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The Book War That Authors Already Lost

17 June 2014

From author J.E. Fishman via The Weeklings:

QUESTION: If books are an important part of the culture—and I believe they are—does it follow that the way we publish and sell books is an equally important part of the culture?

If you answered Yes, you should know we’ve been under siege from foreign forces for a long time.

It started back in the Thirties when a newly minted British company called Penguin sent a flotilla of cheap paperbacks to our shores and changed the economics of American book publishing forever.

. . . .

When those dime paperbacks flooded the market, you can bet that a lot of stodgy old east-coast publishers started pissing their dollar-stuffed pants. The new competition soon put their fat margins under pressure, eventually forcing them to indulge in the sincerest form of flattery: imitation. Pretty soon there were dime paperbacks (later known as mass market paperbacks) everywhere.

Through all of this disruption no one asked authors what they thought. When it came to business, authors were there to be read and not heard—at least not on the subject of business. Many authors probably stood appalled, but others jumped in and wrote pulp fiction until their fingers bled. Some of these authors went on to become major brands. Go figure.

. . . .

In 1986 that now-famous German publishing conglomerate Bertelsmann—of whom, I guarantee, not a soul in America had ever heard before 1986—purchased venerable old publisher Doubleday for nearly half a billion dollars. With that kind of loot kicking around the Nelson Doubleday household, our cultural defenders forgot to contemplate whether this acquisition was good for American letters. Maybe it helped knowing that Bertelsmann had begun life as that most unthreatening of all entities: a Bible publisher.

Anyway, once again, no one asked authors—you know, those originators of the content that makes the book business the book business—what they thought. The only option authors had was to go on writing books and hope it all worked out.

. . . .

It’s funny to hear industry experts today suggest that the way to defeat Amazon—presuming Amazon needs defeating at all—is for publishers to sell direct to consumers, rather than rely on so-called trade channels of distribution (the now shrinking bookstores) and other brick-and-mortar retail outlets. The reason it’s funny is that when the Germans started shuffling paper at Doubleday, they wanted badly to turn a fresh page. In short, they decided that vertical integration was a dumb idea.

. . . .

Bertelsmann hung onto their direct mail business for eight years before surrendering, selling out to a private equity group in a transaction that was undoubtedly, in Wall Street parlance, immaterial to the bottom line.

. . . .

Nobody asked authors whether this last vestige of Doubleday’s vertical integration ought to be abandoned. Authors were expected to go on writing for the good of the culture and let the business people worry about strategy.

. . . .

As ebooks, unburdened by “legacies” like paper and ink, flew across the airwaves in little electronic packets, publishers found their unit costs dropping and their margins expanding. Needless to say, they weren’t about to share much of that bounty with the authors of those books—not when authors had no leverage to demand same. In a few short years, publishers would cry “bully” whenever Amazon bitch-slapped them over business terms, but it turns out they’ve been crying all the way to the bank.

In any event, no one made a peep about the French invasion, and as usual nobody asked authors, who might have expressed some relief that at least this great publishing conglomerate hadn’t been swallowed by Samsung. Because, you know, Apple is much cooler than those Korean brands, even if the average author can’t afford an iPhone.

. . . .

So German Random House (Bertelsmann having swallowed that publisher whole after digesting Doubleday, Bantam and Dell) and English Penguin smushed themselves together into Penguin Random House.

. . . .

Well, rather than biting our nails over these turns of events, at least authors can find solace in the fact that the foreign invasion hasn’t completely overrun book culture. After all, the balance of the Big Five—Macmillan, Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins—are red-blooded American corporations, right?

Um, actually, no. The modern incarnation of Macmillan resulted when Germany’s von Holtzbrinck Group rolled up a whole bunch of publishers more than a decade ago. The News Corp. owns HarperCollins, and therefore Australian press baron Rupert Murdoch controls that large publisher.

. . . .

Naturally, no one asked authors what they thought of the Holtzbrinck invasion or the News Corp. engulfment. How many times do I have to tell you people to shut up and write?!

. . . .

Which brings me, at long last, to all of the pixels that have been excited by authors weighing in about the skirmish between Amazon and Hachette. Listen, people, for the last time: Nobody asked you, nobody plans to ask you, and furthermore, you’re not qualified to have an opinion about the future of the book business just because you write books. So just shut up and be grateful for your 25 percent of nothing and get back to writing.

Link to the rest at The Weeklings and thanks to Amy for the tip.

Big Publishing

13 Comments to “The Book War That Authors Already Lost”

  1. Thank you, Amy, for sending that tip! And PG for posting it! Wish all of history classes were full of such fun snark!

  2. Interesting article.

  3. That was awesome. I really enjoyed reading that. Thanks.

  4. And that’s the way it is if you sold your books to the Trad-pubs. That’s not the case for Indie Authors.

  5. HA!!

    J.E. Fishman, you are my new hero.

  6. One of the best posts ever!

  7. I wonder if J.E. smoked a cigarette after writing that? Well done :)

  8. I’m a fan of JE Fishman’s thrillers and have to mention that I noticed his newest release, A Danger to Himself and Others (Bomb Squad NYC Incident #1) is free on Kindle today.

  9. Layin’ down some history and harsh truths, and in an entertaining way. Great post.

  10. Phyllis Humphrey

    I loved this! Thanks P.G. Two years ago I blogged about the foreign companies that dominated the book market, but no one noticed. I even suggested (horrors!) that Romance writers of America, who, at the time, were still only allowing trad-published books into the Rita awards, should honor their name and only accept books by American publishing companies. Ignored again. But, thanks to Amazon and Indie authors, we can do an end-run around them and keep the profits in this country. July 4th is almost here, so it’s okay to praise American innovation.

  11. I attended the Clarion SF and Fantasy Writers Workshop in 1990. Michael Kube-McDowell was our fourth-week instructor. He gave us a chart of the state of publisher then, noting that a handful of corporations owned nearly all of the publishing houses. Twenty-four years ago. I remember all of us being extremely depressed about it then.

    Now? I don’t need a publishing house.

  12. I guess we can’t say Salon Magazine is strictly pro-publisher/anti-Amazon anymore; they’re carrying this piece as well.

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