And the idiotic “suggestions” continue

The other day, Cedar pointed me to a post over at The Passive Voice with a warning that my head would explode when I read the headline and then the associated article.  She was right, of course. She knows me well enough to realize that anytime someone suggests an industry needs “socialism” to save it is going to set me off. When I see that applied to an industry that is refusing to adapt to changes in the market, well, my ire is doubled or even tripled.

In this particular case, the headline states that “Publishing needs socialism to save it.”

Yes, you read that right. An industry based on elitism and so-called gatekeepers barring anything that doesn’t meet their bar for not only quality but content — read social/political stance — needs to be saved by socialism. Am I the only one who sees the oxymoron (with emphasis on the moron) here?

But let’s look beyond the headline to the article itself. Fair warning, this is one of the only times — if not the only time — I can remember Passive Guy adding a disclaimer that he doesn’t always agree with what he links to on his site.

The original post appeared here. The first indication that I had that I’d probably take issue with the article came with the first sentence. Anytime someone starts off with, and I’m paraphrasing, “I love the United States [or anything else] but. . . ” it’s the “but” that worries me.

The basic premise is that the author of the original post doesn’t think we in the U.S. value books enough and that the French and other European countries do. To prove that we value books and the publishing industry, the government should step in and pass laws and regulations against Amazon (note that nowhere in the article does the author say these restrictions should apply to Barnes & Noble or any other retail outlet).

Let’s look at specifics.

“Here in the U.S., thanks largely to Amazon, books have become commoditized.”

Oookay, and this is a bad thing why? And what about the publishers who view authors as nothing more than interchangeable widgets? I don’t have the quote immediately at hand, but one of the major publishers basically said just that. The fact that the publishers the author of this particular article wants to protect sees authors, the creators of the product, in that light bothers me more than the fact we can shop for books based on price.

“You can buy clothes based on price—or a desk or the hotel you vacation at. But books should not be purchased based on price alone.”

Again, what? First of all, that insults every reader out there who ever bought a book. It assumes the potential purchaser doesn’t look at the product description, has never heard of the author — or publisher in some cases — and doesn’t look at the sample. It also assumes the potential reader hasn’t heard about the book from other sources or has had a friend recommend it. But that argument, since it will quickly become clear Amazon is the target of the article, ignores the fact that you can walk into your local Walmart or similar store and buy books at a discount. Or that you can purchase your club card for B&N and get a discount on certain books that way. But, most of all, it insults the reader because it assumes price is the only factor considered in making a book purchase.

“But when books become so devalued and sell at a loss, you have to question how such pricing helps the long-term viability of books.”

Ah, and here we start getting into the smoke and mirrors. Most, if not the vast majority of books, sold by Amazon and other retailers at a discount aren’t sold at a loss. The applies to print books as well as e-books. What this statement is actually aimed at is Amazon’s desire to sell the so-called best sellers at $9.99, a price the publishers have arbitrarily determined to be undervalue. It also doesn’t take into account that, at the time this was happening, it is my understanding that Amazon still paid the publishers the price they wanted. It was Amazon taking a loss, not the publishers. So how is this hurting the publishing industry? Oh, wait, I know the answer. Selling more e-books is a bad thing.

“In the U.S. it seems the publishing market is ruled by one company—Amazon—and five major conglomerate publishers—and one physical retailer (Barnes & Noble). When Amazon makes a change, the publishing industry trembles and acquiesces.”

Really? So, is that why when, lo those years ago, Apple and the Big 5 conspired to fix prices and push the agency pricing model on Amazon, it agreed? Funny, that’s not the way I remember it. Amazon did take its buy buttons down for a bit in an attempt to fight the bid but finally gave in. Remember those tags under prices of e-books noting that the price was set by the publisher? Oh, I know, that’s why all the other outlets sell books published by Amazon imprints, right? But what, they don’t. Hmm, I seem to recall B&N and other retailers refusing to stock anything with an Amazon imprint on it, even if their customers wanted them to. So, yeah, the publishing world quakes when Amazon does something and then gives in to the big evil.

And let’s talk about how evil Amazon is when it is the party in the Hatchette dispute that has offered to pay Hatchette authors who are being impacted by the contract negotiations, negotiations that I’m sure Hatchette would love to drag out until it is able to renegotiation its contract with Apple, thereby putting more pressure on Amazon. But it is Amazon that is bad.

If you doubt my take that the author of the post is anti-Amazon, this statement should convince you:

“In France, where Amazon only owns 10-12% of the book market—but 70% of online sales, Amazon is contained because of laws passed to protect and support bookstores and publishers.”

Amazon is “contained”. Yeah, that’s the American spirit. Let’s contain our businesses, making it harder for them to serve their customers all so five companies, at least two of which aren’t even American companies, can survive even though they are doing everything they can to destroy themselves.

The author goes on to note that French law prohibits free shipping on discounted books and also mandates that a discount can be no more than 5% of the list price. Hmm, so how would we apply that to Amazon? Would you set up a double standard so that only Amazon, and possibly Amazon fulfilled, sales were affected or would it apply across the board to anyone who sells books through Amazon? What about all those used books sellers, and new book sellers as well? Are you going to make their bottom line suffer because you don’t like Amazon?

More than that, do you apply this only to Amazon Prime members who get free second day shipping? Or will you apply it to all sales? And why only book sales? Why not apply it to all items sold by the evil that is Amazon?

The post goes on to note that France is only one of several large European countries with laws about the pricing of books. Brian Feinblum, author of the post, also notes that Great Britain used to have such laws but did away with them in the 1990’s at which time “the book world was hit hard. A third of its independent bookstores closed in the past nine years, as supermarkets and Amazon discounted some books by more than 50%.”

Now, my issue with the above is that it is going beyond the apple and oranges comparison. It completely ignores the fact that most of the mom and pop bookstores in this country went the way of the dodo when the big box stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders entered the market. Those large chains were able to negotiate contracts with the publishers that were, frankly, detrimental to the publishers (the return policy for example). My other issue is that this also ignores the fact that the publishers have already been paid for the books when they are placed on such deep discounts, discounts that for, most print books aren’t common unless the books aren’t selling.

“To preserve the value of books, we must take the finances out of the equation.”

Which has served publishing so well when it was the only game in town, right? Wrong. It’s wrong because most people can’t and won’t drop $30 for every book they want to read and they’d have to for the vast majority of books if they wanted to read them when the book first comes out. No, they’d wait until the paperback came out and, gee, guess what, they would still balk at the $15.99 price tag you see on some of them. So what happens, sales continue to go down and who gets hurt in the long run? The author. Why? Because the publishers will look at declining sales and say it is all the author’s fault and not a fault of theirs because they didn’t to the promotion they promised or because folks just don’t have that sort of spare cash.

Perhaps instead of trying to protect an industry that is operating under business plans that are long outdated, we ought to be more worried about protecting the rights of our authors. Protect them from publishers who continue to refuse to relinquish rights to books that no longer meet the contractual terms of “in print”. Protect them from agents who want to maintain hooks in the books for the life of copyright, even if they never do anything to help the author after getting the initial publishing contract signed. Protect them from publishers who continue to pay them a pittance and use creative bookkeeping to justify it. Protect them from an industry that has adopted a reporting method that makes no frigging sense in this day and age of bar codes, computers and tracking programs. But no, we have to protect the Big Five from evil Amazon.

Give me a break.

47 comments

  1. The government has helped the auto industry and the housing industry, the medical industry and the funding of college education until they are almost all out of the reach of the middle class. Asset prices inflate and deflate wildly and choices and service become non-existent.
    With a little more government help for the publishers the next generation will see a book in your home and ask what it is.

    1. Isn’t it? To use one of the Big 5’s favorite terms, it curates itself into a corner. And then starts eating itself.

  2. If purchasing books by price isn’t good, then how come bookstores all put their bestsellers and other books at high percentages off? Why did they do it long before Amazon came along? Why is it that all the major publishers happily encourage it? This ninny is asking the wrong questions.

    1. But you’re missing the point. It’s okay for everyone else to do. Its just that evil Amazon shouldn’t be allowed to. (sarcasm off.)

      You hit it when you said the ninny is asking the wrong questions. Instead of trying to hold back a business that shows its model works, we should be asking what do we do to bring publishing, kicking and screaming if necessary, into the modern world.

  3. One thing I’m curious about…these countries that “value” books so much…how many books get written there? Written and made available for purchase? Then compare to us “commoditized” book countries. Not a scientific sample, but when I have traveled in Europe I remember only seeing rather tiny bookstores, with fewer books than a current Barnes & Noble, and they were GHASTLY expensive.

    They may value books but they clearly hate having readers. I suspect that the writer of that article really meant to say “If people are allowed to buy the books they like they won’t buy mine. Therefore, they can’t be allowed a choice. Hello, Socialism!”

    1. OK, had to look it up. The data comes from UNESCO, and this is all pre-ebook, but for 2010 new titles and editions anyway:
      US 328,259
      UK 206,000
      France 63,690
      Germany 93,124 (2009, but close enough)

      When you adjust for population the difference is not so stark, but France is still significantly less “bookish” than the others. I would expect that with ebooks added, the disparity is even greater.

      1. Well, remember, France is also the country where you have a job for life, iirc, and all sorts of other benefits — and I use that term loosely. Now look at the state of the country. For all our problems here, I’ll take it any day over those other countries.

    2. The interesting thing is, book stores were plentiful when I lived there; but they weren’t out in open sight except for the big stores. I remember we’d find bookstores catering to certain markets by finding them housed in small shops (I’m talking about French-translated manga for those wondering) while my brothers and I would do the ‘let’s pick a direction and walk thataway for a while’ walks on some weekends we would do back then. Those stores were often off the beaten path and this was the days before everyone had Google and some kind of web presence. We always wondered how they were able to survive, but it was clearly word of mouth that would lead customers to their locations.

      I also remember the tiny bookshops with the musty books and the pretentious air and the ridiculous prices that were within the tourist haunts of Paris, and the shop owner looked furious when I said to a visiting friend “Don’t pay a hundred francs for that! I know where to get the same book CHEAPER!”

  4. Yep. I buy clothing by cost. Doesn’t matter if it’s the right size, hideous colors, well or poorly made . . .

    I wonder if we need to start considering a black market for books? _Not_ pirating, writer’s need to eat, after all, but a way to sell books that is under the .gov’s radar. Hmm, “Outcasts and Gods” small art print by Pam Uphoff. Includes JPEG for wallpaper, artist biography, artistic techniques, product description and more on a flash card.

  5. It’s interesting to note that the author of the blog didn’t get a lot of love in the comments of the article.

  6. This doesn’t even make sense from a socialist perspective. “From Joe Book Buyer according to his ability, to Rupert Murdoch according to his needs”. Yeah…no.

  7. Well, I guess it’s good to know how the opposition thinks.
    If that steaming pile can in any way be described as having thought remotely associated with it.

  8. “Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer, Media Connect, the nation’s largest book promoter.” Yeah Right!

  9. This article is a marvelous example of what philosophers call a “category error.” The author talks about protecting “books”, but what he is really trying to protect are two different things.

    The first thing he wants protected is small, high-cost bookstores. Protecting them means that fewer books are sold, hurting authors and publishers.

    The second thing he wants protected is the dead-tree format. That of course is what many of the big six publishers want. They don’t want to change.

    “The value of books” does not equal “the financial livelihood of small booksellers and those who wish all books to be paper editions only.” I’m surprised I have to point that out.

    Steve Bob

  10. Another thing the author of the article doesn’t take into account is online pirating. You can’t look to the past and draw any parallel to today because so many factors are different. Now that the buyer has another (albeit illegal) alternative when prices are too high, it’s going to have an impact.

    Isn’t it more common under socialism for black markets to flourish?

    1. Doesn’t even have to be piracy; we still have used book stores as an alternative, most especially for bestsellers which tend to be widely available years later.

      Last year I started reading the Jack Reacher series. When I priced them, ebooks were (and still are) $11 in Canada and marginally more than the paperbacks. So I got used paper copies instead, and neither author nor publisher got a cent. Same with the Dresden Files books the year before, though I did buy a few of those new when Chapters had a buy two get one free sale on.

      Heck, even the bundles are insulting…. buy the first six Dresden ebooks for 10.99 each… or all together in a bundle for $65.99.

      OTOH, I’ve specifically avoided buying used copies of Baen paperbacks and got the ebook instead, because I can buy the ebook for only a dollar or two more, and money goes to reward the author and publisher for putting out material I like, which means I’m more likely to see more of it.

  11. “In the U.S. it seems the publishing market is ruled by one company—Amazon—and five major conglomerate publishers—and one physical retailer (Barnes & Noble).”

    Which the Passive Commissar wants to improve by instituting rule by a single monopoly, the government.
    …and of course such a regulatory regime would inevitably end up enacting rules to benefit those it likes and harm those it dislikes. IRS, EPA and OSHA anybody?

  12. I have a question.

    Any publisher can decide how much the wholesale price is of any book, right? It’s all just a matter of being willing to say no and give up that distribution channel. The issue with the Big 5 was collusion. So what the author (not the Passive Guy) wants is for government to do the price fixing that the Publishers couldn’t do because it was illegal?

      1. I suppose so. 😉

        I thought it was all so blindingly obvious that I must have been missing something right in front of my nose.

    1. If the king does it, none dare call it treason, to butcher Harington. It’s actually the Marxist take on Divine Command Theory, which is to say, what God says is good because it’s God who says it. In this case, what the state does is good because it’s the state that does it. How dare you question it, peasant, etc…

    1. Saw that. Hatchette’s PR hacks could sure learn a thing or three from Amazon, not that I want them to. Of course, in order to make it work, they’d have to abandon their entire business model, but what’s a little thing like that to such flexible and open-minded sorts as they?

      1. The problem there is, Hatchette will just trot out its tamed “best sellers” to talk about how evil Amazon is and how wonderful their darling publisher is and no one will question why we aren’t hearing from the mid-listers and new authors who are realizing that all the promises of promotion and such are nothing but empty promises for most of them. Of course, Hatchette also doesn’t realize that they aren’t scoring that many points by trotting out their millionaire authors, at least not when the rest of us are looking at what’s being said. Shrug.

  13. I can’t understand what they mean when they complain that Amazon commoditizes books and why that’s bad. As far I have ever been able to tell the only way Amazon treats books as a commodity is that they don’t try to predetermine what you want and only select certain types of books to sell. Amazon doesn’t censor themselves. Of course considering the source that may be indeed be the problem. The big fives editors want control over what we, the consumer can buy and they don’t like when Amazon treats books they don’t approve of the same way as books they do. I guess the big five thinks that some books should be more equal than other books.

    1. That whole issue — commoditizing books — is puzzling me to no end. How does one commoditize books, exactly? Is there a robot that spits out books based on certain inputs? I think that scenario happened in Vonnegut’s Player Piano. In real life, I can’t guess how Mary Higgins Clark is interchangeable and substitutable for Lois McMaster Bujold, and in turn I would substitute neither of them for Edgar Allen Poe (to stay with the tri-name theme). If you wanted horror, why would you pick up MHC? If you wanted space opera, how would EAP scratch that itch? Are these authors commoditized because you can buy all three of them from Amazon?

      I dunno, it seems to me that if you *were* to commoditize books, you’d have to be a *publishing* company with a work-for-hire template — On this page, Nancy picks up Bess and George, on that page they witness a baffling incident, on this other page they find a clue. Oh, and ALL of the books you write for us have to be like that, but you can switch out Nancy Drew for Linda Craig and Nancy’s Mustang for a literal horse; or change Bess and George to sleuthing sisters named Jean and Louise Dana.

      From what I can tell, that model sounds similar to how editors and agents acquire new books — “Quick, brooding detectives who play jazz sax and live with their mothers are hot this year! Give me moar!”

      I’m puzzled as to why selling a lot of books is commoditizing them, but only publishing books that fit a very narrow plot/character/structure mold is somehow outside that definition. And, why is the former an evil and not the latter?

      1. I think in this case “commoditizing books” meaning making them more numerous and less expensive, that is, cheap and plentiful instead of expensive and carefully selected (by the publisher). Sort of using the same idea as comparing big farm tomatoes and backyard heirloom tomatoes, except in this case the author of the article is trying to persuade us that books from the Big 5 are really heirloom tomatoes and are being destroyed by all those cheap and nasty grocery-store knock-offs.

        1. Ahhh ha. Ok. So, the “commoditizing” bit brushes up against the “sumptuary law-for-books” impulse that some people seem to have. Books should never be inexpensive enough for just anyone to buy them, nor available to just anyone. If you don’t live near a bookstore, tough luck. If you only have $10 to spare (my book budget as a teenager), and you wanted two paperbacks but can only buy one cuz they’re $8.99, tough luck. If you want a book about X but we only make Y available, tough luck. Yes, a world where people who think that way are thwarted and unhappy is a good world. Fortunately, we are in that world. Yay.

        2. I prefer to think that we are growing the artisanal heirloom tomatoes one at a time.

          1. Sounds like the Whole Paycheck–I mean Whole Foods–Bookstore. /image of writer sitting in window of store, typing away on a 30-year-old Smith Corona, while customer waits to see the next page.

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