Is there hope at last?

It’s hard to say, but while I was browsing I came across this little tidbit. Yes indeed it would appear that there is evidence of something resembling intelligence in the Random Penguin boardrooms. Of course, as Passive Voice so wisely suggests I’m not holding my breath, but I am going to take a slightly closer look at this little breath of… well, something.

First, it would seem that the Random Penguin CEO, Markus Dohle is a mystery man. Usually a bit of google-fu is all I need to find out who a more or less public figure (which the CEO of one of the big publishers definitely is) is, what they’ve done in the past, and get some idea of where they’re going. Not Mr Dohle. Apparently all his previous appointments to high executive positions in Germany were hush-hush things and never hit the media anywhere.

This could be a good thing, of course. Generally when the CEO of a major corporation is all over the media it’s because said major corporation has done something so spectacularly awful they can’t spin it away – something like, oh, building the world’s first web portal designed to perform a distributed denial of service attack on itself… oh, wait. That’s not a corporation, that’s the US Government. Nevermind… Anyway, it’s that level of embarrassing that gets CEOs media attention, so Mr Dohle not having much of it is probably not a bad thing.

But… (and there’s always the but) it doesn’t help inspire trust in an industry notorious for accounting that makes Hollywood look squeaky clean (they didn’t just adopt the Hollywood accounting model, they doubled down on it then added their own math-phobic twists), for the development of untold ways of preventing authors earning their measly little 5 – 10% of sale price on each copy sold (which is why the tales of authors who have signed more copies of books in a single session than their statements claim were sold in three months can be found anywhere authors gather), and of course for sleazy vanity publishing schemes when even those tricks fail to make them money – mostly because they can’t seem to see past their politically correct beer glasses, the ones that make ideas that are manifestly insane look good. (Side note: it’s a damn good thing I get editing for my books. A sentence like that in my fiction would have my editors trying to strangle me via IM)

So what is the hint of hope coming out of the Random Penguin edifice? Nothing less than a suggestion that Amazon isn’t actually evil.

Shocking, isn’t it? To quote the original article that Passive Voice referenced:

Penguin Random House c.e.o. Markus Dohle has told the Frankfurt Book Fair that the relationship between publishers and Amazon should be one of co-operation and not confrontation.

Interviewed by international trade press at the Frankfurt Book Fair today (Wednesday 9th October), Dohle said that the aims of publishers and Amazon were aligned.

Asked about agent Andrew Wylie’s recent comments in The New Republic, Dohle said: “Fundamentally, the relationship is about co-operation and not about confrontation. I don’t let anyone talk me into the confrontational mantra. We want to reach out to as many readers as possible. Of course, we have to manage each other, on issues such as terms, but fundamentally, we are aligned.”

He added: “I have a great deal of respect for the entrepreneurial achievements of Amazon and what they brought to the market, and we should not forget that.” Dohle credited the success of the Kindle with limiting e-book piracy, which he called “a gift for the book world”. He said: “My hypothesis is that [Amazon has] expanded the market . . . they have brought innovation and they’ve grown for a reason, and we will grow together.”

Looks good on the surface, no? Of course, the Penguin side of the Random Penguin is still the owner of the decidedly sleazy Author Solutions (aka vanity press with the sniff of a hint that maybe by using that service a “real” editor might pick up the work, and meanwhile we’ll bleed you dry), and the Penguin side was up to its cute little beak in the collusion with Apple to raise ebook prices. Random, on the other hand, was not – and since Mr Dohle was in charge during that time, we might have another plus. Maybe.

You see, the editors behind the dodgy numbers and the shady deals are still there. The imprints include Ballantine, Del Rey, Spectra, Bantam, Ace, Berkley, and Roc (I’m cherry-picking the ones that are mostly US based and publish SF or fantasy) Not one of these has cropped up recently as a good place to be published if you go traditional – and considering the many other issues besetting the industry, I’d guarantee midlist and new authors who have a really good experience at their trad publisher will trumpet it to the skies (the bestsellers don’t count for this – they get insulated from the ugly realities everyone else has to face).

So, what we have is a CEO saying the expected things while behind the scenes it’s business as usual and nobody is going to look at the dodgy numbers or anything else so long as they can fake something resembling a profit. Even if Mr Dohle is trying to do the right things here, he’s not going to clean out that sewer without a Spaceballs vacu-suck. And maybe not even then.

Move along. These aren’t the intelligent business decisions you’re looking for.

(Update: Fixed the bad link to Passive Voice – it should work now)

17 comments

  1. Pardon my stupidity.

    I somehow gathered from your essay that Dohle is new to the position, perhaps coming in after the legal incident with Apple. If so, the old editors still being there might merely be an artifact of getting a paper trail together to fire them. Which might make the last conclusion a bit of a jump, possibly premature.

    That said, my judgement of business decisions as applied to publishing is hardly so good that I would bet money on it, and you are yours, so…

    Anyway, first link, to passive voice, looks a bit messed up.

    1. Sorry about that link. Amanda posted the correct on down thread aways. IF I can convince WordPress not to screw it up, I’ll edit and fix.

      Dohle’s had the position at Random House for several years – he seems to have been rather hands off, for the most part.

  2. This little comment from the agent Wylie speaks volumes: “You think you’re going to lose 30% of your business? Well, that’s OK, because you would have a 30% higher margin for 70% of your business. You have fewer fools reading your books and you get paid more by those who do. What’s wrong with that?””

    There’s disdain for two important categories of people. 1. The “fewer fools” reading books, and 2. Individual authors, who, if they lose sales, might care. Wylie appears to be looking at this solely from the publishers’ perspective where the 30 percent can be taken off of its collective stable of authors. What happens if you are a writer in the thirty percent who gets cut? Alternatively, if he thinks that such an approach means each author will achieve a 30 percent higher margin for 70 percent of his books, he’s likely wrong. The bestsellers might, but the mid-listers and new entrants will need to lure people with pricing, and this guy Wylie would take that away from them. Whether he has one of these two options in mind or something else, he doesn’t appear to have an author focus.

    As a reader, trying someone new is much easier at Amazon pricing. As a new writer, I am aware of that and would like to make my own decisions to seek out volume.

    1. I plead canted brain: Please tell me an agent, reportedly a party interested in representing an author, did not refer to the prospective customer base as fools? FOOLS? Hmph. Quite the business plan you’ve got there, buddy.

      Except, it’s not really a business plan, is it? Because, if you believe pulling your product out of the ‘store’ that’s handling 30% of the total business is going to allow you to up your margins by 30% on the remainder then you’ve got a simple market disconnect in your plan. And that disconnect? That’d be the fools.

      This fool is gonna want to know why in the 7 funny flavors of helga you want me to pay 30% more for your words on paper/digital files than the other guy. The stories are 30% better? They’re 30% more compelling? The authors are 30% more interesting? Maybe the words are 30% wordier and the pages turn 30% easier?

      Or maybe the agents are 30% more full of shitake and fine wine? Dude, impaction ain’t healthy, you oughta see somebody about that.

      1. And, if it’s really the perfect trade-off of margin for volume that he suggests, what’s the point, especially in the digital world? Each extra reader gets you another customer for the next book and for other authors, too. Spite?

        I’m testing hyperlinking my name. If something horrible happens, I apologize in advance.

        1. Hmm. Hyperlink didn’t work. Well, if you don’t have a few failures, you aren’t trying hard enough.

        2. Fantastic point. Even at his perfect trade-off, more fools reading means more potential word of mouth and more growth. The more fools business model will inevitably outstrip the fewer fools business model. Either now or in the future. The fool.

          1. Yes, and we suspect that the agent did not plot out supply and demand with those curving lines on a chart and do math to see whether the MFB model or the FFB model produces a higher gross. (I don’t have the data and didn’t do the math, so will make no claims, but I suspect the MF model results in a higher gross.) I’m trying to picture the person who could say that kind of stuff engaging in that kind of labor. It’s not working.

      2. Ah, you guys are cute and new to this business. I have been around this publishing thing a while. I once sat in a room with a well known editor, who not only described the readers as fools, but described the submissions from authors as “the sewage pipe.” His job, see, was to filter the sewage pipe for those improving tales that would be good for the fools to read. 😛

          1. Bridge to Terabithia is positively benign compared to some of the “jewels” being pushed at us these days.

      3. Of course he did. He’s only expressing in public what most of them think in private – or in assemblies of what they think are kindred souls.

    2. Wylie is a self important little prick who wants to be a big prick, basically. At least Dohle has the sense to say the correct thing even if there’s not much sign of real changes happening in his monster publishing house.

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