It’s rare that I disagree with or don’t defer to the experience and wisdom of publishing industry sage Mike Shatzkin, who has been prescient about the transition to e-books and adept at explaining its effects and future effects on the industry.
But in a recent post, he expressed frustration at the failure of recognition on the part of legal experts about the special circumstances of the publishing industry and the potential effects of low e-book pricing:
But I’m afraid my major takeaway was, once again, that the legal experts applying their antitrust theories to the industry don’t understand what they’re monkeying with or what the consequences will be of what they see as their progressive thinking. Steamrollering those luddite denizens of legacy publishing, who just provoke eye-rolling disdain by suggesting there is anything “special” about the ecosystem they’re part of and are trying to preserve, is just part of a clear-eyed understanding of the transitions caused by technology.
The thing is, and I say this as someone who has a great deal of respect for publishers and agents and as a traditionally published author: There isn’t anything special about the publishing industry. It is not deserving of special treatment, and we shouldn’t fear its disruption by new technology.
Books occupy a very central and foundational part of our culture, and any society that stops producing them deserves to get sacked by the Visgoths. Publishers and bookstores have packaged and distributed books to us for several hundred years, and they have been great at their jobs.
But, again, I say this as someone who has tremendous respect for these institutions: They are a means to an end. They are a way of getting quality books to customers, just as stagecoaches transported people across the country before railroad before cars before airlines. Publishers and bookstores are a delivery system.
In order to call for special protection for the traditional publishing ecosystem, you would have to make the case that without that precise ecosystem, books would fail to be produced in the same quality and quantity as they were before. This is Mike Shatzkin’s fear:
My argument and fear is that a restructured ecosystem will deny us books like Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography or Ron Chernow’s George Washington. Books that take years to write and require hundreds of thousands of dollars of financing to be written will never see the light of day if publishers can’t earn a profit by investing in their creation.
I simply don’t share this fear.
People will still write books even with uncertain prospects for financial success (NaNoWriMo anyone??). There will still be tremendous competition, which will create pressure to make those books as good as possible. Those books will still be delivered to readers, only more cheaply and more efficiently than before. They will still be edited and some will still be great. And better yet, in case I didn’t mention it twenty times before, they will be cheaper, which means customers will be able to buy more of them.
All of the mechanisms and expertise of traditional publishing, other than paper book distribution, are now available to any author. Want professional editors? Tons of great freelance editors are standing by. Need cover design? A graphic designer will be happy to help. Need money in advance to pay for all this? Take a gander at Kickstarter, or at the universities and nonprofits who currently support the publication of literary fiction and academia.
I mean, if Walter Isaacson came to me and said, “Nathan, I have secured exclusive access to Steve Jobs to write his bio, I just need $500,000 to write it in exchange for a share the profits,” I would say, “I don’t have $500,000.” But I’m confident Isaacson would be able to find a member of the 1% willing to take the bet.
What are publishers fighting for? They’re fighting for the ability to charge a premium for their products. To make customers pay more money for books.
It’s a bit galling that the publishing industry would argue that books are more than just commodities, and their ecosystem therefore deserving of special protection, when they are increasingly treating books and authors as, well, commodities. When literary fiction is getting kicked to the curb, when millions of dollars chase the latest celebrity scandal as mid list authors get dumped, and when they’re pulling e-books from libraries.
We have plenty to fear from an Amazonian monopoly, were that to ever come to pass. But there is competition in the marketplace already and there is also tremendous opportunity for upstarts to continue to shake up the landscape.
I have tons of sympathy for all of the great people who will get caught in the negative effects of the disruption. I don’t think publishers will go away, but they will certainly be leaner, which means job losses. I also don’t blame publishers for their actions or even think they’re necessary misguided. They are all very intelligent and well-meaning people who are usually making rational decisions to protect their business in a rapidly shifting landscape.
But when you boil everything down and remove all the noise, the precise fear of publishers is that books will be cheaper. That’s it.
Tell me again why we should fight that?
Art: 1628 version of Haarlem printing press from 1440 by Jan Van de Velde