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.