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April 17, 2012

In Yesterday's NYTimes: Traditional Book Publishers Stomp Their Feet at Mean Amazon's Price-Cutting Ways

I very much enjoyed reading this article in the NYTimes because of how thoroughly (and inadvertently, I believe) it portrays traditional publishers as suggesting that books should cost more than people are willing to pay for them. I'm not going to quote from it, just to make you go read the whole thing. I'll wait.

Did you catch the bit about the publisher who "dared" to show Amazon who's boss by removing all of its titles from Amazon's "virtual shelves" and, as a consequence, took a $1.5 million hit in annual sales? The whole article takes that tone. Amazon stands on one side, "unsustainably" selling books at ever-lower prices, and the traditional publishers nobly stand on the other, insisting that publishing is a "craft industry" and therefore requires that prices be higher. The oddest part is that nowhere do the publishers suggest that consumers are want to pay higher prices for this craft. There's an odd assumption that consumers would want to pay higher prices if only Amazon weren't around to force prices down.

There is a telling quote from an author caught in between the publisher, who wanted the books to cost more, and Amazon, who just wanted to cut prices: "I donít know whether Amazon is being greedy or [the publisher] is being cheap, but Iím caught in the middle. . . . What matters to me is getting my books back on Kindle." Never fear, dear author, Amazon has made self-publishing easier than ever.

And that's the bottom line. Amazon has made the sale of books more convenient than the publishing industry ever imagined. And, for lack of imagination, they have failed to adapt. The publishing industry wants to keep its editors and staff assistants, marketers, and salespeople, just as if the world hasn't changed.

For a similar tale of a company that has failed to adapt owing to its attachment to traditional power structures, see this article on Sony's expected $6.4 billion loss this year. Yes, $6.4 billion with a "B."

Parting shot: I just loved this comment to the publishing article:

I work in the editorial department of a Big Five legacy publisher. Reading the hateful comments here about traditional publishing has been an extremely shocking frustrating experience.

In many contexts, this is erroneously portrayed as a black-and-white issue, a battle between Good and Evil. The truth is that traditional publishers have an ambivalent relationship with Amazon. We all share the goal of getting books to readers, and Amazon has done a lot to make books more accessible for everyone. The problem is that Amazon's business structure emphasizes price, but publishing by nature involves assigning value to something that inherently doesn't have a price in the traditional sense--ideas, and the expression of them.

When you are buying a book you are not just buying sheets of paper bound together; you are purchasing something intangible. The process by which publishers determine how much they'll pay for a book is complicated, fascinating, and subjective...and at the mercy of fluctuating cultural forces. The effort put into getting that book ready for publication also doesn't have a finite price--there's no such thing as "rate of unit production" in editorial.

This is a very basic explanation of the central conflict between Amazon's model and that of traditional publishing--how do you reconcile the identities of reader with consumer? Please, don't be so quick to strike us out of the equation by assuming what we do has no worth.

Oh, silly person, nobody's saying what you do has no worth. I think that at a fundamental level I speak a different language than these people.


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posted by Gabriel Malor at 08:42 AM

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