Voldemort’s Got Nothing On Jeff Bezos

E-books. Again. Amazon and the DOJ vs. Apple and “The Big Six.” The future of reading. A breathtakingly stupid David Carr piece in the New York Times, which thankfully someone else took down paragraph-by-paragraph, so I don’t have to. Elsewhere, an awesome quote which I want to cheer with the force of a million choirs of angels:

I am completely unmoved by the argument that if Amazon forces traditional publishers to sell books at lower costs, then the publishers will go away and we won’t have books anymore. Hogwash. The publishers built for a printed books world may go away, but their digital native versions will replace them.

Yes, it’s time to trot out that obligatory William Gibson quote again:

A middleman’s business is to make himself a necessary evil.

There’s certainly more than enough evil to go around here: Evil But Smart, represented by Amazon and its oppressive Kindle monoculture, vs. Evil And Flailingly Inept, aka Publishing’s Big Six, whose “pig-headed insistence on DRM on ebooks is handing Amazon a stick with which to beat them harder,” to quote Charles Stross. (If you question their evilness, bear in mind: “Five of the six major publishers of trade books either refuse to make new e-books available to libraries or have pulled back significantly over the last year on how easily or how often those books can be circulated.” Having attacked public libraries, publishers presumably will next go after motherhood and apple pie…)

Their battle may sell popcorn but is really neither interesting nor relevant. Remember that Gibson quote: Mere evil is insufficient for middleman success. You need to be necessary. That’s a lot harder.

Let’s go back to the basics. (Context: I’ve had four novels published by major publishers, one by a small press, and a graphic novel published by DC/Vertigo.) This, to oversimplify, was the publishing pipeline for most of the last several centuries:

author ⇒ editor ⇒ copyeditor -⇒ designer ⇒ typesetter ⇒ printer ⇒ distributor ⇒ wholesaler ⇒ bookstore/library ⇒ reader

Note how many of those stages are susceptible to digital disruption. Copyediting and typesetting are increasingly algorithmic and automatable, as is design, if you’re willing to limit yourself to a few templates and find your own cover image. Distribution and wholesaling were erased by the Internet. On the other hand, you still have to get an e-book to a reader’s device, and someone still has to take their money.

That’s where Amazon comes in. This is their system, if you self-publish:

author ⇒ Amazon ⇒ (optional) DRM ⇒ device ⇒ reader

Today, the absence of copyediting, design, typesetting, and above all, editing, means that will be one seriously amateur-hour book … but the first three are increasingly algorithmically replaceable. Clearly Smart & Evil has the long-term advantage —

— but wait! As the tedious ebook battle of evil vs. evil continues, a shining new force has arisen, a champion of liberty, justice, and common freaking sense! Ladies and gentlemen, I give you none other than Harry Potter.

No. Seriously. This DOJ thing is actually completely irrelevant, but Pottermore, now that’s interesting. You see, here’s the Pottermore model: DRM-free, directly downloadable to your Kindle, from a non-Amazon source:

author ⇒ Pottermore ⇒ device ⇒ reader

Obviously, JK Rowling can and does pay for the best copyediting, design, and typesetting in the world, and her books have already been edited by capable Big Six editors; but the important thing that Pottermore highlights is that neither Amazon nor publishers are a necessary evil.

True, publishers also provide marketing (although precious little, for most books) and the imprimatur of quality (you’ve read some bad published books, but you have no idea how much better they were than most of what festers on publishers’ slush piles.) But is there any reason other than history and momentum that editing, copyediting, design, typesetting, marketing, and quality assurance live under one corporate roof? Small presses already do an excellent job of all of these things, frequently by outsourcing them. So what’s so necessary about the Big Six, in an era of shrinking advances, when their biggest names can and will pull a Pottermore and start to sell books themselves? Very little indeed.

However. Amazon is equally unnecessary. And if Stephen King or Tom Clancy or someone of that bestselling ilk goes to Amazon and demands the same treatment as Rowling, Amazon can no longer say “we don’t do that” or “that would be far too technically difficult.” They do do that. They already implemented it. And now that they’ve set this precedent, it’s only a matter of time before Capitalized Names everywhere start demanding that Amazon extends that most-favored-literary-nation status to them, too.

The Big Six may be doomed, but now that Amazon has broken the seal on external sites selling DRM-free Kindle e-books, that DRM-laden monoculture will go down with them. Meaning that finally, after years of thrashing, readers will finally get what they have wanted all along: DRM-free e-books sold by Amazon and anyone else who wants to sell them. Three cheers for Harry Potter, and a billion points to Gryffindor.