Ignoble Facts?

The title of this post refers to the ongoing dispute situation between Barnes and Noble, the US bookstore retail giant, and Simon & Schuster, publishers.  B&N lately took a decision to react to the situation by refusing to stock S&S titles emerging in March/April, as far as I understand, and this seems to be borne out by authors who write for S&S reporting that their books which would normally have been ordered by B&N stores in this period not appearing in any store listings or on the shelves.

As with the previous occasional actions in which retail sellers have refused to sell certain products due to dispute with publishers (the temporary disabling of BUY buttons on Macmillan books by amazon, for example), what is most dismaying about these actions is that although superficially they seem to be corporate level tit-for-tats intended to show who’s got what powers in the wrangle for more profits, the people who really pay a long term price are the actual people who make the products – authors, and in turn their editors whose fates are tied to the rise and fall of the writers in their stable.

Because an author’s market power, shelf life and general saleability is generally most reckoned upon their sales figures for the previous recent years, unless they are exceptional by virtue of mass popularity or extreme artistic value – that is, the majority of us – any interruption to the appearance of stock in retail outlets has a dramatic and permanent knock-on effect in dented sales figures. This might be mitigated if indie sellers and other stores pick up the slack, but that will only work for when fans are prepared to find a book regardless of retail outlet.  It does effectively stall a huge amount of casual passing trade, particularly since the book retailers streetside are so few in number.  So thanks to this dispute there are many authors now who are going to get a reputation fall which will impact all their future deals with publishers and their current market visibility is going to be drastically reduced.  Nobody will care about the reason or that it had nothing to do with them, that never matters.

What I’m about to say now is purely from my own perspective as a midlist writer and someone who has been in the business for the last fifteen years.  There is a certain worldly wisdom about business which suggests that anyone who disputes the capitalist paradigm of expansion and profit – and how the requirements of that determine the behaviour of the people executing the grand strategy – is a fool who will be ground up and spat out by the machine.  To expect otherwise is to expect some other facet of human desire, such as the need to develop reliable units of allegiances, to trump a much more powerful human motivator – raw greed.  The most likely argument to be wheeled out in ‘scientific’ support of this is the rule of survival of the fittest.  It’s not people – it’s evolution what doin’ it (cue the hasty passing of responsibility to Nature so that nobody has to face any consequences of their own choices).  And we can point to a lot of supportive evidence for that; I would guess the first example would be the rise and rise of amazon.com.

Originally I was about to argue that the pervasive, panicky sense of ‘every one for themselves!’ which seems to have bitten very hard lately – meaning that people tend to ally with whatever looks like the greater power in the moment and authors are never, historically, the greater power in this scenario – is actually exactly the opposite reaction to the one which would do the most good – ‘all for one and one for all!’.  However, I wonder if what we are actually looking at is the dividing up of the spoils of a war that is already over, even though a lot of the participants haven’t realised it yet.  Actually I think most of them haven’t realised they’ve even been in one.

What amazon are good at, much more than anyone else, is spotting the advantages offered by the latest technological opportunities and exploiting them immediately, massively and to the hilt.  They are simply faster adaptors.  The result of their rapacious speed to the market has cumulatively, over time, given them colossal buying power in every retail sector they have touched upon.  To stick to books for the time being: to begin with amazon was an interesting online alternative to ordinary bookstores, which had, in the late ’90s, already experienced a tough change in the general retail trend from many indies to a few large national or multinational chains dominating the outlets.

Whatever bookish ideologies people had – authors, publishers or retail sellers – they had to express these passions within the paradigm offered by the retail sellers and that meant it was going to be ultimately driven by profit because at these kinds of operation scales the demands of the shareholders -many, diverse and completely uncaring about the nature of the business concerned – are paramount.  So there was already a sense of division, between the product and its fans and producers, and the outlet stores.  The story of why this situation occurred relentlessly – bigger outlet stores offer cheaper prices and wider selections, slowly leaching customer interest and loyalty away from committed idealist indie markets. Indie suppliers then take on increasingly specialist roles and exist on the margins.  They can just about survive but in terms of the war for the sales, they’re already out of it.

Internally at the publishing houses the retail outlet battle meant they were going to start losing in a way they hadn’t lost before – because fewer and more powerful buyers meant that they came under massive pressure to drive down their own sales prices, and in order to do that, to drive down their production costs in order to maintain cash flow.  This was inevitable and that they would have to capitulate, first to large book retailers, then to the supermarkets, was also inevitable for exactly the reason at the top of the page – publishers can only sell something on the shelf, they can’t sell it directly from a warehouse in the middle of nowhere.  The only alternative to being screwed to the wall by giant buyers with huge potential markets (albeit limited ones) would have been to become a retail operation in their own right, but that would have required massive capital investment in infrastructure, outlets and etc – I doubt any of them had the cash for it, particularly when you consider they would have been competing with massively successful and rich companies already well established and dominating a limited market area.  So that wasn’t going to happen either.  At this point the writing was already on the wall for traditional publishers or at least their old methods of operation.  The power moves to where the money flows from…and it was flowing from retail giants.

However, amazon’s appearance forced even those giants to take a check – amazon made it simple to buy whatever you wanted from home without any effort at all, frequently at LESS than the on street price.  They could do that.  They didn’t have to run any shops.  All they needed was a good internet site and some warehouses.  They didn’t even bother having a dedicated distribution network.  They used the Post Office.

Yeah I know, you’re wondering what this is all going to cook down to – bear with.  I’m getting there.

The results are well known.  Borders – gone.  More indie stores – gone.  A few onstreet retailers harried and pressed into trying to make more attractive deals – 3 for 1, BOGOF (buy one get one free), massive discounting.  The results of that and of supermarket mass-buying?  Squeeze the publishers for smaller unit prices.  But there is a limit to how low you can go and still make any money at all.  One thing that surprises me here is that publishers did not put UP the price on particularly desirable titles, as the only thing they actually hold of any value at all in this system is a desirable title – they have the bottleneck on that.  Not the cover charge, but the wholesale charge.  Their difficulty is the obtaining of desirable titles.  Authors make these, but the desirability cannot be determined until the product is already widely distributed and available, and nobody knows, ever, why some titles take off and others don’t.  You can only be sure that if it’s not available, it won’t sell, and if nobody knows it’s there, it won’t sell either.

There is another aspect to this which publishers have historically traded on which is changing, and that is reputation.  In this age of anyone being able to publish anything via Smashwords and other related sites, what a paper-based publisher of long standing has is kudos.  They have already vetted out the rubbish, so you don’t have to read it, and present only those titles that have been pre-selected for quality.  An author’s own reputation is affected by the publishers they have had – some holding more respect than others.

The amazon-hate that can often be seen around, because of the effect their seizure of the market has had – putting a lot of people out of industries they loved and changing those industries – reminds me of the hate that Margaret Thatcher got for standing on the unions and snapping their hold on the mining industry.  From her perspective she was saving the national economy.  From the perspective of the miners she was ruthlessly taking apart their source of income, their social network and all the glue that held it together.  From amazon’s perspective they’re simply expanding and doing good business.  From the other end they’re systematically taking apart the way that business historically operated (unspoken assumption here: which we all loved and revered and were nurtured by…).  And then, in the third corner, there’s self-publishing via ebooks and print on demand.

Self publishing seems to offer something the miners could never have had – the chance to own and operate your own mine.  Customers even come right to the gate and buy the coal, so you don’t have to lug it about.  All you need is a way to advertise your presence and guarantee the quality of your product…a lot of midlisters who have reasonable audiences already have that particularly those who are also successful bloggers and social networkers (ahem, so not me really but nvm that…) and who have been doing a lot of their own publicity for years thanks to the nonexistent budgets at publishers for all the reasons listed above.

Is there really so much added value in going through a traditional publisher for that kind of writer, when it means you can be subject to the No Sales For You situation at the drop of a contract because you’re the unlucky tank driver in someone else’s battle?  I guess there’s safety in numbers – publishing contracts often pay out over the odds even for midlist books and don’t earn out the advances.  Plus there are other people involved to take some of the responsibility for sales off your shoulders.  You also get editorial for free, instead of having to contract an editor to do that for you.  But it’s close, and if you are driven and have the time and energy there’s never been a better time to feel your own power on that score.  If you aren’t – and most of us still aren’t – then it seems like the vagaries of fate must just be dealt with as they come from one’s position at the bottom of the heap: stoically.

However, lately amazon have been taking on writers themselves in a test of whether they too can cut out traditional publishers from the cash loop… I hope publishers are racing to make the most of their ‘we can build you’ attitude that seems to have been lost in the last 10 years of panic reactions to the assaults of the retail giants, because if amazon successfully pries away enough of your production stream…you don’t need a wizard to tell you what’s going to happen.

So – originally pissed off mightily by the effects of the B&N decision,  I wanted to write a lamentoblog crying about how nobody loves each other enough to make a socialist world work.  I was going to stand up for the ‘all for one’ vision and say that people should take responsibility and not try to claim that Nature Dunnit when the consequences of their choices mean things they like end up failing and falling over – yeah I’m looking at all you people who bleat about how terrible the situation is whilst still having everything shipped to you at the cheapest possible rate regardless.  (I’m still strongly behind that last point, nobody was born capitalist or forced to buy anything at one store rather than another).  But instead I’ve ended up thinking that, given how things are, it could be worse for midlist writers even though it looks bad.

At least there is the opportunity to take things much more into your own hands than ever before.  At least this option should free you enough from the terror of being dropped off the shelf entirely so that you can voice a few more protests about being considered last by an industry that only exists at all because you make their stuff.

To those personal friends of mine who are being smacked hard with the S&S dispute that must seem like cold comfort, and it is.  But it’s better than no comfort at all.