From Flaubert’s Pyramid:
There has been much talk about the relative merits of self-publishing (mostly through Amazon) and major print distribution through one of the big 5.5 publishers. Rabble-rousers like Scott Turow of the Author’s Guild (representing Establishmentarian Authors of Serious Books published by Serious Companies) and bloggers like J.A. Konrath, Barry Eisler, and David Gaughgran (representing the Nouveau-Riche Wildcat Pioneers of the New Digital Frontier) have taken to the internet to duke it out over who has the lock on the evolution of book culture in the digital age.
Rather than take up camps defending Amazon, or the Publishers, I think folks would do best if they decided to look out for themselves, and in doing so look out for society as a whole. When Turow warned last year that forcing the publishers to abandon agency pricing “…would be tragic for all of us who value books, and the culture they support,” I, for once, didn’t think he was being overly dramatic. Even Konrath can’t deny that price deflation in favor of electronic sales and distribution could wreak much havoc on physical publishing in a way that could alter the way people experience book culture irreparably.
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I think its important to put this current debate into a broader societal context, and to focus on the paradigmatic shifts that are taking place not just in publishing, but in media in general. I don’t doubt the sincerity of Mr. Turow, Mr. Konrath, Mr. Eisler and Mr. Gaughgran, but I don’t believe they fully grasp how the fundamental changes taking place will affect them as authors and as readers . Deciding whether you’re team Amazon or team Publisher is largely irrelevant when it comes to determining the destiny of how information is going to be consumed in the future. As a subset of all media, publishing is now subject to a multi-platform, worldwide, marketplace of attention. The entire $25 Billion American publishing industry is just a minor actor caught up in the epic Battle for the Pile of Eyeballs.
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Like me, you are a person existing in the physical world. You have to work, you have to eat, and you have to sleep (eventually). That means there is a limit to the amount of media you can consume. Because you are an individual there is a limit to the amount of devices you can use (and/or afford) at a time . That means there is a premium on your attention, and where you choose to direct it. For companies selling media, this means their utmost priority is getting your attention, and engaging it long enough for a transaction (whether it’s paying $2.99 for an e-book, or watching a 30 second advertisement).
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If the Pile of Eyeballs is the prize, then who are the players? In this instance it is not Amazon and the Publishers, but rather Apple and Amazon. Apple started out primarily as a device manufacturer, and they developed a media delivery and distribution system (iTunes) whereas Amazon was a delivery and distribution company that developed a device (the Kindle) to better deliver their content to consumers. Apple is by far the bigger company, in terms of raw profits, but Amazon is no punter either. They both dwarf the entire publishing industry and the biggest of the bookstore chains in terms of money, and they are both at war with each other, primarily over devices, and secondarily over content delivery. Their war over devices and content delivery, however, has several pitched battles, the most recent being over book territory. The Publishers are not, in this instance, combatants in the war, but rather the unfortunate locals caught up in the colonial battle for media resources with both Apple and Amazon demanding its allegiance.
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I think everyone takes bookstores for granted. You may never set foot in one, but I can assure a bookstore was the genesis of at least one word-of-mouth wave that eventually brought one of your favorite books to your attention. Certainly recommendation engines online can augment the ways by which a book comes to your attention, but nothing can replace a bookstore as a repository of cultural meaning and discovery. Amazon, Google and Apple can tell you what you might like based on what you do like, but they can’t tell what you should like based on what you feel like. In short, there isn’t an App for that.
Link to the rest at Flaubert’s Pyramid and thanks to Keith for the tip.
UPDATE: Bad link is fixed. Sorry for any inconvenience.