have more power at the negotiating table; and retaliating against retailers who set their prices too low (publishers couldn’t pull their books off of Amazon for that reason). These restrictions will last two years.
In the end, it doesn’t come down to “retailers” vs. publishers. It comes down to Amazon vs. publishers, given that Amazon already has 70% of the e-book market and can afford to discount at a loss more than retailers like Barnes and Noble, if it means that more people are buying the Kindle. This lawsuit gives Amazon two years to consolidate its hold on the e-book marketing by offering any discount it pleases- and because most e-books are proprietary, at the end of two years many people will have built up enough of a library that they may not want to switch to a new device. In trying to break a publishing collusion, could the government lawsuit create an e-book monopoly? (Which would, a tad ironically, probably raise prices…)
There are no good guys or bad guys here. While a lower price for readers is fantastic in the short term, it may be problematic in the long term if the already struggling publishing houses can’t survive the new rules. This lawsuit could be the beginning of a long and slow end. However, just like with the music industry in the early oughts, an easing of the publishers’ strangle-hold on the book industry just may mean a new creative revitalization for e-books and physical books alike. The upcoming years will be years of heavy and rapid change, and I can’t wait to see what will happen.
What’s your take on the situation?
But Scott, if you do respond, I think it would be helpful to explain why, in the entirety of your defense of the publishing system as currently constituted, you didn’t once mention legacy publishing’s lockstep 17.5% digital royalty rate or its lockstep refusal to include digital escalators equivalent to paper ones. Do you think 17.5% is fair, desirable, and acceptable? If not, what have you been doing to change it, and why have you thus far been unsuccessful?
I’ve got my ticket for BEA 2012 and I’m excited, but industry insider-ism between publishers and booksellers has always smacked of elitism to me anyway. Bring on the READERS! Readers + Writers = Ability for publishers and booksellers to exist. Simple mathematics. ^KE