Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

The consumer/reader divide

*5/15: As of last week, seventeen more states have joined the amended suit against Apple and the “Agency Five” publishers.

As a voracious reader of literary fiction—and more than my fair share of the smuttier stuff; The Pirate and the Pagan had me at hello—I never really thought of myself as a consumer when it came to buying books. Yes, I was purchasing a product of sorts, and I had a vague and not particularly informed notion that publishing houses were making a profit off my Borders and Barnes & Noble purchases. But as far as I was concerned, there was always some imaginary distinction between buying books and buying things like soap, clothes, candy bars, or coffee. I was a reader, not a consumer. It just so happened that I had to engage in a monetary transaction before I could get to the reading part.

And yet, the current state of the publishing industry has made it a great time to be a consumer of books. Not only has the advent of ereaders and tablets facilitated the instant gratification aspect so desirable to the millennial generation, ebooks are dirt-cheap and only going to get cheaper if the Department of Justice continues to persecute the publishing industry. Hobbling the agency model will very likely result in a renewal of the Amazon monopoly on ebook sales, and in any event, we’re going to start seeing many more 99-cent offerings in the same vein as celebrated author Paulo Coelho’s recent price cut on the ebook versions of his books. (For a thoughtful discussion of whether Coelho’s positive stance is appropriate, check out fellow Appazoogler Keira Lyons’ article.)

Not only is the DOJ gunning for publishers, a number of states have declared war as well. According to this Publishers Weekly article, while the settlement that the DOJ reached with Hachette, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster did not impose any monetary penalties, it also didn’t forestall other litigation. Under the purview of the Clayton Act, which allows anyone injured by antitrust actions to sue for triple the damages suffered, sixteen states have filed their own lawsuits against Penguin, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, and Apple, and have already reached an agreement with Hachette and Harper. The latter two will pay $51 million in restitution to consumers who allegedly overpaid for their ebooks.

Depending on how these suits go, ebook consumers might be able to recoup some of the “losses” they incurred by purchasing “overpriced” ebooks peddled by this notorious publishing “cartel.” Forgive the liberal use of quotations; everything about these lawsuits strikes me as absurd.

So, financially speaking, it’s a sweet time to be a book consumer. But the benefits don’t stop there.

BookExpo America


For the first time ever, BookExpo America is opening its doors to the public as well as industry professionals. The show will offer a maximum of 1,000 tickets to publishers and twenty local bookstores to sell to readers who want to attend the final day of the show, June 7. Consumers will be able to attend the morning breakfast and a “best of the best” buzz panel, and pick up free autographed books, bookmarks, posters, and other giveaways. Those who can’t physically attend can still enjoy live streaming of many author events on the Web.

So, that’s cool. Give consumers free books and galleys and posters, on top of the money they’re going to be getting from their states’ lawsuits against publishers. But while we’re on a roll, why not let consumers call all the shots?

That’s essentially what Sourcebooks is doing with Discover A New Love, a subscription plan/book club/community for romance readers. For $9.99 for a six-month plan, members receive one of four featured titles a month and discounts on additional titles and can purchase club selections a month before general release. Sourcebooks has also promised its readers “the opportunity to be part of romance publishing process,” which means that members get to vote and provide feedback on titles and covers, as well as receive pre-publication copies for review.

Neat. Why do even need editorial and art departments, or trade publications? That lady on the bus getting all squeamy over her romance novel can just decide what a good title and cover for the next book in the Scottish-laird-and-beleaguered-maiden series should be, as well as pre-review it for her peers (it should be noted that I have nothing against Scottish lairds, although in my opinion, no one will ever beat Diana Gabaldon on the subject and hence shouldn’t even bother to try). We don’t need no stankin’ Library Journal or Kirkus Reviews.

Oh, and cherry on top: Sourcebooks’ own titles are all DRM-free, which even in my bitterness I actually think is pretty great.

With all that in mind, I suppose my question boils down to this: is it as good of a time to be a reader as it is to be a consumer? Publishing is becoming much more of a direct sales business, and as a result, consumers increasingly have the power—but is that really in readers’ best interests? Does cheaper always mean better? And is literature going to become a democracy now, wherein readers expect to have a say in the creation of books even when it comes to the narrative itself? Is it a good thing for readers to have so much input? Or might part of the magic be that the greatest reads sweep you along and overwhelm you, much like certain aforementioned Scottish lairds?

I don’t have any answers, and I don’t pretend to. But I do know that some of the best books I’ve ever read—David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas comes immediately to mind—weren’t particularly interested in my comfort level, much less my consent with regard to plot and structure. To get away from rapey-sounding figurative language, I suspect that the most memorable writers are often tyrants, and that this is the way it ought to be. There’s a reason why writing is so often a solitary pursuit, and we already have agents and editors to hone the resulting text to its finest. Creating a book is not an “it takes a village” situation, at least not when the village is comprised of readers rather than peers or publishing professionals.

But that’s just me, and I always love to hear thoughts to the contrary (mainly so I can proceed to stridently argue them over wine). What does everyone else think?

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