An American Editor

May 11, 2010

The Rarefied Literary Critic: Literary Criticism from One Author’s Perspective

Sue Lange, today’s guest writer, is a novelist and blogger on culture and technology at the Singularity Watch. Two of her published books of science fiction satire (Tritcheon Hash [2003, Metropolis Ink] and We, Robots [2007, Aqueduct Press]) are available at Amazon. Sue also has an ebook compilation of her published short fiction available in the Kindle Store or at Book View Cafe. Sue followed my articles about the downfall of literature and what follows is her take on the subject.

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The Rarefied Literary Critic

by Sue Lange

Rarefied: lower in oxygen. Extend that idea to all gases. Extend it further to the world of literature and you get a critic who is not full of hot air. I have nothing against windbags, but when it comes to literary criticism, perhaps less is more. Less gas maybe means more substance.

According to the Microsoft dictionary, rarefied also means “very high quality in character or style.” We worry that the high quality in character and style publishers and critics have exhibited in the past will go away in the new, anything goes Internet models. Consider Ben Elowitz’s assertion in “Traditional Ways Of Judging ‘Quality’ In Published Content Are Now Useless” that times have changed. The credentials, accuracy, objectivity, and craftsmanship of those presenting published materials no longer matter. Speed and relevancy matter now. Content is king and the people alone crown it. No high priests. No swearing in with the right hand on the Bible.

Can the Internet audience find a king, let alone the right one? The one that can pull the sword out of the rock? Or do we need a rarefied literary critic that can recognize blue blood and ensure that we don’t go down in history as a pack of ignorant, tasteless, illiterates? Further, does it matter if we can’t leave behind evidence of our scholarliness and ability to separate the wheat from the chaff? Civilizations have come and gone without a trace. I doubt the citizens of such races suffered because they left no record, let alone one of literary achievement. However, we maybe suffer having no access to the lessons those unrecorded civilizations learned. Perhaps what you leave behind is important.

Beyond that, though, I say, yes, there is need for accurate and intelligent comment on our published works. As an author I want to know I hit the target. Sure it’s nice to get a bunch of five-star reviews by writing to the lowest common denominator, but if you put more into the material than just sex and violence, if reviews are not detailed and thoughtful what good are they? I mean beyond all the money to be made from a runaway bestseller that speaks to the lowest common denominator. There is that. But I daresay, deep down inside, every writer wants a competent analysis of their work. Because without that, an author is simply the equivalent of the tree falling in the forest. No sound is made because no one is hearing it.

Does this low-gas, high-substance critic exist anymore? It’s easy to bemoan the fact that the Internet makes a democracy of criticism as Elowitz’ article implies. Every one of the unwashed others is a critic now: educated, uneducated, those with an ax to grind, those who have something to gain personally. Everyone has access to a platform on which to exclaim their judgment. How can we glean understanding from the opinions of such?

Not only is everybody a critic, but there is exponentially more material to wade through to find the good stuff. Where will our John Kennedy Tools, Zora Neale Hurstons, Herman Melvilles come from now that the playing field is not only level but overflowing with talent? Competition for readership is so fierce no writer is going to get more than a little sliver of the fame pie. How can the critics familiarize themselves with all that is out there in order to make an intelligent decision on who is worthy? In case you didn’t realize it the first sentence in this paragraph was sarcastic. All three of those now worshipped authors were at one point dissed by either the publishing industry or the critics of the day. I’m sure there are many other such tragic instances, not to mention thousands of genius authors whose work never even saw the light of day. The point is things were never perfect and maybe the art of kingmaking was never much better than it is today.

So we, the consumers of the Internet, are heirs to a system of criticism with a history of mixed results. Where do we go from here? Our tools are suspect, our present style ruled by the mob.

Take a look at our assets. We have a collective conscious comprised of a million voices communicating with a million keyboards. This appears to be a deficit: isn’t the democracy of the marketplace why pop music sucks? Pop music is not a genre, it’s merely music that is popular. And the banal always has the broadest appeal because no one is offended.

Although music and literature are both creative arts, the end products of their criticism have different effects. The common man’s voice is now the written word. When the common man voices his opinion on music, the musical continuum is unaffected. But in writing about writing, a lesson is learned and the lesson is about writing. What happens when you write? You get better at it. And then what happens? You recognize other people’s writing and what’s good about it. In other words the medium of the Internet actually teaches people about good writing by making them do it. It teaches them nothing about good music. Maybe there will never be such a thing as pop literature then. Wouldn’t that be something?

I don’t kid myself, people find greatness in opinions that they agree with. The form of the opinion doesn’t matter nearly as much as the content of it. But some amateur critics will learn from form, about the form. Something will sink in. A more educated public will produce better criticism and better recognition of criticism.

Will it ever produce a critic as enlightened as someone who does nothing but read and write all day? Perhaps. Unfortunately, though, our system does no more to nurture the budding critic than it does to nurture the budding author. Yes, the avenues are there for a would be writer or critic, but it does nothing to nurture them and nurturing is required for excellence. An author is nurtured not only by a three-book deal, but by an editor and a public that understands the nuance and gives competent feedback. How will the critic be nurtured?

Technophilic bloggers spend more time reading tips on how to garner readers than the latest, greatest writing. With their huge readerships, they appear to be viable tastemakers, when in reality they’re just good at the pop mentality. Serious criticism requires a knowledge of what has gone before and what is out now. Who’s reading all that literature? Certainly not the technophilic blogger watching visitor stats and thinking about search engine optimization.

There is one group that does educate itself on what has gone before: the authors. The self-respecting authors, anyway. The ones that deserve critical acclaim. True critical acclaim, not just best seller status. These are the serious writers that respect the art. The ones that voraciously read and study the competition. The ones who love a good book. And they will seek and support an intelligent critic.

Perhaps the industry will turn to self-policing then. It will judge itself. I’m sure that will work. Look how well it works for the military.

I believe we need competent, thoughtful critics to help us wade through the dross. We will find those that have educated themselves on what is out there, what has gone before. Much like scientists who once were knowledgeable in every field, but now specialize, they will not know every book in every genre. They will have a field in which they know every book. We will trust them. They will decide who the king of content is. We, the people, however, will decide who the critic is. Welcome to the world. Breathe. Lots of air, lots of oxygen. It’s healthy, but don’t be afraid if things get thin. A little less gas means a lot more substance.

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As you can see, Sue and I have differing points of view. For those who would like to read my original articles, you can begin with this one: Will eBooks Be the Downfall of Literature? It was followed by a 4-part series that began with eBooks & the Downfall of Literature: The Great Debate – Round I and continued over the following 3 days.

I know some of you weighed in on this discussion by commenting on my articles, but does Sue’s perspective change your mind? Do you agree with her? Have you something to add?

May 10, 2010

eBooks & the Future of Freelance Editors

Here’s the tough question: Is there a future for freelance editors in the ebook Age? To which we can add this question: If there is, what kind of future will it be?

There are few things that freelance editors can be certain of, but here are some of those few things:

  • Every day our numbers increase as increasing numbers of people turn to freelance editing as either a full-time career or for a second income
  • Every day colleagues, including those with years of experience, are trying to find in-house work and give up freelancing
  • Every day there are fewer jobs available for a larger pool of editors
  • Every day another author or publisher decides that editing can be bypassed because readers simply don’t care
  • Every day another editor lowers his or her price, reducing the value of professional editing and making it harder for the professional editor to earn a living wage

We also know that there is no true professional organization for freelance editors that is actively seeking to lobby on our behalf or to find new employment opportunities for us. And we also know that computers were the first modern revolution in our business, the Internet was the second, and ebooks will be the third.

We’ve got trouble right here in edit city!

eBooks are bringing a new kind of revolution to freelance editing as a consequence of the direct-from-author’s-computer-to-Internet model that some publishers and many authors are adopting.

Editors have always faced the problem of authors and publishers being unwilling or unable to pay our fee and of authors and publishers doing without our services, with authors instead asking friends and neighbors to give the manuscript a once-over. But his has become more common and more problematic with the advent of ebooks and the proliferation of the belief that anyone can be an editor (and anyone can be an author).

The underlying problem, I think, is acceptance of the good-enough standard for publishing in lieu of the much higher threshold that existed when I first began my editorial career more than a quarter-century ago. This lower standard is a combination of industry consolidation, ease of access via the Internet, increased competition, and a desire to lower costs, with intangible costs, such as editing, being a prime target for cutting. I’ve even heard one publisher say that paying for editing is a waste of money because most readers don’t know the difference between whole and hole. Based on some of the ebooks I have read, I’m not sure that publisher doesn’t have a point (see, e.g., On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!).

The good-enough standard is rapidly becoming the de facto standard for editing. When I started as an editor, my role was strictly limited to editing. I was expected to be careful and thorough and focused like a laser on copyediting. As time passed, the laser focus became more of a shotgun focus and other jobs became part of the expectations. And then came the need for speed. Not only was I expected to do more work for less money, but I was expected to do it faster. Where at one time a page rate of 3 to 4 pages an hour was the expectation, today the expectation is often 10 to 12 pages an hour, sometimes coupled with the request for a “heavy edit.” And where in the beginning I could expect a yearly increase in my fee, now many publishers are unwilling to pay more than they paid in 1995, yet demand more work be done for that pay than they demanded in 1995.

The good-enough standard is both the rationale and the justification for bypassing the editor. As this becomes the actual standard against which an ebook is judged, the expectations of the reader also become less — soon the reader accepts whole when hole is meant, seen when scene is meant. And as this happens, authors and publishers sell their work for less, almost as if dumbing-down readers and lower pricing are handcuffed together.

The ripple effect is that as reader quality expectations decline along with a concurrent lowering of price, there is both less need and less money available for editing, which ripples into less editing being done and declining work for editors. Admittedly, the other scenario is that more authors and publishers will have money available for editing and will want editing services but at a price that parallels the sales price of their ebook. This is equally devastating to freelance editors because there is a point at which one cannot afford to work as an editor.

eBooks are the great field opener for authors and publishers but, I fear, they will be the harbinger of doom for freelance editing as a profession for skilled editors. It is a never-ending downward spiral whose downward thrust is reinforced by the incessant consumer demand for lower pricing.

I’m open to suggestions on how to reverse the trend, but I think the future for freelance editors in the eBook Age — at least from the current view — is bleak. The need for ebooks to be professionally edited isn’t changing (see, e.g., Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 1); Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 2); For the Lack of an Editor, the Debate Changed; and other related articles under the tag Professional Editors), only the opportunities for professional editors to do that work and earn a living wage.

May 7, 2010

Smashwords is the Real Threat to Agency Pricing of eBooks

Smashwords and ebooksellers like Smashwords (such as Books for a Buck) are the real threat to agency pricing and the Agency 5 (Macmillan, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, Penguin, and HarperCollins). The reason is simple: the combination of quality and low price.

I find it hard to justify paying $14.99 for a fiction ebook unless I am absolutely enthralled with the author, and even then I am more inclined to pass on the ebook than spend that kind of money on a read-once-throwaway ebook. No need to repeat all the reasons; they have been bandied about the Internet and the magazines for months. And if I don’t know the author, I certainly wouldn’t pay the agency price. Amazon may have had it right when it set a top price of $9.99.

But look at Smashwords and similar sites. They sell ebooks in many categories from authors with whom I am not familiar for a reasonable price. I’m much more likely to spend $3.99 on an unknown author than $14.99. Of course, that isn’t enough to be a threat to the Agency 5. The Smashwords threat comes by Smashwords’ authors also being available in the iBookstore and Amazon, but primarily in the iBookstore.

It is in the iBookstore that the Agency 5 are face to face with competing books that cost significantly less. In publishing, it isn’t the publisher who sells an ebook; it is the author, the story synopsis, the ebook itself. No one goes around and says “I bought a great Hachette ebook yesterday.” Publisher branding value among ebookers is nearly nonexistent and I suspect noninfluential in the decision whether or not to buy an ebook.

For agency pricing to succeed, by which I mean the Agency 5 at minimum do not see a decrease in ebook sales from the pre-agency days, ebookers have to equate quality reads with the names of the giant publishers. Otherwise, all that will happen is that the blockbuster bestseller from the Stephen King-/Dan Brown-recognition-level authors will sell at the agency pricing and less-recognized authors down to unrecognized authors without the Oprah kick will have less-than-stellar ebook sales.

It is these second- and third-tier authors who have to compete against the Smashwords authors and for whose readers price is a major component of the decision to buy or not. In a bricks-and-mortar world, the Smashwords authors stand little chance, but in the Internet world they stand an equal chance — the Internet is the great sales leveler.

The playing field is level because all books display a cover, offer a sample read, have similar story blurbs. The differences are price and publisher name, but the latter has little, if any, swaying power, especially when you get down to the subsidiary names with which few readers are familiar. (Can you tell me who owns Ballantine? DAW? Basic? Do you care?)

The advantages that the Agency 5 do retain really relate to the level of professionalism in putting together the ebook — the professional editing, the professional cover design. But that advantage is easily eliminated by Smashwords authors who could hire these services independently [see, e.g., Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 1) and Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 2)], and with the right pricing, is readily overlooked by ebookers. Even though I am an editor and find amateurish errors annoying (see On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!), I am more forgiving of them in a $1.99 ebook than in a $14.99 ebook, where I won’t forgive them at all. (Perhaps the Agency 5 should rethink offering a warranty of quality; see A Modest Proposal II: Book Warranty.)

The big gamble that the Agency 5 is making is that ebookers will associate quality reading with their brands and be willing to pay an inflated price for that quality. The reality that will strike home eventually is that such thinking is delusional. eBookers do not equate quality with the Agency 5 brands; if anything, the Agency 5 have done such a poor public relations job with every aspect of ebooks that any association of their brands with quality have long disappeared. eBookers, as is true of most readers, look first for an interesting and seemingly well-written story. Then they look for pricing and production quality.

Combine an interesting and seemingly well-written story with a reasonable price and you have an ebook sale. The ebooker doesn’t care if the ebook is from Smashwords or Hachette. Consequently, Smashwords-type ebooksellers are the real threat to agency pricing and the Agency 5. The more Smashwords and its companion ebooksellers, like Books for a Buck, do to increase quality of the books they offer and the lower the prices they offer those books for, the more in trouble agency pricing and the Agency 5 are. I’ve yet to meet an ebooker who only buys Simon & Schuster ebooks. And we haven’t even touched upon the all the places that offer free ebooks, such as Feedbooks.

Smashwords, Books for a Buck, Feedbooks, and other smaller, independent publishers or ebook outlets are squeezing ebook pricing. eBookers want a good read at a reasonable price, which is what they get from these alternatives. The Agency 5’s plan to force ebookers to “value” ebooks by keeping pricing artificially high will not withstand the assault. Yes, the very top authors — the most popular authors — will probably be able to command the Agency 5 ebook prices, but they are not enough to sustain traditional publishers. There are too few Stephen Kings and JK Rowlings to build a business around the popularity of their books.

If iBookstore sales aren’t significant for the Agency 5 at the higher end of the agency pricing scheme, and if iBookstore sales for the Smashwords-type publishers/sellers show growth, the Agency 5 are doomed. Of course, it doesn’t help the Agency 5 that Random House is sitting on the sidelines. Imagine if its ebook sales continue to grow while the Agency 5’s sales decline.

May 6, 2010

On Books: An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology

I am very interested in the etymology of words. Consequently, I tend to look for and buy books about language and words. Perhaps the best dictionary-type source of English etymology is Anatoly Lieberman’s An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction (2008, University of Minnesota Press).

A professor of Germanic philology at the University of Minnesota, Lieberman has authored numerous books and articles on the subject of etymology. An Analytic Dictionary is probably his most important work. A relatively sparse book in terms of words discussed (only 55 are addressed), Lieberman introduces a new methodology for reporting etymology. Whether this methodology will be broadly adopted remains to be seen, but it certainly has my vote.

Most etymology dictionaries provide word origins as if the origins are undisputed. In some cases, they do not tackle a word’s origins, noting instead that the origins are “unknown”; in other cases, they present the origins but do not note that the origins are disputed. Rarely do they provide a complete etymology.

Consider the word boy. The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories begins its discussion (which is a single, short paragraph) by assigning the origin to Middle English and saying “the origin is obscure.” Chambers Dictionary of Etymology gives slightly more detail but also finds the word to be of “uncertain origin.” Lieberman, in contrast, provides 8 pages of etymological information, discussing all of the existing derivations, all of the research and speculation, and then choosing what he believes to be the likeliest. However, the reader has enough information to draw his or her own conclusion as to the likely origins and a solid basis for further research.

For those with an interest in English etymology, Lieberman’s effort is an important contribution to the subject. Unlike other dictionaries that simply synopsize a word’s history without giving the reader any source information, Lieberman takes great pain to be sure to discuss earlier etymological works, exposing the reader to significantly more than just the conclusion. My hope is that Lieberman will followup with additional volumes of the dictionary and that other etymologists will adopt Lieberman’s approach to word history.

May 5, 2010

Thinking About Pay: Is a New Model Needed?

The current method by which book editors, designers, and illustrators, for example, get paid is hourly, by the page or illustration, or by the project. In other words, do the work and get a check.

And as the economy contracts, and as the traditional publishing world contracts, an increasing number of people join the ranks of freelance editors, designers, and illustrators, making their services available and putting additional strain on the pay scale because of their willingness to work for significantly less just to get work.

As wonderful a system as the free enterprise/freelance system is, the living wage pay scale has been put under pressure by publisher cutbacks and offshoring. Increasingly, editors, designers, and illustrators find more competition for less work at a lower rate of pay. I read recently where a person had graduated law school and when asked about job prospects, replied that he wasn’t worried because before becoming a lawyer he became a plumber. As he noted, you can offshore a thinking job, but it is hard to offshore a hands-on job like plumbing.

That got me thinking. I’m too old to start a career as a plumber, so perhaps a different pay model is the answer for intellectual endeavors. What if instead of a one-time payment for our work, editors, designers, illustrators — the whole intellectual and creative supply chain — received a “nominal” fee plus a percentage of sales?

The problem is that sales could be Harry Potterish, in which case I could be a millionaire, or it could be more typical  — less than 5,000 copies, perhaps even less than 500 copies, in which event I would starve. And if the freelancer’s focus was on specialty nonfiction, the freelancer could be in the same bind as scholarly publishers — seeking a way to keep the lights on.

eBooks exacerbate the problem to the extent that ebooks let anyone with a computer become an author-publisher, that is, someone who goes direct from computer to Internet. That route bypasses editors, designers, and illustrators. The usual reason given for that direct-to-reader approach is cost — and that is wholly understandable: How may authors are willing to gamble their own money on their own book’s success? For us service providers, the answer is too few.

And gambling it is because it is difficult to get noticed when your book is just one of 1 million. As is true in most of the creative arts, few artists (used broadly) earn enough money from their artistic endeavors to give up the day job. Yet for us freelance service providers, whose day job is editorial and production services, there is a large untapped market just waiting — and desperately needing — our skills.

It is this problem — How do I connect with those who have need of my skills but who are reluctant to pay for them from their own pocket in such a manner that the connection benefits both of us? — that forces freelancers to be creative and flexible in how they get paid. I grant that I have yet to come up with a good solution, but there has to be a better one than none.

If we do not find a solution, eventually we may find ourselves without work altogether. As is true of tossing a pebble into a pool of water, failure to find a solution has rippling effects.

One of the ripples will be the acceptance of “good enough” as the standard for a book. As it is, too many ebooks are poorly written from nearly every perspective — grammar, spelling, plot, characterization — and working downward toward the good enough standard will make these poor ebooks the norm and the expected. Once it is accepted that misspelling (e.g., making brake and break synonymous) and bad grammar do not matter as long as the book is priced right and can be waddled through, authors and publishers will decide to save costs by doing nothing more than is necessary to meet the good-enough standard.

As noted earlier, we are in a race to the bottom in terms of fees. Yes, some of us continue to earn high fees for our services, but that number of us is declining. As our ranks swell with people willing to work for decreasing amounts of money, those who continue to earn higher fees will be under pressure to lower their fees. It’s simply a truth of the free market in which price dominates all else — experience and skill take a backseat to cost containment. But if we could find a new way to be paid for working with independent authors, we could open a whole new world of clients while helping to stave off the collapse of spelling and grammar.

So how do we compete in a very competitive world? There must be a model that would work well, providing publishers, authors, and us with incentives and rewards. I just don’t know what it is. What ideas do you have?

May 4, 2010

Worth Noting: The Jewish Review of Books

There is a new book review magazine available, the Jewish Review of Books. It wants to be a New York Review of Books but with a Jewish slant. The link in the preceding sentence will take you to its first issue, Spring 2010. The publication schedule is quarterly and subscriptions cost $19.95 for 1 year and $29.95 for 2 years.

After reading at its website the article Why There Is No Jewish Narnia by Michael Weingrad, I decided to try a 2-year subscription. The Review has potential, especially if it sticks to its goal of emulating the New York Review of Books, which I consider the finest book review magazine available in the United States. The NYRB publishes 20 issues a year and a subscription runs $69.

The Jewish Review describes itself as follows (from its About Us page):

The Jewish Review of Books is a quarterly publication (in print and on the web) for serious readers with Jewish interests. In our pages, leading writers and scholars discuss the newest books and ideas about religion, literature, culture, and politics, as well as fiction, poetry, and the arts. We are committed to the ideal of the thoughtful essay that illuminates as it entertains.

(Before I forget: I have absolutely no connection to/with the Jewish Review of Books other than having paid for a subscription for myself.)

Another review magazine to which I once did subscribe is the London Review of Books. I stopped subscribing when I found myself struggling to get through the articles — the writing style was too dry for me — and when I realized that many of the reviewed books weren’t readily available to me. The focus was on UK-published books, many of which hadn’t crossed the Atlantic. However, I am considering resubscribing because as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten drier myself and the LRB‘s quality is on a par with that of the NYRB. Plus the Internet makes it easy to buy books from the UK. The LRB publishes 24 times a year and a subscription runs $35.

Another book review magazine to which I also once subscribed is Boston-based BookForum. BookForum publishes 5 issues a year and subscription rates are $16 for 1 year and $24 for 2 years. I found that it focused too much on fiction for me, and I read mostly nonfiction and what fiction I do read is generally in the scifi/fantasy genre.

Of course many of the magazines to which I subscribe also carry book reviews, but none are the equivalent of the NYRB. If you know of other top-notch book review magazines, please share the details with us. I, for one, am always on the lookout for a high-quality book review magazine.

On the side: As you know, last week there was a series of articles on the downfall of literature (for the first in the series of 4 articles, see eBooks & the Downfall of Literature: The Great Debate – Round I). My local paper today, had an opinion column by Chicago Tribune syndicated columnist Clarence Page that was more broadly focused. His lament is worth reading: Quality Suffers with Rise of Amateur Critics.

May 3, 2010

The Decline & Fall of the Agency 5

April 2011 is the month to prepare for armageddon in ebookdom. It is when the 2010 agency model pricing scheme will be buried by publishing’s 2010 savior, Steve Jobs and Apple. You read it here first.

All the stars and moons and planets will align and the caterwaul of panic will be heard throughout ebookdom, because that is when the Agency 5 — Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Penguin, and Hachette — will realize they have been snookered by the snooker master.

“Why is April 2011 so important,” you ask? Because it turns out that Steve Jobs did the Apple version of bait and switch on the big 5 — the agreement for agency pricing was/is only for 1 year. Come April 2011, I’m willing to bet that Jobs will drive the final spike into the agency pricing system for ebooks. Not necessarily the agency model, just the pricing — $9.99 (or less) will become the Jobs mantra.

In April 2011, publishers will discover that the iBookstore is a losing proposition. Oh, Apple will have sold many millions of iPads, fulfilling expectations for a successful tablet, but the buyers, it will soon be discovered, either aren’t buying ebooks at all (maybe 1 or 2) or what they are buying they are buying from Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Smashwords. (By the way, nothing could be worse for the Agency 5 than if Smashwords is a bigger success on the iPad than the iBookstore, because that success would be price based.) If the iBookstore is a flop for Agency 5 books, the Agency 5 are out of the catbird seat and Amazon is back in.

Not only does it matter that the iBookstore may be a flop in terms of Agency 5 sales, but if Steve Jobs determines that agency pricing is hurting his income or the iBookstore, he will scrap agency pricing in a heartbeat — or even quicker if he can (again, pricing parameters not the model for the split). eBookers know who to blame for the high pricing, and if they don’t, Amazon reminds them constantly and Amazon controls (or so it is claimed) 80% of the ebook market.

Even if Amazon’s share of the ebook market drops to 50% by April 2011, it won’t have dropped enough to salvage the agency pricing system. To salvage it, the iBookstore has to command at least 35% of ebook sales and probably 50% of Agency 5 ebook sales — plus there can’t be much dropoff in sales of Agency 5 ebooks from pre-agency levels. The Agency 5 are already losing a significant percentage of money on the agency split as compared to the traditional wholesale split, so a drop in sales will compound the problem.

So what’s the backup plan? My bet is there isn’t one. It will be more of the same crying and complaining from the Agency 5, a wailing lament about how ebookers simply do not value ebooks. And then the moment of truth will come — that moment when Apple and Amazon each pressure the Agency 5 to lower prices; that moment when Amazon decides that the Agency 5 needs Amazon more than Amazon needs the Agency 5; that moment when authors decide it is better to cast their lot with Amazon than with the Agency 5; that moment when the Agency 5 realize they have doomed themselves to oblivion unless they take immediate, bold steps.

Jobs and Apple have demonstrated repeatedly that they are no friend of anyone but Jobs and Apple. (Do we need to go any further than the raid on the reporter’s home at the behest of Jobs because one of Jobs’ minions lost his cell phone?) Apple proclaims an open system as it closes its doors; it offers a carrot to publishers while hiding the stick. And there is no doubt that Jobs and Apple will decide on “proper” ebook pricing based on what is good for Jobs and Apple, not for anyone else’s survival.

April 2011 will be the moment in ebook history that historians will be able to point to as the turning point. If the iBookstore succeeds in eliminating Amazon’s dominance of ebook sales and in selling a lot of Agency 5 ebooks, then agency pricing may have a longer life. But if Apple fails to topple Amazon and if the iBookstore sales of Agency 5 books aren’t spectacular, agency pricing will die. The clock is ticking. If I were one of the Agency 5, I’d be working on a new plan and doing a lot of heavy public relations work in preparation for doomsday. Will Google be proclaimed the next industry savior?

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