Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

Is publishing broken?

A broken fountain pen with spilled ink


When the Department of Justice ruled against the agency model, we kind of felt sucker-punched.

By ‘we,’ I mean us here at Appazoogle, but also publishers and booksellers in general. Rather than protect the bookselling landscape against Amazon’s predatory pricing, the DOJ decided to punish booksellers for alleged conspiracy and price-fixing. We were appalled that a decision undertaken to try to preserve a competitive marketplace was struck down, paving the way for one company to (potentially) establish a monopoly on ebooks—and encroach on publishers’ territory, too.

Of course, I have been angsty about ebook pricing for months now. Now that Amazon’s victory seems all but assured, it’s time to start channeling our thoughts and our negative reactions into proactive solutions.

One big problem that we seem to be having in publishing is that we are hung up on our old business model. That’s what Amazon has been threatening. It’s undercut the economic model that we feel is sustainable for our business and now it’s undercut our relationships with readers and with authors.

That was the topic of a panel discussion at the London Book Fair, and Publishers Weekly ran a rather good summation of the discussion last week. I won’t rehash the whole thing; anyone interested should read it, along with a follow-up from LBF that said Amazon has one of the most popular booths at the fair. Among the points discussed was the fact that publishing’s established business model is, well, kind of busted.

We can debate how much an ebook should cost, but the truth of the matter is that most consumers don’t get it. Before I started studying publishing at Emerson, I had no idea about big print runs and remainders and what happens when books get sent back to the warehouse. I just knew that some books are $7.99 and the nicer-looking ones are around $15 and sometimes, wondrously, they end up being deeply discounted on those front tables at B&N.

I had some vague idea that these were books that there were just too many of, but I didn’t get what was going on. How was I to know the publisher wasn’t making money off those, that it was a last-ditch effort to avoid having those books returned? Remainders and returns are two of the biggest problems with our current publishing model. That’s always been broken, long before Amazon came along and started being a big bully.

But see, that’s the other thing. As that PW article pointed out, Amazon is only being a bully to bookstores and publishers, who are trying desperately to circle the wagons and protect The Way Things Are Done.

But to consumers and authors, Amazon isn’t such a bad deal, and that’s what scares us most of all. It’s not acting like a big villain and taking advantage of its monopoly (yet). Right now, it’s kind of acting like Robin Hood, stealing from the publishing establishment to give to the needy: bargain-loving book buyers and authors who are tired of hearing the word ‘no.’

It’s undeniable that self-publishing programs like Kindle’s pave the way for a lot of bad ebooks. But it also paves the way for good ones. We in publishing can sit on our high horse about how we are arbiters of taste, picking out the quality content and making it even better, packaging it attractively, and getting the word out about it to the best audience. But sometimes I wonder about us.

I’ve been a publishing intern for almost two years now, and that means I have read a lot of slush. (For the uninitiated, “slush” is a publishing term for unsolicited manuscripts, articles, or proposals, stuff that prospective authors send to publishers, who then dump it into piles and have their unpaid interns read it and usually respond to authors’ labors of love with thoughtfully photocopied form letters.) And it’s true, most of it really is bad. Sometimes it’s so bad that it’s genius and you save it just to have something to make you laugh on bad days.

But sometimes there are those manuscripts that show potential but you just can’t say ‘yes’ to. The novel you don’t know how to market. The thoughtful nonfiction by the author with no platform. The book that just wasn’t long enough. Self-publishing with a program like Amazon’s, which is schmoozing authors right and left, might seem like a welcome refuge after months of “Dear Author” rejections.

I’m not trying to defend Amazon. Goodness knows I’m as upset as the rest of us by the DOJ’s decision and as frightened of Amazon’s burgeoning power. But if publishing is to carry on, mend itself, and use these lessons to fix things that have always been wrong with the industry, it might behoove us to look at what Amazon is getting right.

2 comments on “Is publishing broken?

  1. Pingback: What’s the cost of credibility? « appazoogle

  2. Pingback: Are tech giants out to kill the novel? « appazoogle

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This entry was posted on April 30, 2012 by in Opinion and tagged , , , .

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