Why Publishers Fight Digital
I was reading the new Steve Jobs biography last week, and the author briefly touched on the roll-out of the iTunes store. Prior to the launch of the store, iTunes was just another place to organize songs, most of them no doubt stolen via Napster, which was terrorizing studios at the time.
Even with a promise to monetize digital albums, Apple had a tough go of getting all the major labels onboard. Were it not for the energetic push from one of the studio heads to corral the other five studios, it may not have happened. And were it not for charismatic Jobs behind the push, and Apple seen as a minor player, it might not have happened. It’s useful to remember that Apple had very little market share at the time; Windows was dominate. Jobs assured the studios that the iTunes store would not be made PC-compatible, which soothed the CEOs and bean-counters. The PC version would launch within the year, and within a few years, music stores would begin to shutter as listeners moved eagerly to digital.
The hesitation by studios to sign the iTunes agreement was largely due to the fear that they’d lose control of distribution, that they’d alienate existing retail partners, and that the then-existing model of selling entire albums just so fans could get the one or two tunes they wanted would wreck how music was produced and packaged. They were right to be worried, of course. These things came to pass. But they were wrong if they thought they could stop the change from happening.
Book publishers have been much more coordinated in their attempts to slow digital adoption, perhaps learning from music studios’ mistakes. The history of Amazon and Jeff Bezos getting publishers on board the Kindle store, and the subsequent pricing of ebooks at $9.99, similar to Jobs’ push to price songs at 99 cents, all have incredible parallels. Publishers eventually went to the enemy of the music studios for salvation, agreeing to a deal with Apple at the launch of the iPad to uniformly raise ebook prices and beat that $9.99 price point. But the fight against digital adoption had been going on long before that.
It started with a process called “windowing,” which meant delaying the ebook until after the hardback edition had its run. When readers revolted and peppered Amazon book pages with 1-star reviews on any release windowed like this, publishers gradually gave in on select titles. They next began protecting print editions with high prices on the ebooks, often higher than the eventual paperback edition. This, despite the paperback needing to be printed, shipped, warehoused, and often returned and pulped. The claim that ebooks cost just as much to produce as paperbacks always rang hollow, but the claim was debunked by publishers themselves with the release of these slides to investors.
Even though ebooks are more profitable than the venerable hardback, publishers have fought their adoption for many of the same reasons that music studios were reluctant to hasten the end of physical album sales. The number one service major publishers and major music studios offer their artists is retail distribution. That’s the absolute top incentive they offer. It’s all about distribution. Advances for new artists are too small to live off of, and editors and sound producers can be hired for a one-time fee. Writers and musicians alike have been producing their own quality offerings for generations. What they’ve had a hard time doing is reaching an audience of millions. This is what major publishers and studios offer. I’ve been pitched by dozens of publishers, and this is always the big promise: We can get you in front of a lot of readers.
The iTunes store and Amazon weaken this offer. When the album of the year can be a self-produced hit like Macklemore and Ryan’s debut, or the top of the charts can be reached by someone like me, then something has been disrupted. Make no mistake: Publishers are not primarily concerned with readers or writers. And rightly so. They should be concerned with their bottom line. In the short term, that might mean full steam ahead on ebooks, which are highly profitable, and which readers will hoard without cluttering their homes, which means lots of dollars spent on unread ebooks. But in the long term, publishers would have to relinquish what they know to be their prime offering to their clients: The ability to reach readers. For this reason, they’ve done all they can to stifle innovation and adoption during the most exciting era readers have experienced since Johan refined the printing press.
Two Kinds of Love
There are those who love books, and there are those who love to read. Often, these are the same people, but not always. People who love to read almost inevitably become book lovers. If you have that many positive experiences with an object, you eventually have a warm and emotional reaction to any similar object. Book lovers might find this hard to believe, but the same is true of ereading devices. All it takes to feel the same sensual pleasure when lifting a Kindle is to read dozens or hundreds of amazing books on one. Soon, you feel naked without it. You carry your Kindle and hundreds of books with you everywhere you go. As avid readers, our love of books is a learned experience from all the pleasure derived from them. Those who only have this association with the physical book are aligned with publishers in their fervent hopes that digital adoption goes away. But there’s another reason for the strong feelings. Not all book lovers are avid readers.
There are also those who love books but rarely read. They might have dozens or hundreds of books in their homes, most of them unread or only partly read. These books are purchased and enjoyed as status symbols, and also like gym equipment. They are both a signal to others that this is a thoughtful, educated person. And they are also promises to ourselves to be the future person we hope to become. The gym equipment sits shamefully under the bed, but our books are on proud display. For book lovers, a move to digital reading is an absolute nightmare. Coffee will have to be enjoyed in a coffee shop rather than a neighborhood bookstore, where they pick up the latest must-read non-fiction work, like Capital in the Twenty-First Century, knowing they’ll never read it, but wishing they were the sort of person who might.
If this sounds harsh, it’s not meant to be. I’ve purchased plenty of books as a promise to myself, and then broke that promise. My house used to be loaded with books that I kept meaning to get to. Those unread books often prevented me from buying more, as I knew I had that shame-inducing pile at home beside the bed. Moving to digital reading, I not only read 2-3 times as much as before, I probably purchase 4-6 times as many books! There is no clutter warning me off. I’ve gone from being both a book lover and a reading lover to just a reading lover. I’m getting more reading done. Those who love books but not reading will see this as a sad affair. Those who read for the love of reading will probably know what I’m talking about.
Imagine for a moment that the arrow of time was reversed. Let’s pretend that ereaders have been around since the time of Gutenberg. Books were always distributed electronically. The telegraph saw a flowering of adoption out West, and Dickens decried the drop in ebook prices in his day. And then a bookseller named Amazon came along, offering books printed on paper and for sale in their brick and mortar stores. The name of the company was meant to remind readers of the forests they were chopping down to fashion their stock. “No batteries,” they promised. “Disposable,” they said. “Only slightly more expensive,” they admitted. “Better smelling!”
Of course, trees for paper are grown like any other crop, planted, harvested, and then replanted. The idea that our forests are disappearing to supply paper has been outdated for decades. There are more trees in the United States today than there were 100 years ago. But the fact remains that 30 million trees are cut down each year for the book trade. 30 million! Each year! That’s a lot of trees. It’s easy to be a reading lover and be a tree-lover. I’m certainly one. Hard to be a book lover and a tree lover without some mental gymnastics. 30 million a year! That’s like 1,200 Central Parks every year.
Granted, plastics and electronics aren’t environmentally friendly themselves, but ereaders are the weird electronic devices that don’t demand to be upgraded. The pace of sales is often compared to other tablets, but this is a facile comparison. I know people who use their original Kindle and wouldn’t trade it for the world. (They feel the same way about the device that you might feel toward a leather bound tome). There is no question that ebooks are better for the environment than paperbacks. The shipping costs in fossil fuels alone make the case. And trees are cut down by diesel-guzzling machines and processed with loads more electrical power than used by the servers that supply the ebooks. And one ereading device might result in several hundred books being read, at a minimum.
Books for the People
There’s another reason I love imagining a reversal of time’s arrow: Ebooks are for the people, while print books are for the corporations. Imagine a world where writers make 70% of the proceeds of their sales and thousands of writers enjoy a full-time living with their writing, with tens of thousands supplementing their incomes doing what they love. These writers also employ cover artists, editors, audiobook narrators, assistants, publicists, and agents who earn a full-time living helping these writers produce top-notch work and reach the broadest audience possible.
Now imagine that Amazon’s felled-tree print books take away market share from ebooks (which is the opposite of what’s happening). Bookstores pop up across the country. Publishers form large conglomerates in order to represent catalogs of new releases, which their sales reps present to book buyers. What is displayed in stores is soon determined by co-op dollars, rather than what readers want to read. Bookstores also purchase on a fully returnable basis, which means the wasteful ordering of double what they will eventually sell, which leads to unsold books being returned to publishers, where they are tossed in a furnace and burned.
Losing their ability to reach readers, the previously digital authors sign on with publishers out of desperation. It’s the only way to get in these newfangled bookstores, and the only way to affordably print hundreds of thousands of copies of these darned pulp books! Instead of making 70%, they are now making 12.5%. The rest is going to these large skyscrapers which are popping up across Manhattan and London, in the most expensive parts of town. The money readers were previously sending to artists and their helpers, allowing them to work from home and be with their kids and families, is now going to people in suits who take two-hour lunches, conspire with one another on prices and release dates, and pay that unbelievable corporate rent.
This is Not the Side You Want to Be On.
What’s most amazing to me about the recent attempt to make ebooks and print books a cultural war is the absolute wrong side that some players have chosen to be on. You’d think the New York Times would be the place touting this liberating and disintermediating shift from corporate profits to the support of artists, but they are just as beholden to the staid old print days as publishers are (and they share some neighboring real estate).
You’d think socially progressive websites like Salon and Slate would cry for a hastening of the transition to digital books, which make reading more affordable, move reading into rural areas, saves 30 million trees a year, and puts power with the people rather than large, conspiring corporations. But the opposite has been true.
I really believe a lot of this comes from book lovers who aren’t reading lovers. It’s hard to make sense of it otherwise. I think it’s time for those of us who are addicted to reading to be a bit more vocal in our love of the best form of it possible: Digital books. Better for the environment. Larger type for the visually challenged. Text-to-speech for the blind. Lighter weight for the arthritic. Better access for the rural and the impoverished (ebooks can be read on existing devices, like phones. And even with a $49 e-reader, this is paid for in just a few purchases, or by going to Gutenberg.org).
Ereading is simply superior for those of us who love to read. You finish a book, and you can purchase and start another in minutes. You can go on vacation stocked up with new reads. You won’t even feel guilty if you don’t finish them all. And the more you read digital, the more you’ll wind up reading self-published works, which means more money going to artists and their freelance helpers, and less going to wasteful real estate in New York, to corporate suits, to lawyers, all of which leaves a pittance for the people whose works you enjoy.
This is why publishers need to rage against digital adoption. It’s why they need the support of those who equate a dated medium with the beautiful words that medium holds. Their lives depend on it. Their lives depend on the destruction of 30 million trees a year. But our reading habits don’t.
If you are an avid reader, I humbly suggest that you do yourself a favor and try an ereader. Check out the thousands of classics at Gutenberg.org that you can download and enjoy for free. Legally! These books are in the public domain. You could read classics for the rest of your life if you want. Or you can start checking out the many diverse voices that don’t make it into bookstores. Minority voices. Gay voices. Female science fiction authors and male romance writers. And all those who write in genres that readers love but that publishers think have been played out.
If you have a reader in your life, get them a Kindle. They start at a mere $69. It will change their lives. I’ve given most of the readers in my family Kindles over the last few Christmases. But it doesn’t have to be a special occasion. The challenge is to read a few great ebooks so that the same thrill we feel when we pick up a paperback is felt when we pick up our e-readers. It does happen, whether you believe it or not. It’s the stories we love. It’s the non-fiction we learn from. It’s the authors, not the imprints. Support them. Save the environment. Increase the amount you read, rather than the amount of books you display.
Publishers will fight this transition, but the rest of us should take a stand. And we should be honest, as authors, about why we are doing it. It’s not just good for readers, and good for the environment, and more democratic, with more diverse voices . . . it supports the lives of authors. And editors. And cover artists. And so many more. That 12.5% pittance becomes a 70% liveable wage. That difference has changed thousands of lives. It will keep changing lives, and changing the way we read, and we can help hasten that. We shouldn’t want to go backwards. And every indication is that we won’t.
More on that, and some very shocking results in the next AuthorEarnings report, due out soon. You’ll see what avid readers are doing to change lives. Until then, keep it up. Be proud. Brag about reading. Write reviews. Recommend ebooks to friends and family. Make a tree happy today.