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!