Dec. 20, 2009

The View from Below: A midlist author watches the ebook wars

This week, the battle over Amazon’s bid to corner the market on ebook sales — to establish itself as the iTunes of digital books — seemed to turn a corner. On one side, Amazon announced Steven Covey will abandon S&S to grant ebook rights to Amazon. On the other side, a consensus began to emerge in the publishing community that Amazon’s deep discounts on ebooks amount to predatory, possibly illegal monopoly-building — an effort to starve out its competitors. (You can read the gory details here, here, here, and here.)

In the end, I don’t think Amazon will succeed in becoming the iTunes of ebooks, not because Amazon is well-intentioned (it is not), but because it does not have the leverage. Apple was able to dominate digital music because of the iPod, which so clearly leapfrogged its competitors in terms of design, ease of use, and wide acceptance that it put Apple in position to dictate terms to its suppliers. It was hardware that won Apple its monopoly. Amazon has no such advantage. The Kindle is no iPod. To me, the Kindle seems primitive, clumsy, and ugly. It does some things well, but inevitably something better will come along, and soon, from a company with a better knack for design and technology. Smart phones may already be a better platform for reading ebooks. If nothing else, smart phones have the advantage of ubiquity: millions of people already have one in their pocket.

So I understand the publishing community’s hysteria over Amazon’s monopoly bid, but I don’t quite share it — not yet, anyway.

What I do not understand is the blithe, almost gleeful fatalism that tech geeks seem to feel about the struggles of traditional publishers to cope with the leap to digital.

Among the propeller heads, the prevailing view seems to be that Big Publishing is a horse-and-buggy business. Sudden technological change has rendered it irrelevant. All those editors and publicists in gaudy Manhattan offices — no longer needed. Ebook is to Big Publishing as asteroid was to dinosaur. Pity, but that’s the way it goes. End of story.

Certainly that’s the way it goes with web businesses. Amazon poleaxed the brick-and-mortar bookstores because it found a more efficient way to sell books. So if Amazon (or whoever) succeeds in cornering the ebook space, too, why sweat it? To the fastest, leanest, nimblest competitor go the spoils — and Lord knows, Big Publishing is none of those things.

To techies, it is all about maximizing efficiency. They wonder, What exactly do traditional publishing houses add to a writer’s work except cost — the added cost built into the price of every book to support this bloated, doomed, lumbering, inefficient, lazy, parasitic, contemptible industry? To them, Big Pub is precisely the sort of pathetic dinosaur the web specializes in obliterating.

Except that it’s not. Because publishers are not in the business people think they are, at least they are not only in that business. When people are asked what exactly it is that publishers do, the answers that usually come back are “gatekeeping” (filtering the publishable manuscripts from the dreck) and the various sub-tasks involved in manufacturing books (editing, book design, publicity, etc.). Those things are valuable, but if that was all traditional publishers did, I would say, Bring on the asteroid. There is probably more to be gained in the super-efficiencies of running the book business according to the ordinary Darwinian rules of the web. But those are not the most important things publishers do. Not even close.

What Big Publishing is, collectively, is a marketplace for new writing. Not a retail market like the one Amazon has created for ebooks, but an investment market, a futures market. Think of it as Silicon Valley for books, with every publisher a venture capitalist searching for the Next Big Thing.

VC’s invest in a portfolio of start-ups and nurture them through lean, money-losing years. The hope is that all will someday turn a profit and somewhere in that portfolio will be a breakout hit or two that justifies the whole risky endeavor. That is exactly how publishing houses invest in young writers. And like any good VC, Random House (or whoever) hedges its risk by investing in as many promising start-ups as it can find, betting that somewhere in its portfolio of young, talented, promising writers are a few that will break out and become hits.

Without this sort of start-up capital, there is no way an unproven writer could keep at it for long. I have never made a nickel for my publisher. Yet Random House continues to invest in me while I improve my writing, painstakingly build my readership, and grow my list of titles. At this point in my career, I need the help. So, like any entrepreneur, I trade off a lot of upside — the bulk of my royalties — in exchange for the money that enables me to build my business.

The question is, who will play the venture capitalist’s role if Amazon (or whoever) wins and books move to the iTunes model?

Consider Steven Covey and his new deal with Amazon. It may seem unfair that part of Covey’s earnings should go to pay for the stable of prospects on Simon & Schuster’s midlist. But it is only unfair in hindsight. S&S took a chance on Covey once by fronting him an advance. For all anyone knew, Covey might have ended up on the midlist himself, and S&S would be out the cash. In this case, it turned out to be a good bet. But Covey does not want to share the downstream profits. That makes perfect sense from Covey’s point of view, but does it make sense from ours, the reading public’s? (Yes, yes, I’m a self-interested member of the reading public. So what?)

Of course, we’ve already seen the iTunes model in action. Emerging young musicians in the brave new world of digital music can’t earn a living by recording anymore. They give away their MP3’s and survive by touring constantly (an option not open to writers: there is no market for our live performances, understandably).

So what? Life is tougher for young musicians. Should the public care? Well, has the quality or quantity of new, emerging musicians declined? I think so. The musicians may be out there, but you won’t find them on iTunes, not easily anyway. There is limited space on the landing page of the iTunes store, so most of those prime pixels go to established acts (today it’s Alicia Keys, Kesha, and an app for the movie “Avatar”). When there is only one record store in town and the store is that big, it’s awfully tough for a new band to get noticed. So, out on tour they go. And we music-buyers wind up listening to the same few bands over and over, often the same ones we’ve been listening to for years, or the ones anointed by Starbucks or American Idol as worthy of our attention. That is not a free or efficient market.

It is not clear how the iTunes model maps to book publishing. If there are fewer advances for emerging writers in an ebook world, will it make a difference? There will always be writers, after all. There always have been. There will always be a determined few willing to pay any price for their art, endure any hardship to keep writing. And a lucky few, an infinitesimal minority, will always be profitable right from the start. But the fact is, most writers need time to develop their talent and find their audience. Some percentage simply won’t be able to stick it out long enough. We can argue about how big that percentage might be, but we’d all be guessing. What we know for sure is that, without Big Publishing to act as patron, a lot of great books will never be written. Everybody okay with that?

Look, I don’t pretend to be objective about this. Obviously I have a stake in the current industry model. I’m one of those midlist guys still playing for time. So far, Random House, my publisher in the U.S., has stuck with me. They take their winnings from guys like Lee Child and bet it on a bunch of guys like me. If the current model breaks and writers have to scrape by as musicians do, who knows? Maybe I’ll make it, maybe I won’t. I have two kids. If push comes to shove, I’ll do what is in their interests, not mine. If that means doing something else, so be it. Maybe I have a great book in me, maybe I don’t. Maybe I’ll get the chance to find out, maybe I won’t. What matters is that there are a lot of writers like me, writers with potential who haven’t put it all together yet for one reason or another. Someday a few of us us will do it, a lucky few will come up with that Big Book — if we’re still writing.

That’s what’s at stake in Amazon’s big play this week.

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