Well, they knew everyone who wasn’t a fellow Greek was a barbarian. And they invented this stuff called democracy, which meant one man one vote, unless you were a woman or a slave… All right, all right. This was three thousand years ago, and both those ideas probably seemed way too clever back then. Things have changed a bit, not always as much as we like to imagine. Human nature hasn’t a lot, even if the framework of mores we operate in has. One of the recurring themes of the stories from those high and far off days, was that hubris came before the certain fall.
It’s curious how it seems to be recurring now. It probably never went away, but we’re seeing hitherto overweening demi-gods in their little kingdoms tumble and fall. And amazingly whether we speak of Dick Fuld or the CEO’s of the big three US automakers, or countless other examples, warnings that they stood on the brink were always there. And they almost always ignored them (the CEO of Ford appears to be one who didn’t – and surviving as a result). The GFC started in the banks – they were bailed out, and their leading executives… learned nothing. Looking at Bob Diamond’s fall from grace and the steady creep of criminal proceedings towards bankers (and likely, asset forfeiture) this too could be story set in ancient Greece, where the gods punished arrogant men (and a few women) for thinking they were too big and powerful and central to fail.
In our own little firmament, the book world, the bigger (and quite a lot of the littler) publishers had become tin gods, whose whims and fancies had long been life or death to authors, and not exactly the comfort zone for readers. But they could take it or leave it. They did not have to please either producers or consumers, as without the publishers writers and readers could not meet. They were nice to the big book chains, and cozy and comfortable in their little world, which was slowly eroding under their feet. Shrinking sales and needs for the essentials of life like a fat CEO salary and a large office in NY meant that they outsourced many of the parts of the business. When you own the keys to gates to the city of the read, there is no need to work at maintaining the road, or providing food or water or pissoirs for travelers, let alone cleaning them. Editing, proof reading… someone else can do that sh!t. And then along came the Internet, and with it e-books and Internet shopping… and suddenly the cozy little world of gate-keeping became one of watching the planes fly above the wall, and a bunch of writers ignoring the rutted track and flying in. Instead of cleaning up the track, putting up ‘welcome’ signs on the gates, putting up water fountains and nice clean bathrooms, firing the surly guards and investing in airports and planes of their own, we had ‘business-as-usual’, and a lot of bad-mouthing in sweet-heart or allied bits of media. As some wag put it, trying to Tinkerbell Amazon out of existence. And then colluding to try to raise the wall. I see they’re at both again. Judging by the comments, they’re not doing very well at Tinkerbell, and I’d guess their wall raising won’t work too well either. However maybe they hope John Scalzi will come riding to their rescue again. He doesn’t appear very worried that a lot of SFWA members might be losing money because B&N and a bunch of independents were taking actions that identical or worse than those that got a flurry of furious Amazon take-downs from the SFWA site. But it’s all different when it is big bad Amazon, eh?
However there DOES seem some real hope of hope of competition. It’s always a good thing, and let’s face it, the other ‘competitors’ – the big 6 as the embodiment of traditional publishing, have as yet to do any competing at all for readers or writers. All they wanted was the status quo restored, which meant building higher walls and making smaller gates and co-operating to keep that situation. They weren’t interested in roadwork, or even the sort of support Salon’s writer is so bitter about Amazon handing out – handouts they’ve made from long before they big or profitable. Apple showed its colors by choosing to ally with them. Google so far hasn’t done anything effective except roundly infuriate authors with its little out of copyright grab. B&N’s Pubit is distressing parochial and really not competing in meaningful ways – like making things better for authors or indeed, readers. It would be nice if this changed, but B&N seem still far too busy playing reindeer games with their old ‘friends’ in traditional publishing and their old paper business. Competition instead my be emerging from the ashes of Borders… In the shape of Kobo. I would have said – a little while back – that this was not terribly likely, but here it is: it turns out that while B&N are entirely US-centric, and Amazon has slowly been spreading into other places… The rest of the world has been fertile fallow ground, and Kobo has been growing and has a similar e-retailer (to the rest of Amazon’s business) involved.
This is cheerful news – as a quick look at the article will tell you, because they’re competing where it matters (at least to writers) and I have to agree with Iden, it will stop Amazon squeezing us, and keep them squeezing softer targets where there is less competition. It may even make Amazon’s offers to Indies sweeter and wider. It’s the kind of competition we could use. (B&N is offering less, Kobo… more).
Meanwhile, back at the ranch it would appear hubris continues unabated in the Antipodes, spreading to elsewhere. Now I’m always pleased when an author does well, and I haven’t seen the book, and it may really turn out brilliant and vastly popular. But that’s the third very large – around $1 000 000 new author deal I’ve head of since I’ve been here. All the books have been by young attractive appearing women (under 35, and probably under 30), all massively politically correct (I quote here from this one – “She was represented in unequivocal terms as a monster or a witch, the Lady Macbeth behind the murder, a very manipulative, scheming woman,” Kent said. “It didn’t take into consideration her experiences or the struggles that she probably suffered.”). Sounds like yet another miserable, man-bad / woman- victim story… What an un-guessable surprise that the traditional publishing establishment might fall over themselves to buy it, despite the dismal track record of sales of same. The other two – despite vast expenditure (for instance tours of Europe and the US to meet and dine with the book-store buyers) – largely vanished without a trace. Now this book may prove the winner that pays for all. May. But there are no metrics to prove this. Just gut feel and whim. To put it in automaker terms, it proves that the publishers are still flying to beg for money in their corporate jets, paying the CEO’s tens of millions, and have not read the writing on the wall at all. It’s still the strategy to gamble big, assuming that as you control access, you can influence the odds. In a world where a $4K advance is the norm… this is very big bet on something where the numbers do not exist, and the track record for getting ‘runaway best-seller’ even with all the push in the world, right, is not good. Assuming that in a normal book, it is costing them the $100 000 they claim to bring the book to market, that’s 11 bets they could have made. If you add the amount they’ll probably spend on publicity as being equal to the advance… 21. Taking a more realistic $20K (which is generous, but does not allow for the essentials of publishing. You know… not nonsense like editing, covers and proof-reading. We get freelancers to do that for a pittance. Important stuff) that’s 105 chances to get the market right, as opposed to 1. Or — taking the money and paying a reasonable advance — they’d have had enough money to update their accounting system, and pay monthly and compete with Amazon. Or set up a system which keeps track of sales properly and transparently and allow them to do some kind of proper statistical analysis to work out what and where they’re failing and succeeding in their marketing, which would make them competitive. Or to set up to sell off their own platforms… and that’s just the start of better uses for the money.
But no. We approve of the books so it will be good for you.
We shall see.