Monday, February 1, 2010


My writing time this weekend was eclipsed by other things (both writing wise and sick-kid wise) so I'm going to fall back on a few bullet points about this whole Amazon/Macmillan nonsense.

  • Neither of these companies is doing it for the customers. Customers are bags of money, and they both want to get more of that money. I've seen supporters of each side talk about how the other company isn't really interested in customers. And they're right. They just are operating under some sort of delusion that their team is different.

  • Ebooks are not free. Even setting aside the costs of paying the writer, editor and other folks involved in the actual creation of content, storing, distributing and maintaining the electronic files introduces costs.

  • However, it is not unreasonable to expect that ebooks are cheaper to produce (printing), distribute (shipping), and warehouse (storage). [1] While the costs for doing these things are non-zero, they are also costs that diminish as they scale up.

  • Most of the reason this is any kind of argument is that neither side is particularly transparent about their figures, and the figures that they put forward are usually so obviously cooked as to be useless.[2] This is, by the way, a good indicator that both sides are on shaky ground. If one side was clearly in the right, they could break down the costs and make their case.

  • Macmillan expects too high a price for ebooks. Seriously. They're nuts, and the iPad will not save them.

  • Amazon's desire to control the ebook market has made them handled this very stupidly indeed.[3]

  • In a vacuum, authors have every reason to back Macmillan because they need their books to be sold. Amazon taking down the books was a punch right in the affiliate link. Authors talk a lot, and do so reasonably well. That meant there were a lot more voices making the case for why Amazon were a bunch of poopy heads than the reverse. Amazon was already losing the perception war when they decided to so profoundly misuse the term monopoly as to start a meme. Authors are marketers, whether they accept that or not, and this was a marketing conflict.[4]

  • The fact that one side was better marketed than the other, even accidentally, has no actual correlation to rightness.

  • EDIT TO ADD: None of this forgive amazon apparently having its head firmly up its ass. They could have been entirely on the side of angels, but handling it the way they did was flipping the bird to everyone who might have been sympathetic, including authors. Authors know that publishers are bastards, and they're great spokesmen (see above) so punching them in the head with no explanation is not a great way to start out making your case.

  • This was not a war, or even a real skirmish. This was a shot across the bow at best. In 10 years this will seem so charmingly dated as to be funny. Publishing and bookseller is going to change dramatically and disruptively over the coming years. And for people who have made it, the successful authors, it's going to either be a time of great opportunity or of vast and painful suckage. But I think a lot of authors have already seen this coming - this is already an era where authors need to be their own champion to survive, and that's going to become more true than less.

  • I am sympathetic to the idea that as a writer you just want to write, not deal with also being a marketer and so on. That fact is, i think, going to have some big impact on the role of agents in the future. But the unpleasant reality is that if its your job, then you are subject to the whims of the industry. That can suck. I know. I feel you. But I work in a goddamned cloth covered cubicle, so my sympathy has limits.[5]

  • Seriously. The book trade is a byzantine mess. The numbers on who buys books and how many they buy can break your heart. Book lovers are killing bookstores. The distinction between loving reading and loving books is leading to knife fights. Disruptive change is going to hurt, maybe a lot, but there's a case to be made that it's just what we need.

1 - All of which to say nothing of avoiding taxation on backstock and punative returns, two of the poison pills of the book trade today.

2 - If, for example, as MacMillan claims, printing represents only 1% of the cost of a book, I admit I wonder what magical trees they are using to get their paper. Oh, I'm sure it's true if looked at just the right way, but that's spin where transparency is desirable.

3 - On this point I concede that it's possible that Jeff Bezos is an ebook true believer - a lot of Amazon's decisions can be seen as promoting the medium, albeit on Amazon's terms. Ebooks and ebook readers are more than 15 years old at this point, but it took the Kindle to make it a viable market. Of course, the counterargument is that this was a cynical ploy: Amazon created the market so they could control it. Might be true. Truth is probably more mixed.

4 - This is more true of the internet than the real world, but we're talking about ebooks here, and most of that audience is on the internet.

5 - I know several authors and all of them work their asses off, and they are exactly the kinds of folks who I think will weather the transition well. If I sound snarky at authors, lets just say that some sound a lot more entitled than others.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. A couple of thoughts having read this mainly revolve around the fact that while there may be a fascinating and robust series of wacky hijinks involving content dealers, publishers, authors, and whatnot, there is still the inherent behavior of the giant sacks of cash that consume these books. And while I am not someone who buys e-books or sells them, I do wonder as a bystander why the simple fact of convenience isn't stronger here.

    Take, for example, someone who sees a book review and goes 'great, I'll grab it on the Kindle'. Crap, it's not in it! Well, I wasn't that interested, I can't easily access a store while traveling, I Want E-Ink or No Ink, et al. There is a sale lost because of the lack of availability in that format. Now, we insert that book back at, say, normal price. Then there's a different complaint - pricing's out of line, I'm being robbed by The Man. The price even may be _less_ than a physical copy, but it isn't cheap _enough_ to justify the e-copy, given lack of printing, warehousing, High School students being hired to sell this to you while listening to their iPods, and so on. If one is not willing to go buy a physical copy, they are giving a significant mark for the value of convenience, and that should be considered when evaluating how much someone should pay.

    I think that there is, on some level, a set of very good concerns that consumers should have looking at the evolution of the e-market for books. On the other hand, I get concerned at a trend, watching all of this, of what seems like an increasing amount of people diving from a rational platform of concern into a giant pond of entitlement.

    While ebook pricing seems mercurial at best and competitive tea leaf reading at worst, there are other alternatives out there beyond the e-format. Going from the traditional awesomeness of used books to things like (God Bless) Daedelus, to even looking for sales at regular stores (or for free if you return on time at Libraries), to Audible. So if one is unhappy with the way pricing is done for Sony, the Kindle, iHateReaders, or whatever else comes out, there is a point where your wallet matters more than what Amazon is doing.

  3. @Morgan Speaking purely as a reader, I can point to a number of concrete sales that were made or loss based on the availability of the ebook and in a smaller number of cases, where the price has spurred similar decisions. That said, there are many more cases where low price has made me willing to try something out than there have been cases where the price above $9.99 has been a barrier, but that barrier's very real all the same.

    I mean, you're totally right in that I got by for years with Daedalus and used bookstores, with the real bookstore being only necessary for things I wanted in a timely fashion. I can see that argument, and if the kindle (and other devices) had a more robust backlist, I could even see positioning it as something designed for the backlist, not the bestsellers of the day.

    Unfortunately, since the bestsellers are where everyone makes their money, no one wants to surrender that piece of ground.

    Thing is, this is my second time to this dance. My rocket ebook is still in a box somewhere, and with it comes the certainty that this could all crash and burn. Maybe the demand that books that are purely electronic be cheaper _isn't_ sustainable (Though I suspect that's crap. Like most advances in production that reduce costs, there's resistance to acknowledging that it means reduced profits.)

    But the crazy thing is that if it happens this time, the readers won't end up in a box. Internet piracy of books will never be as big as it is for music, but its just as easy - maybe even easier. There's now infrastructure for distribution and devices for reading, and that chicken is never, ever going back into the egg.

    That's the reality I come back to whenever things get too stupid in the name of business. I recognize and acknowledge the concerns of the industry, and as much as I dig the Kindle, I tolerate a lot of crap (Price, fragility, half-assed technology, stupid formats, DRM) because I recognize that it's still early in the game, and people need to figure out what they're doing. As long as everyone is committed to making ebooks work, I can be patient.

    But if they're not? Well, I can rationally apply enlightened self interest to this too.

    -Rob D.

  4. ...when they decided to so profoundly misuse the term monopoly as to start a meme.

    I keep seeing this and banging my head against a desk when I do. Amazon actually did use the term correctly, and not in a bullshit manner, but in a completely appropriate and contextual "that's how it is used in English" manner.

    There was no misuse at all on the part of Bezos. The misuse was actually on the side of those who have made a meme out of it, by making the mistake that "monopoly = some kind of evil Microsoft". It is equivalent to the misuse in the "Evolution is just a theory!" meme.

    Anyways, the rest of your thoughts are spot-on from my perspective; very clear and reasonable as usual.

  5. The problem with the comment is that it comes across like a tautology. Now, I'm sympathetic - the publisher lockdown of content and its subsequent impact on any attempt to actually have competition is a craptastic thing, and in a technical sense it's even a monopoly on a particular good.

    But saying it that way robs it of that nuance. If you were to say to me that someone had a monopoly on a given good, I would imagine that's part of the nature of the good. If the good is defined by the maker then my response will be "That's maybe technically true, but so what?"

    All of which is to say I think Bezos' *point* was not a bad one, but the method of presenting it was in keeping with the rest of the public face on this.

    -Rob D.

  6. I absolutely disagree with that interpretation, but there's no sense in arguing over a relatively minor point given our agreement on everything else.

  7. You're the only guy I know who almost drown in a pool of healing.


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