Passive Guy had an interesting experience last night. He was part of a panel that should have been described as “Amazon: Threat or Menace?” The panel was comprised of six people who had close ties to Traditional Publishing on the one hand and PG on the other – see livestream here. PG also did a podcast with Len Edgerly discussing his experiences earlier this morning that will show up at The Kindle Chronicles.
First – In the green room before the panel began, everyone was very nice to PG. The event was held in the New York Public Library. PG has traveled to New York on business at least a million times, but he had never been inside the NYPL before. It’s a fabulous place, a temple celebrating books. He strongly recommends a visit for anyone who hasn’t been there.
The auditorium appeared to hold about 80 audience members and was full. It was probably the largest gathering of people who are not soccer fans anywhere in New York last night.
PG won’t review who said what because you can get that in the livestream. With only two exceptions, he’s not going to talk about particular panelists and those exceptions will be in service of the broader purpose of this post.
PG will discuss the larger conclusions he drew during and after the panel interchanges.
As the title of the post indicates, traditional publishing and indie authors live in two different worlds. The business concerns, the view of the future, the willingness and ability to change, the attitude toward Amazon and the self-image of the two groups are widely divergent.
To the extent that the other panelists were representative of tradpub as a whole, PG concludes they’re terrified of Amazon. They believe that Amazon’s commitment to low prices is simply not consistent with their survival and they’re desperate to keep prices up. The idea of changing the way they operate to thrive a lower-price world is not on anyone’s radar. Neither is the concept of making up revenue and profits with higher volume.
One of the divergences triggered by the other lawyers on the panel was illuminating. At one point during the discussion of Amazon’s evils, one attorney mentioned setting the Justice Department antitrust division on Amazon. The other responded that this strategy wouldn’t work during the present Administration (undoubtedly it’s been tried), but the next Administration might be a different story.
Some of what was going on here was typical urban lawyer marketing to prospective clients – “I know important people and have access to inside information and levers of power so you should hire me.”
Excluding PG, this was definitely an inside information group.
The larger message, at least for PG, was that a desperate publishing industry has concluded it can’t survive in the marketplace and only government intervention to throttle Amazon will save it. Publishing will have to obtain through politics what it can’t through commerce.
All major New York publishers are subsidiaries of large media conglomerates. As someone pointed out with a bit of disdain, American businesses are not willing to invest in American publishers so all but one of the conglomerates that own Big Publishing are headquartered overseas. Shame on American business.
PG spent a couple of unhappy years working for the subsidiary of a large foreign-based media conglomerate and speaks from that experience.
The top executives of the large New York publishers are essentially middle managers in the business hierarchy of the conglomerates that own them. They take orders from headquarters. Financial performance comes first for the owners. Everything else is a distant second. If one New York publishing executive doesn’t perform, he/she will be out and another will be brought in. The decision will be made overseas and, likely, no one in New York will know about it until it occurs.
Some overseas conglomerate executives are not adept at understanding American business, particularly the high tech business. There’s nothing remotely like Amazon in Europe. One of the continuing sources of anxiety among American executives is trying to get Michelle in France or Hans in Germany to understand and accept competitive realities and constraints in the US.
As followers of The Passive Voice have seen, media tycoons can instigate anti-Amazon laws in various European countries. The bosses of New York publishing executives must wonder if they need different US management in order to generate some robust American anti-Amazon laws and regulations. The stress generated by these expectations is at least part of the reason for the anti-Amazon hysteria.
Another clear impression PG gained was that authors are a bit superfluous in the business considerations of publishers.
There were three lawyers and only one consistently-publishing author – James Patterson – on the panel. That shows authors where they sit. Why would you ask a bunch of authors who aren’t centimillionaires about Amazon or publishing or business as usual?
As someone pointed out in the comments to an earlier post, James Patterson is essentially his own imprint. Given all the co-authors and ghost-writers he uses, he may be more akin to a publisher or at least a book packager than a typical commercial author these days. PG does not begrudge Patterson his commercial success or the way he currently produces his books, but he’s really only representative of himself and a handful of similar writers, not authors as a whole.
At one point, when PG was talking about the financial success of indie authors, the moderator cut him off by saying, “Everyone wants authors to make more money.”
What was unspoken was, “in the right way.” With publishers and agents, not by themselves with Amazon.
PG observed a recurring and, perhaps unconscious elitist attitude on the panel. This group really believes that big and little publishing are the protectors of American literature and the deciders of what people will and will not read. Of course the protectors must be paid for their work, but that is really a secondary consideration.
Unless book prices are held high and authors’ royalties are kept low, how will their pet projects be funded? Poetry! Important nonfiction! Everyone has to sacrifice to support Literature! Romance readers must pay more to support the creation of the definitive history of the Boer War or a breakthrough book that chronicles the rise of a new gender identity – The Fifth Sex.
Who decides which books are important? Well, people like us Manhattanites. Who better to perform this vital work? People in Seattle? Readers? Authors? Pish-posh. Those types are certainly not qualified to be protectors of our Culture. They’re the worker bees.
The strangest event of the evening was the suggestion that Amazon is tweaking search results when someone pays them to do so.
PG has certainly not heard any hint of such a thing and, when he asked for evidence, no meaningful response was provided.
Aside from the fact that the only people in a position to pay for book search results would be large New York publishers, the same organizations the panel was trying to protect, the allegation vastly understates the complexity and sophistication of Amazon’s website.
Every interaction draws customized product suggestions. When you go to Amazon.com, you’ll see something different than PG does when he goes there. Ditto for all the emails. Amazon is constantly watching what its customers are doing and attempting to put the most relevant products in front of each visitor.
The suggestion also misunderstands the position of books in Amazon’s overall product hierarchy. Amazon serves customers. Not book customers or electronics customers, just customers. Whatever the customer wants, Amazon endeavors to provide.
Amazon wants to be your favorite diaper store and your favorite hand tool store and your favorite book store. If it doesn’t give you the very best information when you’re buying books, you might go elsewhere for diapers too.
PG and Mrs. PG buy a lot of books on Amazon, but the dollar value of their non-book purchases is much higher than their book purchases. Amazon wants PG to buy everything on Amazon. The downside of jiggered search results would vastly outweigh any payments a publisher might make to obtain such search results.
PG prefers a simpler world:
- Write a great book
- Hire a great editor and cover designer
- Put it up on Amazon
- Tell people about it
- Repeat a few times and quit your day job.