Now Die, Die, Die, Die, Die!*

by Sarah Hoyt

Yesterday night I didn’t know what to blog about.  The problem looked even more complex when Amanda Green dropped Mad Genius Club rotating Saturday blogship on my lap late last night.

Fortunately the gods of fate are kind to me.  And fortunately the publishing industry will never, ever, ever run out of teh stoopid for me to marvel at.  So just as I was about to go to bed, a friend of mine gave me a link to The Passive Voice which made my blood boil and my mind become awed at the sheer amount of stupid in this field.  The particular link was this.

 The background for this is the DOJ case against the big six publishers who are accused of collusion in pricing in the so called “agency pricing” that was imposed on ebook retailers.  Amanda has covered this very ably here (as here, here, here here and here)  I don’t have time to go into it, but fell free to check it up.

Every time Amanda talked about it, someone came up with the talking point that “it didn’t matter” and “it didn’t hurt anyone.”  This puzzled us because on the face of it, agency pricing hurt quite a lot.  It hurt readers, who had to pay more for a book they wanted than they would have, had the free market been allowed to operate.  It hurt publishers, who sold fewer books because some people simply refuse to pay that much for what is essentially a license to carry the book on one, or a limited number of e-readers.  It hurt authors (at least it would, if publishers in most cases didn’t calculate ebook royalty by guess and by golly) because they made less money.  (This is not in dispute.  Publishers say everywhere the agency model means they’ve made less money.)

More importantly, Amanda said the law – unjust or not – is the law and price fixing is against the law, period.

 BUT the talking point still puzzled us.  How they’d even come up with that gem made no sense to us (or probably ninety percent of human beings.)  And then, as I said, a friend sent me that link.  The link was about a letter Simon Lipskar, agent and board member of the Association of Authors’ Representatives, sent to the Department of Justice regarding the antitrust suit filed by the DOJ against Apple and five large publishers alleging the group colluded to fix prices on ebooks.

 Joe Konrath, long may his beard grow, fisked the letter here.  Also linked was another column by Konrath – a letter by a publishing insider.  And that is what caused this blog post, because it FINALLY explained what they meant by “but it doesn’t hurt anyone.” 

This is the money shot: 2.  One Book Is Pretty Much The Same As Any Other.  Lipskar acknowledges, as he must, that the prices of New York Times bestselling books went up following the simultaneous industry-wide imposition of agency pricing (“prices for a limited number of titles published by these publishers increased, i.e. those ebooks that were digital editions of newly released bestselling hardcover titles.  Amazon had quite explicitly promised its consumers that these titles would be available at $9.99, and with the switch to agency pricing, these titles did indeed increase in price, mostly to $12.99”).  But, he claims, these higher prices couldn’t hurt anyone because the prices of other books decreased (“No Price Increase for Non-Bestselling Titles”).

Okay, got that?  (Beyond the fact that yes, they increased the price of non-bestselling books or else some of my books are REALLY selling beyond statements, but we’ll leave it at that.)  ONE BOOK IS JUST LIKE ANOTHER.

Look, guys, I’ve been in this field forever, and I have the bruises to prove it, but the thing about shocks me to my core.

We’ve long known that publishing execs weren’t readers.  But NOW, now, we have proof they’re not only not readers, they’re insane, or possibly an alien life form.

 What they’re saying above is that if you’re a fan, say, of Nora Roberts, you’ll be just as happy with a book by Terry Pratchett.  If you’re a fan of Jonah Goldberg, you’ll be equally pleased with a book by Michael Moore.  If you’re a fan of Robert A. Heinlein, you’ll simply adore a random book with “SF” on the cover.

Got that?  Books are fungible, which means they are interchangeable.  You want to read Shadow Warriors by Tom Clancy and we don’t have it?  No problem, we have If you Give A Mouse A Cookie.  It’s a book and it should make you just as happy.

 “Of course they don’t mean it to that extent,” you say.  “Are you out of your ever-loving mind, Sarah?”

 Okay, so they don’t mean that to THAT extent, to what extent do they meant it?  I can tell you to what extent they mean it.  They mean if you’re into a certain sub-genre of science fiction or fantasy or Romance or anything, you’ll be just as happy with a book which is more or less along the same lines.  Say, you’re a fan of Nora Roberts and her book is too expensive.  Well, you can buy this nice book by Julia Quinn (or, since JQ is also a bestseller, let’s use a made up name, like Mary Smith).  See, you have a book.  It has words and everything.  So, you – being an idiot child who is easily distracted – will be perfectly happy.

 “But Sarah,” you say, “they didn’t call us idiots who are easily distracted.”  No?  Really?  But they’ve been TREATING you and me and every other reader as idiots who are easily distracted.  This is the only way they can treat books as fungible and think a book is just as good as the other.  (And I’ll have something to say on this before I close this article, btw.)

 This particular sentence though, this concept of any book being just as good as any other suddenly made sense of a bunch of industry practices which – otherwise – make no sense whatsover.  (It also made a mockery of a bunch of other industry practices, which is why I’ll have more to say on this.)

For instance, how many of you, as readers, are aware that publishers think books are bananas?  Okay, maybe not bananas, but some other, fragile, quickly-expiring, short-sell-by-date produce?  Probably not many of you.  Heck, I didn’t when I was just a reader.  (Though it was a little different then, too, because the particular inventory tax laws that killed back list hadn’t come into existence yet.)  Most books these days have a an expiration date of just a few weeks.  When you have a traditionally published book, you have to start promoting MONTHS before it is even available because that influences how much it will be available, which influences how many will be bought in the first weeks they are on the shelf.  After that, they are removed from the shelves (if they ever got on the shelves at all) and replaced with other books.  This never made sense to me, but now it does.

If books are fungible, why would you want to read a book that’s older than a few weeks?  If any book is much like another, all that counts is that the book is new and shiny and on the shelf, right?

Or consider what publishers do, by buying books for the AUTHOR’S life story or the author’s cute face, or the author’s nice bit of leg in lace stocking.  It makes no sense to readers who – silly us – read for the story and the words and couldn’t care less if the creature who wrote them is secretly a cockroach.  BUT if one book is exactly like another, then the only way to sell them is the “image” and the “narrative” – therefore buying writers for things other than their writing?  Genius!

Or consider “stocking to the net.”  Since all books are alike, readers – those idiots – must be attaching to the writers’ name in order to buy books (who knows why.  Maybe it’s like imprinting.)  So they will buy every book with the same author name in the same amounts, even if they are in totally different fields.  Romance by Georgette Heyer?  TOTALLY the same thing as mystery by Georgette Heyer.  And if a writers’ name isn’t selling, the best thing possible is to change the name, since that’s all the reader imprints on.

Or consider that the publishers thought it was a PERFECTLY VALID and, in fact, marvelous state of affairs to be able to control which books even got seen, much less bought.  They would buy a hundred books and plan on 80 of them failing and, in fact, make it impossible for those books to succeed.  (The reason for the inventory being so large is related to all sorts of other stuff, including “holding space” and the fact that even a book which “doesn’t sell” will sell a few hundred copies, which with the new print on demand tech was enough for them to make money.)  How could they think this made sense?  How could they think they could PICK the books the public would want to read, across the country with that much exactness?  How could they think they could say “this book will sell 100,000 copies and this one will sell 500?”  Let alone why would they buy the book which would sell 500, let’s concentrate on their belief that it was a good thing to decide how much the book would sell before exposing it to the reading public (this from an industry that does no consumer surveys and in which twenty one houses turned down Harry Potter.)

HOW could any sane industry think it was a good thing to be able to say “Well, I don’t care if the customers want more Pratchett.  We shall give them more Laurell Hamilton.  They’re both fantasy.  The readers will buy more of what is in a bigger display, and that’s the end of it?”  (Of course, both Mr. Pratchett and Ms. Hamilton sell.  However, Pratchett didn’t for almost a decade in the US while selling in the UK.  Why?  Because NYC had decided he wouldn’t sell.  So he got print runs of five thousand books and was about as well known here as I am.  The moment at the first Discworld con when Pratchett said “What changed between then and now?  Different agent, different publisher.  I write the same,” was a moment of intense relief for me, because if they can hold Pratchett at that level, they can hold anyone.  It’s their decision, not the writer.  More on that later.)

Well, the publishing execs think one book is much like the other.  So, it’s perfectly fine to push the books they want to push, with the opinions and attitudes they want to promote.  The reader, is after all an idiot, and they can just buy whatever is available.

But Sarah, you say, printruns have been falling since this became policy.  Well, yes, I know that, but editors and publishers say it’s video games and TV and movies.  That’s their problem, not mine. (And even they admit readership has increased with the ebook revolution.  I WONDER why.)

Other things that are their problem – if every book is fungible and every reader will be just as happy with one book as another:

How come you stop buying an author when he/she doesn’t magically become a bestseller, when you haven’t slated him/her for it?  Because, look, if the reader will be just as happy with Harry Potter, A Farewell to Arms or If you Give A Mouse A Cookie, HOW can it be the writer’s fault?

How come you give different advance levels to different writers?  Exclude the celebrities, since you think that sells a book.  How come you give some writers millions and some a thousand?  If a book is the same as the other, then all writers should be paid the same, right?  Maybe a certain amount per word?

And if every book is the same as another book, why would anyone buy books from a certain publisher?  (Baen fans, SIT DOWN.  I’m not saying every book is the same.  Big Publishing is.  Baen is NOT part of teh stupid in this, and Baen is not guilty of this nonsense.)  Why not buy indie instead?

By their very logic this brings us to the conclusion that the big six might or might not be alien life forms or mentally damaged, but they ARE in fact fungible.

Don’t give big publishing a cookie.  BUY INDIE (Small press, micro press or self published and, of course, Baen who is in many ways indie).

*My title btw, is taken from Shakespeare, whose works still sell, and therefore – by not being bananas – puncture all of big publishing’s argument.

12 thoughts on “Now Die, Die, Die, Die, Die!*

  1. Yep, to these types the books are just another can of Pepsi. This is similar in many ways to what happened when Warner Brothers bought Atari, way back when. The programmers asked for an on-screen credit and something like 25 cents per cartridge royalty (they were selling for $50+ each). The new CEO, who’d previously run a towel company, refused (“we never gave the towel designers credits and royalties”).

    The programmers jumped ship and started Activision, whereupon the CEO learned that programmers who can fit an entertaining game into 4K of memory don’t exactly grow on trees. Also, look at what happened to Apple after former Pepsi exec John Sculley took over and forced Jobs out, then at what happened after Jobs came back. Jobs might have had numerous personal flaws, but not caring about the products and customers weren’t among them.

  2. *giggle, giggle, wipes eyes from laughter* Sorry, the first thing I thought of when I saw the title of this post was P.D.Q. Bach’s “Iphigenia in Brooklyn” and the aria about “Fish were dying, and yet their stench it did live on.”

    1. It’s a line from the play within the play in Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s one of my favorite Shakespeare quotes. My family used to have a game when the kids were little. One of us came up with a Shakespeare quotation and the other ones gave play and scene. (I was watching and listening to a lot of Shakespeare as background for my Shakespeare books and, yes, I DO realize it probably warped the boys for life.) My older son once won the game with Buzz buzz. None of us got it. (Hamlet, I THINK act II scene 2)

  3. OK, back to being a tad more serious. This piece really does explain some trends I’ve seen on shelves here and there. A regional chain covers much of the area where I’ve lived over the past decade. In the Manhattan KS branch, Baen books pretty much crowded everything but the Kushiel books, movie tie-ins, and light fantasy off the sci-fi/ fantasy shelf. Why? Because so many of the military from Ft. Riley asked for Weber, Ringo, Kratman and co. that the buyers made a special effort to cater to them. Ditto lots of books about Islam and Middle Eastern history. Westerns? One or two shelves and those were mostly classics. At another branch of that chain, in Texas, Baen gets a smaller proportion of shelf space, and a gazillion more Westerns, old and new, crowd the shelves. Why? “Because the distributors say Texans want Westerns,” according to someone in management that I knew back in the dark ages (aka High School). After all, a western is the same as a space opera, right? Red banana, yellow banana, no big difference. *snort*

      1. You have to cook red bananas. Mexi-marts and some stores that cater to Asian ethnic communities seem to have a few from time-to-time. Not as sweet as the yellows, but pretty good in their own plantain way.

        1. Our King Soopers carries red and green (not just immature, but always green) bananas, as well as brown (I think Asian?) ones. The brown ones are very sweet. Mashed red banana, the way you’d do mashed potato is pretty good. Odd, but good. (Okay, so I play with my food.)

  4. There has a commercially produced game of Shakespeare Quotes in the 70s. I got a copy for my Dad, a lifelong fan. (He has now fallen victim to the Oxford Heresy). Too easy. Quotation on demand was a common dinner-table pastime, which I have carried on to another generation.

  5. And how come, seeing as all writers are interchangable widgets… every crash is the writer’s fault? Sense… perfect sense. And don’t even start me on agents asking their authors to help to cut their own throats.

    1. They are like U-joints, there are many different brands, and different quality grades. But if some knuckle head pumps his engine up 200 HP and jacks his truck up and puts 44 inch tires under, then goes out drinking Friday night and starts putting on smoke shows, no matter what U-joint he has in it is going to break sooner or later, of course the U-joint is what actually breaks so no matter the cause it is always what gets the blame.

      Sorry for the bad metaphor, I just spent hours fighting a recalcitrant U-joint, (no I wasn’t putting on smoke shows, it was just wore out) and when I was at the parts store getting one a while back, a guy driving a truck like described above was in getting more U-joints and complaining there wasn’t a U-joint made he couldn’t break.

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