From bestselling author Barry Eisler:
A lot of conversation in and about the publishing world is fixated on fear of Amazon’s purported potential monopoly power—on the possibility that Amazon will eventually enjoy such market dominance as a publisher that it will abuse its position and begin to punish authors, perhaps with extremely low royalties. Which leads to aquestion I’m not sure I can adequately answer, though I find it fascinating:
Why all the fear about what Amazon might do in the future, when legacy publishers are doing those fearful things right now?
Today, Amazon pays self-published authors 70% of the retail price of titles sold on the Kindle Store through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing. Legacy publishers, by contrast, pay their authors 17.5%. Now, certainly 17.5% is appallingly low. But if appallingly low royalties are your concern, why would you expend so much energy speculating about a lower royalty that might eventually come to pass, while caring so little about the extremely low royalties in effect today? It’s like panicking about possibly getting sick in the future while failing to treat the pneumonia killing you right now.
I know from experience that some people will respond to the paragraph above by claiming New York publishers are not a monopoly. After all, don’t the big houses fight with each other over new manuscripts? Aren’t there sometimes bidding wars over a hot new property? And they even poach each other’s employees and authors, too. So of course there’s competition, right?
No. Everything I just described is, relatively speaking, a distraction—Kabuki competition, not the real thing. If the legacy houses actually competed with each other—if they actually strove to attract authors and serve readers and lower costs and improve performance—the publishing world would not be universally characterized by the following:
• An identical, lock-step, onerously low 17.5% digital royalty rate
• The practice of forcing readers who prefer digital to wait, sometimes for over a year, until a title is also ready to ship in paper
• Digital retail prices equivalent to paper ones despite the obvious lower costs of digital distribution
• Byzantine and opaque royalty statements, delivered twice-yearly as much as six months after the end of the applicable reporting period
• Non-compete clauses that attempt to preclude authors from meaningful control over their own professional and artistic destinies
• Morbidly obese contracts delivered months after agreement on high-level deal points, written in unendurable legalese and drawn up in nine-point font on 14-inch legal paper, the only purpose of which is to intimidate authors into not reading the document, and to obscure the meaning of what’s written just in case they do
• Payments tendered months after they’ve come due
• A refusal to share sales data with authors, even though authors have long clamored for such information and the web technology to provide such access was already old a decade ago.
We can argue about whether the system I just described is properly known as a monopoly, or as a quasi-monopoly, or as a cartel. What can’t be argued is that such a system is only possible—indeed, is only conceivable—in the absence of meaningful competition.
. . . .
Which brings us back to my original question: why are so many authors afraid of a possible monopoly while sanguine about a real one?
I can think of several possibilities.
First, fear is a powerful emotion, and, as Gavin de Becker observes in his superb The Gift of Fear, is by definition related to something that hasn’t happened yet. Once the feared thing has happened, we’re no longer afraid of it. New York’s quasi-monopoly is a longstanding and accomplished fact; therefore, it can’t be feared (though it can be loathed). By contrast, Amazon is relatively new in publishing. Whether it will attain and abuse monopoly power is currently unknown, and therefore is something people can fear. It may be that because of the nature and survival value of fear, the mind ascribes greater weight to potential threats than it does to actual problems, and this difference might explain the skew between fear toward Amazon and acquiescence to New York.
Second, and perhaps related, is the concept of the devil you know. Sure, New York functions as a cartel, but it always has, and people are accustomed to it. It seems normal. Amazon, by contrast, is unknown.So hey, your husband beats you, but it’s been going on for a long time and you’ve survived. Do you really want to divorce and remarry? Maybe the new guy will beat you, too. Maybe the beatings will be even worse. Better to stick with what’s familiar.
. . . .
Will the New York houses be able to shake off their torpor and rebuild their businesses based on more enlightened practices? It’s hard to say. The same monopoly that protects a company’s profits also withers its strength and adaptability. A company coddled by monopoly is like a fighter who never trains—who never even fights. Will a company like that be able to answer the bell when a real challenger enters the ring? I don’t know.
What I do know is that a vigorous new player just kicked open the locked door of a dark and moribund fortress and is finally letting in some sunlight. If you see a better way than Amazon to reform New York’s previously unassailable quasi-monopoly and all the suboptimal business practices that monopoly has enabled, I’d like to know what it is. In the meantime, I welcome Amazon and any other new entrant that can continue to loosen the legacy houses’ monopolistic grip,and force them to rely on practices beneficial to authors and readers rather than on monopoly rents beneficial only to themselves.
Link to the rest at Joe Konrath’s Blog