My writing time this weekend was eclipsed by other things (both writing wise and sick-kid wise) so I’m going to fall back on a few bullet points about this whole Amazon/Macmillan nonsense.
- Neither of these companies is doing it for the customers. Customers are bags of money, and they both want to get more of that money. I’ve seen supporters of each side talk about how the other company isn’t really interested in customers. And they’re right. They just are operating under some sort of delusion that their team is different.
- Ebooks are not free. Even setting aside the costs of paying the writer, editor and other folks involved in the actual creation of content, storing, distributing and maintaining the electronic files introduces costs.
- However, it is not unreasonable to expect that ebooks are cheaper to produce (printing), distribute (shipping), and warehouse (storage).  While the costs for doing these things are non-zero, they are also costs that diminish as they scale up.
- Most of the reason this is any kind of argument is that neither side is particularly transparent about their figures, and the figures that they put forward are usually so obviously cooked as to be useless. This is, by the way, a good indicator that both sides are on shaky ground. If one side was clearly in the right, they could break down the costs and make their case.
- Macmillan expects too high a price for ebooks. Seriously. They’re nuts, and the iPad will not save them.
- Amazon’s desire to control the ebook market has made them handled this very stupidly indeed.
- In a vacuum, authors have every reason to back Macmillan because they need their books to be sold. Amazon taking down the books was a punch right in the affiliate link. Authors talk a lot, and do so reasonably well. That meant there were a lot more voices making the case for why Amazon were a bunch of poopy heads than the reverse. Amazon was already losing the perception war when they decided to so profoundly misuse the term monopoly as to start a meme. Authors are marketers, whether they accept that or not, and this was a marketing conflict.
- The fact that one side was better marketed than the other, even accidentally, has no actual correlation to rightness.
- EDIT TO ADD: None of this forgive amazon apparently having its head firmly up its ass. They could have been entirely on the side of angels, but handling it the way they did was flipping the bird to everyone who might have been sympathetic, including authors. Authors know that publishers are bastards, and they’re great spokesmen (see above) so punching them in the head with no explanation is not a great way to start out making your case.
- This was not a war, or even a real skirmish. This was a shot across the bow at best. In 10 years this will seem so charmingly dated as to be funny. Publishing and bookseller is going to change dramatically and disruptively over the coming years. And for people who have made it, the successful authors, it’s going to either be a time of great opportunity or of vast and painful suckage. But I think a lot of authors have already seen this coming – this is already an era where authors need to be their own champion to survive, and that’s going to become more true than less.
- I am sympathetic to the idea that as a writer you just want to write, not deal with also being a marketer and so on. That fact is, i think, going to have some big impact on the role of agents in the future. But the unpleasant reality is that if its your job, then you are subject to the whims of the industry. That can suck. I know. I feel you. But I work in a goddamned cloth covered cubicle, so my sympathy has limits.
- Seriously. The book trade is a byzantine mess. The numbers on who buys books and how many they buy can break your heart. Book lovers are killing bookstores. The distinction between loving reading and loving books is leading to knife fights. Disruptive change is going to hurt, maybe a lot, but there’s a case to be made that it’s just what we need.
1 – All of which to say nothing of avoiding taxation on backstock and punative returns, two of the poison pills of the book trade today.
2 – If, for example, as MacMillan claims, printing represents only 1% of the cost of a book, I admit I wonder what magical trees they are using to get their paper. Oh, I’m sure it’s true if looked at just the right way, but that’s spin where transparency is desirable.
3 – On this point I concede that it’s possible that Jeff Bezos is an ebook true believer – a lot of Amazon’s decisions can be seen as promoting the medium, albeit on Amazon’s terms. Ebooks and ebook readers are more than 15 years old at this point, but it took the Kindle to make it a viable market. Of course, the counterargument is that this was a cynical ploy: Amazon created the market so they could control it. Might be true. Truth is probably more mixed.
4 – This is more true of the internet than the real world, but we’re talking about ebooks here, and most of that audience is on the internet.
5 – I know several authors and all of them work their asses off, and they are exactly the kinds of folks who I think will weather the transition well. If I sound snarky at authors, lets just say that some sound a lot more entitled than others.