Saturday, October 25, 2014

Opinion — A Mini-Rant On The Publishing Wars

Scribner's Bookstore, Books as Treasures (Princeton)

Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman and the prestigious Author’s Guild as well as many best-selling authors have pretty much painted Amazon as super villain and enemy of freedom and democracy.  Krugman made the point in a recent column that Amazon is not playing fair with Hatchette, the last of the big American publishers and that this endangers the American way of life. I’m a fan of Krugman, the Guild and many of the anti-Amazon authors, most of whom are gigantic businesses themselves.  I have no doubt Amazon is playing hardball and, as is the case in all major battles, folks get hurt. It wasn’t long ago that Borders and Barnes and Noble decimated independent bookstores through predatory location practices getting better deals from big publisher and therefore offering discounts not possible for the independents to offer. The marketplace changes, technology evolves, reader habits respond to the environment. 

But let’s look at some facts and put them in perspective. Hachette isn’t an American publisher.  It is French. That is certainly no crime and its country of origin wouldn’t put me off one iota, but this publisher, like the others in the Top Five, is also gobbling or trying to gobble up smaller publishers who, as a matter of practice, are more open to publishing non-best-selling writers and giving new writers a chance. The Big Five publishers are global and we need not think of them as vulnerable little Davids facing the Amazon Goliath. The truth is, at least for the moment, Amazon provides affordable services for authors and small publishers who seek entry into the marketplace. These aren’t saints and sinners we’re talking about but market forces waging battle. Both sides are causing collateral damage.

The other song being sung to shame Amazon is that the master on-line retailer considers books to be “products.”   I deeply empathize.  Books are special in my eyes. They are not widgets. However different folks look at what we do in different ways.  Not only do we create “products,” we create “content” in some minds, however abhorrent those words are to us.

Do the publishers hold the book to be as sacred as writers do?  Do they hold it in higher regard than Amazon?  I remember reading that publishers like Random House and Scribners used to keep money aside for talented writers to keep them afloat when the writer’s books didn’t sell. The company took a loss for the sake of art and because they considered books more than widgets.  I was lucky enough to visit the great Scribner & Sons Book Store on Fifth Avenue in New York before its various metamorphoses. These were hallowed grounds, books as a religion. There was no doubt the publisher held books in high regard. So when I hear authors use the product argument, but only against Amazon, I’m more than wary especially in the age of author James Patterson’s factory-produced novels and Stephen King, who has a new book out every five minutes. Bless him. He is tremendously successful because he is tremendously talented; but his one-sided criticism of Amazon, if not self-serving, rings false to me.
Indianapolis Central Library, A Place Where Books Are Not Products (Tierney)

And independent booksellers: No doubt Amazon is making life difficult, but have you forgotten how the big publishers treated you when the big box bookstores roamed the earth?

I’m not about to suggest the Vatican start the saint-making process for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. If nothing else, he’s been called on to address a few unpleasant workplace issues.  I am saying that we are seeing the dirty business of big business messing around in the book business.  With only five publishers dominating the world market, should we be surprised?  Seems to me the only entity holding a genuine reverence for books are public libraries, which have been singled out for severe budget cuts all across the country.

1 comment:

Fran Johns said...

This is a thoughtful and wonderful mini-rant. I just posted it on franmorelandjohnswriter, the Facebook page with the hopeless name I'm not allowed to change again... but anyway. Thanks for shedding a little light and perspective on the over-heated issue. My added take: tried hard, through two not-exactly bestseller books to support indie bookstores, but frankly without Amazon I'd be dead in the literary water. Rant on!