Recently, I’ve watched with a mix of fear and amusement as the blogosphere has twisted and shouted over the dust-up between Hachette and Amazon. As Farhad Manjoo explains it:
In an effort to exert pressure on Hachette, Amazon began taking down preorder buttons for many Hachette titles. It has also suddenly raised prices on some Hachette books and has changed its page design to more prominently recommend other titles. These moves follow weeks of increasingly hardball tactics. Among other customer-punishing moves, Amazon has increased shipping times for Hachette titles from a few days to weeks.
So, let’s not bury the lede here—morally speaking, what Amazon is doing is wrong. But legally? Economically? It couldn’t be based on sounder theory. And I write that as a published author (who links to his book on Amazon), a writing teacher, and a lifelong reader. But the political economy that we inhabit is based upon some basic economic principles; namely, sell as much as you can of something for the cheapest price possible that allows for it to be alluring to consumers, but still nets you a profit at the end of the day. It’s really as simple as that. And don’t tell me about your recycled plastic bags and your charitable eyeglasses and the sneakers you donate to inner-city basketball camps. We’re all a part of this machine in one way or another; nobody is innocent.
The real issue in this situation is not Amazon holding back from selling Hachette books; it’s the Book Publishing Industry continuing to give Amazon the privilege of selling their books. And why do they do this? Because they’re scared of ebooks, scared of change, and still hoping for someone (namely, the government) to step in and take us all back to black-and-white Kansas. But this isn’t a dream. It is time for the B.P.I, for lack of a less heteronormative expression, to grow some balls and take back control of their product.
If the B.P.I. was a consortium of merchants looking to sell a vast array of products to people all over the country and ship those products to them quickly and reliably, this would be an uphill battle. They’d have to source the products, get a website up, get people to come to the website, get people to trust the website, convince those people to give their credit card information to the website, convince them to buy stuff from it, negotiate deals with shipping companies, and, maybe most importantly, be prepared to eat the cost of running at full speed while not profiting at full speed for quite some time.
But the B.P.I doesn’t have to do that. The B.P.I. knows who the members of its club are.
(And let me just say, before I type what’s about to come next, that I don’t totally believe in my own theory; I think there are many, many readers and writers in this country who secretly and unguiltily abuse the shit out of the “1-click purchase” button on Amazon and then rail about Evil Amazon on Twitter. My father-in-law would call this a “Celine Dion Situation.” Celine Dion, according to Wikipedia, has sold more than 200 million albums worldwide. Yet, outside of Canada, nobody ever seems to be willing to admit in public that they like Celine Dion’s music. But, as my father-in-law always shouts, somebody’s buying those albums! And the same is true here. Amazon has razor-thin profit margins. Somebody is buying those ebooks. But I digress.)
The B.P.I. doesn’t need to convince anyone, doesn’t need to develop a revolutionary product, doesn’t need to do anything that hasn’t been done before. If the B.P.I. would just take the blanket off of its head and face the boogeyman under the bed that is technological progress, they could hand Amazon their ass:
- Step -1: Convene a meeting of the five families and decide on a name. Something minimal and snappy and modern, with a whimsical throwback to the history of books. I volunteer “Yohanis.”
- Step 0: Build the back end and the front end of an online ebook store. Build a low-cost e-reader. Bigger undertaking than the 19 words describing it? Of course. But it’s been done by people in way less desperate situations.
- Step 1: Remove all ebook titles from Amazon. All of them. Prepare to lose money and to face the wrath of the consumer.
- Step 2: Unveil the advertising campaign secretly developed during Step 0 that involves every famous writer everywhere, ever, urging readers to bring their business to this new venture. Explain that, yes, the ebooks cost a bit more than when—that company—used to sell them, but because of the enormous consumer and industry feedback the B.P.I. received, it was obvious that readers care about a sustainable model and would be happy to pay more to be a part of that system. (And just to reiterate my aside from above—I don’t think all authors care nearly as much as they tweet, and I don’t think all readers are as willing to shell out $4 extra per book as they tweet about.)
- Step 3: Prepare for court.
Now, is what I’m suggesting far-fetched? Of course it is. For what I know, it might even be monopolistic practices. But I guarantee that it isn’t nearly as hard to pull off as the folks at the top of the B.P.I. think it is—and that right there? That’s the problem.
The B.P.I is in the position that they’re in right now because they were overcome by that deadly combination of laziness and fear when ebooks became a legitimate platform a decade or so ago. They didn’t want to develop a sustainable model that they were in control of. They didn’t know how to and they were too scared to change what had been working for so long. But the tree planted during that initial paralysis has finally come to bare fruit. They allowed their treasured product (I would also posit that the way the B.P.I has allowed books and writers to be treated by others isn’t a recent development; the B.P.I. is just as guilty as treating books and writers as commodities and cheap labor as Evil Amazon, but that’s another essay) to be stolen. The B.P.I. was too scared to cannibalize themselves (read as: profits), forgetting (or maybe unable to see) that being eaten by someone else is far worse a fate.
I’m grandstanding here, I know. My writing this is almost infinitely easier than actually having the nerve, knowledge, and capital to pull it off for real.
But as a writer, and a teacher, and a reader, I urge all of you to stop with the victim narrative. Let’s stop acting like the Book Publishing Industry wasn’t at one time a vehicle for making bags of money on the backs of unknown, fucked-up, drunks and, if not for naughty computers and the bad, bad internet, wouldn’t still be doing the same thing.
Let’s stop waxing poetic about the glory years when you could walk into a real book store and buy real books. Those days have come and gone and are never coming back. If you want to disappear with them, that’s fine, but don’t drag the rest of us down with you.
But most importantly, let’s stop writing articles about how Amazon won’t sell Hachette’s books.
Hachette won’t sell Hachette’s books.
Readers and writers shouldn’t have such a problem with the distinction between fact and fiction.