From Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler at The Newbie’s Guide to Publishing:
Scott Turow, President of the Big Publishers Club (aka the Authors Guild) just blogged about the Department of Justice lawsuit against legacy publishing’s agency pricing model.
. . . .
Scott’s original words are in italics; my and Barry’s reaction follow in plain text.
Here we go…
Yesterday’s report that the Justice Department may be near filing an antitrust lawsuit against five large trade book publishers and Apple is grim news for everyone who cherishes a rich literary culture.
Joe: Translation: It will be grim news for bestselling authors and billion-dollar publishers.
Barry: I always wonder what people mean by these vague references to “rich literary culture” (and when I see the same phrase crop up in more than one place, it really sets my bullshit detector tingling). Ordinarily, these buzzwords sound appealing in the abstract, but dissolve like an urban legend when subjected to a bit of thought.
The only books that contribute to a rich literary culture are the ones sold at agency (meaning collusively high) prices by legacy publishers? Or sold through independent bookstores? The publishing establishment must be free to collude on prices or culture will perish? The publishing establishment contributes more to culture than books themselves? The publishing establishment is culture?
That’s Scott’s argument? It’s a strange one.
. . . .
We have no way of knowing whether publishers colluded in adopting the agency model for e-book pricing. We do know that collusion wasn’t necessary: given the chance, any rational publisher would have leapt at Apple’s offer and clung to it like a life raft.
Joe: Translation: It could be that publishers didn’t collude, but all independently came to the same conclusion and independently presented it to Amazon at the same time with exactly the same terms.
Barry: Like the coincidental lockstep 17.5% digital royalties offered in all legacy publishing contracts. These things just happen sometimes. By accident.
Joe: Could be some sort of hive mind. Or psychic powers. I wonder if the DoJ will believe the “it’s-just-random-luck” defense.
Amazon was using e-book discounting to destroy bookselling, making it uneconomic for physical bookstores to keep their doors open.
Joe: Translation: Amazon was using free enterprise to gain market share, something that worries inferior competition.
Barry: Oh, come on. Amazon’s lower prices were intended to “destroy bookselling?” Not to sell more books and gain market share? It’s ipso facto evil to compete via lower prices?
I really wish all companies would collude to charge higher prices. The world would be a better place.
Joe: The Big Publishing Cartel monopolizes distribution for decades and that’s fine, but some upstart comes in and starts treating authors and readers with consideration, and it is a call to arms.
Barry: This argument is just bizarre. I mean, Amazon, which sells more books than anyone, is destroying bookselling? Amazon is destroying bookselling by selling tons of books?
Watch the linguistic dodge: Scott is implicitly arguing that the only model that counts as “bookselling” is the current model, built and maintained by legacy publishers and brick-and-mortar stores. That is, “bookselling = physical bookstores. Online bookselling doesn’t count as bookselling.” He’s arguing as though physical booksellers are the only legitimate organisms in the forest, while Amazon is some sort of exotic interloping alien species rampaging through a healthy native ecosystem. This is the only way to make sense of an argument that states, “Amazon is destroying bookselling by selling so many books.”
Why not just state the argument clearly? After all, Scott is former litigator and presumably knows how to write a careful legal brief. He could have said, “Amazon’s low prices were attracting so many customers to online bookselling that brick-and-mortar stores were suffering.” But the reaction to such an argument is much more likely to be, “Well, that’s sad, but it sounds like the way of the world. Like the record stores. I guess you can’t fight technology.” So instead, he wrote, “Amazon is destroying bookselling!” Which sounds evil and scary and is therefore a better call to arms. The problem is, this is a terribly tendentious way to state the argument, and it’s also a contradiction in terms. Maybe Scott would also argue that Apple is destroying computer-selling by selling so many computers, but logically, it’s pretty hard to see how someone could destroy bookselling by selling tons of books. In arguing that bookselling is destroying bookselling, Scott is making his biases as clear as his argument is turbid.
Joe: I love the term uneconomic. A synonym would be “someone else is giving customers what they want.”
. . . .
Publishing shouldn’t have to choose between bricks and clicks.
Joe: Translation: Publishing wants to sell paper books, because it controls the paper market. Now that Amazon controls the ebook market, publishing is scared shitless.
Barry: See how Scott’s piece is really about publishing, not about authors or readers? Because readers are choosing between bricks and clicks. So what does it mean that publishers shouldn’t have to? Publishers shouldn’t have to go in a direction dictated by end-user customers? Why shouldn’t they? Scott is arguing that publishers shouldn’t have to run their businesses based on what end-user customers want. Why not? What logic can we invoke that might create some special dispensation for publishers from the laws of business physics? It just doesn’t make sense — except by resort to the kind of sentiment Scott claims isn’t part of his position.
I have to say, it’s odd to see such a legacy publishing-centric article written by the president of something called The Authors Guild. I know you could try to make a “What’s good for legacy publishing is good for authors” argument, and that is what Scott is implicitly doing, but still. The logic and connection are pretty strained.
Joe: Has any business succeeded by punishing the consumer? DRM, high prices, windowing, long lag times from manuscript completion to market, restriction of new works (aka the lovely non-compete clause), all seem to show disdain for readers.
But at least legacy publishers make up for that by treating writers so well.
. . . .
Joe: People accuse me of shilling for Amazon, because Amazon is making me a lot of money. But here’s something my critics keep missing: what I’m saying makes sense. And I have experience, examples, numbers, facts, and logic to support my position.
Now, Scott of course similarly can be accused of shilling for the Big 6, because they made him rich. Brick-and-mortar stores also added to his considerable wealth. But that’s not what matters. What matters is, his logic is bad, he’s ill-informed, and he’s the President of the freaking Authors Guild, which is supposed to represent authors, not publishers.
Does he really not understand, or not care, that Amazon is putting money in authors’ pockets? Does he not see the flip side of this coin? Or does he just want to trick his peers into buying this bullshit?
Barry: I don’t know the the Authors Guild well, and I imagine they do various good things for authors. But when I read things like Scott’s piece (and the stunningly whiny and wrongheaded post someone did on the Authors Guild website a few weeks ago about how mean Amazon is), I start to suspect that while they might represent authors’ interests, what they really represent is those interests consistent with the interests of the larger publishing establishment with which the Authors Guild identifies and of which it is a part. That’s okay, as far as it goes, but I think it’s best for authors to have an accurate idea of just how, and how far, the Authors Guild actually represents their interests, and through what kind of a prism it views the world of publishing.
Joe: Beware any organization that’s more concerned about its Top 2% than its Bottom 98%. Beware any organization that is more concerned about its own survival than it is about solving the problems it was created to solve, or serving the people it was created to serve.
But most of all, beware any organization that can’t argue based on facts, numbers, and logic, and that has to try to sway opinion with buzzwords and emotion, instead.
President Turow didn’t say anything substantive here.
But what he didn’t say speaks volumes.
Link to much more at A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing