Sunday, January 31, 2010

Let There Be (E-book) War: A Few Thoughts and Points of Information on the Amazon-Macmillan Dustup

I write this with the notion that you, Dear Reader, know what I am referring to in the title of this post. If you don't, here is the AP article that lays out what is the opening round in the new Literary Range War. And, there has already been a resolution of sorts to this battle: Amazon just announced a short time ago that they are capitulating to Macmillan's position. This after a day of copious discussion of this in a number of circles, but most intensely, perhaps, in the SF world (as evidenced by the fact that the AP article quotes John Scalzi and CoryDoctorow), as many authors took up their keyboards to respond to this situation and analyze it.

I have a few thoughts on this matter, but they come from an odd perspective. I am an aspiring author, an avid reader, an observer of SF's social milieu, and a fan. So what I offer here are reflections on how this has been received and what significance it might have for the producers and buyers of SF literature, beyond the harsh business details. Several authors who know a lot more about the business have already responded, and for sometimes mind-bending amounts of detail about book pricing, distribution, etc., I urge you to check them out: Tobias Buckell, Charles Stross, and Scott Westerfeld have all expounded on this hullabaloo at length, with industry insights that illuminate the larger issues quite well. As for me, well:

1) The hegemons at Amazon are being dicks. Yes, I think that is the proper cultural term for them. Having read a lot of the responses to this from authors, publishers, readers, and clueless business reporters who know nothing about how publishing works, I believe that I can safely use this characterization. Macmillan wanted to talk price restructuring, and before John Sargent got back home from the negotiation Amazon pulled physical and e-book titles, dropped the titles off of wishlists, and reportedly even removed sample chapters from Kindles. As Jay Lake put it, "[i]t's bullying, pure and simple..." as Amazon tries to flex its rippling market musculature to intimidate a publisher into doing what it wants (as it has done in the past). Personally, I don't care if they have the right to do it, or if it is some tactical maneuver to gain position for more negotiations, or even if it is just Jeff Bezos being crazy. It is purely a dick move, an attempt by an entity with a lot of market power to force other players in the bookselling game to let them write the rules. It disrespects the market, it disrespects their suppliers, and even disrespects their readers, although many of the latter seem to not realize this.

I know that using the word "disrespect" in relation to the American business-scape may be cause for a chuckle, as businesses routinely undercut, deceive, and strongarm each other and everyone around them to turn a profit, or at least appear to try to turn a profit. But I mean it; Amazon has demonstrated that in this instance it: cares nothing for how the market works; thinks its suppliers are chattel who must bow to their feudal overlord, and; trusts that its customers are loyal and blinkered and easy to sway with promises of low prices that are artificially kept low to lure them into buying an expensive contraption for reading their books. That is a mountain of churlish disdain that should tell all involved that Amazon is at the higher levels no longer in the business of selling books, but of gathering influence and control to deepen its dominance in the online world. It is both a business move, and a grab for symbolic capital.

2) This situation has created a lot of frustration, anger, and pre-emptive bitterness, particularly from the most vulnerable quarter of the bookselling world: the authors, but it has also spurred many authors to examine the issues surrounding Amazon's tactics. SF authors such as Jay Lake were the first to bring attention to this situation, and have written at length and with great passion about it. Most of them have approached it from a business perspective (as seen in the blogs cited above), but in reading these pieces there is a sense of not just defending one's livelihood, but of defending one's position as a creator, as a dynamic part of the book industry. SF authors, moreso than many others I think, are not just keenly aware of their structural position in the book business, but have a strong sense of identity as the engine of that business.

The fact that even those who do not move a fraction of a percentage as many books as James Patterson, Inc. feel that they can and should defend the publisher and their own stake in this skirmish says a lot about the social position that SF authors occupy, one bolstered by fans and often by adherents in the publishers themselves. SF authors also have a strong sense of their creative abilities that is heightened by the challenges of the genre itself, I believe, and often have a more critical perspective on the world. While partisans of the publisher, they try to take the wide and the long views of this situation and have provided some solid analyses of Amazon's actions. I think that the citations of John Scalzi and Cory Doctorow in the AP article are not just a matter of the reporter's preference, but stem from the strong, thoughtful stances that they publicly took as soon as the situation unfolded, stances that reify their positions even as they shed some insight on this battle.

3) I am reading widely on this and taking lots of notes, because I think this is the beginning of the next stage of the publishing market's transformation. This is just the start of the Great E-Book Kerfuffle, which won't end until, like the music industry, publishers and e-sellers relinquish control over the books themselves, forced by consumers and, perhaps, creators to cede to the market's evolution. Part of Amazon's control scheme is to maintain DRM on its Kindle e-books, and while some publishers demand it, those that don't are overridden by Amazon when it sells their e-titles. The question of control is going to be the central dispute as this mercantile war unfolds. Price control, product control, format control: how the players deal with these issues will likely determine the success of the e-book market.

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