Planners and Searchers and Amazon-Christopher Nuttall
“There has grown up in the minds of certain groups in this country the notion that because a man or corporation has made a profit out of the public for a number of years, the government and the courts are charged with the duty of guaranteeing such profit in the future, even in the face of changing circumstances and contrary public interest. This strange doctrine is not supported by statute nor common law. Neither individuals nor corporations have any right to come into court and ask that the clock of history be stopped, or turned back, for their private benefit.”
-Robert A. Heinlein (Life-Line, 1939)
Authors United does not speak for me.
I don’t believe, either, that it speaks for the vast majority of authors. I’d be astonished, really, if people who are self-publishing success stories view Authors United as anything other than a possible threat to their livelihoods. For us, Authors United is the Old Guard, trying desperately to hold back the tidal wave of inevitable change rather than adapt to it. They see Amazon as an all-destroying force, while we thank Amazon daily for giving us our chance.
Let me see if I can explain.
There are really two sorts of organisations in the world; planners and searchers. (I took the term from The White Man’s Burden, but I don’t know if it came from there originally.) Planners plan; they try to account for all the variables, they determine how things should go and they have real problems coping with unexpected change. Searchers, on the other hand, are continuously trying to find new ways to do things. They take advantage of new technology, push the limits as far as they can and never stop.
Government bureaucracies are largely composed of planners; governments dominated by planners tend to look very much like the Soviet Union (and eventually go the same way.) Militaries, ideally, want planners in the planning department and searchers at the tip of the spear, as no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy. Foreign aid agencies, as The White Man’s Burden makes clear, have spent billions of dollars on brilliant plans to end world hunger … which have failed completely, because the plans take no account of the human factor.
In short, planners lose because the world doesn’t always do what it is supposed to do – and when it does, the planner is unable to comprehend that there is something wrong with the plan.
Big Publishing, like Big Music, is composed of Planners. (Baen Books is about the only major exception to this rule, as far as I know.) They publish a limited number of books per year and try, very hard, to plan out how those books are going to be launched, marketed and sold. The recent agreement between Tor Books and John Scalzi to pay a colossal advance ($3.4 million) for 13 books, delivered over a 10-year period, is a hallmark of Planners at work. Tor is gambling that Scalzi will continue to bring in the money, allowing them to recoup their investment and actually make a profit. Now, I don’t know the specifics of the deal – I doubt Tor is going to pay out $3.4million in a single payment – but that is serious cash. If Tor’s planners get it wrong, Tor is going to be in deep trouble.
This has happened before, of course. Hilary Clinton’s Hard Choices has been a flop; Simon & Schuster paid her a colossal advance and (I suspect) doesn’t have a hope of recouping the money. (If this wasn’t anything other than a disguised campaign contribution, heads need to start rolling.)
In short, Big Publishing simply doesn’t plan very well.
Now, one of the problems facing Big Publishing came in with the electronic revolution. EBooks changed everything. No one really doubted that Big Publishing needed to make a major investment in an author to publish their books. Hardcover books are more expensive than paperbacks because they cost more to produce. However, this isn’t true for eBooks. Everyone who’s used a computer knows how easy it is to duplicate a file. Big Publishing ran into trouble because purchasers were unwilling to pay hardcover prices for eBooks – and DRM, that scourge of decent readers everywhere, simply couldn’t keep up with the pirates. People resent being cheated – and, as Big Publishing was being seen as cheaters, buyers grew less reluctant to download pirate copies. The problems surrounding the release of A Memory of Light illustrate the brave new world quite nicely.
This is, of course, the same problem that faced Big Music. As long as the producers had a stranglehold on the means of production, they could charge customers pretty much what they liked and the customers had to suck it up. But when it became possible to produce homemade CDs – and to copy store-bought CDs, despite the DRM – it was no longer possible for them to hide behind their standard excuses. How could you justify charging $15 or whatever for a CD when buyers knew it cost less than $1 to produce? Trying to gorge one’s customers eventually led to a revolution.
Amazon, by contrast, is a Searcher. (So is Baen Books.) Amazon relentlessly searches for new ways to service its customers. Amazon provides a global shopping mall for everyone; currently, I can buy pretty much anything I want on Amazon without leaving the comfort of my home. But that isn’t all – Amazon also offers customer reviews that are more accurate, as a general rule, than the blurb you happen to read from Big Publishing (or the reviews written by people who are given advance copies in exchange for favourable mentions). This is a colossal expansion of the word of mouth system that introduced me to my favourite authors.
And Amazon is willing to share. Big booksellers dislike Amazon because they believe the giant is undercutting them. Smaller booksellers, I suspect, enjoy the chance to list their wares on Amazon and wait for an order, rather than pray someone will come into their shop. (I love poking through small bookshops, but I can’t visit every bookshop in the world.) And Kindle Authors like me are over the moon about the chance to publish our works on Amazon – for free!
But wait! This wasn’t part of the plan!
Of course it wasn’t. Big Music didn’t expect CD rippers, file-sharing and so on. Big Publishing didn’t anticipate eBooks, or Amazon, or competition from lowly upstarts such as myself. Nor did they really expect to see shifts in the market caused by sudden unexpected success stories like Harry Potter or Twilight. Big Publishing expected to continue to serve as the gatekeepers to writing for years to come; they didn’t realise they were going to be blindsided by Amazon. They were once the only way for a would-be writer to enter the market. Now, writers are realising that they don’t need Big Publishing to reach a wide audience.
And so they have been doing everything they can to undermine Amazon, rather than entering into a genuine competition.
Many of the charges thrown at Amazon are spurious. Amazon cannot offer to sell books it doesn’t have, ergo when there was an ongoing dispute between Amazon and Hachette, Amazon had no choice but to refrain from offering pre-order services for their books. If Amazon is not included in the publishing pipeline, how are they meant to sell the books? They might as well offer to sell the White House! The bottom line is that Amazon is affecting Big Publishing’s bottom line and they hate it.
And that is a pity, because there are no shortage of opportunities for genuine Searchers. Smaller presses are offering eBook-only releases, supplying the editors, artists and suchlike that Big Publishing did, once upon a time. Big Publishing could have put together their own version of Amazon Kindle and tried to attract eBook writers, perhaps by offering more favourable terms than Amazon. As the line goes, “what part of 70% royalties don’t you understand?”
Amazon is simply more adapted to this brave new world than Big Publishing. Authors United is embarked on nothing more than a futile attempt to put the genie back in the bottle.
The ultimate irony of this, of course, is that competition – genuine competition – is the one thing that might keep their Amazon-related nightmares from coming to pass. But they’re too busy trying to hamstring Amazon to adapt to a whole new world.