July 09, 2014

Professional publishing has been going through some interesting times lately, especially because of the changing landscape of distribution. Like the music industry before, publishing has been struggling to come to terms with the rise of simplified digital sales and downloading. Publishers can no longer control channels, and the whole process has become so easy that innumerable fly-by-night publishing startups have gotten into the game in order to separate those on the wrong side of the knowledge curve from their money.

Obviously, the long running dispute between Hachette, one of the largest publishing groups in the world, and Amazon, the largest online retailer, only serves to highlight this new reality. But it is one worth watching, and worth remembering that neither side deserves to win.

In truth, I’m really a little torn on the whole issue. On the one hand, the publishing giants are too big, too closed, and too inflexible. Their domination of the literary world wanders dangerously close to monopoly territory, and has often stymied the creative efforts of content creators. Most offensive in my mind is the way they deal with copyright and take as much ownership and control away from creators in order to continue profiting for a century or more on the work of dead people (not to mention access for later genetions – nothing can enter the public domain). Because corporations are immortal, and authors aren’t (not to mention access for later generations – nothing can enter the public domain). On the other hand, Amazon has worked hard to destroy the overall quality and utility of writing by driving prices down to the point where no working author could hope to survive on book sales. When you add to that the company’s complete disregard for editorial standards, you’re left with a slush pile of books that all jostle for attention, and might not deserve it. Worst of all, this all appears to be part of Amazon’s plan: books as a tool to market other goods. In other words, Amazon has absolutely no stake or interest in the quality of its literary wares, unlike publishers, who do.

So what happens if the publishers lose? Well, the sad truth is that authors do to. No individual author could hope to stand up to a single-channel monopoly like Amazon and hope to come out on top. They don’t have the economic or political power to protect their own interests – even from automated price changes. As much time as authors spend learning how to manipulate Amazon’s search function, there are no lessons on writing more compelling or interesting work. And of course, if you want to sell your book, you have to be on Amazon. Their ecosystem drives everything in this business now, and it’s terrible for readers, publishers, and authors.


Not pictured: anyone else

But what can you do? Probably nothing. We can’t go back to the old days; the local bookstore will remain a boutique for a small number of readers and aficionados, and the big publishing houses will never be able to lock down the whole system of production and distribution again. Instead, the only thing to hope for is the rise of greater competition in the distribution of books. Competition is the secret to a healthy economy, and unless we want to nationalize these services (I don’t think we do), the only resolution is to open new outlets for books sales. Of course, the whole benefit of massive internet services like Amazon and Google is their domination. Information is always more useful when centralized and open (libraries), but monetization flies in the face of accessibility.

Over the next couple posts, let’s look at some Amazon alternatives for conscientious readers and authors.

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