media wonkage

Surprise! The world isn't ending after all

You think this is about those silly non-Mayan predictions of apocalypse, but this is actually about some even sillier predictions of apocalypse, mainly the notion that the Department of Justice's antitrust settlement was part of an evil plot by Amazon to rule the world.

But it turns out that e-book prices aren't crashing after all

The real shock is that this admission is happening in the New York Times, which last April wrote:

The government’s decision to pursue major publishers on antitrust charges has put the Internet retailer Amazon in a powerful position: the nation’s largest bookseller may now get to decide how much an e-book will cost, and the book world is quaking over the potential consequences.

But who cares about that--that was last April! Its eight month later, plus it's Christmas Eve, when nobody except total nerds (like MEEEE!!!) reads the business section of the newspaper. So it's a perfect time to completely backtrack on that allegation, and imply that nobody ever really thought it was completely bogus!

From today's article:

The most extreme outcome went like this: Digital versions of big books selling for $9.99 or less would give Amazon complete domination over the e-book market. As sales zoomed upward, even greater numbers of consumers would abandon physical books. The major publishers and traditional bookstores were contemplating a future that would pass them by.

But doomsday has not arrived, at least not yet. As four of the publishers have entered into settlements with regulators and revised the way they sell e-books, prices have selectively fallen but not as broadly or drastically as anticipated.

Some of this article is hysterical--the Author's Guild is not available for comment, if you were wondering--but then it gets annoying again.

For one thing, the notion that e-books are somehow in decline pops up again:

Adult e-book sales through August were up 34 percent from 2011, an impressive rate of growth if you forget that sales have doubled every year for the last four years. 

I will remember that a 34% rate of growth is really not that impressive, not when you think about it. I mean, you've got to be forgetful as hell to think that a 34% increase is a pretty substantial increase--like, if your salary or the value of your home went up 34% in a year, that wouldn't impress you at all, unless you had Alzheimer's or something.

OK, fine, that bit was kind of hysterical, too.

But THEN they quote people who never expected the sky to fall--you know, the sorts of people they would never, ever have spoken to back in April. Those people. Non-traditional publishing people. People who know the first thing about e-books. 

Some say they never expected a price war at all. “The pricing war hasn’t happened because Amazon can’t afford it,” said Nate Hoffelder of the Digital Reader, a site devoted to e-book news and opinion. 

Now, what Hoffelder has to say is much less silly than what the New York Times was printing before, but what sticks in my craw is the wording: "Some say they never expected a price war at all."

Doesn't it sound like these people are coming up with painfully accurate predictions after the fact? "Some say they never expected it, but that's what they're saying now. Obviously they did not expect it, because if they were authoritative, we would have quoted them back in April!"

So, for the record: I EXPECTED THIS. I blogged about it here. I say this not to toot my own horn, but to point out that I think it's perfectly likely that Hoffelder looked at the same facts I looked at and came to the same conclusion waaay back in the spring. Because--and call me dogmatic--to my way of thinking that was the logical conclusion to draw, and I hope to God that I am not the only person on the planet who is capable of looking at facts and drawing logical conclusions.

Although that's not something the New York Times appeared capable of back in April.

But they do seem to be coming around these days, huh? First, they expressed skepticism of a publishing deal, and now, they're printing stuff like this:

Jordan Selburn, senior principal analyst for consumer platforms at IHS, said the migration from e-readers to tablets puts Amazon in “an interesting position” with e-book prices.

“Amazon does not make much off the hardware,” he said. “Its goal is to sell you content. When they sell you a Kindle Fire tablet, they are not just selling you books but movies, diapers, garden hose. It’s a portal into their entire store.”

But one day, Amazon must try to make a profit. . . .

Perhaps there will be loss leaders, but more likely each product will have to carry its own weight. In other words, this might be as cheap as e-books will ever be.

God, that's like--realistic or something! Wow!

Who do publishers think pays for all this?

This just amazes me--Amazon is forcing publishers to ship expensive art and gift books in single boxes, because otherwise the books get messed up and can't be sold. (Via PV.)

Why does Amazon have to force publishers to treat their high-end products so that they can actually be sold to people? Well, God forbid the publishers produce saleable goods!

Seriously, read this and marvel: "One frustrated publisher said, 'Isn't it Amazon's problem if their customers want their gift book [sic] in each individual box? Isn't their problem [sic] to deal with?'"

Wow. If you are wondering how far publishers have removed themselves from their readers, read that again. It's Amazon's problem that they can't sell what you sold them? Because once Amazon pays the publisher the wholesale price for that book, well, hey, everything's finished. There's no additional step past the wholesale level of sales--Amazon mints money itself for no other purpose than to hand it over to publishers.

There's certainly no reader involved in this, no consumer who shells out $150 for a beautiful-looking art book only to receive one that looks like it got jumped after school for its lunch money. Seriously, have these idiots ever purchased anything on the high end? Have they seen how expensive purses get treated so that they have no nicks or scratches? When people shell out for luxury goods--especially a gift or something to ornament a living room--they want something that doesn't look like it got run over by a truck.

(I mean, come on. Why did I stop shopping at The World's Worst Barnes & Noble? Because the books were damaged. It astonished and infuriated me that they would sell damaged good for full price. I wondered if any of them had ever actually bought anything before, ever. You don't walk into a clothing store and see a bunch of shredded clothes on the rack, do you?)

Of course it is, in fact, Amazon's problem that it can't sell these goods, which is why Amazon is going to kick these particular publishers in the crotch until they give Amazon a product that it can actually get paid for. And how publishers respond? By calling up a reporter and whining about how much their balls hurt! Because that's how business partners resolve a business dispute, especially when the dispute arises from the fact that you are making it so your partner can't turn a profit.

Honestly, who are these clowns? Are they 12 years old? Have they never gone shopping? Is this their first foray into business? Capitalism? I cannot--I mean, my mouth is literally hanging open as I struggle in vain to understand what they hell they are thinking.

And these are the experts who will save you from the pit of self-publishing....

The advantage of bright lines

So, Joe Konrath has a post on the paid-reviews scandal that displays, in my opinion, a pretty unhelpful approach, which is to say that it's a slippery slope and that everyone is imperfect. Both things are completely true, and they are also precisely why people do things like draw up ethical codes--if we were all saints, codes, taboos, and laws would be unnecessary.

The notion that those who are (very publicly) trying to state what is and is not OK must be a pack of hypocritical, glory-seeking, witch-hunting assholes is something that in my opinion can very quickly turn into "taking someone else's inventory." That's a term popular in Alcoholics Anonymous-type organizations, because people who are massively fucking up their lives do it a lot. You know, "Well, OK, maybe I did get drunk again, and maybe I stole your car and drove it through your living room window and killed your dog, again, but you're fat!"--that sort of thing.

For example, Konrath points out that The New York Times, which reported the story, has a pretty questionable ethical relationship to publishing. I agree--this is a paper that has repeatedly printed fantastical misinformation about the industry--but that's completely irrelevant to whether or not the paid-reviews story was accurate or important. Certainly The New York Times is on the lookout for negative news about self-publishing; this time, they actually found something significant, instead of having to make something up again. This is why this particular story is having an impact that their fright pieces did not.

I'm sure there are people who will use this sudden interest in ethical reviewing cynically and others who will be unfairly dinged. But things are so scammy when it comes to reviews right now that I think there is real value to making overt public statements regarding what kind of behavior is unacceptable. If you are new to publishing and have never really grappled with these issues before, you look around, and you see that Kirkus Reviews wants to you pay them $450 for a review and Publishers' Weekly wants $150. After that, if someone asks you for "A 'fair' donation" in exchange for effectively letting you into a cooperative, it sounds really reasonable and not at all shady. If there's no blowback on all this (and there should be, especially on places like Kirkus and PW), if no one takes the time to point out how this sort of thing damages all writers and no one notes that it's really pretty easy to name-and-shame people who do this (and there are people who feel so strongly about this that they will indeed name-and-shame), paid reviews will become the norm. Coughing up $20,000 for fake reviews will become no different than coughing up a similar amount on advertising--hell, yeah, it's pricey, but if you're lucky enough to be able to afford it, why wouldn't you?

This is extreme, but....

I debated about posting this, because it's SO insane, but there's this article in The Globe and Mail (via PV) that's sort of an exciting new low for reporting on the changes in the publishing industry.

It was so bad that, in all honesty, I couldn't read the whole thing. Here's as far as I got:

Ewan Morrison is an established British writer with a credit-choked resume and a new book out, Tales from the Mall, that the literary editor of the venerable Guardian newspaper hailed as “a really important step towards a literature of the 21st century.”

By his own account, Morrison is also being driven out of business by the ominously feudal economics of 21st-century literature, “pushed into the position where I have to join the digital masses,” he says, the cash advances he once received from publishers slashed so deep he is virtually working for free.

“I’ve been making culture professionally for 20 years, and going back to working on spec again seems to be a very retrograde step,” Morrison says. “But it’s something a lot of established writers are having to do.”...

Many will cheer, Morrison admits, including the more than one million new authors who have outflanked traditional gatekeepers by “publishing” their work in Amazon’s online Kindle store. “All these people I’m sure are very happy to hear they’re demolishing the publishing business by creating a multiplicity of cheap choices for the reader,” Morrison says. “I beg to differ.”

Of course Scott Turow weighs in at this point (I mean, of course), and the article is kind of a hilarious admixture of warnings that publishing is going to become "feudal" and "winner-take-all" and warnings that the "masses" (who are "publishing," not publishing) are going to take over--it's like they couldn't decide whether the left-wing bugaboo or right-wing bugaboo would scare people more, so they went with both.

But the thing that amazed me the most was Morrison. He's quite a wonder. I mean, a million writers are delighting many millions of readers with their books, but everyone should just knock it off because it's an inconvenience to him. Oh, sorry--I'll go unpublish my novels right now, sir!

The whole "I've been making culture professionally for 20 years" quote is remarkable as well. Morrison has been "making culture" (in his socks, presumably) professionally for 20 years and he's never had to adapt? He's never had a publication go under, or had an editor jump ship and be replaced by someone who insists on using their "own" writers? The man who created "a really important step towards a literature of the 21st century" never had to adjust his writing to stay relevant? Wow...Canada really is a wonderland! *

Oddly enough, when I think of someone who is a professional, I think of someone who gets paid to work in an industry, most typically because this is how they themselves pay for food, shelter, etc. And when your survival depends on you getting paid to work in an industry, you have to keep up with the industry. Health-care professionals read medical journals. Manufacturing professionals explore outsourcing and automation. Retail professionals scan bar codes.

You do that because if you get lazy, you wind up not being able to bring anything to the party that anyone thinks is worth paying for.

But I guess professional makers of culture are the exception. Or, given what's happening to Morrison's finances, maybe they aren't.

The thing is that Morrison's attitude is only an extreme version of one shared by a hell of a lot of people. Writers who believe that their "life simply does not allow them to learn yet another new thing." Writers who want to have mass sales without having to cater to mass tastes. Writers who are still producing documents the way they were taught to in seventh-grade home ec class in 1965. Writers who think that progress is a bother that is best ignored.

* Someone pointed out that Morrison is, in fact, British. So that should read "Great Britain really is a wonderland!" except for the whole part where I'm really talking about a magical land in Morrison's head that is completely disconnected from reality.

Slippery numbers

I haven't slept, and I went on a mondo hike today that I was in no way prepared for (which was actually really nice after being chained to my desk to push out Trust for so long), and I'm exhausted and should probably just turn the computer off and go to bed.

But, although I'm sure I am far from the first, I want to talk about two things I saw in Passive Voice the other day. (No, not today. I'm a little behind, OK?)

Thing #1: Barnes & Noble had crappy financial results, and is still losing oodles of money.

The interesting bit with the numbers: They're still maintaining that magical 27% market share in e-books! Let's tout that number some more! 27%! 27%! Rah! Rah! Rah!

But, hey, they're still losing oodles of money. Hmmm....

Yeah, that number's not worth much. Their financial results reflect my earlier point that e-books and e-book readers are not, in fact, the same thing. B&N has decided that those two businesses together constitute The Nook Business (which at least answers a lingering question on that front), but expect them to try to highlight whichever business is doing better and to ignore whichever business is doing worse. (In other words, expect press releases that go, "Business is great! We lost a billion dollars!" There are a lot of those.)

The other thing about that number is that, in the best-case scenario (you know, the scenario where they're not just making the number up out of whole cloth), it applies only to e-books produced by traditional publishers. B&N has not done a good job promoting self-published writers, but however this is hurting them, it's not going to be reflected in that magical, unchanging 27% figure. It going to be reflected in their financial results, though. (I will note that I find it...curious...that that market-share number never seems to change. They very quickly took this big hunk of the market, and just as quickly, their market share completely stagnated. That is...odd.)

Thing #2: Another claim that it costs almost as much to make an e-book as to make a paper book--80% as much.

This ones a little weird, because it's someone reporting (favorably, which is hysterical--he knows it doesn't add up, but he loves it and even calls it "smart") on another story that I can't read because I don't subscribe to the New Yorker. Obviously I think the overall claim is worthy of great scatology, but the main thing that struck my eye was this quote of a quote:

E-books are cheaper to produce, by about twenty per cent per book, because they do away with the cost of paper, printing, shipping, and warehousing. They also eliminate returns of unsold books—a significant expense, since thirty to fifty per cent of books are returned. But they create additional costs: maintaining computer servers, monitoring piracy, digitizing old books. And publishers have to pay authors and editors, as well as rent and administrative overhead, not to mention the costs of printing, distributing, and warehousing bound books, which continue to account for the large majority of their sales.

This doesn't make any sense. For starters, the author is including "the costs of printing, distributing, and warehousing bound books" in the cost of making e-books, which is like saying that your Kia cost almost as much as your Ferrari because you have to include the cost of buying a Ferrari in the cost of buying a Kia. He also includes the cost of maintaining computer servers, despite the fact that you totally don't have to.

But what I found really interesting is the line, "E-books are cheaper to produce, by about twenty per cent per book, because they do away with the cost of paper, printing, shipping, and warehousing."

Do you know what's not necessarily counted in the cost of producing a book? The cost of paper, printing, shipping, and warehousing! Depending on who is talking, production can mean what you do to get a book ready to be published: Line editing, copy editing, book design, layout, proofreading, cover art.

I could see e-books being 20% cheaper to produce if you don't count the cost of printing. I could see it if you count only the costs incurred to get a book ready to be printed or uploaded.

What do I think happened here? I think the reporter made some assumptions about what was meant by production, and the PR people just kept their mouths shut about what they actually meant.

I think I'll stick with the Wall Street Journal for my business news. The New Yorker guy clearly does not know squat about venture capital, either--it really cracked me up that he and I made the exact same analogy but meant such different things by it. (Another thing that really cracked me up was Mira's reponse to the article.)

Keep spinning! Keep spinning!

OMFG. You know how I thought it was hilarious that the New York Times implied that Amazon was responsible for the Department of Justice's antitrust lawsuit?

Well, the Seattle Times has done an entire story titled "Speculation Abounds that Amazon Triggered E-Book Lawsuit."

They quote the same consultant who was willing to go on record making that same implication for the New York Times. Consultants like publicity, so here's how it's going to work with him: As long as he can get a quote published in a newspaper for that opinion, he will continue to have it. And if you're a reporter who doesn't want to bother actually doing any work, you'll call him.

If you're a reporter who wants to keep in tight with your incredibly anti-Amazon bosses, you'd be sure to give this speculation the puppet-master spin. Because when someone does something illegal in an attempt to harm someone else, and their victim calls the police? That's eeeeeeevil! Almost as bad as donating to charity!

What would happen if you were a reporter who actually wanted to do a little work? Not, like, actual reporting--clearly, that's too hard--but maybe just a quick search of existing articles written by others?

Well, you might discover that story published in 2010 in the New Yorker that was all about how publishers were colluding with Apple to fix prices. You might discover Steve Jobs bragging about how he got publishers to collude to fix prices and openly discussing what their prices will be. You might realize that Amazon's dispute with Macmillan was hardly conducted in secret.

And you might, like Passive Guy did, discover this article in the Connecticut Law Review, which outlines the process behind the Connecticut attorney general's decision to investigate agency pricing. (Oh, you didn't know it wasn't just the DOJ? Sixteen states are also involved. Clearly, Amazon's eeeeeevil! reaches everywhere!)

How did they decide to target agency pricing? Did Bezos call them in the middle of the night? Has he planted chips in their brains to submit them to his will? Are we all in the Illuminati together? (Well, yeah, of course we are, but that's not important right now.)

Oh, it turns out that the head of the antitrust division reads the New Yorker--he gets some of his best leads from newspapers and magazines, because people who break the law often have an odd compulsion to brag about it. According to the CLR, the article "practically drew a treasure map for the antitrust investigators." It also quotes the head of the antitrust division as saying, “This one wasn’t something exotic like an inside source.”


And if you were hoping for something actually informative....

Here's a follow-up article in the Wall Street Journal that actually has...hold your hats...reasonable and accurate background information on e-publishing. Wow.

Among the inconvenient facts that will never, ever make it into the New York Times:

For now, the settlement will force the three settling publishers to rewrite their pricing agreements with retailers, allowing retailers more flexibility to discount. Publishers could stick with the existing agency model, since they won't be able to control retailer discounting, but one executive predicted the most likely outcome is a return to the "wholesale" model, which is more lucrative for publishers than the current e-book pricing model.


Near term, stronger e-book sales would be good for publishers. E-books are cheaper to produce—lacking costly printing and binding—and are more efficient to distribute, since unsold books don't need to be returned to publishers. That has boosted publishers' profits in the past year or so even as revenues have eroded from falling sales of pricier hardcover books.

Random House, for instance, reported that earnings before interest and taxes jumped 6.9%in 2011 despite a 4.3% revenue drop. Simon & Schuster's adjusted Ebitda rose 40% to $28 million in the fourth quarter from a year-earlier even as revenue fell 1%.

(Emphasis added.)

But to throw a little humor in, they quote everybody's favorite clown, Scott Turow, as saying, "Money to be made in book publishing is going to decline, and therefore the money to be made by authors is going to decline."

Because 70% of $10,000 is way less than 10% of $50,000. This lesson in arithmetic comes courtesy of the president of the Authors-Are-The-Same-As-Publishers Guild. (Motto: Math is hard! Let's go shopping!)

Same planet, different worlds

OK, I realize that I'm turning into a media wonk here, but.....

Both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times are running stories on the Department of Justice lawsuit/settlement and its likely impact on book prices.

Here's the Wall Street Journal's take:

The popular $9.99 price for best-selling e-books may be back in a big way soon.

A settlement announced Wednesday between the Justice Department and three big book publishers will almost certainly lead to lower e-book prices on an array of best-selling titles that now cost anywhere from $12 or $13 and more.

Most important for consumers who like to read, it could mean the $9.99 price point championed by Inc. when it kicked off the e-reader market with its Kindle device in 2007 will once again be common.

The $9.99 price for best sellers largely disappeared after Apple Inc. struck deals with major publishers that changed pricing models for e-books, ahead of Apple's release of its iPad and its iBooks digital store. Instead of letting retailers set prices, as they have long done in the print book world, publishers began setting prices—with best sellers usually priced either at $12.99 or $14.99.

And here's the New York Times' take:

The government’s decision to pursue major publishers on antitrust charges has put the Internet retailer Amazon in a powerful position: the nation’s largest bookseller may now get to decide how much an e-book will cost, and the book world is quaking over the potential consequences.

As soon as the Department of Justice announced Wednesday that it was suing five major publishers and Apple on price-fixing charges, and simultaneously settling with three of them, Amazon announced plans to push down prices on e-books. The price of some major titles could fall to $9.99 or less from $14.99, saving voracious readers a bundle.

But publishers and booksellers argue that any victory for consumers will be short-lived, and that the ultimate effect of the antitrust suit will be to exchange a perceived monopoly for a real one. Amazon, already the dominant force in the industry, will hold all the cards.

“Amazon must be unbelievably happy today,” said Michael Norris, a book publishing analyst with Simba Information. “Had they been puppeteering this whole play, it could not have worked out better for them.”

It's just beyond parody! Amazon may drop prices...because it's eeeeeevil!!!! Evil puppetmaster Amazon! Poor little mega-billion-dollar publishing companies!

Call me naive, but I am happy that the DOJ is more worried about consumers being taken advantage of than it is about whether businesses are forced to make unpleasant adjustments--and maybe even shut down--in response to change. As for Amazon's eeeeevilness, my feeling about this is that the antitrust people over at the DOJ are now very focused on books. If Amazon starts engaging in predatory, monopolistic business practices, that will presumably get noticed. In fact, Charles Petit (via Rusch) points out that some of the business practices Amazon engages in now are not kosher according to the DOJ's filing--that's the problem when the feds get involved in your industry, everything they do cuts both ways. And of course people don't have to sit around waiting for the DOJ to take action--they can file antitrust suits themselves.

Reporters and their conflicts of interests

David Gaughran has a great post up (via PV) about a recent Salon story about Amazon, in which the fact Amazon donates money to charities is taken as proof that it is "a rapacious, horrible company from top to bottom" and "evil." Gee, I though the fact that Amazon didn't give to charity was proof that it is evil!

(Gaughran also has a good post up about Jodi Picoult's ignorant remarks on self-publishing. I was thinking of posting about that and changed my mind, but the thing that impressed me was that I hadn't heard of Picoult before, and I guessed from her comments that she had first been published 20 years ago. I was exactly right. I'm getting a little too good at this.)

Anyway, the Salon story was written by Alexander Zaitchik. In addition to the terrible news that Amazon does, in fact, give back, Zaitchik notes that Amazon wants to charge traditional publishers more to market their e-books. The publishers are refusing. And then--and this is how you know that Amazon is really and truly evil--instead of providing marketing services for free, Amazon is not providing the services they are not getting paid for! I know--never before in the history of capitalism has a company refused to provide a service that they weren't paid to provide! This post should be rated R because it is just so shocking!!!

Zaitchik is a freelancer who, not at all shockingly, lives in New York City. I've noted a hometown bias with other NYC-based coverage of the publishing industry. And I'll note additionally that Zaitchik has a book out, published by Wiley.

How much do you want to bet that he'd love to get another book contract?

Is this a tit-for-tat thing? I hope not. I would not be at all surprised that Zaitchik has convinced himself that every word he writes is true, and that he honestly believes that Amazon is evil, and not only because they are damaging his prospects of getting another advance check.

But they are. And that's something I think readers need to keep in mind whenever they read anything about traditional publishing--many reporters either have written or would like to write a book. The same thing is true of their editors. If you get a book published, then your profile is higher, and then you can get a job at a fancier publication, sell stories to more lucrative outlets, and maybe even quit your full-time job to write what you want.

And it's still the case that when many people think of publishing a book, they assume that they're going to need a traditional publisher. They have a dog in this fight.

It's a problem in journalism, and I think it's worse because it's often not the sort of explicit conflict that an employer can easily ban. You'll see, say, somebody get elected governor, and then, wow, half the political reporters who covered his campaign go to work in his press office. I doubt that an actual deal was struck, but I think you'd have to be a robot not to have your perceptions and therefore your coverage affected by the fact that you view someone as a potential employer.

Amazon needs a new media-relations department

Yeah, I'm on a blogging tear today. Mostly because 1. I am feeling better, and 2. an out-of-town relative has decided to execute one of her trademark no-warning week-long visits starting tomorrow, so I'm screwed as far as doing anything except looking after Her Highness for the next several days.

Anyway, the Seattle Times is doing an entire series on how Amazon is the Antichrist. Amazon doesn't pay taxes. Amazon doesn't give back. Amazon abuses workers. Amazon is destroying publishing.

The last one caught my eye, of course, and it was very interesting. I'm the first to acknowledge that Amazon (or really, e-book technology) is destroying publishing, or at least the traditional publishing industry. The question boils down to, is that a bad thing?

Now, if you're the New York Times, and you're based in New York City, where the traditional publishing industry is headquartered and where it employs many, many people, the answer is: Of course! On the face of it, it is clearly a very bad thing!

But the Seattle Times is based in (you guessed it!) Seattle, where Amazon is headquartered and where it employs many, many people. If Amazon eats traditional publishing, that's probably going to be a significant net benefit for the Seattle area--more jobs, more construction, more money.

And the Seattle Times article on publishing doesn't follow the talking points: There's no mention of Amazon destroying indie bookstores or literary culture. There's some talk of Amazon's potential to have a monopoly on e-books, but it's much more balanced than what the New York Times has been offering.

Yet the article is very negative. The focus is on Amazon's disputes with publishers and IPG. At least the article focuses on players who are in fact losing out as a result of the changes in publishing, which is more than one can say about the New York Times articles, but (and this is very strange) these losers aren't local. One company is in North Carolina, one is in Chicago, one is in Massachusetts, and the experts are all from NYC or New Jersey. No one is from Seattle. Seriously, when I was reading the article, I kept looking for the Associated Press byline, it was that non-specific as to locality.

And Amazon refused to comment for the article.

Sigh. OK, as a former reporter, I'm going to explain something to Amazon:

Dear Amazon,

When you don't talk to the local newspaper, the editors get mad. They get mad because they feel like you don't appreciate them--you could be pals (or as palsy as you can get with newspaper people), they could help you, but you treat them like dirt instead! It pisses them off! When they get mad enough, they decide to do things like run an entire series on how you are the worst thing ever. (Seriously, have they gotten your attention yet? The next step is mooning.)

And when you don't talk to the reporters on the local paper, you lose your chance to tell your side of the story.

Yes, Amazon, you are destroying publishing. The key to getting a positive spin in stories is to explain how you are replacing it with something much better!

There is one author and no consumers in that story--and the one author is, of course, enormously positive, because that's someone who is benefiting from the new order. You need to feed the Seattle Times more people who are benefiting from these changes--ideally people located in or near Seattle. If the members of your media-relations department weren't all too busy buffing their nails and drinking their lunches, they could have hooked that reporter up with quite a few more authors. Local authors. Local authors who have created self-supporting writing careers almost instantly because of e-publishing--I can think of one right off the bat, and I'm sure there are more.

I know your media-relations staff are right now telling you that they didn't have a chance, the Seattle Times is so mean and biased, boo-hoo-hoo. Seriously, fire those idiots. When I was a reporter, I covered a company that was convinced that the publication I worked for was out to get it (they had a very elaborate conspiracy theory going on--seriously, I was concerned). I covered a company that deliberately concealed good news about itself, and then they pitched a fit because my psychic powers did not enable me to see through their lies and write stories about it.

This was never constructive. It never resulted in positive coverage. What results in positive (or at least more balanced) coverage is talking to the fricking reporter. Make her life easier. Help the nice lady out. Give her access, and tell her your side of the story. She can't pass your story on if you don't tell it to her! (All those complaints in the story about how Amazon doesn't communicate? She found those plausible for a reason!)

Just can the whole department and start afresh. Let's put it this way: You can't possibly have worse media relations than you do now.

(You know, I was thinking when Amazon swanned Joe Konrath & Co. around like kings that they were very savvy public-relations players. But I guess they were just very savvy author-relations players.)

Ghostwriting and the vanity press

This is a fairly hysterical link on the Passive Voice about a company that is offering self-publishing services for...drumroll please...$100,000! Wow! That totally beats the previous record!

But they do include ghostwriting. Yes. Whereas I'll take a little extra time and fiddle with Word so as not to spend $800 on a layout program, you can go a different direction and spend six figures so that you don't have to write at all. Now, that's convenience!

Of course, you might be wondering, If I don't want to write a book, why would I bother with any of this? And this brings me to the wonderful world of ghostwriting.

I ghosted. A lot. I think that's what they have you do in publishing when you really are a writer, but you're working as an editor to get health insurance.

There's a lot of reasons to have people ghost. For one thing, it can be a slippery slope from a line edit to full-on ghosting--line edits can just be tweaking, but they can easily become a complete rewriting. Deadlines are also a factor: If you turn in something to me that supposed to be coming out in three months, and it's totally unacceptable, giving it back to you for a rewrite probably isn't going to work, and finding somebody else is going to take too much time. I'm fast, I'm accurate, and I know what the publishing house wants, so I ghost it.

Another reason is that Person A may be a big name (like Notable Academic was), while Person B may be a nobody (like meeeee!) with the time and expertise to complete the project. Person A is getting paid basically to license their name.

This is really common in publishing, and not just with non-writing celebrities (who usually at least credit their ghostwriter). People get up in arms because James Patterson doesn't really write his own stuff. Well, guess what? There are plenty of writers who appear to crank out book after book after book in the exact same genre who don't really write their own stuff. Carolyn Keene, the writer of the Nancy Drew books, was not even a person. An authorial name is a brand name: Stephen King = horror. It's up to Stephen King if he wants the trouble of writing his own books. To the best of my knowledge, he does, but if he changed his mind, his publisher would be more than ready to accommodate him.

(This blows the minds of journalists, by the way. Putting your name on someone else's work can get you fired in that field. It's a different culture--to them, it's lying, and lying is a huge taboo.)

So, that's the normal ghostwriting that happens within the industry. Now, you also have another, less-respectable kind of ghostwriting, which you might call Narcissistic Personality Disorder ghostwriting. This is where you ghost a book for some NPD-addled idiot with too much money who wants to be able to tell his friends he wrote a book. I never did it, because I was never that desperate, but my thinking is that it's got to be somewhat similar to a guy who pays $1,000 for a call girl--he doesn't think, "Gee, I have to pay for sex, how pathetic," he thinks, "I have so much money that I can get whatever I want. I'm awesome!" (But ego comes into play even with regular ghosting: At one place I worked, the writer had the right to take their name off the project if they didn't like the "editing." They never did. Never.)

NPD is of course why self-publishing was called the vanity press. Even in the old days, self-publishing did have legitimate purposes--your high-school yearbook is an example of perfectly worthwhile self-publishing. In addition to that kind of custom book printing, there were some self-published writers who were good enough and dedicated enough to sell lots of books and break into traditional publishing.

Buuuut...there were also a lot of scams, which were geared toward the NPD crowd. You had a book you thought was genius! The problem is, no one agreed with you--you'd take it to a critique group, and not a soul there would understand your genius! Well, they were idiots--you'd send it out to agents and publishers, and not a soul would understand your genius!

Clearly, your genius was way too rarified for these cretins to understand! At least, that's what you were told by No, We're Not Sleazy Self-Publishing Services, and you agreed! "You are used to working with the very best"! And you deserve it!

So, you fork over a gazillion dollars and wind up with a garage full of books. And you're perfectly happy with that! Given your NPD, you weren't actually expecting to sell your books to all those cretins out there who don't understand your genius.

It's a great racket, you know. People with NPD don't care about results. They can't acknowledge mistakes, which means they're never going to be critical of either a flattering pitch or the outcome.

Someone without NPD might lower their sights. They might notice that they themselves are not a big name. They might wonder how in God's name they, without any track record or celebrity, could possibly make enough money to turn a profit on $100,000 of expenses. They might wonder why a writer who is an "extraordinary talent" and can apparently crank out a best-seller at will wouldn't just self-publish under their own name and start raking in $100,000 a month.

But no, don't think about that. It's not a racket! It's the best! And you deserve it!

Corporate PR

Kristine Kathryn Rusch has a nice post today about not getting all wound up by all the corporate news and controversies that either don't actually apply to you or is stuff you could manage if you weren't so busy freaking out. Her prescription, unsurprisingly, is: Get back to work!

Like me, she used to be a business reporter, and she mentions something that I think people sometimes don't understand: When news comes out about a company, it is almost always coming either from that company or from that company's business rivals.

Not always: Sometimes it's stuff like earnings reports, which are required and regulated by the SEC. Other times it's coming from the District Attorney's office or the FBI (those are always the good ones). But companies themselves generate a HUGE quantity of press releases, studies (Miracle Whip causes actual miracles!), surveys, announcements, anniversaries, awards, etc., etc.

Oftentimes this stuff looks or sounds really important and worthwhile, but it's not--it's coming from the company's marketing department (or an "independent institution" that was founded, staffed, and housed by the company's marketing department), and it was developed to generate adventageous coverage for the company. Such coverage could help knock down a rival, or it could help a company sell an asset, or it could just goose sales.

A big part of a business reporter's job is ignoring all that crap. You look up the SEC filings instead of relying on press releases; you don't publish the dodgy studies. But it takes a lot more effort to generate stories from reliable sources than it does to be a shill for corporate America--companies will even send you story outlines to "make your job easier" (because your job is apparently doing their marketing department's work for them). And it's not like nobody falls for the bait: You'll get something like that, you'll toss it, and then you'll see that exact story appear in a respectable paper that should do better (yes, New York Times, I'm looking at you).

Nowadays with the Internet, this stuff is readily available to normal people. You can subscribe to Large Company's press releases, and you can spend your time reading Web sites and blogs that just cut and paste the text from those press releases into another format and call it news. So it's wise to be skeptical, both of the quickie Web news sites and of the respectable papers--if you don't think a story like this wasn't more than half written by a corporate PR department, you are very naive.

More funny numbers about bookselling

I should just stop reading The New York Times' coverage of the book industry, right?

But I read this story on Barnes & Noble and how it can't possibly go under because traditional publishers don't want it to.

Well, that sounds like a sound business plan.

Of course the article regurgitates the not-at-all made-up fact that Barnes & Noble controls 27% of the e-book market. And we know this isn't self-serving propaganda from Barnes & Noble, because all those traditional publishers--you know, the ones who will be totally screwed if Barnes & Noble goes under?--they swear up and down that it's so!

Yeah, that number is definitely not self-serving propaganda from Barnes & Noble, it's self-serving propaganda from Barnes & Noble and the traditional publishers. Good to know. (Even if you think that they're not just lying--and publishers do have a long and storied history of lying about book sales--then this would still indicate that Barnes & Noble's figures apply only to to e-books from large, traditional publishers.)

And of course despite the fact that Barnes & Noble has been plowing under indie bookstores since its inception, they have to trot out the poor, poor indie booksellers.

Did you know that, according to the article, "Since 2002, the United States has lost roughly 500 independent bookstores — nearly one out of five." Sounds awful, huh?

Of course, that's since 2002. Pick a different start date, like they did in this Washington Post article published last August, and the picture looks different, too:

The American Booksellers Association, the national trade organization for independently owned bookstores, counted a 7 percent growth last year and has gained 100 new members in the past six months. The association now counts 1,830 member stores across the country, up by 400 since 2005, according to Meg Smith, the association’s spokeswoman.


Hmm.... So there has been a big decline in independent bookstores, but it's a result of what was happening between 2002 and 2005. I'd guess it had something to do with the economic conditions following Sept. 11th. It's certainly got very little to do with what is driving Barnes & Noble under in 2012, which I would argue is the result of them adhering to a business strategy (large selection plus low prices) that Amazon does better.

Then we stop getting numbers, because that would involve the reporter actually having to do some work. Instead, we rely on weepy, unsupported generalizations straight from the mouths of traditional publishers. The backlist "would suffer terribly," which is exactly why so many writers are fighting to get the rights to their backlists returned to them. And the CEO of Macmillan (you know, one of the publishing houses currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice and the European Union, because traditional publishers would rather break the law than adapt to the new world of bookselling) assures us that "Anybody who is an author, a publisher, or makes their living from distributing intellectual property in book form is badly hurt...if Barnes & Noble does not prosper."

Wow. Tell that to Joe Konrath.

Funny numbers

Not shockingly, there's been a lot of coverage of Barnes & Noble lately.

Whether or not the company is going to go under is pretty much an academic concern for self-published authors. (And here's a more optimistic assessment than mine, although I feel a certain obligation to point out that that position is hedged with such inspirational examples as Research In Motion.) Authors are suppliers, not employees or investors, and the cost of putting a book up on B&N is zero, so, you know, if they get out of the soup, very nice for them, and if they don't, presumably other retailers will pick up the slack. Really the only numbers a self-published author needs to worry about with B&N is his or her own sales figures.

But being a former business reporter, I wanted to note something that Passive Guy first pointed out: No one knows what B&N's share of the e-book market actually is. How could they know that they have 25% or 26% or 27% or 30% of the e-book market, when overall e-book sales aren't reported anywhere? Certain numbers that public companies report are federally regulated--lie about your 2012 profits, and you get in all kinds of trouble. But most numbers (especially those companies like to throw around in press releases) aren't--and guess what category "percentage of the e-book market" falls into?

This is an old, old problem in publishing: Even with print books, the best data available is far from perfect, and it doesn't cover e-books. I don't know that it's possible to gather good data about e-books: Even if you had audited reports from the major retailers, publishers and authors can sell books from their own Web sites, so how are you going to account for that?

So we're left with that old journalistic standby--guesswork! Guesswork and (my favorite) not telling people that it's guesswork!

For example, in The New York Times, you see "the company has made quick work of capturing almost 30 percent of the e-book market in two years." And then you see a bunch of quotes from B&N executives saying that, wow, this is an amazing business to be in--look how much market share they've captured! And so quickly! Certainly it makes lots and lots of sense for someone to come along and buy it!

Of course, there's also this, also from The New York Times, "I.H.S. iSuppli, a research company, estimates that Barnes & Noble has 13 percent of the e-reader market after two years in the business, versus 67 percent for Amazon. The company tracked shipments of display parts to prepare its estimates."

Oh! So B&N controls only 13 percent of the market!  It's not the same market--they could control 13 percent of the e-reader market and almost 30 percent of the e-book market simultaneously. But the Nook is an e-reader, not an e-book. It's not B&N's e-book business. Nor is it B& It's a device, and they control 13 percent of the market for that specific device, not including tablets or cell phones or other things that people read e-books on.

(ETA: Of course, the 13 percent figure is also guesswork, but at least it honestly identifies itself as guesswork and provides the reader some idea of how it was determined, which helps a reader decide whether it's a good guess or not. That's a lot better than regurgitating data provided by an interested party as though it were sacred writ.)

Again, this is of academic interest, really, but it may help you make more sense of future events. There's a bit of a snow job going on right now--nothing wrong with that, really, it's not like I post the "meh" reviews of Trang here. Just be aware that reporting is usually regarded by companies as a venue for marketing.

A pretty piece of propaganda

Like many people who work or have worked in journalism, I don't read the opinion page. Why not? Well, I've seen how these things get written, and my feeling is that if I'm looking for an uneducated, knee-jerk reaction from someone who has done absolutely no research in the subject, I can provide that on my own.

But I have friends who do, and one of them saw this piece on how Amazon is evil and got very upset. Of course it's in The New York Times, which lately appears to have decided that large corporations need more love--maybe the Occupy Wall Street protesters have been really getting on their nerves (or maybe they're based in New York City, and they all know people who are getting laid off from traditional publishers, which does in fact suck).

Anyway, the article has two points.

Point #1: Amazon is undercutting indie bookstores on price. This is presented in the article as a terrible thing.

It may be terrible, but it's something that has been going on for a long, long, loooooooong time. Barnes & Noble undercut indie bookstores on price. Borders undercut indie bookstores on price. Amazon has been around, undercutting indie bookstores on price, since 1994. If you were opening an independent bookstore any time in the past 30-odd years, and your business strategy was "I'll undercut 'em on price!" you went under right away.

Instead, you offered something else. Knowledgeable staff. A specialized selection. Delicious muffins. Comfy chairs. You made the experience worth paying a little extra for. You still can.

Point #2: Amazon was in a conflict over pricing with the big publishers, which it lost. The whole bit where Amazon lost this fight is kind of glossed over. The whole bit where Macmillan is a large corporation, not some poor little indie, is kind of glossed over. The whole bit where Macmillan is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice and the European Union for price-fixing, undertaken in collusion with Apple and some other large publishing corporations, is not mentioned at all--even though that was the result of their winning this very conflict. Nor is there any mention of the fact that, hey, if Macmillan can fix prices, even legally, then that means it has monopoly pricing power, which makes it a bit harder to swallow that they are some poor helpless victim being steamrolled by big, mean Amazon.

I also have some points.

My Point #1: Independent bookstores face completely different challenges than large publishing corporations. Trying to muddle the two together is beyond silly. These are two completely different businesses. And large publishers don't exactly have a storied history of helping out small bookstores.

My Point #2: Where are the writers in this story? Oh, there are plenty of writers, if by writers you mean people who became best-sellers a few decades ago, long before Amazon took the lead in making self-publishing economically viable for writers.

But where are the mid-listers whose careers have undergone a massive renaissance? Where are the writers who suddenly have been able to make a good living, even though they're not really selling any better than they did back in their traditional publishing days? Where are the complete unknowns who have been launched into best-sellerdom after being rejected by countless publishers?

My Point #3: Where are the readers? Oh, you mean the consumers, who want a large and varied selection of goods at low prices. Well, fuck 'em.

And for fun, here are some laughably ironic lines!

"Movie studios have been subsumed by media empires. And when you try to have a conversation with the new Hollywood, it quickly becomes clear that you’re talking about movies and they’re talking about refrigerators." SO HAVE PUBLISHING COMPANIES, YOU IGNORANT FOOL!

"Maybe Amazon doesn’t care about the larger bookselling universe because it’s simply too big to care." Maybe Amazon is a bookseller itself. Maybe it doesn't "care" about its business rivals because THEY ARE ITS BUSINESS RIVALS!

Maybe a not-too-bright guy who has obviously done zero research and has no idea how capitalism actually works can be published in The New York Times, as long as he keeps it on the Op-Ed page.