An American Editor

November 26, 2012

The Merger Apocalypse

It has been a while since I wrote about ebooks and books in general. For the most part, nothing new or exciting has been happening once you move away from the hardware side of things. But the merger of Random House and Penguin is a comment-worthy event.

In the past, consolidation has been very bad for professional editors. Somehow these mergers and purchases needed to be paid for and with supposedly declining sales in bookworld, the way to pay for the merger was to cut expenses. The primary way to cut expenses has been to cut costs in areas that consumers do not see or notice until too late, thus primarily in editorial and book production.

Past consolidations have resulted in layoff of editorial and production personnel and in lowering of fees paid to freelance editors. In preconsolidation days, there was competition for editorial services, so freelancers could easily raise prices. In postconsolidation days, competition has been greatly reduced, there are fewer publishers to compete with each other for editorial services and thus the (successful) downward pressure on pricing. Freelance editors have little place to turn when where there was once two there is now but one job opportunity (publisher).

The merger of Random House and Penguin, who combined will account for approximately 25% of traditionally published (as opposed to self-published) books, is likely to spur a second merger, that of HarperCollins and Macmillan (or perhaps it will be HarperCollins and Simon and Schuster), who combined will account for at least another 20% of that market. And when pricing for freelancers is set, it will be set companywide — it will make little difference which imprint of the RandomPenguin colossus a freelancer works for, the pricing will be fairly uniform, and increasingly depressed. Or so experience says.

I understand why the merger is occurring: somehow a company has to combat Amazon and Apple and the most logical way is to make it so that Amazon and Apple cannot ignore the publisher’s demands because neither can forego stocking 25% of traditionally published books. (And let us not forget that Amazon is working to build its own publishing behemoth as a foil to these publisher tactics.)

Yet there is another possibility. What if one or both of these megapublishers — RandomPenguin or HarperMacmillan — decides to combat Amazon and Apple directly? It strikes me that the way to do it would be to buy Barnes & Noble. Buying B&N would give them immediate access directly to consumers. They could set terms for distribution with their captive company (bring back agency pricing) and tell Amazon and Apple they, too, can have access to these books but on the same terms as B&N. It would put the publishers back into control quickly, and B&N could be bought cheaply — a couple of billion dollars ought to do it.

Another possibility, although one that would likely have limited success, would be for publishers to start a “first edition” club only for brick-and-mortar stores. B&M stores would be given the exclusive opportunity to sell to consumers collectible first edition-first printing-author signed hardcover books that come with an included ebook copy. If done smartly, it could be an incentive for consumers to enter a b&m bookstore. I think, however, publishers would blow it simply because they seem to blow everything else.

The bottom line is that just as these consolidations are likely to be bad news for editors, they are likely, too, to be bad news for consumers and for sellers like Amazon and Apple.

The consolidation of the publishing industry has been ongoing for 30 years. The problem is that there are fewer large publishers to consolidate today than 30 years ago. It strikes me that if the Justice Department doesn’t think that Amazon dominates the ebook retail market in the United States and that it never did, it would be hard pressed to oppose these consolidations or even the purchase of B&N by a combination of the megapublishers because their market position would be less than that of Amazon.

Are we in for interesting times in publishing? I think more worrisome than interesting. If book quality is noticeably declining preconsolidation, what will it be postconsolidation? If editorial incomes are in decline, how much more rapid will that decline be postconsolidation? If book prices are on the rise, how much faster will they rise postconsolidation?

The question that comes to mind, however, is this: Would RandomPenguin have come about if Amazon were not acting like the Wal-Mart of ebook world? I have no inside information but I suspect that the answer is no, the merger would not have been proposed. I think it is fear of the Amazon vision of the future that is driving this merger, with the final straw being the court’s decision to approve the settlement in the agency pricing case. That settlement gives publishers little leeway against Amazon in the absence of controlling a large enough portion of the market that Amazon cannot do without that portion’s product, which would be the case with RandomPenguin controlling 25% of the traditionally published market.

The more I think about the megapublishers joining to purchase B&N, the more I think it would be a smart move. There are a lot of ways that publisher ownership of the chain could effect cost savings, and with good planning, the physical stores could be made relevant again. More importantly, B&N’s online store is already a well-established and well-known destination for books for consumers, which would relieve publishers of having to create a new online presence and drive traffic to it, a difficult task. And, as noted earlier, it would provide leverage for dealing with Amazon and Apple.

What do you think?

July 18, 2012

On Politics: The Logic of the Illogical

As an editor, I constantly have to watch for author statements that are illogical. Unfortunately, that practice doesn’t stop at the workplace door; it carries over to election-year politics and makes me a wary consumer of political talk.

What brings this to the fore is a recent statement by the Republican (expected) nominee for president, Mitt Romney. As reported in the New York Times (“Romney Seeks Obama Apology for Bain Attacks,” by Michael D. Shear, July 14, 2012, electronic edition, p. 31), Mit Romney said on Fox News:

You just had very bad news on the economic front, with now 41 straight months with unemployment above 8 percent.

Romney made this statement in support of his demand that the Bush-era tax cuts on the income of the top 2% of earners be made permanent and not be allowed to expire come January because these 2-percenters are the job creators and to raise their taxes would destroy job creation!

This has been a constant refrain of the Republicans and the Romney campaign. What I would like to know is, “Where are these jobs being created?” In publishing, the jobs are being created in India, not America. In America, editors are both losing work and being forced to accept lower wages as a result of this migration of jobs from America to India. I do not see John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan, or Markus Dohle, CEO of Random House, or the CEO any of the other major American publishers — all members of the 2% club — promising, in writing, to create new American jobs if their personal tax cuts are preserved.

In response to a recent solicitation I received asking me to make a campaign contribution in support of Romney and the Republicans, I wrote back with this offer:

I will make a contribution if you will answer these questions directly and without obfuscation: If keeping the tax cuts on the wealthiest 2% of American society will create jobs as you claim, why haven’t those jobs been created in the past decade while the Bush-era tax cuts have been in place? Why, if these wealthy 2-percenters create jobs, did we have significant job loss during the current life of their tax cuts? How many new American jobs have the Koch brothers, and John Sargent (Macmillan CEO), and Markus Dohle (Random House CEO) guaranteed — in writing — to create within the next 12 months (and how many new American jobs did they create over the past 4 years) as a direct result of the reduced personal rate of taxation they received from the Bush-era tax cuts?

I am still waiting for a reply, and I’m not holding my breath.

The reality is that the claim that reducing taxes for the wealthiest 2% of Americans increases American jobs is illogical, whether made by a Republican or a Democrat. It is a remnant of the flushdown economics of the Reagan era and ignores the fact that jobs grew under Reagan only after Reagan increased taxes and continued to grow (with resulting budget surpluses) under Clinton when tax rates were both raised and significantly higher than under the Bush-era tax cuts and current rates.

Interestingly, Obama, who should be attacking this kind of illogic, doesn’t seem to fight back by demanding that Romney and the Republicans put their cards on the table face up. It seems to me that Obama should be demanding real numbers from the Republicans. Make the Koch brothers pledge in writing to either create 100,000 new American jobs within 6 months of the election if the tax cuts are extended — regardless of whether they are extended by Romney or Obama — or agree to pay a $5 billion penalty. Require other 2% recipients — such as the John Sargents and the Markus Dohles — of the benefits of the tax cut to make the same pledge to create a specific number of new American jobs or pay a significant penalty, and have enough of them make the written pledges so that American unemployment will be reduced to less than 2%. Then I’ll buy the argument that these are the job creators, as will all other Americans!

The reality is not only will the 2-percenters not make such written pledges, but that they are not job creators. They are money makers and obligated to make as much money at as minimal a cost as possible, which means exporting American jobs if it is cost-effective to do so, which is what they have been doing all through the Bush-era tax cuts.

I have noted that Romney and the Republicans are very careful to talk about “job creation” but not “creation of American jobs”. The implication is that the jobs that the 2-percenters create are American jobs; the reality may well be different.

The Republican rhetoric also ignores the realities of the business world. Consider the recent $7+ billion loss suffered by JP Morgan Chase as a result of bad trades. The losses were incurred by a small group of individuals but already threaten the jobs of thousands of ordinary employees who had no connection to the loss-making trades or the division of Chase that made them. Yet, Romney and the Republicans want to give Jaime Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, a tax break because he will “create” new jobs. What will he do? Hire another valet? Tax breaks for Dimon have no effect whatsoever on whether JP Morgan Chase hires or fires employees.

How much more misleading can the Republican discourse be? Not much, but it sure makes for good bullet points on Fox News. Most of the 2-percenters are employed by a corporation or a foundation or some other business organization whose job-creation decisions are made independently of the personal finances of these 2-percenters. Yes, there are some exceptions, but not many.

The Romney-Republican argument on taxing the top 2% of Americans belies another premise of their presidential campaign: to-wit, that Romney really understands how jobs are created. Jobs are created by the masses spending more money and buying more goods and services, not by a 2-percenter suddenly deciding to trade in last year’s Lamborghini for this year’s model. Economic recovery is not in the hands of the few; it is in the hands of the masses, which is why consumer confidence measures are so important.

It isn’t clear to me what it will take to get voters to look beyond the twitteresque rhetoric and demand that politicians put up or shut up. Nor is it clear to me what it will take to get the Obama campaign to put the Romney and Republican campaigns’ feet to the fire. But in both instances, I hope that such a test occurs because the decision we have to make in November could be catastrophic for America if it is the wrong decision, especially if it is a decision made on platitudes rather than fact.

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.

April 7, 2010

Agency in eBooks: Just the Start?

With all of the hullabaloo lately about the shift to the agency model of pricing brought about by Apple and 5 of the big 6 publishers, the question of what this means for the future of all publishing has been sidestepped. (For those unfamiliar with the model, essentially it means this: publishers set the retail price for an ebook and every ebookseller sells the ebook at that price. The ebooksellers aren’t really sellers in this scheme; they are simply conduits — a funnel for money to go from buyer to publisher and for delivery of an ebook to the consumer. For their efforts, the ebooksellers receive a commission.)

Let’s assume that the publishers (and Apple’s) motive for the agency model in ebook pricing is pure as the driven snow before the dog is let outside. Let’s also assume that the move was necessary to preserve “quality” publishing by ensuring that publishers and authors receive a fair return for their work effort. And let’s further assume that publishers play and will continue to play an important role in getting “quality” manuscripts from the oven to the table.

Yes, I know that for some of you these are mighty big assumptions and that it goes against the grain, like a fingernail scraping across a chalkboard, to give any credence whatsoever to these assumptions, but their credibility really doesn’t matter in the real world. What does matter is what the agency model for ebooks portends for publishing as a whole, and here is where publishing may well meet its Waterloo (further discussion of publishing meeting its Waterloo is found in Will Apple’s iBookstore be Publishing’s Waterloo?).

If the agency model works for ebooks, why won’t it work for pbooks? What separates the ebook and the pbook in terms of preserving the value of the work? Why should one be treated differently?

Logically, there is no difference between an ebook and a pbook. Yes, there is a form difference and yes, there is a slight production cost difference, but there is no difference in the content — and isn’t content what is really being sold? If the sale is really the format and not the content, then why pay authors? Why not just sell gibberish? Every reader, every author, and every publisher knows that content is king — it matters greatly whether that novel was written by me or by Stephen King and it matters greatly how the same words are strung together (presumably Stephen King strings them better than me).

If the agency model is designed to preserve the value of the content of an ebook, shouldn’t it be used to preserve the value of the identical (except for format) pbook? (Further discussion of value is found in Valuing a Book: How Do Publishers Decide on Value?) Isn’t this where we are heading now that the floodgates have been opened?

The ramifications of the agency model haven’t really been thought out by any of the players. If it works for ebooks, it will work for pbooks. If it is imposed in pbookland, publishers will, in one fell swoop, eliminate their largest headache — returns (for a discussion of returns, see It’s Raining, It’s Pouring: Returns in an eBook Age). It will also stabilize pricing — no more battles based on price between Wal-Mart, Amazon, Target, and Barnes & Noble, for example.

If agency pricing works with consumers (still unknown), publishers will be able to raise pricing on paperback books — after all, if an ebook that the buyer leases sells well at $14.99, why sell a paperback that the buyer owns at $7.99?

And if agency pricing works, why not further consolidate and eliminate booksellers altogether? Oh, that can’t be easily done tomorrow because consumers like the one-stop shopping that bookstores and ebooksellers provide, but it is only a matter of putting some thought to the problem to figure out a solution, a way for the publisher to reap 100% of the money — no need to split with an agent who provides minimal service.

Apple is one culprit here. Blinded by its dislike for Amazon (among other companies that Jobs seems to have a fetish about), Apple offered publishers what seems to be the ideal solution to Amazon’s power grab. Amazon is the other culprit in this story. Blinded by its desire to dominate the nascent ebook market like Apple dominates the emusic market, Bezos made several strategic blunders, each inflaming the publishing industry and fanning a belief (a well-founded belief, I think) that the enemy is Amazon and it must be brought to its knees. Unfortunately, the ebook consumer became the first casualty in this war and, ultimately, all readers are likely to become book war casualties.

The ultimate question for publishers, however, is will the agency model actually work to the industry’s benefit? What benchmarks have the big 5 set to evaluate the effect of the agency model on ebooks? How dedicated to book buying is the reading public? Have ebookers become so enamored with pricing wars that they will forsake agencied ebooks? There are lots more questions that need asking and answering, but I suspect that the big 5 are unprepared to either ask or answer them — at least not objectively. In the end, I think the near-term winners will be Random House and those indie publishers who forsake the agency model.

Which leads to the final question to be answered: What will publishers who have agreed to the agency model do if the iBookstore turns out to be a small molehill at the foot of a mountain rather than the expected mountain? Someone who buys a Kindle or a Sony Reader buys one because they are a reader; who knows why an iPad was bought. It’s the difference between buying a dedicated device and a multifunction device. Hard to tell which of the multifunctions was the impetus for buying the device and which functions are secondary or tertiary considerations, if considerations at all.

January 20, 2010

A Modest Proposal III: Dying Days of Giant Publishers (Part 1)

In two earlier Modest Proposal posts (A 21st Century Publishing Model and Book Warranty) I offered suggestions for changes publishers could (and should) consider to their business model. The first proposal, to make ebooks the new paperbacks and to publish only hardcover and ebook versions of books, was not well received by consumers. (Interestingly, some of the most vocal opposition to demising paperbacks came from people who claim to only buy ebooks!) The second proposal was much better received, probably because everyone loves perfection and loves the idea that something comes with a warranty.

Now comes my third modest proposal, which begins with a prediction: The big, multinational book publishers have begun their funeral march. Within a decade or two, possibly sooner, there will no longer be giants of publishing; instead there will be a reversion to the preconsolidation era with numerous small (by comparison to today’s Hachettes and Random Houses) publishers dominating the industry.

Before getting to my suggestions about what today’s giants can do to stave off their funeral orations, let’s consider why they are now walking that funeral path. What follows are a sample of publishing’s self-destruct problems.

First, they are too big to react with grace and ease to changes in the publishing world. Imagine a sumo wrestler dancing Swan Lake. Decisions that need to be made quickly and locally cannot be made because there is always another corporate level to consult. It’s hard to survive when you need to turn on a dime but can only turn on a half dollar.

Second, they haven’t learned what I call the Dell lesson: Tell the customer he can have it his way and then limit the options. Dell always touted how customizable their computers were. Yet try to really customize a Dell computer — you can’t; Dell has limited options for particular computer models and you can’t take options from one model line to another. This is no different from what the automobile industry has done for decades. To get one feature you want, you have to buy an option package or do without. Or, better yet, cable TV. Few choices there. You pay for sports channels whether you want them or not. Unlike other industries, publishers let others dictate what they will do and offer. Publishers need to rethink this action model.

Third, publishers haven’t yet recognized where they are in the policy-setting chain. Although they should be in the catbird’s seat, instead it is the distributors and the retailers who drive publisher policies. What is the single most hurtful policy to publishers’ bottom line today? My guess is the returns policy. Who does this policy help: distributors and retailers because they do not have to pay for ordered product. No other industry has such a policy and no industry — including publishing — offers such a system to the consumer. This policy of returns for books started decades ago for a reason that was valid decades ago but is no longer valid or sustainable, yet publishers can’t stop killing themselves — it’s the fear of being first.

Publishers need to regain the catbird’s seat and immediately do away with returns. If, say, Random House were to unilaterally declare an end to the current returns system, most publishers would soon follow. Unlike computers and automobiles, there is no substitute for a Dan Brown best-selling novel that would give a competitor a leg up by keeping the return policy. Readers either want Brown’s novel or they don’t; no retailer is going to tell a customer that they can’t buy the Brown novel because the publisher doesn’t accept returns so the retailer won’t stock the book, but here is Joe Unknowns’ similar novel instead.

The returns problem highlights a fourth reason: Publishers are confused about who are their customers. Until recently, except occasionally, the giant publishers didn’t sell books directly to readers. Although the publisher has to produce books that readers want to buy, their immediate customers today are the middlemen between publishers and the readers. With the changes that ebooks are bringing to publishing, the giants will die on the vine if they do not rethink who their customers will be in the coming years and their relationship with them.

Alas, there is more to say, so this discussion continues in tomorrow’s post, wherein I reveal my modest proposal.

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