Is Amazon a bully, beating publishers into submission? Dear writers: some publishers were aiming for totalitarian rule of the book business

Writers forever scooter-riders, while publishers travel in limousines? Photograph by MIL22.

Not many writers visit the book fair. ‘It’d be like bringing a cow for a stroll around a meat market,’ said one editor.

report on the London Book Fair by Patrick Barkham, 18 April 2012

[ the date is what matters most, here: ]… Publishing is moving towards a crisis. One should expect to see a number of respected publishing houses quietly exit the scene.  […]  Authors’ incomes are low for an embarrassingly simple reason: publishers do not sell enough copies of their books. […] For every copy of a hardcover book sold at its normal retail price, one book is sold as a remainder – a book that goes from the publisher to the remainder dealer for less than the cost of producing it and with zero income to the author. No other industry can make this claim.

– Leonard Shatzkin, In Cold Type: Overcoming the Book Crisis, 1982

Someone once said that his favourite times in history were when things were collapsing, because that meant that something new was being born.

– Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending, 2011

Writers are deeply confused by e-publishing and its implications. They are mistaking friends for enemies, and embracing their most shameless exploiters – for centuries – like Little Red Riding Hood hugging the beast tricked out as her granny.

I read with eyes popping in disbelief a veteran publisher, Dan Cafaro, advising young writers to ‘mentally prepare to endure as a starving artist.’ He said that last October. Then, referring to the digital revolution, he suggested that they ‘carve out a patchwork career in the creative arts by complying with the behaviours of this new paradigm of publishing’.

How could he have come by the wisdom in his second pronouncement without understanding that the ‘paradigm’ taking shape represents the best chance that has come along – ever – to change the meek acceptance of hunger and suffering as inevitably the lot of scribes? … Yes, thank you, I have read my history. I know that this has been thoroughly conventional wisdom for a long time. But why not consider that for aeons, everywhere, the wisest heads once saw the fates of kulaks, their poorer fellow-peasants, and Hindu caste untouchables, as equally immutable – until these social doormats seized their chance for rebellion?

I would like writers who care about being able to make a reasonable living some day to get just two things right: (i) Amazon is their true friend, as this blog has explained before, and not members of the old print club, like the five publishers fined by the U.S. justice department on the 11th — with Apple – for collusive price-fixing.  (ii) Far from gobbling up book publishing on every continent and turning everyone else in the business into a forelock-tugging serf, the giant retailer could just let us rewrite the sad story of writers and their wages into a far happier narrative.

Scott Turow, the president of the American Authors’ Guild, is simply wrong to say that the antitrust suit risks ‘killing real competition in order to save the appearance of competition.’

Consider these arguments by one of the few voices of sanity in the hullabaloo over Amazon’s well-deserved victory over the price-fixers. What Eduardo Porter said in his ‘Economic Scene’ column in the New York Times last week is not merely true. It correctly puts the welfare of writers — the workers without whom there would be neither books nor e-texts — at the centre of the picture.

To believe publishers and authors, the government just handed Amazon a monopoly over the book market: The price-fixing suit against Apple and the nation’s top publishers […] will free Amazon to offer ruinous discounts in the booming new market of electronic books, drive brick-and-mortar bookstores out of existence and kill off publishers’ lucrative business of ink on paper.

[…]

Yet there is a different reading to this story. Publishing companies — like bookstores — fear they are on the losing end of a technological whirlwind of digital distribution that will make much of what they do obsolete. They would like to stop it. But though publishers may be happy to subvert competition to protect their business, this can entail a heavy cost for the rest of society.

Why have none of the hysterical media commentators Porter contradicted in his analysis – for instance, David Carr, writing for the same newspaper – met a journalist’s obligation to state the whole truth, which is that Amazon’s share of e-book sales has fallen dramatically over the last two years? As Porter says,

While Amazon remains dominant, its share of the e-book market has fallen to about 60 percent from 90 percent.

Carr dug out a law professor in New York to say, for his column: ‘It is not clear that lower prices are necessarily in the long-term interests of the public at large.’ He found a New York lawyer for a gloomy summing-up: ‘The book business is both hermetic and dwindling. There is not a drop of new capital coming into this business … The margins are low and there is almost no growth …’.

The only trouble with orchestrating this condemnation of Amazon is that the same mournful dirge was being played for book publishers thirty years ago. Then, there were no e-books or gigantic e-booksellers. E-publishing existed exclusively in the misty visions of futurists.

In In Cold Type: Overcoming the Book Crisis, Leonard Shatzkin, a respected senior executive in the New York book business, wrote three decades ago:

There is no longer very much doubt that trade book publishing is suffering from more than its share of our present economic malaise … The immediate future for … book publishing in general is bleak …’. [his ital.]

A number-cruncher at heart, Shatzkin diagnosed poor sales forecasting and inefficient stocking and inventory management as the chief cause of book business woes. He dreamt up complex mathematical formulae for calculating the ideal size of a publisher’s sales force, and techniques of regression analysis for projecting book sales.

Though it is clear throughout his book that he was a civilised man who cared about readers, sound editorial policies, and publishing’s ‘contribution to the health of our democratic culture’, only one of his sixteen chapters was devoted to writers: ‘Don’t Forget the Author’. Who does his book treat as the lead characters in the business? Publishers, book distributors, and booksellers.

Encapsulating his recommendations for curing publishing of its ills, he advocated precisely the reverse of what actually happened after Amazon entered the scene about ten years later – that publishers aim at complete control of the book business by wresting power from book distributors:

It does not seem too far-fetched to suggest that some of the larger publishers will some day make publisher control of inventory a condition for doing business with a book retailer. […] The introduction of rational, publisher-controlled and publisher-responsible distribution implies other desirable consequences. […] Distribution controlled by the publisher will reduce the shameful waste resulting from the present need to guess how many copies will be needed on publication day …

And what was the happiest result he foresaw? It is hair-raisingly ironic for anyone listening to the raving by Amazon’s critics about the steady decline in book prices that it has brought about:

The reduction in production waste and in the waste of handling and processing of returns […] and all the activities concerned with distribution, should lead to a reduction in the retail price of books. Even at half their present levels, book prices will give publishers much greater margins than they now enjoy.

Ahem.

So, was Leonard Shatzkin – who died ten years ago – a lone, batty eccentric, mostly ignored by his cohorts when he wrote his book? Very much to the contrary, In Cold Type’s publisher, Boston-based Houghton-Mifflin – one of the most blue-blooded imprints in the U.S. – inserted an extraordinary note into the copyright page, which read in part:

It is not often that Houghton Mifflin adds a statement to a book it has published …[W]hen a publisher presents a book containing strong opinions about … American trade publishing, it may be thought that such a book represents, in some measure the philosophy of the publisher as well as that of the author.

Instead of publishers devouring the book chain, as Shatzkin and Houghton hoped, the panic in 2012 is about the chain – or rather, one member of it – making a meal of all publishing.

From the perspective of writers who care most about their craft and the particular manuscript they happen to be working on today, the fight is about as interesting as competition between football teams for someone whose game is boules. Yes,  certainly, who wins – and how – will have crucial consequences for their ability to make ends meet. But to survive financially, writers are better off ignoring the memory-loss endemic among Amazon’s critics and thinking flexibly, like Eduardo Porter, about a universe of possibilities lying before us:

For sure, if brick-and-mortar bookstores disappear, browsing will die with them. But writers and publishers will have plenty of other ways — think Amazon, Facebook or Google — of letting readers know about their books. E-books, moreover, can be profitable. […]  And even if every existing publisher were driven out of business, reading would probably survive. Without the middlemen, publishers might even pay higher royalties to creators.

Let us toast that prospect — make mine a two-shot latte, please.