Is it time for Atlas to Shrug?

Over the last few weeks, my posts here have focused on the Department of Justice’s antitrust filings against Apple and five of the big six publishers. It’s hard to think about the state of the publishing industry and not wonder how the suit, the settlement three of the defendants have already agreed to as well as any subsequent trial will change publishing. The last five years have already seen major changes in the industry, many of those changes driven by Amazon and the rapid adoption by the reading public of dedicated e-readers and e-books.

It is also difficult, if not impossible, to think about the DoJ’s case and not consider the business practices of the publishers, and big box booksellers, over the last decade or more. Again, you have to throw Amazon into the mix because the growth of Amazon pointed out that, despite what we’ve been told time and again, people do read. I know, I can hear Amazon’s detractors saying that the only reason Amazon has grown the way it has is because it undersells the physical bookstores. That is part of it. But let’s be honest, folks. Most of us are impulse buyers. We loved bookstores because they had row after row of books we could browse through. Sure, we might have gone into the store with a book or two in mind. But how often did we leave with more books than we were originally going to buy?

So what impelled the mass exodus to Amazon?

Part of it is the lower prices Amazon offers. But there is more. Amazon customer service, especially its Kindle customer service, is second to none, at least in my opinion. Then there is the selection. E-books aside, Amazon has BOOKS. You know you can go to the site and find just about anything you want.

But that’s still not enough to drive most bibliophiles from physical bookstores. After all, we love getting recommendations from knowledgeable staff. We love walking up and down the aisles of a well-stocked physical store, our fingers lovingly caressing the spines of books as we look for authors whose work we enjoy. The only problem? Well, problems? Over-expansion by the big box stores saturated the market. Prices for books increased until most readers no longer bought as many books as they once did. They — gasp — started returning to their local libraries (or became real traitors and switched to e-books). In an ill-advised attempt to cut costs, a number of these big box stores let a lot of their full-time employees go and went with part-time employees, many of whom simply looked at it as a job and who didn’t share the love of books with their customers. They didn’t know the stock.

Then came another cost-cutting measure. Shelf space for books decreased and toys, knick-knacks and other, non-book items took over more and more floorspace. Most genre fiction and a lot of non-fiction took big hits there. Guess what, by decreasing the number of books in the store, the sellers decreased the reason for book lovers to come in. Add to that the fact that special orders often went astray or weren’t taken and, well, readers started looking for alternate sources for their books.

Amazon was off and running and oh the hue and cry that went up. It was much the same as it is today. Now, I can hear you asking why this rehash of the situation? That’s simple. I read a post over at The Passive Voice yesterday that had me shaking my head. It seem World Book Night is coming. Thousands of free books will be handed out for free to encourage reading. Among the underwriters for the event are Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million. But where’s Amazon? Is Jeff Bezos as evil as legacy publishing would have us believe? Not at all. It seems Amazon wasn’t invited to participate.

“[T]he philosophy behind World Book Night has been about physical books in physical places, handed out person to person,” said [Director Carl] Lennertz.

Wait, an event to promote reading is keeping out the largest single player in the bookselling field because it doesn’t have a physical store. Besides, doesn’t Amazon have warehouses of physical books that can be handed out just about anywhere? Maybe Jeff Bezos said they wouldn’t go to the local library or mall or shopping center to hand out books to those wanting them. Oh, wait, he couldn’t have because Amazon wasn’t even asked to participate.

Is it just me or does it sound like the event organizers are more interested in making a political/economic statement than they are in actually getting books into the hands of those who might actually need them, much less want them?

This sort of thinking reminded me of the quote I had in a post a week or so ago where a publishing executive commented that there were already too many e-books out there. How in the world can there be too many books of any format? Who decides? Then I remembered this quote from Atlas Shrugged:

There should be a law limiting the sale of any book to ten thousand copies. This would throw the literary market open to new talent, fresh ideas and non-commercial writing. If people were forbidden to buy a million copies of the same piece of trash, they would be forced to buy better books. … Only those whose motive is not money-making should be allowed to write. … Ten thousand readers is enough for any book.

Think about it, folks. Doesn’t this, in so many ways, represent what we are seeing from legacy publishing now? Other than these same publishers wanting that one big blockbuster a year or so, I really do wonder if they don’t want to move away from genre fiction. Think of how much easier it would be for them to get their message, the “right” political or social message out. Of course, you’ll never convince me that legacy publishing, as it exists now, wants new talent and fresh ideas. Not when we are still getting rehashes of Twilight and that is the sort of book getting pushed. Don’t believe me. Check out the latest “it” book, Fifty Shades of Gray.

As for the part of the quote about letting only those whose “motive is not money-making” being allowed to write, these same publishers are already trying to enforce that now. As Dave and Sarah have so eloquently pointed out in earlier posts, writers are the creators of the books. It is our words, our creativity, our blood, sweat and tears that make up the product being sold. Yet we get the smallest portion of the sales price. To look at it in another light, we are the debtor who has been forced into bankruptcy and the publishers are the sharks coming in and buying our assets for pennies on the dollar. Worse, we have been letting them do it.

We’re told there is no way to determine the actual number of copies sold. Sorry. I don’t buy it. This is the day of computers, of instant world-wide communication. Stores accepting credit or debit cards have readers that can instantly send that transaction to the credit card company, making sure the store gets paid. It’s the same with checks. Then there are those wonderful new cash registers that scan the bar codes of items being bought and automatically deduct that item from the inventory and can even let you know when you need to reorder an item.

And yet publishers and distributors can’t tell an author how many copies of his book have been sold.

Let me throw one more factor into the mix. If the publishers can’t tell us how many books have been sold using traditional print and distribution methods, how in the hell are they going to give us accurate numbers as expresso print machines become more and more prevalent in bookstores?

Add to that the creative way of reporting royalties — again, something we’ve let them get away with for far too long. Royalties are determined not by the actual number of books sold. Oh no, that would make too much sense. Publishers rely upon Bookscan numbers. Bookscan doesn’t report every sale made by every bookstore or online retailer. Not even close. Yet these are the numbers royalties are based on. And we have let them do this. Worse, our agents, those men and women who have a fiduciary duty to look after our best interests, have let them do it.

Authors are being screwed out of second printing payments because publishers are now doing what’s called micro-printings. These don’t qualify as second — or third, etc — printings. So, no additional monies to be paid out to the writers, the creators of the book.

Then there are the cancellations of series that “just didn’t connect with the readers”, series that have books still on the shelves of bookstores years after they first came out. In case you don’t know already, most books don’t stay on the shelves of a bookstore more than six weeks. To have a book on the shelves a year, much less two or more years, after it came out means that book is selling. But publishers are reporting few to no sales and not thinking authors are smart enough to 1) read their fan mail which often includes photos of the books on the shelves of their local store, or 2) go to the bookstores themselves to look for — and sign — their own books, or 3) to take advantage of Amazon’s offer of free bookscan numbers.

And our agents do nothing to stop it. Oh, they may put up a bit of a fight, but not much. Instead, they remind us that we still want to sell to these same legacy publishers that are figuratively, if not literally, screwing us. So we mustn’t rock the boat. Now, I’ll give you that agents are between a rock and a hard place: they have a duty to represent their client in that client’s best interest. But they also have to work with these same legacy publishers for all their clients. So rocking the boat for one can have negative implications for their other clients. But what those agents don’t seem to realize is that the negative implications are short-term. That’s especially true if the publishing industry changes as I expect it to over the next few years.

So why are so many authors afraid of jumping off the legacy publishing ship? Some of them because they’ve been thedahlings of the publishers. Others, the majority in my opinion, because they are scared. They know the pitfalls of legacy publishing but they’ve come up through the ranks at a time when small press was bad. It meant you were at the end of your publishing career. Self-publishing meant you were no good. After all, it meant you couldn’t get past the gatekeepers. That is no longer the case, especially when it comes to e-books.

But there’s another reason. Legacy publishers, like the looters in Atlas Shrugged, have been on a years’ long campaign of disinformation. They have conveniently rewritten recent publishing history to forget how the big box bookstores put the smaller bookstores out of business. Instead, Amazon is the root of all the ails of publishing. What else would account for one of the publishers saying the reason for entering into the agency model was to help insure the success of a new e-book retailer? Remember, we aren’t talking about Joe Blow e-books. We are talking about Apple. Sorry, if that isn’t one of the most insane comments I’ve heard in a long time, I don’t know what is.

Perhaps it is time for authors, especially genre authors to take a page from their academic counterparts. Perhaps it is time for us to consider doing something like Journal publishing reform. Or perhaps it is simply time for us to remember that we are the creators of the word on the page and it is time we took control of our own futures and not rely upon outdated business practices and executives who are not considering our best interests in the distribution, marketing and reporting of our sales.

20 Comments

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20 responses to “Is it time for Atlas to Shrug?

  1. ppaulshoward

    Very good. [Smile]

  2. So, when can we hang them from lamp posts, again? I have my pitchfork RIGHT here.

    • Hanging’s too good for them, and doesn’t last long enough. I’m thinking stocks, rotten vegetables, and then being paraded around the town wearing the heavy wooden collar (and more rotten vegetables). After a week of that, they get put in the iron birdcage and hung at the town gates, where children will taunt them by reading wonderful stories in their presence and pointing and laughing. I suppose you could use your pitchfork on them too if you wanted.

    • Well, you know I’m ready any time….

  3. Names are so odd. When I read “World Book Night” I thought “The Dark Ages of Reading” or TEOT Book AWKI and other apocalyptic scenarios, involving someone’s predictions of the murder-suicide of the industry.

    Ah well, free books all over the world is better, if less exciting.

    • Pam, most of these are “worthy” books — ie. not for the likes of us. ;) Mind you Amazon gives free books EVERY DAY. If I were them, I would give free ebooks special that day, and make a big deal ;)

    • Agreed, but leaving Amazon our of the mix because they don’t have a physical store is beyond me. As I said, it sounds like the organizers are more concerned about making a political statement than in actually fulfilling the goal of the event.

  4. Stephen Simmons

    I chose to submit my work to a publisher primarily because I liked the idea of my name being associated with the names of several pros I respect profoundly. I went with NRP instead of a legacy publisher … for pretty mucb the same reason, come to think of it …

    Now that I’m finally starting to feel productive again, I expect I’ll likely be dusting off Amanda’s series on self-publishing from a couple months back and heading out into the cold … but I’ll still be keeping at least one thing in NRP’s slush pile at all times, too. And I’ll probably fire off something to Baen at some point, too. Belt-AND-suspenders … but I don’t see any submissions to the Bad Old Boys anywhere in the mix.

    • Steve, first off, I’ll be expanding the series and doing an online workshop in another couple of weeks — I’m late doing it, but life and work have interfered. I’ll let you know when I get ready to do it.

      I recommend doing a mix of self-publishing and going through a small to mid-sized press. Why? First, because it means you don’t have to spend as much time editing and preparing your manuscript for publication. The time you spend doing that is time you spend not writing. For myself, I’m not going the legacy publishing route nor am I going through an agent right now simply because I want to see how the industry shakes out. But that doesn’t mean things won’t change in the future.

      BTW, your submission is next on my to be read list. Give me a week to ten days.

      • Stephen Simmons

        Call me weird (lots of other people do), but I was actually viewing the delay as a sort of -on-the-whole-probably-good thing. If the story and/or the novel were tripe, they’d have come running home with their tales between their legs by now. (Yes, that was intentional … you needed to ask? ) The growing wait-time tells me the Press is growing busier, which translates to more traffic. :)

      • Could you post a link to your series? I recall reading at least a part of it, but can’t seem to find it now to reread.

  5. These publishers don’t seem to realize that people recognize self serving bullshit today more than they did a century ago. We are not small town hicks dependent on a local paper for our news and opinions.
    They make the mistake politicians and other business people do of thinking that if they don’t hear any huge objection then everybody bought the propaganda.
    If someone today is treated badly by say, GM, maybe one in ten thousand will raise a hue and cry and cause a fuss. But many more will just buy a Ford next time. It catches up to them in time. All the more so when they are willfully ignoring reality.

    • Why should they realize this when they fail to realize that their business model doesn’t work and hasn’t for years? In so many ways, the legacy publishers do remind me of the looters in Atlas Shrugged. They want to take the work, the creation, of the writers and use it for their own good without proper compensation and without proper marketing or relationships the buying public either. As far as the public is concerned, to many in legacy publishing think they know what is best for us and to hell with what we want. Sorry, I don’t want to give over complete control of my reading material to these publishers any more than I want to give it to the government. I’m grown and don’t need a nanny.

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