publishersI meant to cover this piece from The Weeklings when it popped up on The Passive Voice the other day. To my surprise, it’s reprinted on the normally rabid pro-publisher/anti-Amazon Salon Magazine this morning, so I guess I have no excuse now.

In this article, J.E. Fishman traces authorial woes all the way back to the 1930s when Penguin began to flood the market with cheap paperbacks. This kicked off a paperback revolution among US publishers.

Through all of this disruption no one asked authors what they thought. When it came to business, authors were there to be read and not heard—at least not on the subject of business. Many authors probably stood appalled, but others jumped in and wrote pulp fiction until their fingers bled. Some of these authors went on to become major brands. Go figure.

Then it jumps ahead to the 1980s to touch on German firm’s Bertelsmann’s purchase of Doubleday, and changes to Doubleday’s business model. Most people today probably don’t realize publishers used to be vertically integrated, with a direct sales path to at least some consumers, but prior to 1990, Doubleday had a chain of 39 bookstores, “including a flagship store on Fifth Avenue.” But Bertelsmann sold them all to Barnes & Noble—four years before Amazon ever entered the scene. Then it got rid of its book clubs.

Nobody asked authors whether this last vestige of Doubleday’s vertical integration ought to be abandoned. Authors were expected to go on writing for the good of the culture and let the business people worry about strategy.

Meanwhile, Time bought Little, Brown and Company in 1968, then Warner merged with Time in 1989, then they sold the book business to French conglomerate Hachette in 2006. Meanwhile, the German von Holtzbrinck Group bought a bunch of publishers and turned them into Macmillan, Australian press baron Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp owns HarperCollins, Penguin merged with Random House, and of course there’s CBS’s ownership of Simon & Schuster (at least for now).

Touching on the agency pricing anti-trust case, when five of the Big Six got together with Apple to try to fix e-book prices, Fishman notes it didn’t turn out well for the publishers in the end, “but really, who can blame them for thinking they could collude on book prices when the royalties on nearly every author contract that comes from New York look exactly the same?” Ouch, burrrrn.

In conclusion, Fishman writes sarcastically, nobody cares what authors think about all this. Merely writing books does not qualify them to have an opinion about the future of the book business. “So just shut up and be grateful for your 25 percent of nothing and get back to writing.” Burrrrn again. Better get some aloe vera for that, publishers.

In a comment on the original piece, Fishman adds:

Despite whatever people may be reading into my piece, I don’t see Big Pub as all bad or Amazon as all good, by any means. I think it takes a great deal of moral fiber not to use all the leverage one has against a weaker player. Big companies driven by quarterly earnings inevitably fail this test. There’s great irony, of course, in their screwing over weaker players one day and complaining the next that they’re getting screwed over by someone who’s stronger. Especially because Big Pub was happy to cash the checks from Amazon (and continues to be), when times were good.

You can’t dictate terms that disadvantage authors one day and claim to be a defender of the culture the next day. Rather, you can make that claim if you so choose, but at that point you’re building the castle on sand.

All but a few authors have very little leverage against anybody, despite the fact that we are the ONE truly essential element of the book business. Until, that is, someone teaches a computer to do what we do. Then it’s game over.

So yeah, big corporations do what they do for the benefit of big corporations only, and any benefits that come out of that for authors or readers are basically collateral that we should be grateful for. At the moment, the big corporation that seems to be doing the most for authors and readers is Amazon, whereas the big publishers just want to fleece readers and then not pay authors very much. Maybe someday that will change. But until it does, it seems odd to insist that authors should continue to worship at the idols of the ones trying to charge higher prices, sell fewer copies of their books, and pay them lower royalties.


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