Leonard Sherman of Columbia Business School, the author of that Amazon/Hachette op-ed that was briefly on Fortune until it disappeared during a web site upgrade, contacted me to let me know he had posted another piece to his blog. This was conceived as a response to the New York Times op-ed by Bob Kohn (which we mentioned here); however, the Times didn’t see fit to print it.
In this piece, Sherman lays out how and why the publishing industry came to be in its predicament, which he lays at the feet of the decades-old system of returns, accounting for as much as 40% of books industry-wide, and the consolidation of most publishers into the blockbuster-driven Big Five. When Amazon came along, they were entirely unprepared for its disruptive effect.
Sherman adds that even if the publishers hadn’t been forced to roll back their illegal collusive price-fixing scheme, and even if Amazon were to start playing nice with Hachette, the real problem the traditional publishers face isn’t going to go away.
Thus, despite the recent tsunami of negative press being directed towards Amazon, this dispute is ultimately not about whether Amazon is a monopolist or monopsonist. Nor is it about whether Amazon is trying to use books as a loss leader to sell other merchandise or whether the company is treating Hachette, authors or its own customers fairly. It is also not about whether book publishers as currently configured are an essential bedrock of our society.
It is about whether publishers can retool their business capabilities to maintain a vital role in adding value to all stakeholders in an industry where books will increasingly be produced, marketed, reviewed and sold in profoundly different ways.
Sherman points out that many authors who would once have submitted their manuscripts to the traditional publishers are now fully aware of their other options, and in order to woo them publishers are going to have to be able to offer them more value than they do now. If the publishers can’t get their act together, they might find themselves with a lot fewer books to publish.
It’s too bad the New York Times didn’t want to print this piece. But then, it’s not exactly a surprise, either. Given that New York is the home of the traditional publishers, I suppose it makes sense they’d be more inclined to “root for the home team.”