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.
BIG FIVE PUBLISHERS
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.