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Racism And Meritocracy

I’m an author, but thankfully I’m not a member of the Authors Guild, that “not-for-profit American organization of and for authors”, who a few days ago issued a statement that first lauded publishers for not signing on to Amazon’s new Kindle book-lending program for Amazon Prime members, and then condemned those few publishers who did agree, citing a bizarre and convoluted argument that authors aren’t protected by such an agreement.

That argument concludes: “[Publishers should] not decide for themselves how to step into this brave new world of subscription models without solving all this before they receive their first dollar. My guess is that most publishers, when faced with the complexity of the problem and the unlikelihood of finding a solution that makes everyone happy, will decide it’s just not worth the trouble. And that, perhaps, would be the best outcome of all.”

Oh my. The stupid, it burns.

Memo to the publishing industry: recent history strongly indicates that subscription models are what your customers–you know, the people who read the books you publish–want. They want Hulu for television, Netflix for movies, Spotify for music. Do you really think they don’t want a similar model for books? (When in fact, history shows it’s what they’ve always wanted?)

Here’s a very simple proposition. Treat your customers well, and they’ll treat you well. Treat them like thieves, and they’ll steal from you. If you fear the future, if you fear change, then your fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Do you really think “refusing to give your customers what they want” is anything other than a stunningly self-destructive business model? Have you learned nothing from the RIAA?

I suppose not. “Learning” isn’t something the publishing industry appears to be good at. Take the e-book market, which according to the Authors Guild is “the lone bright spot for the industry.” Are big publishers like HarperCollins fanning the flames of that spark, by making their e-books as good as possible?

Well, let’s take a quick look at the evidence. In September the new Neal Stephenson novel, REAMDE, came out. Neal Stephenson! The perennial worldwide bestseller beloved by techies everywhere! Anticipation was high.

If there was ever a surefire e-book success, REAMDE was it. So of course HarperCollins went out of their way to make it the best, classiest, most beguiling e-book edition of all time, right?

Speaking as someone who’s had two novels published by HarperCollins: how incredibly embarrassing. Well, that was just a freak one-off, right? Weird mistakes happen. It’s not like they make a habit of butchering beloved books… oh, wait.

It’s just depressing. How can we expect the publishing industry to adapt, evolve, and thrive in the digital world when, four years after the Kindle was introduced, they still haven’t even figured out how to format e-books correctly?

It gets even worse at the bookseller level. After Amazon negotiated a deal with DC Comics for the exclusive digital rights to some graphic novels, Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million stopped selling those books in their stores. (Full disclosure: I’m also the author of a graphic novel for DC’s Vertigo imprint, though I don’t think it’s part of this deal.) Ah, the old “angrily depriving our customers of the ability to buy stuff they might want” business model. Strange how that never seems to work.

Readers are unhappy. They complain about inflated ebook prices, which publishers set; indeed, a class-action lawsuit alleging ebook price-fixing by publishers was filed a few months ago. No wonder Amazon is increasingly becoming a publisher in its own right, as is its competitor Kobo. They seem to have decided that if they can’t find any smart, competent publishers to deal with, then they’ll have to become one themselves. The existing publishers have responded by, um, offering online sales data to their authors, for the first time. Wow, that sure changes everything, eh?

What would a smart and reasonable publisher have done? They would have realized that sticking their fingers in their ears and hoping the future doesn’t come is not an intelligent strategy. They would have noted that, as the Authors Guild said, Amazon is especially eager to make their lending library aka subscription service a success right now, in the face of increasing competition from Kobo, the Nook, and iBooks. And they would have used this leverage to negotiate a short-term, test-the-waters subscription licensing deal with both Amazon and their authors. (Hopefully one that treats the latter group better than Spotify treats musicians.)

Time is not on their side. As authors — including Neal Stephenson — jump ship to Amazon and Kobo, and as subscription services increasingly become treated as inevitable rather than revolutionary, the negotiating leverage held by traditional publishers (and the Authors Guild) will steadily decline. Now was the time to take a bold leap into the future. Instead they sat down, closed their eyes, and hoped it wasn’t coming. Good luck with that.