Tuesday, May 27, 2014

James Patterson rails against change

The publishing world is once again in an uproar—or at least the part of it that I pay attention to is. This time it’s Amazon v. Hachette. The issue is the terms of the contract between them. Hachette is the publisher; Amazon is the book distributor. Four years ago Hachette colluded with other publishers and Apple to force Amazon to accept contract terms that resulted in higher prices for e-books. The Justice Department brought suit against those entities for this, and won. As a result, these publishers must renegotiate terms with Amazon on a staggered basis (to guarantee no collusion), and Hachette is first up to bat.

In the last week or two word got out to the press that negotiations aren’t going well. Then Amazon disabled the pre-order buttons for some or all books being published by Hachette. Thus, if some author that you like to read is published by Hachette or its imprints and has a book that will be out soon, you can’t pre-order it. That’s the story as I understand it. No doubt what I’ve heard in the press and on the publishing part of the Blogosphere is a simplistic view.
Various publishing professionals and authors published by Hachette have weighed in, almost universally siding with Hachette. One of these was James Patterson, the most successful author of the last two decades, multi-millionaire, chief of a writing team that puts out his books. He wrote about it here, on his Facebook page. Those four paragraphs have been taken apart and put in an appropriate, sun-less place by people more knowledgeable than me.

For this blog post, I want to concentrate on the last paragraph, and one particular Patterson statement:
If the world of books is going to change to ebooks, so be it. But I think it’s essential that someone steps up and takes responsibility for the future of American literature and the part it plays in our culture. Right now, bookstores, libraries, authors, and books themselves are caught in the cross fire of an economic war. If this is the new American way, then maybe it has to be changed—by law, if necessary—immediately, if not sooner.

Look closely at what Patterson is saying. American literature is at stake in the Amazon-Hachette negotiations. As he stated a year or so ago, libraries are endangered, bookstores are endangered, authors are endangered. His solution? A new law is needed, immediately if not sooner. Translation: I have a problem. I don’t like the way my world is changing. Government, step in please with a law to keep my world exactly as it was, or at least don’t let it change any more.

It seems to me that what Patterson is really upset about is that all the changes in publishing are most likely to result in him losing market share. He wants the government to guarantee him an audience. Others have said essentially the same thing, also cloaked in rhetoric. Dan Rather wanted some kind of law to protect the audience of the mainstream media because people *gasp* were getting their news from Fox News Channel and *double gasp* the Blogosphere. Shame!
Patterson believes that libraries are going down the tubes because of e-books. And who was the party mainly responsible for the rise of affordable e-books? Amazon. He believes bookstores are going down the tubes because people find it more convenient and cheaper to buy books on line. And who was the party mainly responsible for the rise of e-commerce concerning books? Amazon. He thinks authors are going down the tubes, though doesn’t state why. I would guess it’s actually trade-published authors he’s referring to, and that they are going down the tubes because they now have competition for market share from a growing list of self-published authors and books. And who is responsible for creating a popular and easy-to-use publishing platform so that those who don’t make it past the trade-publisher gatekeeper system can get their books out to an audience without forking over to a vanity publisher the money they could have spent on a used car or a vacation? Amazon, or course. Amazon is at fault for a trifecta of problems.

So we need laws to protect libraries and bookstores and perhaps authors. Not all authors, though: only those published by the likes of Hachette. Because those published in other ways are destroying American literature and, by extension, American culture.
What utter rubbish. Many people have forever screamed for a government solution to their problems, rather than changing trades or business models. One famous case in antiquity was British boot buckle workers, who asked for a government solution in the 1790s when the Prince of Wales started wearing laced shoes, a nation full of royalty groupies followed suit, and buckle manufacturers and workers fell on hard times because of the buckle-less shoes. And as one famous radio talk show host has said, no doubt a century later the buggy whip manufacturers wanted a government solution when the horseless carriage started to become popular.

Now, a century after that, elements of the publishing industry want a government solution because technology has made possible the paper-less book, which in turn has made more possible the publisher-less author.
I may not fully understand the true and complete purpose of government, but I know it’s not to guarantee wealthy people such as Patterson and Rather an audience.

It seems to me that publishers are doing just fine. It’s bookstores that have been hurt by changes in the industry resulting from technology. But Amazon isn’t to blame. Consumers are. They are buying in a way that’s cheaper and more convenient. Libraries are perhaps hurting, though many are making technology-based changes to serve their “customers,” and are doing well. What about authors? If you look at the complete subset of trade-published authors (A list and midlist and one-timers), I suspect as a group they are being squeezed by their publishers, and have done better in the past. Not being part of that subset I don’t know for sure. But if you look at the full set of authors in this nation, technology-based changes have made things much better for them. They have more books out, sell more copies, don’t care if they sell an e-book or a paperback or a hard cover. They connect with fans. And they are making more money as a complete set than they ever would in the trade publishing world.
The only ways publishers will be hurt by the new world of publishing are: if they fail to embrace and take full advantage of distribution channels that weren’t there two decades ago; or if authors published with them realize they don’t need those publishers and desert them en masse. I don’t see that happening in the next decade. Ten years is more than enough time to adjust your business model without needing a government solution, don’t you think?

As for this demise of American culture, that will have to wait for another post.

1 comment:

vero said...

Interesting post.