Monday, February 1, 2010

Clash of the Titans

This post may do nothing more than re-assert my ignorance. It won’t be the first time.

I have no dog in the Amazon-Macmillan pissing contest. I’m not published, and I’m not particularly hopeful about the prospects, so it doesn’t have much of an effect on me, other than potentially forcing me to buy books by Macmillan authors elsewhere. I have friends who are potentially effected by this, and I feel for them (John McFetridge must feel like Joe Bftsplk by now), but I have a little objective distance, which leads me to say,

A pox on both their houses.

As several others have noted, this is not about serving customers, and it’s sure as hell not about doing anything for writers. It’s about control. Period. It was brought to a head by Apple’s introduction of the iPad last week, but its roots have grown in the fertile soil of publishing’s inane distribution policies.

Let’s all forget we’re readers and/or writers for a few seconds and put on our MBA hats. (I know, that’s as demeaning as asking Jackson Pollock to paint your house, but bear with me.) No matter how much we treasure books, in the grand scheme of capitalism they’re widgets. Someone makes them, and someone sells them. The manufacturer (in this case, Macmillan) sells the widget (in this case, a book) to a retail outlet (in this case, Amazon) for whatever the traffic will bear. Amazon then sells it to the general public, fixing its price in a similar manner. Both set their prices just high enough to maximize income, but not so high total sales are too adversely affected.

This is as it is for just about everything sold in this country. If Macmillan sets its wholesale price too high, Amazon will but fewer, or no, books. Same deal for Amazon vis-à-vis the public. It should be none of the manufacturer’s business how much the retailer charges its customers for the product; that’s restraint of trade. They can set a manufacturer’s suggested retail price, but that’s about it.

This would necessitate two dramatic changes in publishing. First, advances and royalties would have to be pegged to the wholesale cost of the book, as the publishers have no say in what it can be sold for. Second, and possibly more stressful—because neither side in this dispute really gives a rat’s ass about the writers’ profits*--returns would be forbidden. Imagine ordering 100,000 tires, then telling Goodyear they had to take 50,000 back, at their expense. Right.

I’m sure there’s a hole in this logic somewhere; arguments born of as much ignorance as mine usually have several. “This is the way it’s done,” or, “This is the way we’ve always done it” don’t count. If nothing else, it sure would make bookkeeping a lot easier.

* -- Before someone sticks up for how concerned publishers are with making sure their writers make a good living, ask yourself one question: do you really think your publisher would pay you—at all—if they thought they could get you to give them your rights for free?


Mike Dennis said...

Excellent post, Dana. Check out Joe Konrath's latest blog on the subject, if you haven't already. He's very insightful on this topic, and I think you would agree with him. I know I do.

Basically, all this hand-wringing over Amazon is counter-productive. Higher prices for eBooks (which can be produced ad infinitum for next to nothing) will ONLY result in fewer books sold and MORE piracy. That's MORE piracy.

Dana King said...

Thanks for directing me to Konrath's blog, Mike. I do agree with him, though I may be a little more hard-line about what constitutes theft than he is.

I get into occasional discussions of Crimespace with editor Neil Nyren, who, I readily admit, knows more about publishing than I ever will. He's a nice guy, and smart, but he constantly points out reasons for why publishers do things the way they do them. What he doesn't address is, while that may be how things are done, they can't get away with doing them like that for much longer, and had better start thinking up ways to improve the situation apart from sticking it to the authors, who are pretty much up against it already.

As I said, I'm not a published novelist, but I can see where they're getting squeezed, and it's beginning to put a drag on my willingness to do what's necessary to get published. It's harder every day to convince myself it's worth it.