Publishing, Charlotte*, and John*

Today, kids, it’s storytime.

But first (and related to the story), I’m going to revisit the Macmillan/Amazon Weekend Event and talk about publishing in general.

Now, Amazon came out yesterday with a statement about the whole weekend drama llama. Yes, they attempted to paint themselves, disingenuously, as “fighting for the little guy”, and I rolled my eyes, but I was surprised that most of the snickering and snide commentary from the internets was directed at their use of the word “monopoly” when describing Macmillan’s control over their imprints.

I was also kind of disappointed. The people doing the snickering are readers (and writers), and they should understand the meaning of the word well enough to know that it was perfectly apt.

Monopoly: exclusive control or possession of something.

Of course Macmillan has a monopoly on the books produced by their various imprints. It could not be otherwise. It’s not a monopoly in the “Ma Bell” sense, but that wasn’t the sense in which it was being used.

Does Amazon likewise have a monopoly on ebook sales?

Nnnnnnno. Maybe no. Probably not. They do not control ebook sales to the degree that Macmillan controls who gets access to Macmillan books.

But hey: it’s close enough that if someone said “Amazon essentially has a monopoly on ebook sales”, I would not bother to argue, because it’s not worth the effort and gets us nowhere. For the sake of argument, let’s say both Amazon and Macmillan both have “exclusive control or possession of something” that the other one wants some access to.

Ultimately, all that happened this weekend was Macmillan and Amazon fighting over which monopoly interest gets to exert their pricing desires, not whether. And the thing to remember about that is that pricing determined by a monopoly is, generally, never good for the consumer.

So who was I rooting for in that weekend fracas? Please: that’s like betting on a fight between two rabid weasels — I’d prefer they both lose.  Amazon’s just trying to maintain their hold on epublishing and push Kindle sales, and Macmillan won’t earn authors one cent more by forcing Amazon to sell books for $15 bucks (they should, but only if the author has the sense to renegotiate contracts based on the change to the market Macmillan’s trying to push through), and their justification for the ebook pricing is an insult to my intelligence.

Who do I think will ultimately win? In the end, any of the Big Six publishers will probably come out ahead in a game of chicken with Amazon unless technology provides a new model for publishing, because publishers have more leverage as the content provider.

(Really, authors should have the most leverage of all as the true source of content, but that logic only works if authors acted in unison, which… well, come on. The most influential move most of us make in a given day is deciding whether or not wear pants.)

For me, all that this weekend did was remind me how much is broken with regard to the way publishing works.

Writers, whether published or not-quite-yet, please hear this: I need you to think like a reader for a little bit. I know you are readers. I know. Shh. Shut up and bear with me. This isn’t a trick: I’m not going to steal all your royalty checks while your eyes are closed. Just… think like the person who, at the end of the day, finally buys and reads a book.

Because here’s the thing: in the world of paper publishing, publishers don’t give a tin can fuck about you, the reader.

  • In the world of paper publishing, you are not their customer.
  • In the world of paper publishing, the book seller is their customer. This means that it doesn’t matter if you think a book costs too much; it only matters if their customer thinks so.
  • In the world of electronic publishing, you are not the publisher’s customer either. Amazon is their customer. Mac iBook store is their customer.
  • In the world of electronic publishing, you *could* be their direct customer, but in almost all cases, you aren’t.
  • Here’s a dirty little secret: the Big Six don’t really want you to be their customer. If a bunch of people are their customers, there are suddenly all these individuals who ‘want things’ and ‘have opinions’. Right now? There’s a handful of customers to deal with/please/coerce. The current set up is better and easier for publishers.

Please don’t think that I hate publishers for this. They are businesses. This is how the business works right now and, unless the technology available forces a sea change, it is how it will continue to work.

And please don’t think I’m lumping writers in with publishers. Writers (all those I know, and I know quite a few) love readers, even if they aren’t their readers. As I said, they are readers.

So, be that reader for a second. Let me help.

Let me tell you about Charlotte*.


Charlotte is one my coworkers. Charlotte loves to read. She doesn’t really read the same kind of stuff that I do, but we still manage to find lots of reader-stuff to talk about, because there’s a kind of commonality two avid readers can usually find.

Right now, Char’s having a pretty rough time. Like a lot of folks, she’s feeling the pinch of the recession: she traded in her much beloved, bright red vehicle for one with lower monthly payments; she and her husband are looking for a more affordable place to live because their current house is proving to be too much of a burden right now. She’s got a injury that she has to go to physical therapy for several times a week.

… and she has to deal with John*.  John is old school. John doesn’t use Outlook’s calendar function – he writes down everything on one of those desktop blotter calendars and insists that be the ‘master calendar’ for his department, and that is just the tip of the iceberg of retrograde thinking that floats around inside his head.

(Note: that isn’t actually the master calendar for his department: every few weeks, someone takes his calendar and “manually syncs” it with the Outlook calendar EVERYONE ELSE uses, thus creating a viable electronic version… which he’ll never ever see. Which, come to that, he doesn’t even understand the need for.)

At Christmas time, Charlotte asked for one thing: a Kindle. As far as I could tell, everyone in her life pretty much chipped in and got it for her. Maybe she got some other things as well, but if so, I didn’t hear about them. She loves that thing, and she uses it constantly. Her lunch breaks are Kindle breaks. Her weekends (thanks to her injury) are pretty much “Kindle and heating pad” days. We’ve talked about Amazon’s DRM on the Kindle a few times, but the bottom line is that it doesn’t really affect her and so long as that continues to be the case, she doesn’t really care.

She just wants to read.

And, I think it’s safe to say, because of the Kindle, she’s buying more books than ever. Any writer would be lucky to have Charlotte as a fan.

Well, maybe.

Not if your ebooks cost fifteen bucks.

See, when I got a chance to talk to Charlotte after all this stuff that happened this weekend, the first thing I asked her about was her purchasing habits with her Kindle, because she’s the only person I know who uses their Kindle in the way in which it was intended. Kate uses one, but she uses it exclusively for work, which means reading partial and full manuscript submissions sent to her by authors. My agent also uses one, but pretty much in the exact same way. As far as I know only Charlotte uses it the way a regular reader does.

And Charlotte doesn’t buy fifteen dollar ebooks. Most of the time (are you listening, Amazon?) Charlotte doesn’t buy ten dollar ebooks. Given a choice between a book listed for five bucks and ten bucks (or the promo stuff available for free), and all other things (quality, subject, reader interest) being equal, she’s just not going to buy the ten dollar book. They’re both books, after all, reasonably well-vetted, and as I’ve said, she just wants to read.

“But,” cries the writer, “if I let Amazon list the book for five dollars (or four, or three, or two), I will make half as much per sale.”

Sure. Yes.

You know how much money you’re going to make from selling that ten (or fifteen) dollar book to Charlotte?


Because she didn’t buy it.

Cheap sells more copies — puts more copies of your story in front of more readers.

And maybe, juuuust maybe, authors should be more concerned with getting their stories to the greatest number of readers, instead of worrying about per-sale payoff.

Maybe publishers should be too, instead of clinging to the old publishing model in which their real business is selling paper.

Stuff I Learned this Weekend

In the postscript to this piece, Eirik Newth India, Ink. explains why Big Publishing consistently cites costs to create ebooks that fall miles outside my experience and expectation.

Short version: they’re doing it wrong.

Long version:

Publishers are still producing paper books the “X-Acto–and–wax” way and then outsourcing their e-book production to other companies, which probably automate the conversion process, and then they’re not practicing any kind of QA on what comes back, because nobody gives a shit, because the people who make the decisions don’t read e-books.

No wonder they think making an ebook is an expensive, time-consuming process.

Yes, you read that right. Publishers aren’t producing workable electronic files when they produce a paper book — their product essentially has to be OCR’d by a third party company to get an ebook out of it. They start with a hardcopy difficult-to-translate template file and make someone else turn it into an electronic version for distribution; a version they’ll never read.

They are, in short, my coworker John.

John’s on a ‘planned retirement’ schedule that concludes in a little over a year.

People are counting. the. days.

Draw whatever parallels from that that you like.

11 Replies to “Publishing, Charlotte*, and John*”

  1. I’ve done X-acto & wax & non-reproducible blue, and it was fun, but I could have done it in less than a tenth of a time with a computer back then, and DOS was still new.

    Maybe there should be incentives for writers to submit electronically. Oh wait, there ARE!

    [shakes head]

  2. Yeah. The idea that I create something electronically that, if the publisher doesn’t actually TOUCH it, could be more easily turned into an ebook than if they do, boggles.

    They’re supposed to HELP.

  3. Hi, Doyce.

    Thanks for linking. The post “What’s been gnawing at me lately” is, in fact, by me; only the photo is by Eirik. Although he is an author and an e-book aficionado and has a lot to say on the subject, it’s usually in Norwegian; worth reading, if you can bear automatic translation (or if you read Norge).

    A couple of things.

    Regarding the snorking over the word monopoly, the point is not that anybody thinks Macmillan doesn’t have a monopoly on its content, it’s that it’s such an obvious statement—most manufacturers have monopolies on what they produce. Amazon has a monopoly on the Kindle; oooh, spooky! So Amazon is treating its customers like idiots, trying to make this normal state of affairs sound like an evil conspiracy when, in fact, it’s Amazon that’s using its near-monopoly in online bookselling to punish Macmillan for trying to negotiate new terms.

    About Charlotte, she has other options, if she really “just wants to read.” l I’m a starving graduate student, and I simply don’t pay for e-books at all, unless they’re technical books I need for school or work. It helps that I tend not to read any book published after 1850 to begin with, so most of what I want to read is in the public domain.

    The pricing change that Macmillan is trying to implement is no different from the pricing scheme that’s been in effect for books for decades: the book is released first as an expensive hardcover, and only those people who have to have it right now buy it. Everyone else waits for it to go on remainder or get released in a less expensive paperback. In certain genres (mysteries, science fiction, military, etc.), readers can count on being able to buy a mass-market paperback even more cheaply, if they can just wait long enough. Nobody is saying that e-books are going to always cost $15, throughout the life of the book. Rather, a book will cost $15 until sales drop off, then it’ll probably go to $10, and when sales slow again at that rate, it’ll drop to $5. If Charlotte doesn’t want to spend $15, she can simply not read frontlist books; frontlist is a tiny slice of what’s available for sale at any given moment.

    And lastly, what I’m saying about the X-Acto and wax technique is directed to book designers, who make up a lot of my readership, and further up in that post I linked to an earlier rant explaining in greater detail what I meant. I’m sorry if that was unclear. My point is not that the books have to be OCR’d to make e-books out of them. That’s simply not true, except in the case of converting pre-digital-production backlist—let’s say, books published before 1985, though it’s probably a bit later—as I describe in a comment near the bottom of the page. My point about the X-Acto thing is that files are being created in ways that are not easy to convert. They’re digital, of course. They’ve been digital for years. But because of the way they’re put together, converting them to e-book formats requires a lot of fiddly hand-work—basically, re-proofreading the entire text—that is apparently not getting done. Some publishers have been using an XML workflow for years—Cambridge University Press is one—but it’s still a relatively new process, so a lot of trade publishers have not yet gotten around to converting things.

    I hear you with the story about John; I’ve worked with Johns everywhere I’ve ever worked. But the problem is not that the tool is sitting in front of them and they won’t learn it, it’s that the tools are expensive, and retraining all those people to use them is expensive, and converting an entire production process while you’ve got thousands of books in halfway done is a huge headache, and there is not—has never been—enough profit in the books business to pay for that kind of thing.

    Independent publishers that started up in the last five to ten years are having a much easier time of digitizing their books because they started digital, and they have a lot fewer people involved, and a lot fewer software licenses to buy, and a lot fewer salaries to pay, and a lot fewer books in production at one time. It’s much easier for them to adjust their process as they go along. They also are more likely to have direct relationships with their readers, through direct mail and e-mail, because they can’t afford to compete with larger companies on traditional advertising and promotion, and on buying placement in places like Barnes & Noble. (The consolidation of publishing companies over the last several years is a big villain in all this, and Barnes & Noble’s massive superstore deployment in the 1990s definitely helped set the stage for what Amazon is doing now.) Does that mean all the big publishers are big bad meanies and are doomed and deserve to go out of business? Well, I don’t think so, and I don’t think that would be a good thing for readers or writers.

    I could go on, but I would probably grow even less articulate as I did so. I apologize for taking up so much space. But my point is that the situation is more complex than you’re making it out to be. Please go back to my post and follow more of the links. Much of what I linked to is intended for insiders, but Scott Westerfeld’s Zinc Blinked and Tobias Buckell’s Why My Books Are No Longer Available on are particularly good overviews directed at general readers.

    Thanks again. Sorry for the confusion, and the blathering.
    .-= India´s last blog ..What’s been gnawing at me lately =-.

    1. Thanks for the clarifications, India — I’ve tweaked those last two paragraphs to (a) give proper credit and (b) remove the word “hardcopy”. (In my head, I was seeing a proprietary electronic format that didn’t translate well, but I said “hardcopy”. No idea why.)

      As far as I understand the rest of your post, I think the rest of my summary of current practice – though simplistic – stands, but please let me know if that’s not true.

      I know that, from the point of view of anyone inside the industry, my summaries are hopelessly simplified. I know that because I’m married to someone inside the industry, and my summaries routinely produce exasperated sighs.

      Not because they’re wrong, but because there’s “more to it than that”.

      Usually, “more to it than that” means there are reasons for the way things are… not that I’ve represented “the way things are” inaccurately.

      (It also means I ascribe motivations to the participants based on my own impression, which aren’t usually very complimentary to anyone, and that’s annoying to damn near everyone.)

      Anyway, the thing is (which folks in the industry don’t get), is that to folks not in the industry, the reasons don’t matter as much as the end result.

      You said:
      “The pricing change that Macmillan is trying to implement is no different from the pricing scheme that’s been in effect for books for decades.”

      Yeah… see… from my point of view, that’s pretty much the problem, in a nutshell.

      1. I feel like I should add on to that last little paragraph of mine.

        “The pricing scheme that’s been in place for decades” is built at least in part on…

        * printing costs
        * stocking costs
        * shipping costs
        * returns costs
        * additional print run costs

        … and a host of other things that bear no relevance to electronic publishing/distribution. Lately, publishing has even tried to argue that the cost of paying rent on a brick and mortar store is something that affects the final retail price of a paper book.

        If pubs want to charge more for first-release (or, as Baen does, eArcs), and gradually reduce prices over time. Fine. If the market supports it, fine.

        But the argument that ebook pricing should, baseline, be 60% the cost of the (printed, shipped, stocked, returned, reprinted) paper counterpart released at the same time is unsupportable math.

        Or so I see it.

        Maybe the math totally works, but until pubs decide to lay every dime of production/profit out in a spreadsheet to prove that initial development comprises sixty percent of all a book’s gross costs, I don’t buy it.

        I kinda doubt they’ll do that.

        And if they do, and the math works, my next question is “how do we fix that?”

        Because that? That’s broken.

  4. Many products are priced highest when they come out and drop in price over time. Clothes, cars, computers, appliances, movies, . . . Why wouldn’t books follow the same pattern?

    A relatively small part of the price of a book goes into its physical production. The actual percentage varies widely from book to book. Tobias Buckell’s post and a few others that I linked to delve into the math a bit, but the gist is that if you start the price low, you have to sell an extremely unlikely number of books for the increased sales volume to make up for the decreased price.
    .-= India´s last blog ..What’s been gnawing at me lately =-.

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