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Oct 23

Slogging Through the Jungle with a Hatchet

You may have heard something about the ongoing fight between Amazon and Hachette Book Group. It started in the boardrooms of both companies over the new contracts that, effectively, allow Amazon to set the prices for Hachette’s and eventually all publishers products.

But that’s not all. It also says the publisher, by a certain future date, must submit “electronic versions” of their books – and covers – with shipments, and to allow Amazon to print-on-demand (POD) any orders the publishers cannot fulfill within a specified amount of time. I haven’t seen the contract, but enough people have to warrant over 1000 authors signing a letter and buying a two-page ad in the New York Times Sunday Edition to protest the contract’s language. It’s getting nasty, just the kind of stuff that good, suspense novels are made of!

Diana Hirsch got this topic started back in August with her Amazon, Hachette and the wretched $9.99 price point, but I saw a sidebar there that warrants a bit more discussion. I wear both hats in this fight. My first novel, The Freya Project, was published by Countinghouse Press. I self-published my second book, Seoul Legacy, the Orphan’s Flu, with aid of the University of Michigan Library’s Espresso Book Machine. Anyone can use their million-dollar “book” printer. My per-unit cost in each case (tradition vs. POD) was about the same. The difference was that I could have printed just one POD book if I wanted instead of hundreds or thousands, so the overall publishing cost difference was huge and that’s what drove my decision to POD for my second book.

You can bet Amazon has a few Espresso Book Machines at the ready, and what’s really at stake here are jobs. Thousands of workers bees throughout the book distribution channel are about to be handed pink slips. Traditional printing houses will fall if they don’t get onboard the e-train, and the biggest ones will fall the hardest. Publishing is going to bleed all the way back to the pulp forests. This contract, this new business model, if it comes to fruition, will literally rewrite the definition of the word “print” in all dictionaries by the year 2050. I alluded to this in my blog back in March, And now, the 2050 POE prize winner for…. Amazon has already captured the prize – the consumer.

Don’t blame Jeff Bezos and his Amazon.com; he just expanded the vision. Blame Johannes Gutenberg; he started it when he put all the first scribes out of business! By 1460 – a mere 21 years after he invented it – Gutenberg’s moveable type presses were operating all over Europe. What happened next changed the course of history. Over the next 500 years, print would evolve into the worldwide format for all sciences, medicines, religions, and all other forms of education. It allowed us to record history and for the masses to learn. Jeff is merely taking over where Johannes left off.

I don’t care how they define “print” in 2050, so long I’m still able to read it. That’s the consumer’s hat I wear in this fight, and it’s the hat I care about the most. I don’t care what price point publishers put on e-books, either, so long as Mr. Bezos & Co. keep their long-standing consumer protection clause; Amazon’s seven-day, no questions asked, money back guarantee. If you don’t like an e-book, return it for a full refund within a week. I have both bought and sold eBooks this way on Amazon.com for years, and have yet to experience a refund from under either hat.

Amazon’s consumer protection clause is the rising tide that lifts all boats. If the author or publishing house insists on staying anchored to their price-point, then let them, just as long as the consumer can get a refund if they don’t like the book for whatever reason. Frankly, Amazon’s seven-day policy should be thirty-days, to encourage bulk purchases.

The main reason new authors have such a hard time breaking into the industry has been the same for hundreds of years; they are just not-quite-good-enough to warrant the all expenses required to “launch” a new author. Amazon’s proposed business model finally buries that hatchet. It allows a publisher to take a chance with someone or something new without the fear of going broke. It allows the author to take a chance without the fear of losing audience. It also allows the reader to take a chance without wasting a lot of time, or money.

Too many good voices are going unheard. For every one David Baldacci there are fifty Bonnie Virag’s. I dare you to put down her The Stovepipe, a true story about growing up in the Canadian Children’s Aid Society. Hers is the most gripping novel I’ve read since Frank McCort’s Angela’s Ashes. Virag only has 29 five-star reviews on Amazon.com, compared to McCort’s 2,400, but download The Stovepipe and I guarantee you will want to be number 30.

As I see it, new authors are the only authors who will need an agent – a megaphone, if you will – in the Amazon business model. Word-of-mouth has always been the best form of advertising. If readers like what you write they will tell two friends who will tell two friends, etc. They always have and they always will, especially where reading material is concerned. The internet only amplifies today’s voice, but it does so on the same scale that moveable type amplified reading almost 500 years ago.

Right now, Hachette & Co. should be driving fast and taking chances instead of slogging along in the fast lane and holding up traffic. Think of the internet as the carpool lane in rush hour, Mr. Hachette – give someone else a lift and you’ll both get there faster.  Smaller advances, say, a tenth of the size of Baldacci’s, could be paid to new promising authors. All publishers should be trying to find –and fund – new voices like Ms. Virag’s. If only one turned out to be as successful as David Baldacci or Frank McCort have they’d be in the money. Two or more and they’d be fat cats with cigars. Again.

 

Next Month. A look at what the future holds for pulp.

I have no doubt someone will print a 600th Anniversary edition of the Gutenberg Bible. I suspect all religious material will still be in “print” by 2055, but what chance do newspapers have? Or magazines? Or books? And, what does history hold for all the printed matter in existence now? Is a first edition of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire treasure or trash? Those questions answered, and more, in November. Thanks for dropping by!

8 comments

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  1. Claire Murray

    I’ve been hearing a lot about Hatchet and Amazon on NPR. Your author gave a lot of context to the conversation.

  2. Kelly Bixby

    Phil, I’m glad you shared your experiences with publishing and included your knowledge about changes in the industry. I’m so far from publishing my own book that I haven’t weighed in on this battle. But as you point out, readers should be just as interested in how this plays out. Thanks for the insightful opinions you offer.

  3. phil rosette

    I think they will be. Their universe-of-readers will be vastly different, though.

  4. Book Lover

    Any change brings controversy. When it all shakes out, no matter what, the authors should be the winners.

  5. phil rosette

    Hi Sue,

    Once they get over the bickering, I think all the author’s will win.

    Right now, webcasts and YouTube videos let the author and/or the publisher reach a winder audience with “teases” that are both affordable to make and available at the customer’s convenience 24/7. They just need to think about how to use the assets already in place. Authors and publishers can start and/or use online book clubs, town hall-type meetings with the author and/or illustrator. How about per-publication discounts? Membership clubs? Repeat customer discounts? Where the e-remainder bin? None of this is “new” marketing. It’s been tried and tested in street-form for 200 years. They just need to think.

    Thing I haven’t figured out yet is how does the author “sign” and e-book? But then, given that you don’t actually “own” an e-book – you “have” it, but it has no actual resale value — so why would either the author or reader want a signature, even if you could e-sign a book somehow? No, from a value stand point, e-books will never replace pulp for the very reason alone.

  6. Sue Remisiewicz

    This dispute may well turn out to be a tipping point just as impactful as the Gutenberg press. Whether it will be in the author’s favor is still very unclear on both sides of the debate. I hope for the best.

  7. phil rosette

    Thanks, Wendi. The longer it goes the more audience readership loses to e-candy like video games, tv, internet. There are a lot of options, and people won’t wait to be entertained, they will look elsewhere. That’s a pity, but that’s what this fight is doing.

  8. Wendi

    Really thoughtful piece Phil. You wonder how long they’ll drag out the dispute.

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