Mad Middle Men

Jens wrote an excellent post about self-publishing via the intertron, go forth and read. Then come back.

The past ten years or so have seen a massive amount of conflict between the internet and traditional publishers of all sorts – record companies, book publishers, radio stations, comic strip syndicates, television studios, etc. In many ways it’s the same old feud that has always happened whenever new technology comes along, whether it’s FM radio, VHS, cassette recorders, whatever. The titans of the old industry can’t keep up with the times, and thus fade to obscurity if they can’t adjust. We’re seeing this with those pricks over at the RIAA right now. And, I suspect, we are seeing it with the current batch of book publishers, whose attempts to sell via the new e-readers may be doomed to become little more than a novelty rather than the revolution they should be. I will explain.

The current struggle we’re seeing between the internet and publishers is not one of old vs new industry, though; it is a gang of middle men versus the artists. Historically, that’s what publishers are – a group of editors, salespeople, and lawyers who pay the artist some amount of cash to produce content, which, until recently, only the publisher had the resources to promote and distribute.

There are lots of ways various artists are circumventing all of that. I doubt I need to go into how self-published creators are becoming successful. And in the process, they often get to keep their properties and their profits. This is common knowledge, right?

Theoretically, publishers serve a secondary purpose, that of a filter, right? These are supposed to be people who can recognize good content. I would say on the whole, though, they have failed us in that regard. Failed us terribly.

I thought this was particularly interesting from Jens:

Many ebooks produced by major companies sell, incredibly, in the $6-12 range. JA Konrath prices his at $2-3 and makes up for it with volume – volume and the amazing 70% royalties Amazon pays.

I’ve had this conversation with a few friends recently. I was looking at the prices of the books in Amazon’s Kindle store and was impressed by the prices, but not in a good way. It was no cheaper to buy the electronic books than it was to grab cheap paperbacks. And this isn’t even counting the cost of the device, which I consider ludicrous (maybe I’m just a cheap bastard, though). I get the (debatable) value gains of an e-book over a print copy, but I also understand that it costs the publisher less to put out that file than it does to print a few thousand copies (that may not sell) to send out to bookstore shelves. If iTunes can, with massive success for all parties involved, sell songs for a buck, there’s no reason a book publisher can’t sell a digital book for $2-3.

Is the Kindle (and related products) awesome? Absolutely. I can’t wait for someone to invent a nice big color version for my comic book addiction. But their business model and philosophy needs to catch up before people lose interest, shrug, and toss this luxury aside in favor of the next flash-in-the-pan gadget.

Content should not be considered a luxury, I guess is what I’m saying. Publishers should want an e-reader in everyone’s hands, and we writers should want that, too. E-readers should do for fiction what mp3 players have done for music. Make the pretty leather-bound edition of our novel the quaint luxury that I put on the shelf to impress visitors, not the digital ink.

Surely 100 million people buying books at $3 a piece is better than 3 million buying at $10 a piece? Not just for the companies, but for society as a whole?

Because, ultimately, things are evolving to where the artists no longer need these people who are attempting to control and bottleneck our content. In their panic, those people are probably going to screw things up for all of us.

3 thoughts on “Mad Middle Men”

  1. “Not just for the companies, but for society as a whole?”
    Yes! Yes!

    Also, screw Garrison Keillor to hell. He sounds scared, but hiding it behind faux-mournfulness for a dead, yet (he thinks) far superior era. It IS scary to think of everyone chattering away at their keyboards at once, until you realize that there has ALWAYS been crap, and there have ALWAYS, at any one time, been too many books for anyone to read. Even if there are ten million new books coming out every year instead of a million, the good stuff will still rise to the top, and the talented, lucky people will still sell copies.

    See, Keillor’s “Old Era” didn’t end five years ago, with the advent of POD and e-pubbing, it ended in the 80s, when people switched to video games and TV (now I sound old). Readership has been declining since, and it’s been harder and harder to break in to “real” publishing. Nor do the publishers function like they used to. As he says, he waited a month for his acceptance. I’ve been waiting SIXTEEN MONTHS to hear back. Not an acceptable way to do business.
    The electronic era will still have its successes – Cory Doctorow gives his books away for free, and makes a living – but it’s a weird, new, slippery surface that is hard to grasp.

    Bleh. Anyway, YOUR post, yeah, I agree completely.
    I think that major publishers keep their e-books priced so stupidly high so they don’t undercut sales of ACTUAL books. Which, whatever. They could also view e-pubs as a way to publish normally difficult-to-sell books, like novellas. Or like a mid-list author’s 600,000 word magnum opus that is weird and brilliant but would only sell a few hundred as a $30 hardback.

    I should clarify that Amazon’s default royalty rate is 35%. To get to 70%, under new terms, your book must 1) have every Kindle function available, like text-to-speech (which isn’t that hard) and 2) must be priced lower on the Kindle than elsewhere – the reason, of course, being to sell more Kindles. And 3) It must be between 2.99 and 9.99.

  2. “it ended in the 80s, when people switched to video games and TV”

    Yes. Books shouldn’t be priced in such a way to make people choose between books and video games, because that’s a fight we won’t win, especially if you’re a genre writer whose audience crosses over with that demographic.

    EDF Comrade Kevin Shamel recently had a big push for his book and got it up to a sales rank of 4200 (on Amazon, up from probably closer to half a million) in pretty short order, and that was with less than 200 sales. There’s some sort of lesson there, I’m sure.

  3. I’m also aware of a deep, cruel irony in the fact that I work for a publishing company, and if the revolution of ideas I desire were to come to pass I’d be out of a job. But what are you gonna do?

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