By Porter Anderson | @Porter_Anderson
From February 2, 2012
Part of my series of columns on publishing, Writing on the Ether, appearing Thursdays through the kind (and brave) benevolence of Jane Friedman at JaneFriedman.com
The fog of war (Grandinetti, Owen, Bosman)
Just ask Geraldo Rivera. No, don’t ask him. He might give away the strategic location of that special Amazon shipping facility, the one fulfilling an offer of a free Prime pitchfork with every copy of Join the ePublishing Gold Rush.
I’m going to shoot up a flare to illuminate the past week’s events for you, the ones leading up to that declaration of all-out hostility we’re now witnessing. I love the smell of Ether in the morning.
Ominous, wasn’t it? — I’m sure you remember the rumble of distant artillery last week during the Digital Book World War Council + Weaponry Expo. We heard it on 25 January. About 9:15 a.m. in New York, 1415 Zulu.
Those faint salvos? Late in the day before, our best scouts had come back into camp with the word that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt would publish the print editions of Amazon’s publishing division run by Larry Kirshbaum. Laura Hazard Owen hypothesized about it at paidContent in her article Well, Here’s How Amazon Publishing Will Get Its Books Into Barnes & Noble. This New Harvest imprint could be Amazon’s way to breach its “Barnes & Noble problem: Barnes & Noble has said it will not carry any titles in its bricks-and-mortar stores that it cannot also sell as ebooks.”
Was a challenge being issued? And would it be taken up?
On the 28th, three days after the brass and their staffers decamped DBW, the able Julie Bosman at the Times ran her story The Bookstore’s Last Stand, an interview with B&N’s CEO, William “Custer” Lynch Jr. He was pictured before a phalanx of loyal Nooks and talking tough, even as Bosman laid out the stark facts: B&N – at that point – was valued at some $719 million, Amazon at $88 billion. ” Lynch was unperturbed.
Our stores are not going anywhere.
By article’s end, Bosman wasn’t rolling bandages yet, but some gauze was being stacked up in clean corners.
Without Barnes & Noble, the publishers’ marketing proposition crumbles. The idea that publishers can spot, mold and publicize new talent, then get someone to buy books at prices that actually make economic sense, suddenly seems a reach…What publishers count on from bookstores is the browsing effect. Surveys indicate that only a third of the people who step into a bookstore and walk out with a book actually arrived with the specific desire to buy one.
So they go to browse, do they? As in a showroom, right? Hold that thought.
So by the 30th, we all sat in those coffee shops attached to the brightly lit selling places for books (they act like showrooms, they quack like showrooms), feeding on the healing probity of Brian O’Leary’s ministrations.
He wrote of abundance, in Why pyramids?
Most of us came to publishing, to libraries, to book selling, to writing because we love what this business could do in the world. Now’s the time to make that a sustainable reality.
O’Leary was again putting forward his idea, backed months ago when we Ethernauts were younger by Don Linn in A Tragedy of the Commons, a concept of a uber-organization, a conclave embracing publishing’s major militia, its myriad factions, the great armies, and maybe even your more cooperative guerrillas.
O’Brien sees this body funded by a publishing community worth $40 billion for just $80 million — to give us all what he terms “a fighting chance to remake our industry and ourselves in a way that reflects, to borrow the phrase, our better angels.”
And … it should be measured by outcomes that improve the extent to which content is usefully consumed. The objective here isn’t just efficiency (though that is important); it’s ultimately our goal to place reading at the center of a social and civic conversation. Building something bigger than ourselves can motivate in ways that a litany of conferences, trade shows, and confabs never will approach.
How could any right-thinking lover of lit say no to this? Before we could collect the answers to that one, the bunkers were heavily hardened, the reserves were called up, I think I heard Gen. Pressfield mention martial law…and Hannibal in the Alps.
Sarah Weinman at Publishers Lunch was the first voice I heard sounding the alarm, bricks and mortar shells, incoming. It was the 31st: No, Barnes & Noble Won’t Stock Amazon Publishing Titles in Their Stores.
Laura Hazard Owen sprang to the wireless and raised Businessweek’s Brad Stone. She worked Google+ up one circle and down another, to decode the statement B&N was issuing. And in her story Barnes & Noble: We Will Not Carry Amazon Publishing Titles In Our Stores, it became clear how serious a moment we’d reached when we read Barnes & Noble’s bellicose prose.
I’ll excerpt here for you the gravest invective of B&N’s chief merchandising officer, Jaime Carey, emphasis mine:
Our decision is based on Amazon’s continued push for exclusivity with publishers, agents and the authors they represent. These exclusives have prohibited us from offering certain eBooks to our customers. Their actions have undermined the industry as a whole and have prevented millions of customers from having access to content.
It’s clear to us that Amazon has proven they would not be a good publishing partner to Barnes & Noble as they continue to pull content off the market for their own self interest.
This is village-burning rhetoric, aimed as it is by one major corporate entity at another, much more combustible than standard B2B trash talk.
Of course, there was the predictable reverie in certain quarters — the “Fight!” boys on the playground jumped right in.
Like reading The Onion, no?
Nazaryan does get off one good point, despite the high rag content of his newsprint:
Never mind that Barnes & Noble killed off plenty of smaller bookstores during the good years of the 90’s, when a healthy economy and the real estate boom that followed allowed it to expand with seeming abandon. Perhaps this is simply a case of just desserts for the diminished bookseller.
More curious is a piece from the Authors Guild. In Publishing’s Ecosystem on the Brink: The Backstory, the Guild finds itself aligned with Barry Lynn’s lament over monopolies in Harper’s (here is an excerpt). Lynn quotes the unnamed “head of one of the largest publishing houses in the U.S.” saying that Jeff Bezos is “reckless” and “dangerous.” Another unnamed honcho, this time of a small publishing house, pouts, “Amazon is a bully.” The Guild article, in fact, seems rather embarrassingly monopolized by Lynn’s story.
The Authors Guild — which apparently sees no need to byline the author of its own essay here — ends up in painful comparisons of publishing to chicken processors and microbrewers.
But what may be the most remarkable thing about this piece is that the Guild seems to have missed out on about a year of discussion in our fair community. As Guy LeCharles Gonzalez writes in If not readers… on Google+:
There’s a lot wrong with this heavily biased and surprisingly myopic look at the supposed “backstory” of the publishing industry, but perhaps the most galling line in the whole thing is this statement: “the relevant market isn’t readers.”
Here’s what he’s talking about the Guild saying. I did a double-take, too:
For book publishers, the relevant market isn’t readers (direct sales are few), but booksellers.
Say what? When all is connection-with-the-reader and fraternité and breaking bread with the lambs and lying down with the consumers? And what of the holy crusade for customer service? Gonzalez again, emphasis his:
Amazon has always understood that readers are the most relevant market and that’s why they’re in the position of power they’re currently enjoying. Do they wield their big stick aggressively? Definitely. And so did B&N and Borders before them, and presumably whomever the boogeyman was prior to them were guilty of the same thing. One could argue…that publishers themselves have been similarly as guilty in their dealings with authors.
The Guild writes, “Amazon commands about 75% of the online market for print books, and 60% of the ebook market.” Shall we then bite that hand so very hard? And on behalf of the authors who feed from it?
Say it with me, Guy, #cmonson.