The Author’s Guild blog has just posted a letter from Scott Turow titled “Grim News”. The post expounds upon how the DOJ’s recent announcement it intends to file suit against major publishers for conspiring to fix prices on books is a terrible thing for everyone, and basically defends the assorted publishers’ actions.
Leaving aside the major issue of trying to excuse publishers taking allegedly illegal actions in the defense of their business model, let’s look at the rest of the issues a minute.
Remember, his thoughts were sparked by the “Grim News” that the Department of Justice has just announced it plans to sue several major publishers and Apple for colluding to price fix ebooks with Apple, via the agency pricing system on ebooks. His thoughts are here.
Scott Confuses “Bookseller” with “Brick and Mortar Bookseller”
It’s an easy mistake to make. We’re all used to thinking about bookstores as those actual places you go to, you know, buy books. But that’s simply not the case for most readers anymore. Most consumer books are bought online. In fact, Amazon alone is thought to have close to half the trade book market in the US, these days.
Are the brick bookstores getting hammered? Sure. First by B&N – then by Borders – then Amazon, and now by ebooks from a variety of sellers. I know a lot of you reading this like the physical bookstores, enjoy browsing the stacks. Lots of folks liked buying CDs from a big CD store, too. That didn’t save CD stores, and bookstores are headed to the same place they did: online. Today most music is bought in MP3; and what’s left of the CD market is mostly either top album sales in Walmarts or online sales. Some music is coming out in MP3 only now, and that trend will likely grow.
We’re about seven years post iPod. We’re also about three years post Kindle. Based on comparisons of the trends in each, it is extremely likely that book buying is going to follow a similar pattern, which means over the next few years almost all chain bookstores will close, most indie bookstores (physical ones) will close, and most (but nowhere near all) books bought will be ebooks.
We don’t have to like it, but we should prepare ourselves for the idea. Ebooks are a replacement media, and are almost certainly the last nail in the coffin of physical bookstores. Nothing publishers or writers do is going to substantially slow that process.
Scott Attacks the Amazon Walled Garden
Scott attacks Amazon for having a walled garden, using it as an excuse for their alleged collusion with Apple. That would make sense – walled garden approaches to commerce limit competition, and aren’t really good for suppliers. But Apple, Sony, and B&N each have their own walled gardens too. It’s about as hard to get most Apple epubs into a Nook as it is to get most Kindle books into a Nook. Just because a company is using the epub “standard” doesn’t mean that DRM makes it easy to transfer the books to a new reader.
I recall getting a free review copy of Stephen King’s “11/22/63″ from the publisher’s website. I know from personal experience that converting a Kindle book to Nook is a LOT easier than getting that book onto the Nook software on my cell phone (yes, my cell phone has both Nook and Kindle apps – why not?). Shame on Scribner for making what ought to be an easy experience into one so painful that, tech savvy as I am, I had to spend half an hour trying to figure out how to follow arcane directions that I had to use Google to find in the first place.
Here’s the other catch: Amazon didn’t make their place a walled garden; publishers gave Amazon the walls. It’s called “DRM” – digital rights management. The little bits of code which prevent an ebook from being converted or copied. Years ago, the music industry figured out DRM was bad for business, bad for sales, and dumped it. The book publishing business has not caught on that the same might just be true for them, so pretty universally big publishers launch their ebooks with DRM.
Yes, I can remove DRM. In fact, just about anyone can remove DRM. But it’s a pain, and unless your Google-fu is strong enough, finding out how can be tough. Most customers probably won’t bother unless they’re driven to do so for some reason. Which means the DRM publishers *ordered* Amazon to put on their books is one of the most powerful tools Amazon has for retaining customers (note: Amazon is just as happy to not put DRM on books; none of my works have DRM on Amazon, because I don’t want DRM on my books – I want readers to be able to read my books where they want to). Once customers have invested heavily in a DRM-laden library from Amazon (or anyone else) they are unlikely to switch venues.
Publishers, you MADE the monster you fear.
Scott Mixes Up His Facts About Booksellers
Once again, recall: Scott only considers bookstores with a physical store “booksellers”. Those online places which ship tens of millions of books per year to customers don’t count.
He claims “bookstores are critical to modern bookselling”. No – they’re critical to large publishers maintaining their oligopoly on distribution of books. Books are selling just fine online.
He claims “Marketing studies consistently show that readers are far more adventurous in their choice of books when in a bookstore than when shopping online.” To which I reply, “lies, damned lies, and statistics”. There are very few studies out there about book buying patterns performed in the last two years which I have not read. I have never seen data which even vaguely backs up his claim. Citation, please?
He says “Publishing shouldn’t have to choose between bricks and clicks.” He’s missed the point. Publishers don’t get to choose where they sell their product. Readers get to choose where they want to buy the product publishers sell. If readers want to buy books from physical bookstores, they will; if not, they won’t. Publishers don’t get a say in this.
He says “A robust book marketplace demands both bookstore showrooms to properly display new titles and online distribution for the convenience of customers.” A fascinating claim. Why? He never explains. In fact, the majority of fiction ebook bestsellers in my recent genre surveys have no print presence in bookstores, putting the lie to his claim. What he truly means is major publishers need bookstore showrooms to properly display their wares and advertise them to readers so they can charge higher prices for their work.
He claims that bestsellers are OK, but that “For new authors, however, a difficult profession is poised to become much more difficult.” Again, pretty obviously false. Even a cursory investigation of Amazon shows that, on that site alone, several thousand self published ebooks are selling in excess of a thousand copies a month. The reverse of his claim is actually true: as bookshelf space decreases, bestseller advances are going down. However, more “midlist” writers are making excellent returns on their work than we’ve seen in over fifty years.
Scott Thinks Agency Helped!
No, not really. What agency pricing did was allow publishers to set their prices: which they did. At very high levels. In fact, skimming by Amazon one can find hundreds of ebooks from major presses at $10-15. Most of those titles have numerous 1-star reviews from customers protesting the price. Publishers didn’t help themselves with their ebook pricing scheme.
But most devastating for publishers is the loss of a majority of the ebook market.
There’s only one type of book growing in sales today – ebooks. Print sales are declining, and will likely continue to decline in a rapid slide for years yet before they settle down. Ebooks are the growth market. Ebooks are what most readers will be buying – if they are not already – within a year or two. And by pricing themselves out of the market, all existing evidence says that publishers have handed a majority share of that market to self publishing writers and small presses. No, we don’t have all the data to absolutely and positively prove that as fact – but all data which does exist, including all the market surveys I have personally done, support that theory adequately enough.
The folks who will mourn the passing of agency pricing the most are not publishers – it’s the indie writers, the self publishers, who will miss it the most. Agency pricing has allowed self publishers to dominate ebook fiction in a manner which would never have been possible if Amazon and B&N had been able to discount books from major publishers. Once Amazon gets to discount the hit bestsellers (at their expense), indies will have a harder time of it. We can only hope enough writers will have won enough fanbase by the time that happens to make a difference in the long run.
So yes, when agency pricing falls, life will get harder for writers, but not for the reasons Scott suggests.
So what the heck is going on there over at the Author’s Guild?
They’re sticking up for publishers committing allegedly illegal actions. They’re spreading information that’s got more holes than swiss cheese, loaded with false claims and erroneous data. They’re favoring one retailer over another. They’re proving they’ve locked their minds into 20th century retail, ignoring the fact that for better or worse, retail has changed with the advent of the internet.
Perhaps Scott, who wrote this article, really believes this stuff he wrote; it’s certainly being shoved down the throat of the public by enough mass media sources (the owners of whom also own the publishers currently under threat). But shouldn’t somebody over at the Author’s Guild be better informed? It’s embarrassing to see this sort of tripe up on the website of what’s supposedly a writer-focused organization.