Monday, 11 August 2014

The Book Report: State of an Industry...

Some have noted that in recent posts about the book industry that may come off as a tad anti-Amazon. Well, I'm a tad anti-dysfunction, and Amazon has recently been the biggest, pushiest, and loudest part of a very dysfunctional industry.  So let's take a look at the industry as a whole.


They're biggest problem is that they want to be more than just the best place to get a book or e-book, they want to be the ONLY place to get a book or e-book.  

They're racking up big losses on the road to monopoly-land so they're picking fights with publishers, authors, and even Disney to take on some of Amazon's losses for them. While some think nationalizing it is the key, I think some actual competition might be just what the business needs.

The feud between Amazon and publishers is preventing the market from reaching a natural price point for e-books.


The Big Five used to be the Big 6 before merger mania put Penguin and Random House together.

Where to begin?

The industry acts less like an industry and more like a gentleman's club from the 1900s than a real industry. Everything's all very polite, and no one would dare compete too aggressively with a fellow club member.

It's also resistant to change, having been dragged kicking and screaming by market realities into paperbacks, and now into e-books. Even though e-books are a great way to get their mid-list titles moving at a very low cost, they spend more time and effort trying to figure out ways to sink it, than to exploit it. I'm talking about complex DRM, prohibitive pricing, and now Scholastic is thinking of a new "streaming subscription" model where you pay for e-books, but don't actually own them.

Now you might wonder what I mean by "mid-list" titles. Well, those are books written by authors who are not big New York Times best-seller list superstars, or celebrities. They usually write the genre fiction that stocks the shelves and keeps readers entertained, and are the bread and butter of the industry, but many find it harder to make a living now than ever before because whenever the Big Five have any sort of setback or problem, they slash their mid-lists, either by reducing advances to less than minimum wage standards, or just dropping authors completely.

Although they deny it, I suspect that one of the problems that afflict the biggest publishers is that the celebrity based books that land their "authors" massive advances don't sell as well as the Big Five like to claim they do. Take for example the essay collection Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham the creator/star of HBO's Girls. She got a $3.7 million advance on the basis of her celebrity.

But is she really a celebrity?

She gets a lot of hype within the New York centric media, but her show struggles to find more than 500,000 viewers, which even by today's fractured viewing standards counts as a flop. Also her attempts to present herself as a "Jane Average" speaking for the "average girls" sound like the female equivalent of Thurston Howell III trying to make friends in a working class tavern in Akron, by pretending to be "one of them." 

Then there's the big money deals for "novels" "written" by Jersey Shore humanoid stain Snooki, whose fans were either illiterate, or watched the show simply for the schadenfreude of saying "look at those lower order buffoons" but who wouldn't be caught dead spending money on her book.

The Big Five would defend themselves saying "Those were good investments, look at the Best-Seller lists!" Well, I'll get to the problems with the Best-Seller lists momentarily, but let's just say we can't really trust them. What I would like to see is a thorough neutral 3rd party audit that reveals how many of these big money celebrity-author deals, which are made by the dozens every year, actually make money. Then maybe the Big Five might learn to be more discriminating with who they make these sorts of deals with, and how much they spend.


Amazon is more than just a retailer, it also has a division that publishes books and e-books, and has actively recruited mid-list authors who were being dropped or being screwed over the Big Five. However, try to get one of these books at your neighbourhood bookstore, and you're out of luck.

That's because many of the big retail chains and distributors have refused to carry anything released by Amazon's publishing imprints.

But wait, there's more…

Many authors, including some major best-sellers, have deals adapting their work as movies or television series for release on Amazon's video service. They're not boycotted, because they're big sellers signed to big publishers, so there's a wee bit of a double standard there.

I think such a business practice is being used by Amazon to justify some of their own antics. Which creates a seemingly unending cycle of stupid where the biggest victims are the mid-list writers signed to Amazon publishing who can't get their books in stores.

Also, try to order a book at a bookstore, even a major chain, and you will have to wait weeks to get what you want. That's no way to compete with Amazon. That's why I relentlessly advocate the publishers and the booksellers work together at adopting the latest print-on-demand technology to make any book available at every bookstore within a matter of minutes.


I mentioned earlier that we can't trust the measurements that tell us what is really a best-seller and what isn't. The premiere list is the New York Times Best-Seller List, and it has a dirty little secret, in fact, the whole thing is a secret, and may have very little to do with people actually buying books.

You see the algorithm is a trade secret of the New York Times, supposedly to prevent anyone from manipulating it. However, it can be, and has been manipulated.

The most obvious case involves the novel I, Libertine by Frederick R. Ewing, a saucy adventure set in Georgian England. It made the NYT best-seller list in 1956 even though it did not exist. It was a creation by radio raconteur and author Jean Shepherd who was unhappy with how the list was managed, and decided to game the system by asking his listeners to order a book that didn't exist. He made up the title, a fictional author, and some plot points in case anyone asked for more detail.

It worked, it made it onto the best-seller list, and Ballantine Books even made a deal with Shepherd to have Theodore Sturgeon write a real version of the book, that too made it to the best-seller list.

You don't think publishers know how to game the system by now?


Publishing your own books may seem like a great idea. Hell, I've done it myself, but guess what, the odds of finding an audience are infinitesimal than if you had a more traditional publisher.

It's next to impossible to be found among the hoards of amateur dinosaur erotica, or set yourself apart from the tens of thousands of wannabes who just slap up their first draft with some eye-bleedingly bad cover-art in the hopes that they'll be the next big discovery.

Traditional publishers offer editors, marketing, and the unmentioned notion that someone separated this bit of wheat from the reams of unreadable chaff. Selling in any serious amount as a self-published author requires a level of luck found only among lottery winners.

That's what I think, feel free to tell me what you think.


  1. Furious, great article. Lots and lots of points to address there, but here are my thoughts on a couple.

    For one, like all the cultural industries, making money is often less important than the cachet of signing people like Lena Dunham (or Hillary Clinton, to name another obvious example). I think these people obviously know they aren't going to make back four million bucks on a book Dunham writes. But then, that was never the point. She's a hot property among their kind, and there's a built in loss factor in those industries where pissing away money is rewarded if you do it for the right reasons. That's why Hollywood kept making all those excruciatingly dumb and preachy anti-war movies when Bush was president (and then stopped for some mysterious reason when he wasn't) despite the fact that they all lost money. Film after film after film after film. The fact that they intentionally lose money like that is why they feel soooooooooooo smugly superior to other industries. It's the core of who they are, or at least believe themselves to be. And it's easy, because they are spending other people's money. That why their kind also congregate in government so much. Same kind of thing.

    As for the traditional publisher thing...I think all the culture industry models as we know them; publishing, TV, movies, etc.,--will inevitably die off because they were all formulated in the days of mass culture. That doesn't exist anymore.

    I also think I mean something different than you do by the phrase "finding an audience." Yes, there will always be a role for corporate publishers. and authors who win the lottery through them.

    However, far more people will now be able to find an audience without them, one that will provide them $20,000 or $30,000 or $40,000 a year via their writing or music or films or whatever--and for many, that's "living on" money--because we are transitioning inexorably from mass culture to niche culture. Everything Hatchette is doing right now is to try to turn back the clock back to the days when they ruled the roost. And in the end all that matters is that they will not, can not, succeed. Those in power have been trying to stop change since there have been humans, and it never works.

    And frankly, I don't trust publishers to separate the wheat from the chaff, because I don't think their definition of chaff or wheat is very relevant, and it grows less relevant every day.

  2. Ken-

    Dunham is what I call a "dinner party deal" meaning that they're spending investor's money so the president of the company gets invites to all the best social events and can get pats on the back for their "courage" and "taste."

    As for self-publishing, I have to say that I am personally terrible at marketing, and my sales figures show it. As for the relevance of the publishing industry's collective taste, well, we're going to have to live with it because right now they have the money and the clout for the next few years at least, and like Hollywood are pretty good at subsuming and absorbing any small players that pop up to compete with them like the Borg collective. ;-)

  3. This why I start Blaster books. This is good jobs.

  4. Rainforest Giant11/8/14 3:59 pm


    I subscribe to 'Oyster'. I get as many ebooks I want a month for about $10. They are all three months old or so but so what? I get to read far more than I used to and most of the good stuff is older anyway. Any industry that pays multi-bajillion dollars to Dunham or Obama or Snooki, deserves to go under.

    They could beat Amazon tomorrow by lowering their prices except through Amazon. Do a deal with B&N or create their own ebook system and set the price at something reasonable like topping out at 5 or 6 bucks for an ebook. Drop the DRM bs.

    The big five are a sclerotic bunch of fossils. They're not even dinosaurs anymore. Dinosaur porn is as relevant as anything Snooki comes up with.

    They don't even consider trying to beat Amazon by competing in some way. You know lower prices on ebooks to something reasonable or something like that.

    That's why their going to lose to the people who produce dino-porn.

  5. As someone pointed out to me, Amazon is the big powerful gang on top right now because about a decade ago, when the Big Five asked them to join in on their little combination-for-restraint-of-trade scheme, they said no.

    Amazon is not the villain here -- they may just be living long enough to become the villain, since most of their competition are busy burning themselves to the ground.