Astroturfing, Zombie Memes & Publishing

Why are there so many zombie memes in publishing? Why is there so much groupthink? It might be because the industry isn’t particularly diverse. Or it could be that book-lovers are nostalgic types who are automatically wary of change.

But I suspect it’s astroturfing by the publishing establishment, a practice admitted to last month by YS Chi, chairman of Elsevier and president of the International Publishers Association, in paragraph six of this article.

For the click-lazy, here’s the money quote (emphasis mine):

We gathered all the communications people together to discuss the issues and create an action plan. We have a multi-faceted audience to address, and in the next 12 months you will see key messages delivered, compelling stories of our impact on society for culture and education. We’ll ask you to personalize that message. I’m very excited that there is a meeting of minds on this.

Yey, talking points! I don’t know if I’m more excited about the centrally approved messaging that’s going to flood the blogosphere, or the mental image of YS Chi doing a mind-meld with everyone in publishing.

But I digress. This post attempts to dispel multiple industry myths in one fell swoop. Perhaps then we can start having meaningful conversations, instead of batting around boardroom memos.

Self-publishing is a bubble

Remember Ewan Morrison’s prediction in The Guardian? “Epublishing is another tech bubble, and it will burst in the next 18 months.”

That was two years ago, but Morrison was never one to wave the white flag in the face of facts, evidence, or logic. He’s now pushed the date out for this bubble bursting to a point in the 2020s (don’t ask me to be more exact, I can’t abide his pseudo-intellectual crap).

I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised Morrison is still beating this drum, given he has admitted, “writing about the end of books generates more income for me than actually publishing the darn things.”

Publishers (and Apple) never fixed them prices

It was all a conspiracy by the pro-Amazon DOJ! Let’s just ignore the fact that Amazon donates to the red team and Apple donates to the blue team, that the Price Fix Six left a trail of evidence a mile long, that the publishing industry actively campaigns for fixed priced laws outside the US, and that any independent legal observer considered it an open-and-shut case, a per se violation of anti-trust law.

The e-book market has flattened/peaked/slumped

We’ve reached the stage now where over 50% of new release fiction is purchased in digital format, as reported by several large publishers last year. The market simply cannot keep doubling – you can’t have 110% of new release sales in digital format. This doesn’t mean the market has flattened or peaked (or slumped).

There is a difference between the rate of growth slowing, and the market actually shrinking, and official industry figures don’t measure any of the boom in self-publishing. Eoin Purcell had a good piece in the Irish Times noting this, and Nate Hoffelder at The Digital Reader drills down further here.

Amazon is the only company minimizing their tax bill

The main reason Amazon doesn’t pay much tax on its profits is because it doesn’t make much of a profit. Articles on the subject fail to mention this salient point, instead making a tendentious comparison between revenue and tax paid (which is not how corporation tax is calculated).

Amazon also stands accused, in the UK at least, of using various corporate structures to minimize their tax bill. You may have your own views on this practice, but these structures are legal (for the record: I think the law needs to change).

The corporate vehicle in question is known as the Double Irish and it’s used by a huge number of companies (such as Adobe, Facebook, Oracle, Microsoft, and Google). In fact, this strategy was pioneered in the 1980s by Apple. And a version of this arrangement was used by Harlequin to screw writers out of royalties.

But that doesn’t fit the narrative.

Large publishers nurture writers


There’s too much competition to self-publish

Yes, there’s a lot of competition. Yes, it has gotten tougher in the last few years. But no matter how you decide to publish your book, you will face the same level of competition. At least if you self-publish, you will be able to use all the tools we do to build an audience (aggressive pricing, reader-focused marketing, optimized metadata, speed-to-market).

Amazon is evil

Some people have genuine concerns about Amazon dominating the book business. We’ll probably disagree about some of the details, but the position isn’t inherently invalid. What bugs me is authors like Scott Turow and publishers like Melville House painting Amazon as some kind of nefarious force out to destroy literature. As Bob Mayer says, if you feel that strongly, stop doing business with Amazon. No-one is forcing you.

Ebooks shouldn’t be significantly cheaper than print

Certain costs have to be covered regardless of format – editing, covers, proofing – but there are plenty of costs uniquely associated with paper – printing, storing, shipping, returns. It’s demonstrably false that ebooks are as expensive to produce.

What’s more, much of those extra print costs are ongoing costs. If a title does really well, it will incur further costs by going back to the printers (perhaps several times), and all those new copies have to be stored and shipped too. If a title does poorly, the publisher has to pay to deal with returns.

On the other hand, pretty much all costs associated with ebooks are fixed costs. Once you have produced the title, you could sell a billion copies without further outlay. Prices should reflect that reality, and readers of ebooks shouldn’t have to subsidize the costs of a separate format, or the inefficiencies of publishers.

Publishers are the guardians of our literary heritage

Stories and writers were around a long time before publishers, and if all publishers disappeared tomorrow, people would still produce and consume stories. You know who the real guardians of our literary heritage are? Teachers. Parents. Librarians. Not the guys who publish Snooki, One Direction, Justin Bieber, and David Beckham.

There’s a discoverability problem in digital

There’s no discovery problem for readers. People claiming otherwise mustn’t actually talk to readers because they have the opposite problem: finding enough time to read all the good books they are discovering.

The real problem for large publishers is that readers are discovering books not published by them. What large publishers have is a competition problem, and the competition is eating their lunch. (Note: hence misguided projects like Bookish – a publisher marketing vehicle masquerading as a discovery site.)

Out of all the large retailers, Amazon is unique in giving small publishers and self-publishers a level playing field, instead of selling off all the high-visibility spots in backroom co-op deals with large publishers. By the way, I think this is the real reason large publishers hate Amazon: it isn’t part of the club and doesn’t play by the “rules.”

* * *

Isn’t it funny how all these pervasive zombie memes seem to advance the agenda of large publishers? Let’s look at Mr. Chi’s quote from last month once more (emphasis mine):

We gathered all the communications people together to discuss the issues and create an action plan. We have a multi-faceted audience to address, and in the next 12 months you will see key messages delivered, compelling stories of our impact on society for culture and education. We’ll ask you to personalize that message. I’m very excited that there is a meeting of minds on this.”

In other words, lots more tiresome zombie memes (like publishing has an “image problem”) in the next twelve months.

Happy New Year!

David Gaughran

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.

57 Replies to “Astroturfing, Zombie Memes & Publishing”

  1. “YS Chi, chairman of Elsevier”. Reed-Elsevier: isn’t it the company infamous for organizing the Salon du livre Paris Porte de Versailles? With its 9m2 “boost stand” (stand coup de pouce) for self-publishers, at more than €900 ? Isn’t Elsevier the leading scientific publisher which has sold to the French government for €172 millions the university publications the french taxpayers has already paid once with their taxes?

    When I see the name “Elsevier”, my eyes bleed.

  2. Congrats David! What Ralph Nader did to the US auto industry, you will do to the modern day publishing industry–expose the pitfalls and then change it for the better.

  3. Nicely said. I have nothing to add except that 12 years at a Really Big Company has made me allergic to talking points.

    Oh, and it appears that that Morrison dude might have been hanging around with Harold Camping. The difference is, of course, that after two failed predictions, Camping realized his predictions were all wrong and switched to trying to find true understanding. But my guess is Morrison won’t follow suit because Camping’s radio program suffered a huge loss of revenue following this change. So… yeah.

  4. Publishing a book is a long but very satisfying journey. The best advice I ever got….be patient and persistent!

  5. I published for myself and no one else. It is more of an ego trip than anything else. I found many wanted a lot of money to set the book up but were not ready to say it would be successful. They all said they liked it but it was the yes that one would expect from a salesperson.

  6. “Self-publishing is a bubble”
    In theory that’s true. Wasn’t the paper book a 500 years bubble? The vinyl about 100 years. The cassette about 25 years. The eight track about 15 years. CDs are still going but MP3 is bursting their bubble.
    Who knows something better than the eBook may come along and replace it. But to say that eBook will die and not be replaced by something better is like saying that we will return to the stone age and clay tablets.

  7. “Why are there so many zombie memes in publishing?”
    The following may help:
    “Five percent of the people think;
    ten percent of the people think they think;
    and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think.” by Thomas Edison

  8. Hi David,

    These 10 provably-bullshit industry myths that you debunk so beautifully in your post probably ARE those same “key messages to deliver” which YS Chi gathered all the International Publishers Association’s communications people together to build an “action plan” around.


  9. Lol!

    Really like your point about astroturfing. It seems to make the most sense. In this case, it’s the old boys club at the Guardian (in the UK), standing up to fight for the boys club.
    “Say ole chap, we have to stop the riff raff from polluting the country club.”

    I have noticed even financial journalists not understanding the difference between revenue and profit. Are they really that stupid, or is it deliberate?

    I wrote a post like this for Joe Konrath’s blog. I called it the top 10 cliches of publishing. Be sure to read his reply to my post:

  10. I noted two things today in the news: B&N is closing its flasgship site on 18th in NYC. I used to go there as a kid and it was the first B&N. What does it mean when you close your first store? Should I not read something into that?

    And Amazon set up a kiosk at UW outside the University bookstores. Amazon is playing with this kiosk thing more and more. I do not think the day is far off when we see Amazon kiosks in airports and malls with POD machines in them to print books right then and there.

    For all those resting on their laurels for surviving 2013, wait until you got gob-smacked in 2014.

    1. “And Amazon set up a kiosk at UW ”
      Oh yeah, Bob? Well Barnes and Ignoble set up a kiosk at CES this year and…
      Oh wait,that was a terrible idea… Who goes to an electronics expo to flog a paper book? It makes about as much sense as KFC getting a booth next to them to show off the 2014 drumsticks.
      It’s all starting to sound like the publishers are starting to go under the water and they’re flailing about, grasping for salvation.

      If the bricks and mortar crowd manage to survive, I think they need to spin off books and media from the knick-knack business. I’d expect to see a small, mall-type store (a tenth of the current size) where you can preview books and media on touch screens and either download titles to your account or send it to the POD machine behind the counter. It would have eReaders and tablets for sale at the front to help bring in the foot traffic.

      Come to think of it, you could do all that with a large kiosk, couldn’t you?

      It wouldn’t stop folks from buying direct from their kindles, but it retains the prime placement aspect of physical stores. If any publishers are left, they’ll pay to get the lion’s share of the default screen displays. It might be the last place left where they can try to tell the reader what to buy.

      1. Haha! I could see it now…people at OIA browsing the big 5-6 to kill time at the airport. Funny, I published in March 2013. First time. Digital version only. Was told by so many that they wanted a paperback…took 7 months to get the paperback in place. Now all those people have since purchased readers. In December I sold ONE paperback for every ONE HUNDRED digital copies.

      2. My sales ratio is about 1:30, but doing the paper version is still worth it. You never know what the future holds, re: paper, and it also establishes relative pricing against the electronic version.

        (DWS notes that an electronic price should be about 40% of a paper price. That makes sense to me.)

  11. “There’s no discovery problem for readers. People claiming otherwise mustn’t actually talk to readers because they have the opposite problem: finding enough time to read all the good books they are discovering.

    The real problem for large publishers is that readers are discovering books not published by them. What large publishers have is a competition problem, and they really don’t like that.”


    Thanks again for such a clear succinct statement of reality.

  12. Recently on KBoards and PassiveVoice, the topics of indie bookstores came up and how/if/why to or not to try to get paper onto a bookshelf was batted around. I think your reminder about the fixed costs of digital distribution is just another ROI for why digital is so much more affordable to do than seeking to jump through the distribution hoops of the old way.

    There was one evangelist for getting into the bookshelves but I think, for me at least, he kept inadvertently reminding me of why I’ve chosen not to bother. CreateSpace doesn’t take returns, CS is part of the Amazon Evil Empire, separate agreements for each store, needing to hoof shoe leather to convince a store owner to stock, the discounts needed … the ROI doesn’t add up to the reach of Amazon, Apple and the ease of reaching readers who want to see my work vs. the chance of someone wandering into a store to peruse my books spine out.

    1. I spent a lot of time flogging print books to indie bookshops in the UK. It was great – really great – to see my book on the shelf. But as a money-making proposition, it’s very hard to justify the time cost. By all means do a print edition – I think it’s worth it for lots of reasons – but I wouldn’t recommend devoting a huge amount of time to hawking to bookshops. (Or, at least, I couldn’t figure out an efficient way to do it.)

      1. Certainly, and I do have paper editions for family or the occasional person who chooses to order the paperback. They are fun to hand out and sign but over time unless you can move a lot I’d think overall more money is made on eBooks.

  13. I’m with you on Amazon. They may be big, they may be corporate (ish), but I get annoyed when I see people on twitter and facebook and other groups, self-published writers, saying they will NEVER deal with Amazon, because they are THE MAN!

    It’s the same as people saying they’ll never use Microsoft because they are the market leader, or IBM, or never shop in Tesco.

    I’ve helped a friend self-publish on Amazon since 2011 and am about to start doing the same for myself. First stop? Amazon. Why? Because they sell more eBooks than anyone else in the world. And some people don’t want to use them because… uh, because why?

    Oh – and I’m choosing to self-publish because, although I had a traditional deal many, many years ago, and an agent, the world has changed, and I want to be in control of my own destiny now.

    1. “First stop? Amazon. Why? Because they sell more eBooks than anyone else in the world. And some people don’t want to use them because… uh, because why?”

      Because they hate money?
      After all, earning money is for hacks, not for SERIOUS writers.

      1. I’m so glad to see other writers getting tired of the online Amazon bashing. I remember all too well how they were a laughing stock for more than five years before they turned any profit. Existing “experts” would say they had no idea what online retail book sales were going to produce, and that it was such a low-margin business that they must be crazy. Now, they are leading the way for all online retail operations and even teaching a lot about order fulfillment to even the long-standing, market “leaders”. I love small cozy bookstores as much as the next writer, and I especially remember the Manhattan Barnes and Noble on 18th and the Rizzoli uptown, but all business models have a lifespan. We got twenty-five years out of our own retail store. I may shed a few tears as the old passes into the new, but I’m glad Amazon is selling my titles!

  14. I appreciate how you walk the path with us and point out the clearly decrepit signposts that the media (among others) refuse to let go of. If a writer made the mistake of believing it all and following those ancient signposts, he’d be led in… a circle. Maybe that is exactly the idea behind it? Hmmm…

  15. Ye gads. It’s like an episode of the walking dead. The best part about the zombie situation is that they move so slowly. The pathetic memes trotted out by industry pundits are so far behind reality, it’s hardly a sweat breaker for an indie to ‘walk’ rings around them.
    Nicely walked, David.

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