Amazon channels Orwell in its latest blast
Anybody who reads Amazon’s latest volley in the Amazon-Hachette war and then David Streitfeld’s takedown of it on the New York Times’s web site will know that Amazon — either deliberately or with striking ignorance — distorted a George Orwell quote to make it appear that he was against low-priced paperbacks when he was actually for them.
This recalls the irrelevant but delicious irony that the one time Amazon exercised its ability to claw back ebooks it had sold was when they discovered that they were selling unauthorized ebooks of Orwell’s “1984”. The right thing to do was exactly what they did: pull back the copyright-violating ebooks and refund the money to the purchasers. This (apparently) one-time event has often been cited as some sort of generic fault with ebooks, as though ebook vendors would make a practice of taking back what they had sold their customers. This was a case where Amazon was villified in some quarters for doing the right thing which simply adds to the irony.
However, the most misleading aspect of the Amazon piece is not the Orwellian treatment of Orwell, but the twisted metaphor in which the low-priced ebook is the low-priced paperback of today’s world. (The analogy was one I wrote about three years ago with, I think somewhat more care for the facts.) Yes, they were both new formats with a lower cost basis that enabled a lower retail price to yield positive margins. And there’s one other striking similarity: they both unleashed a spate of genre fiction to satisfy the demand for the format, largely because the rights to higher-value books were not available for the cheaper format, but also because lower prices attract some readers more than others. But that is where the similarities end.
This argument against Hachette, using authors as proxies and lower-prices-for-consumers as the indisputable public good, once again employs two logical fallacies that are central to their argument that Hachette (and its parent company, invoked to give the appearance of relative equality of size between the combatants, which is still nowhere near the case) is craven and muleheaded and that Amazon is merely engaged in a fight for right.
1. Amazon’s logic is entirely internal to Amazon. It does not attempt to take into account, or even acknowledge, that publishers and their authors are dependent on other channels besides Amazon. And, in fact, the publishers and authors know for sure that the more the sales do concentrate within Amazon, the more their margins will be reduced.
2. The price elasticity statistics they invoke (for the second time in as many public statements), which are also entirely internal to Amazon, are averages. They don’t even offer us a standard deviation so we can get a sense of what share of the measured titles are near the average, let alone a genre- and topic-specific breakdown which would show, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that many Hachette books would not achieve the average elasticity rate. See if you can find anybody with an ounce of statistical sophistication who thinks a book by Malcolm Gladwell has the same price elasticity as a romance or sci-fi novel by a relatively unknown author.
The actual history of the paperback in America contains elements of what Amazon claims. It actually begins after World War II, not before (although Penguin began in this country in 1939). During World War II, under the leadership of historian and renaissance man Philip Van Doren Stern, the military made 25 cent paperbacks available to the troops. That introduced the idea to the masses and after the war several mass-market paperback houses started.
They distributed through the magazine distribution network: local wholesalers that “pushed” copies of printed material to newsstands and other intermediaries who took their distribution of copies, displayed them until the next edition of the magazine would come out, and then sent back the covers to get credit for what was not sold. The first paperback books had a similar short shelf life in that distribution environment.
What made the cheap prices possible were several factors:
1. The books themselves were frequently formulaic and short and therefore cheap for the publisher to buy. The universe of titles for the first several years was, aside from classics from the public domain, a different set of titles than those sold by mainline publishers through bookstores.
2. There was no expensive negotiation between publishers and the accounts over an order for each shipment of books. The wholesaler simply decided how many copies each outlet would get and, in the beginning, the wholesaler pretty much distributed what the publisher asked them to. The “check and balance” was that the publisher would get worthless covers back for the unsold books and that was their constraint against oversupplying the system. Over time, that aspect of things broke down and the publisher had to work the wholesalers to get the distributions they wanted.
3. The books themselves were cheaper too: less and cheaper paper and much less expensive binding.
4. The adoption of the magazine system of covers-only for returns created a big saving compared to the trade book practice that required returns of the whole book in saleable condition to get credit.
5. The retailer took a considerably smaller share of the retail price than bookstores got on trade books.
At the same time that the mass-market revolution was beginning, conventional trade publishers also started experimenting with the paperback format. The first extensive foray of this kind was by Doubleday in the early 1950s, when wunderkind Jason Epstein (later the founder of NY Review of Books and still active as one of the founding visionaries behind the Espresso Book Machine) created the Anchor Books line.
My father, Leonard Shatzkin, was Director of Research at Doubleday (today they would call it “New Business Development” or “Change Management”) at the time. He often talked about a sales conference at Bear Mountain where Sid Gross, who headed the Doubleday bookstores, railed against the cheap paperbacks on which the stores couldn’t make any money! So, it was true that the established publishing industry and the upstart paperback business had a period of almost two decades of very separate development.
It took until the 1960s — a decade-and-a-half after the paperback revolution started — before the two businesses really started to coalesce into one. And the process of integrating the two businesses really took another decade-and-a-half, finally concluding in the late 1970s when Penguin acquired Viking, Random House acquired Ballantine and Fawcett, and Bantam started to publish hardcover books.
My own first job in trade publishing was in 1962, working on the sales floor of the brand new, just-opened paperback department of Brentano’s Bookstore on 5th Avenue. Even then, the two businesses operated separately. The floor of the department had chin-high shelves all around with what we’d call “trade paperbacks” today, arranged by topic. They were mostly academic. On a wall were the racks of mass-market paperbacks and they were organized by publisher. If you wanted to find the paperbacks of a famous author whose rights had gone to a mass-market house, you had to know which house published that author to find the book. (That was good; it made work for sales clerks!)
There was a simple reason for that. The two kinds of paperbacks worked with different economics and distribution protocols. The trade paperbacks were bought like hardcovers; everything that was shipped in was because a buyer for Brentano’s had ordered it. The mass-markets were “rack-jobbed” by the publisher. They sent their own reps in to check stock on a weekly basis and they decided what new books went into the racks and what dead stock was pulled. It was to make the work of the publishers efficient that the mass-markets were grouped by publisher.
The highly successful commercial books that became mass-market paperbacks got there because the hardcover publisher, after it had booked most of the revenue it expected to get for the book, then sold mass-market rights to get another bite of the apple.
Little of this bears much resemblance to what is happening today. Little of this is comparable to the challenges trade publishers face keeping alive a multi-channel distribution system and a printed book market that still accounts for most of the sales for most of the books.
But the most striking difference today is that a single retailer controls so much of the commerce that it can, on its own, influence pricing for the entire industry. The mere fact that one single retailer can try that is itself a signal that we have an imbalance in the value chain that is unprecedented in the history of publishing.
One other aspect of this whole discussion which is mystifying (or revealing) is Amazon’s success getting indie authors to cheer them on as they pound the publishers to lower prices. (The new Amazon statement is made in a letter sent to KDP authors.) This is absolutely indisputably against the interests of the self-published authors themselves, who are much better off if the branded books have higher prices and leave the lower price tiers to them. That seemed obvious to me years ago. Yet, Amazon still successfully invokes the indie author militia to support them as they fight higher prices for the indies’ competition! You will undoubtedly see evidence of that in the comment string for this post (if history is any guide).
The tactic of publishing Michael Pietsch’s name and email address with a clear appeal for the indie authors to flood his inbox is an odious tactic, but, in fairness to Amazon, that odious tactic was initiated by the Authors United advertisement headed by Douglas Preston which gave Bezos’s email address. This is something that both sides should refrain from and, in this case, Amazon didn’t start it.