The battle between Amazon and the Big Five publishers is complicated by the fact that neither “side” is exactly easy for authors and readers to be on. No one who cares about a diverse and healthy literary marketplace, where new ideas and writers can reach a wide audience -- and even non-blockbuster authors are paid enough for their work so that they can continue doing it -- can reasonably side with Amazon.
But the publishers have botched so many opportunities in recent years, and have been so maddeningly slow to adapt to the digital marketplace, that it’s hard not to feel that they deserve some kind of comeuppance. So when Matt Yglesias writes a Vox explainer about how we shouldn’t feel sorry for publishers, who are “superfluous” and “terrible at marketing” and deserve to go out of business, it’s excruciating to read not because it’s so off-base -- which, for the most part, it is – but because it’s not entirely wrong.
Publishers’ interests aren’t always aligned with those of authors, or readers, and a lot of their business practices don’t make, and have never made, much sense. In spite of that, though, there are a few great reasons why writers and readers need to stay on their side.
It’s true, big publishing is big business. It’s also a business that, contrary to what Yglesias and the constant stream of Death Of Publishing think pieces would have you believe, is doing pretty well. Thanks in large part to e-book sales, which for the moment provide publishers with large margins thanks to their lower production costs, industry-wide net revenue has been on the rise for the last couple of years. That doesn’t mean they have nothing to fear, as Yglesias implies, from Amazon’s chokehold on the marketplace; it just means that there’s still time to reverse trends that could make his over-the-top pronouncements seem more plausible.
Unfortunately, publishers seem uninterested in investing those margins in ways that would help them break free of Amazon’s market dominance. But to figure out why they’re so reluctant, it helps to shake off the Yglesias-y paradigm wherein books are interchangeable widgets.
Yglesias’ weakest point – and one I’m not sure why he included, because it doesn’t support his “Amazon is crushing publishers” thesis – is “Amazon faces lots of competition.” While it may be theoretically possible for customers to buy elsewhere – Yglesias points out that e-books are also available from Apple and Google and from Barnes & Noble – the more relevant information is that for the most part, consumers don’t. Also, it’s widely acknowledged in the book business that B&N’s demise is a question less of “if” than of “when.” Publishers talk about B&N like it’s a beloved dying relative: Everyone wants it to stay as healthy as possible, but the end is coming.
So why haven’t publishers, as Yglesias suggests, made their own e-reading apps and e-bookstore? I don’t think it’s because they or their parent companies “don’t really care.” For publishers to do that, they would likely have to forgo selling their books on Amazon entirely, or at least forgo selling them effectively. If Amazon reacts to holdups in pricing negotiations by delaying a book’s shipping by three weeks and directing readers to similar, more available titles, you can imagine how it would react to publishers’ competing with them directly. While a publisher’s e-bookstore launched and got its footing, all the books published that season would be essentially doomed. All publishers, in theory, want to wean themselves off of Amazon. But none of them can bring themselves to imagine letting years’ worth of their and their authors’ hard work go up in flames.
Because – oh, right! – the editors and marketers and salespeople and publicists who work at the major publishers work incredibly hard and care deeply about books, and for all their flaws, this is the best argument for their survival. Publishing, as everyone who’s been lucky enough to have a great editor knows, is a collaborative process, and has been since the dawn of the modern publishing industry. Most of the books we revere as classics would be very different, or wouldn’t even exist, without the often-invisible work of editors and copy editors and cover designers who brought them into the world in their iconic format. Even in an age when we read words on devices rather than on paper, the words themselves still matter. To imply otherwise is just insulting to those people and their work.
I’m sorry that Yglesias hasn’t had a good experience with his publisher’s marketing department. But I’d invite him to really think about how much worse it could be in a potential future where there is no marketing department. In that potential future, readers are likely to encounter a handful of name-brand authors rich or foolish enough to promote their own work, and versions of them that an algorithm finds potentially similar. Maybe Matt Yglesias’ work would fare well in that world. For me, that’s almost argument enough against it.