The Amazon/Macmillan blow-up: An e-book lover’s appeal for understanding
February 6, 2010 | 12:59 am
Update: Tobias Buckell has linked to this piece, too. Thanks for the follow-up and the kind words, Tobias! And welcome to all the readers who come here from there!
Over the last few days, the angry Amazon/Macmillan rhetoric has been flying fast and furious from several positions. Recently, we posted an impassioned piece by Ficbot with the attention-grabbing headline, “Maybe we should be hurting the authors,” which was linked in a post on author Tobias Buckell’s blog and has brought us a great deal of traffic today (not to mention the liveliest comment thread we’ve seen in some time).
There seems to be a perceptual disconnect, or maybe several perceptual disconnects, between the authors/publishers on one side and the e-book readers on the other. There are many voices on both sides, both reasonable and less so—and to each side, the loudest voices on the other side become that other side’s entire argument.
And so we have on one side e-book fans absolutely convinced that publishers and authors unjustly hate them (or worse, don’t care at all). And on the other, there are writers who plaintively wonder, “How did the American public get hoodwinked into believing that the suppliers are the bullies rather than the retailers?”—and some who actively belittle the e-book fans.
It’s the kind of misunderstanding that makes it so, so seductive to write a response, because “someone is wrong on the Internet” and you’re just sure that if you make that one more post, say that one more thing, you’ll get through to them somehow. You know beyond any doubt that you’re right, and you’re sure they’d agree too except they’re just misunderstanding you, and you have to make them understand.
I’m halfway afraid that this post is going to be just another iteration of that. But all the same, I’m going to try to unpack some of the issues on the readers’ side and explain why this issue is so incendiary for long-time e-book fans.
One of the biggest misunderstandings is that this is all an overreaction to Macmillan taking “perfectly justified” steps to avoid Amazon monopolizing the e-book market and driving everyone else out of business. That’s part of it, but it’s actually just the smallest part of why most readers are so mad—the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“Let Them Eat Cake”
Part of the problem, and perhaps the part that made it blow up fastest, has been some of the rhetoric coming out of the other side.
From Macmillan’s side, with John Sargent’s ads/open letters, it’s a classic case of corp-speak right of the original Cluetrain Manifesto. Sargent addresses his letters to “authors, illustrators, and literary agents.” He says, “Amazon has been a valuable customer for a long time, and it is my great hope that they will continue to be in the very near future.”
E-book fans, dedicated readers, comb through his letters for any reference to themselves—and find none. The letter is not meant for them; it does not mention them. There is no other open letter from Sargent that is meant for them.
Amazon is addressed as Macmillan’s “customer,” rather than a distributor or retailer. Consequently, it becomes a lot easier for e-book fans, the people who feel they should be considered the publisher’s customers, to believe the publisher simply doesn’t give a damn about them.
Then there are some of the authors siding with Macmillan in discussions of the situation. In particular, there is one who is loudest among them: John Scalzi. Now, I greatly admire Scalzi’s writing, and have several of his books. I even like much of his blogging.
But Scalzi has shown a consistent pattern of behavior in his comment threads: when someone brings up concerns from a reader’s perspective that contradict his point of view, he responds with sarcasm rather than any serious attempt at dialogue. Now, granted, some of these people are nothing but rude, but even the polite ones get this treatment.
Neither of these is necessarily something on which to base a rational argument, but emotionally they’re a sure goad. It’s as if they’re smirking, “Let them eat cake.” It’s hard to blame e-book lovers for jumping up on the barricades and yelling, “Viva le revolution!” in response. Nobody likes to be told they don’t matter; it’s infuriating.
But as I said, this is only the straw that broke the camel’s back. In fact, many e-book lovers feel they have been told they don’t matter for more than ten years now.
A Long Time Ago, in an E-Book Store Far, Far Away
E-books have been sold by eReader and Fictionwise—first separately, then as part of the same store, then as part of Barnes & Noble—for over ten years. Over that time, e-book fans have seen a consistent, systematic pattern of missed opportunities and mishandling by publishers who seemed either not to care about or to actively despise e-books.
The books are wrapped up in restrictive DRM. They are often rife with typographical errors—errors which one ex-eReader employee said the e-book companies are not even permitted to correct (or at least weren’t when he worked for eReader), as they are contractually required to publish the book the way it came to them!
Many of the most egregious of these errors never get fixed. Even the Lord of the Rings series had them, and some feel they only bothered to fix those because it was such a popular book. (Trying to get errors fixed but having her requests fall on deaf ears is one of the issues that led to Ficbot’s immense frustration.) “Pirated” e-books are sometimes better-made than “legitimate” ones, because the “pirates” actually care about quality!
Often books in a series are published haphazardly, or not available in particular formats. Their pricing is inconsistent with print editions (more on that in a minute). And in the last year or so, the e-book stores have suddenly started enforcing geographic restrictions on e-book purchases on top of that, leaving many of their former best customers (such as Ficbot, who lives in
the UK Canada) fuming.
And this has been going on for as long as these stores have existed.
The Price is Wrong
One of the biggest issues relating to e-books is the issue of price. It’s a thorny issue because it’s actually several issues at once, and even e-book enthusiasts often conflate the issues themselves.
The biggest issue that it is not about, despite some people yelling about it, is the popular slogan, “E-books have zero marginal cost to produce, therefore they should be much cheaper than paper books!”
Many e-book fans do believe this—in fact, it’s one of their great rallying cries against publishers, who they see as The Man who wants to keep them down. It’s probably not as true as most adherents think, but it doesn’t really matter in this argument because most of the people who believe it think even $9.99 is too much to pay for an e-book, so they would have been upset no matter what Macmillan did.
A related matter is the idea that e-books should be cheaper than paper books because you can’t do as much with them. I won’t argue with that idea, but how much cheaper is a matter of debate even among the people who agree in principle.
For some, a $15 e-book might be enough of a discount off of a full-price hardcover to make it worthwhile. Others will point out you can generally get discounted real hardcovers from the same place for the same amount. Again, it doesn’t really matter too much because in the end, those who think it costs too much just won’t buy it. But they sure do like to complain, don’t they?
No, the biggest issue is a matter of trust, and it has to do with Macmillan’s plan to implement variable pricing.
A Matter of Trust
Many people on Macmillan’s side are assuming irate consumers are just mad at suddenly having to pay $15 instead of $10. (It doesn’t help that some of them are mad for that reason, and even those not primarily motivated by it are not exactly pleased about it.)
These Macmillan partisans might point out that hardcovers cost more not because of their inherent hardcoverness—they may seem sturdier, but they don’t cost appreciably more than paperbacks to produce—but because they’re the earliest way to get the book.
“Why, then,” they might ask, “shouldn’t e-books be the same way? Even Baen sells its E-ARCs at $15 for the first three months, after all. Macmillan’s just going to do the same kind of thing with its new-release e-books—and will end up coming down to even less than $9.99 after a while. Is that really such a bad thing?”
On the face of it, the logical answer would be no, indeed that isn’t such a bad thing. $14.99, while not the psychologically tempting $9.99, is still at least five to ten bucks less than a hardcover. If you don’t want it at $14.99, you can just wait until the price drops, just as you’d wait to buy a paperback if shelling out for a hardcover didn’t appeal to you.
But the reason this is likely to send a lot of e-book fans off into incoherent rage is that it doesn’t take into account the history of e-books before Amazon came along.
Publisher Price Control…In Theory
For as long as eReader and Fictionwise have been selling them, even back when eReader called itself Peanut Press, the pricing on e-books has never been consistent at the smaller e-book stores.
The agency model might be new to Amazon, but at least one person holds that Fictionwise has always worked under such a model, where the publishers set the prices of their books. On the other hand, someone who works for Macmillan says they don’t, so I don’t know what to think.
Regardless, I definitely remember hearing in long-gone conversations with store employees that under their arrangement, publishers were supposed to drop the prices on e-books to maintain parity with the least expensive print format. When a hardcover goes to paperback, the price of the e-book should drop accordingly.
But somehow, it quite frequently never ended up happening. I no longer have URLs or exact references to point to—they’re probably still buried in the E-Book Community Mailing List archives if anyone wants to trawl through them for proof—but I seem to remember from the aforementioned conversations a consensus that it was like pulling teeth to get publishers ever to re-adjust their prices.
This hasn’t changed much in ten years. Yesterday, to prove a point, I searched on different price ranges of Macmillan books at Fictionwise. I discovered that only 285 (about 15%) of the 2032 Macmillan titles on Fictionwise are priced at $9.99 or less. 857 (about 40%) are priced at $19.99 and up.
I then surveyed each of the 25 titles on the first page of $19.99+ search results, checking against print editions in on-line bookstores and determined that 7 out of those 25 were available as $7 to $9 mass market paperbacks. (See the link above for specific details.)
If I assume it’s a valid random sample and cross-multiply, 7/25 = 240/857. That would mean 240 of Macmillan’s titles—over 10% of their entire Fictionwise line—would be mispriced—or as I like to put it, “invariably priced”—in relation to their paper versions.
My gut feeling is that’s actually a lowball guess; some of the books on that first search were obviously just-added titles they were trying to push so I suspect there was a higher-than-average number of newer, hardcover books than usual—there’s no way that a publisher is going to keep 30% of its entire back catalog exclusively available in hardcover. And that does not take into account titles priced between $19.99 and paperback range, or ones from other publishers.
There are probably thousands of “invariably" priced books on Fictionwise now. And there always have been.
Are these mispricings simply a matter of the publishers not caring enough to keep them updated, or because of the bureaucracy required to get each price updated? In at least one case, it has been confirmed that “invariable pricing” is intentional on the part of the publisher: someone from Digital Mac said that $14 is the “correct” price of an e-book of a book that has been out in $7.99 paperback for several years. No explanation available yet.
This “invariable pricing” is perhaps the most bitter pill for e-book fans to swallow. Is it just neglect? Misunderstanding the market? Intentionally sabotaging e-books to protect the print market? Who knows?
The human mind looks for patterns; that’s why we see shapes in clouds. It’s also why conspiracy theories are so popular. It’s much more satisfying to believe that the publishers are out to get you than it is to believe they’re apathetic or just clueless. But even some published authors believe that publishers want e-books to fail.
And of course, someone not aware of how much of this frustration has built and festered over the last ten years will just assume those people have gone off the deep end.
So in Fictionwise and eReader, you have e-book stores full of $26 e-books of $7 paperbacks. Now suddenly Amazon comes along, and you can suddenly buy $10 e-books of $26 hardcovers. Is it so hard to see why so many e-book fans so passionately embraced it, even with the DRM and restrictive terms and geographical restrictions and typographical errors?
It was because, finally, someone “got” e-books. They knew e-books were “supposed” to be cheaper than paper books. And, perhaps more importantly, they’re selling them cheaply to them.
It didn’t matter that Amazon was selling them below cost, or trying to build up a monopoly, or anything like that. E-books that were “supposed to be” $26 were instead $10. E-books that were “supposed to be” $7—well, I haven’t had time to research to see if they’re $7 or $10, but I suspect that even if they weren’t $7, $10 would still have been a lot better price than the $26 the publishers made Fictionwise charge.
And this is the world that Apple marched into with its agency pricing scheme, and the ominous declaration that, even though the books were going to be $13 to $15, the prices would be “exactly the same as in Amazon”. And then Macmillan made its ultimatum and Amazon pushed the button.
There’s been a lot of noise since then, about price-fixing, monopolies, loss leaders, and so on. Macmillan partisans complained about Macmillan books being pulled from Amazon (except for used copies which didn’t earn them anything). E-book fans complained about Macmillan blackmailing Amazon. Macmillan partisans called e-book fans entitled crybabies, and e-book fans called Macmillan partisans greedy profiteers.
Some e-book fans (including me) have been upset because the agency model amounts to resale price maintenance, a form of price-fixing that is inherently anti-competition and thus anti-consumer. Some Macmillan partisans have responded that Amazon was misusing its size advantage to monopolize the market. The flamewar continues.
But I suspect that all of these issues would largely go away, or at least become largely unimportant to most e-book fans, if it were not for that matter of trust I’ve been talking about.
The heart of the matter is that Macmillan now claims it, and other publishers, want to implement variable pricing.
Make no mistake: if they could, it would be a great thing. As Baen has shown, $15 isn’t necessarily too much to pay for an e-book if you must have it right now (though given that Baen’s $15 “e-ARCs” won’t have print versions available in libraries or sit-and-read bookstores at the time they’re being sold (they’ll have fallen to $6 by then) and Macmillan’s e-books will, I suspect Macmillan won’t sell as many).
Others can wait until the price comes down, just as they do if they’d rather buy a paperback than a hardcover. By and large, we want to give publishers and authors our money—but a fair amount, not paying through the nose.
The problem is that e-book fans look at the ten-year history of invariable pricing at eReader and Fictionwise and doubt Macmillan can be trusted to do it.
Some of these skeptics believe Macmillan is outright lying and planning to destroy e-books by “discovering” nobody wants to buy them at $15 so there must not be a market after all (that “conspiracy theory” idea again), and others doubt Macmillan’s competence rather than its motives—but either way, it amounts to the same thing. If Macmillan couldn’t get its act together in ten years, why does anybody think it can be trusted to do so now?
Over at Making Light, Bruce Baugh thinks that it can because Amazon is a whole different ball game:
Fictionwise says they move about 16,000 volumes a month. Amazon moves…just a few more than that. It’s worth a publisher’s while to make something routine given the extra volume, and I would be slow to take their behavior with regard to a really niche venture as indicative of how they’d like to deal with the single largest sales point in the whole market.
On Tobias Buckell’s blog, Ed Greaves suggests,
It’s a perceptual disconnect. I’ve read several good blog posts about how that’s the silliest idea in the world, that publishers know that ebooks are the future, and they want to get into them, but that the current miasma is causing nothing but chaos. I believe that.
Still, even if Macmillan does come through with variable pricing, I’m a little worried that maybe Macmillan will implement it for Amazon…but it still won’t be worth the time to do it for Fictionwise and eReader, which will keep on selling those $26 paperbacks until they go out of business altogether. I rather hope not, as that’s where I buy most of my books.
So in the end, we have a great deal of anger and frustration on the side of e-book enthusiasts—perhaps as much from not being understood as from the pricing and other quality issues relating to e-books. As a comment from “Thiago” this morning put it:
I’m amazed at how surprised most authors seem to be by the anger of ebook readers, as if it is something that started from the Macmillan/Amazon feud. The fact is ebook readers are mad at Macmillan (and other publishers) for its general mishandling of ebooks (delays in releasing, gaps in series, the general lack of titles, the “variable” pricing and much more) for quite some time now, time during which they have essentially ignored these consumers. The apparent cluelessness of authors on these issues seems to imply authors themselves were just as ignorant.
And in Ficbot’s case, add “geographic restrictions” and “unresponsive customer service” on top of that. It isn’t any wonder that she and others on Mobileread are turning to the one-star “nuclear option”—they feel they’ve already tried just about everything else, and it is the only way they can think of to get attention. (On the bright side, it is at least less destructive than egging cars or painting graffiti.) Maybe authors don’t have a lot of influence over publishers, but if the stores and publishers are powerless to do anything, who else is left?
I’m not sure what the solution is, if there even is one. This whirlwind is made up of ten years of publisher-sown wind (or perhaps more accurately “hot air”). The Macmillan partisans who seem puzzled by the intensity of readers’ reactions, and especially those who berate or belittle them for having what the readers feel are legitimate concerns, only make things worse.
It would be nice to have a little more understanding on both sides, and attempts to engage and communicate, rather than the ridicule and anger we’ve seen so far. It seems particularly needed on the Macmillan side of things—e-book readers (at least the ones who aren’t extremists) have some valid concerns, and it’s annoying getting pigeonholed as entitlement-ridden cheapskates. (Probably almost as annoying as it is for authors to get pigeonholed as greedy, uncaring misers.)
It would also be good if someone could convince the publishers to update their pricing on Fictionwise and eReader, bring it into line and demonstrate the sort of “variable pricing” they would like to bring to Amazon.
But maybe I shouldn’t expect miracles.
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