No Time for Sargent

From Scrivener’s Error:

It’s not often that one can legitimately call an “official” major corporation CEO communication “inherently deceptive and based on fantasy or science fiction only.” OK, it’s not routine that one can do so — not even in the entertainment industry — thanks to SEC disclosure rules. But there’s a recent opportunity; and I have both personal knowledge and verifiable data to do it.

In this instance, for public consumption I’m relying upon (hack! phhhhht!) PW‘s account of Macmillan “CEO” John Sargent’s presentation to state librarians on discriminatory e-book distribution. So, why do I think Sargent was being deceptive? In no particular order:

  • Anecdotally (apparently according to Sargent himself!), eight percent of science fiction and fantasy fans who couldn’t get an e-book promptly from the library would instead go out and buy it. So it really is based on fantasy and science fiction! One wonders what kind of anecdotal “evidence” this is — whether it’s based on a random sample of fannish statements of intent, actual general sales figures (but see below), comparative library purchase figures and circulation statistics (but see below), or as is most likely self-selected fannish responses based on a self-selected subset of fen.
  • Well, how about reproducibility? A nonscientific, nonreplicable sampling indicates an increase of between 12 and 15% in publicly stated “user views” of library-embargoed Tor titles over the past year at relatively safe pirate venues… and a disproportionate (compared to other similar imprints, and even generally) increase in the number of pirate handles associated with library-embargoed Tor titles over the past year. This has been a distinctly, but due to the poor quality of the dataset not statistically validatable, greater increase for library-embargoed Tor books than for other similar and dissimilar imprints. The conclusion one can draw is that an unknown but probably substantial proportion of the vaunted 8% were interested in acquiring the Tor titles, not necessarily buying them. And demonstrated with their actions (not unverifiable, anecdotal statements of intent) that that is precisely what they would do.

. . . .

As a follow-on to the preceding point, carefully consider the assertion (quoting the PW piece’s summary of another summary) that

[Sargent] likened the e-book marketplace to that for major motion pictures in that new releases have the greatest value in their first few weeks and their initial release should allow for the greatest return on both creative and business investment. The availability of e-books through libraries, which may be perceived as being free, is, in Macmillan’s opinion, the major driver in the consumer decline.

which rather self-refutes the argument. Bluntly, if this were actually a valid consideration, the combination of revenues from DVD sales and post-release streaming/broadcast/etc. would not frequently exceed the initial release revenue… when one allows for the avoided costs in that back end (such as “distribution fees”). It also implicitly assumes that every Macmillan title is a superhero blockbuster. It ignores cult films. Or “indie productions” over at, say, Picador (“Fox Searchlight”).

More subtly, it ignores the more-valid comparison. Library sales — thanks to the discriminatory terms offered to libraries — are a helluva lot closer to “iMax 3D” with a $25 ticket than to no sale at all, as implied both in the PW piece’s summary and the continuing rhetoric coming out of Macmillan. There is one, and only one, market segment in which “discounting” of library sales as “insignificant” has any validity at all, and it’s not category trade fiction: It’s textbooks (at least in the 1990s version of the market, and those who came up selling textbooks in the 1990s are now in charge of overall sales and marketing at more than one Big Five publisher).

. . . .

Bluntly, this is so delusional that I can’t really say it’s a “lie.” Lying requires actual knowledge that what one is saying is untruthful and deceptive. I’m not certain that mere ignorance and/or self-deception, even when willful, qualifies, so I’m explicitly not calling Mr Sargent a liar. Fraud goes just a bit farther, in that it also requires intent that the listener reasonably rely on those statements, so I’m explicitly not calling Mr Sargent a con artist, either. I am, however, explicitly calling him out for putting forth bullshit.

Link to the rest at Scrivener’s Error

And these people style themselves as curators of our culture.

Plus, a reminder that traditionally-published authors basically have no say in what these curators do with their books.

5 thoughts on “No Time for Sargent”

    • Weiskopf finally managed to get Simon and Schuster to pry their heads out of their digestive systems? I’m rather impressed.

      It’s also not really surprising that Baen, and not Tor, are the ones pushing the envelope in the publishing industry. Jim Baen was always more of an innovator than most of his peers, I think because he understood what SF/F was really about more than they did, and he infused Baen with that spirit. Tor, on the other hand, is locked into old ways of thinking.

      • On top of that, even when Tor tries to copy new ideas, MacMillan puts a stop to it.

        Years ago, Tor actually put some of their ebooks on Webscriptions at prices comparable to Baen (circa 2008) but were forced to pull them all back because of lack of DRM.

        More recently, they abandoned DRM “experimentally” but as the current catfight proves, it was too little too late, as the books are still agency overpriced and they’re no longer just fighting BAEN but also Indie, inc.

        (I haven’t bought a single Tor book all decade. Doing fine, too.)

        • Make that “circa 2006” .
          I found a reference documenting what I remembered:

          “None of the e-books has any Digital Rights Management parts. This has caused some concerns among certain publishers and authors. Tor Books began making books available via Webscriptions in March 2006, but pulled it within days because of pressure from the owning group, Holtzbrinck because of concerns regarding the lack of DRM, over Tor Books’ protests.[8]”

  1. “And these people style themselves as curators of our culture.”

    They’d much more prefer to simply be the collectors of our money (though they don’t seem to really want to give us all that much in return …)


    The difference between genius and stupidity is; genius has its limits. -Albert Einstein

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