This isn’t the easiest of series to wrap up. In part because of today’s schedule (I have meetings/class from 10am until 1pm, so god only knows when this post will actually go live), and in part because there are no real conclusions that can be drawn.
Well, except maybe one: Coming at it from a publishing diversity standpoint, the U.S. book scene is totally broke.
I know some people appreciate the stacks of books fronting every B&N in the country, but not everyone. And I find it hard to believe that the endgame results of this are worthwhile. Namely, the fact that everyone in the country is reading the same dozen books at the same time, and that the vast majority of writers are “mid-list,” struggling to make ends meet, stealing away time to work on their art. (Granted, there is something romantic about the starving artist doing what he/she is doing out of love of literature, but thanks to MFA programs, it seems to me that young writers aren’t looking to create the next literary trend, but find a way to create something as entertaining at TV that can land them a two-book deal.)
As I mentioned earlier, one of the main goals of the Study Trip was to explore ideas for new publishing business models. And with good reason. Over the past four days, I hope that it’s become clear that if we continue down the path that we’re currently on (increased readership for eBooks, which have a max price of $10, which are sold in a handful of different proprietary formats, accelerated price wars for print books, more corporate consolidation in response to duplicated overhead costs, shareholder pressure to achieve 15% profit margins, a globalized book market in which America sells its wares everywhere and only the elite of the select of the few get their books translated and published here, advances that are totally insane for totally crappy books like Sarah Palin’s “memoir,” etc.), I believe that corporate publishing will continue to downsize for years to come in order to get out from under their top-heavy operating costs, and the American literary world will continue—thanks to market pressures and MBA grads—to shift from books as cultural item to books as commercial product. We are essentially bankrupting ourselves of art and ideas in search of profits.
(OK, I’ll temper that grandstanding statement: great books are still being published and purchased. And they always will be. That said, you have to admit that things are trending a certain way. For every Bolano, there are a billion “365 Days of Walking My Dog” type books. That wall off the real literature. And that sucks.)
But the thing about eBooks (which I tried to articulate in another multi-part, overly written—though much funnier—essay that I wrote for the Reykjavik International Book Fair) and any other techno-social developments that shake the foundations of the existing power structure, is that these paradigm shifts open up as many possibilities as they destroy. EBooks make things possible that were never possible before. And for all my love of heavy paperbacks, door-stopping, bag strap breaking, paperback, I can still look at the eBook model, at the way a book I want to publish can suddenly be in the hands of every cellphone user in the world, and get really excited.
I have no idea what the future might bring. What publishing might look like in a decade. What device will win out. What format. What business model. But caveats aside, I feel like the only way to really end this series of posts is to speculate wildly. Most of this stuff is probably pie-in-the-sky, Cubs actually win a World Series, sort of stuff, but well . . . actually, I’m lying: my predictions are more likely than that ever happening. (Sorry Cubs fans! Next year!)
So, in no particular order, here are some concluding statements/thoughts:
This sort of mirrors what happened with digital music and the widespread adoption of the mp3 format. Right now, we have a fragmented eBook landscape overloaded with proprietary formats and a ton of potential eBook readers (like myself) who are holding out for a cool reader that isn’t tied to a particular retailer. I don’t want to duplicate my love-hate relationship with
Cingular AT&T when it comes to EBooks. And in addition to blaming eretailers for their file formats, publishers should unite and push for the epub format, for mostly selling eBooks that will work on the Nook, the Kindle, the Sony device. It’s only a matter of time before Google’s love for open source mixed with their tremendous library blows apart all the other formats—in part through a rise in piracy.
It goes without saying that I’m very anti-DRM. I understand why some publishers want to try and find a way to retain this despite the fact that it failed so miserably for the music industry. Especially when 80%+ of their eBook sales revenue is related to a particular author or small set of bestsellers. If those books were unprotected and rampantly pirated in a way that cannibalized print book sales, then the revenue from e-books would be atrociously low.
But I want to take an even more radical position: looking at this from a long-term perspective, I think piracy would be good for eBooks. Not just in the “content deserves to be free, wouldn’t it be great if people were stealing Open Letter books” way. In the way that piracy generates usage, generates interest, gets more people reading more eBooks. And pirates don’t steal everything. This isn’t a on-off sort of game. They might steal some books, but some others, share even more. Regardless, a rise in pirated eBooks will positively correspond to a rise in eBook sales.
This sort of pro-piracy thing doesn’t go over so well with corporate publishers. They want to protect content. Monetize it. Give out small samples, but never the full book. Going back to an earlier MBA class I took, it’s a pretty commonly held assumption that big companies can’t innovate. They can tweak products, alter distribution methods, make small advances. But radical game-changing advancements come from the little guys. (And Apple.)
Admittedly, coming up with a model for how to successfully publish eBooks (even literary eBooks) isn’t necessarily as revolutionary as other twentieth century advances, but in terms of the overall possibility of making this happen, it’s much easier to envision a smaller, savvier, more nimble indie press with low overhead coming up with a way to cover costs and make money on a mix of sales of $10 ebooks and some printed copies.
I think big publishing will transition, and will get there eventually, but it’ll be a difficult, painful process involving some downsizing, some painful decisions, and a revamping of the company’s focus and infrastructure.
In the meantime, their hold on the industry’s distribution chain will probably loosen. Thanks to Amazon.com, indie presses are already able to reach far more readers than they would if they had to rely solely on bricks-and-mortar stores. Which is—despite any objections one might have to Amazon.com’s perceived business practices—a very good thing. More books available to more people is always a plus. And this will only increase with the rise of eBooks.
And as a result, I think more indie and nonprofit presses will pop up. We’ll start seeing more support from individuals and foundations going to literary publishing houses who are able to better explain their role in today’s book culture. There will be a micropress revolution similar to what’s happened in Argentina.
This isn’t to say that Penguin or Random or Harper will go away, but that the publishing landscape will contain many more top-notch indie presses that can more or less compete with the corporations in terms of recognition, respect, and editorial value.
What happens to a publisher in this era though? I believe their brand and editorial vision will become more and more crucial. As will the ability to market. We already know that marketing has been undergoing a pretty intense evolution from a time when you could rely on newspaper reviews to sell a lot of copies to a time of BzzAgents and proliferating bloggers. This shift will be exacerbated as the industry becomes more and more digital. And more and more concentrated.
Marketing will become more closely tied with a press’s “brand,” which will be a function of their editorial vision. Presses with a tight, carefully curated list will connect with a more avid fanbase (one that can help with word-of-mouth), than will presses with a very diffuse, unfocused list. I wouldn’t be surprised if corporate publishers end up reinventing a lot of imprints in order to more easily give a shape and a reputation to a particular set of books.
Personally, I think this would be a good thing. I know people complain about what’s happened to the record industry, but from an aesthetic perspective, I don’t see any problems. There’s just as much good music available today as there was ten years ago. I’d even be willing to argue that the destruction of the corporate behemoths and the way digital opened up space for more unique, diverse voices (and made it easier to discover these bands) has actually improved the quality of music being made. So maybe the downfall of the giants is actually a good thing . . . (Although Eli Horowitz from McSweeney’s—er, in French, MAC Sweeney’s—was quick to point out that big publishers are doing much better, much more relevant work than the big record labels were doing. Which is totally true and sort of cocks up my theory.)
No one really takes self-publishing all that seriously. (OK, not “no one.” But not many people I know.) Unless a book has been selected and edited by a particular publishers, and is printed with a legit logo on its spine, it’s all just fun and games. So the idea of authors self-producing eBooks and selling them directly to readers, thus bypassing publishers completely is a bit far-fetched. (Like Cubs, World Series, I know, I know, dead horse, flogging.) That said, for some writers, this will become a reasonable option. Those authors who have very popular blogs, who have developed a loyal fan base willing to shell out $10 (or less) to directly purchase a writer’s book . . . In the end, this could financially work out, especially assuming these author’s will have the same ability as Random to make their eBooks available to any and everyone with an e-reader or a cell phone. For some this will be appealing . . .
Others will start looking at publishers a bit differently. Sure, the biggest advance will frequently win the book, but in evaluating presses, the editorial brand and the press’s digital marketing savvy will definitely come into play. Authors will be able to look at presses in a slightly different way than they do right now, when publishers still hold most of the power and are the only real option to getting your work in front of readers.
I think that a publisher’s brand and editorial vision will help to attract a certain quality of author—even more so than it does now. That as a result, editors will become a bit more publicly recognized. Not that the man on the street will necessarily know who these people are, but that publishers will start promoting their editors as key players in the process of producing quality books. Almost like movie producers. Or something. (Analogies are escaping me . . . it’s been a long day.) Main point is that publishers will see value in their editorial staff, not just in an internal, yes we need good editors way, but as something they can leverage to increase awareness of their product and attract quality authors.
Not sure what else to say here, but unless we institute a fixed book price law (which I would fully support and I’m sure is somewhere on Obama’s list of things to do), it’s going to become more and more difficult for individual bookstores to survive. They will have to adapt as well, becoming something other than a strict retail establishment. There is a space here for a nonprofit model to come into existence, and for local literary centers to take hold. But I’ll leave that for another set of posts . . .
In the end, books will still be written, and a small, devoted group of people will still read them. In some form. Someones will make money on the exchange between artist and consumer and the world will keep spinning. Who knows what things will look like in ten years. It’s an interesting time . . . And a great time to visit Paris.
Thanks again to everyone involved in making last week’s trip possible—it was amazing, intellectually stimulating, and a lot of fun.
So for the past couple years I’ve been taking business classes at the University of Rochester’s Simon School. Slowly (and I mean really slowly) working my way towards a M.B.A. (And making interesting friends along the way. If you want a lesson in perspective, try explaining the publishing world to future stockbrokers and number crunchers—we seem totally back-assward and mental.) Right now, I’m in an Intro to Marketing class, and on this past Monday, we talked a lot about pricing.
I’m no pricing expert (hell, I’m not an expert in anything, really), but there are a few basic concepts that I think add a little something to the discussion of what people should pay for eBooks.
OK, so in an ideal world ruled by the pseudo-science of supply and demand curves, products would be priced at a level to give just a little bit more consumer surplus than the best alternative. I don’t want to dwell here, but basically, you as a consumer assign a particular benefit value to a product. (This toothpaste is world $5 to me!) And in theory (assuming that people acted rationally, which is bullshit and all, but bear with me, I swear this will go somewhere), in deciding what to buy in a supermarket you evaluate the benefit minus the cost and purchase that option which leaves you with the largest “consumer surplus.” So if the alternative to toothpaste A referenced parenthetically above has a benefit of $4 and a cost of $2, then toothpaste A should retail for $2.50 . . . Or whatever.
It’s all much more complicated, and in the world of normal products, these prices can be shifted on a weekly, no daily, no hourly basis and you can slowly figure out the ideal price point that takes into account demand curves, your costs, channel profits, etc. etc., etc.
But let’s leave all that to people who actually wear ties to work and believe in the American dream. This is a blog about books. And books aren’t a product like any other.
Where do book prices come from? If you really want to know, and want to read a very survey on the topic, you have to visit Literary Kicks and this report that Levi Asher put together a couple years ago. Very interesting, very informative.
Different presses use different methods to come to their prices (a lot use the “what do other people charge” method, some use complicated cost formulas, some use trial-error and randomness), but there are a few important things worth pointing out:
1) The current big publishing business model relies on a two-tier model of very expensive hardcovers followed by a much cheaper paperback. Granted, there are other revenue streams—subrights sales being the most obvious—but if you were just publishing a book and wanted to breakdown the costs, you would evaluate your sales income on X sales of the $25 hardcover followed by Y sales of the $14 paperback.
2) Because it’s impossible (I assume, but again, no M.B.A.) to figure out a demand-curve for a particular book (publishers hate readers, remember), more analytical pricing decisions are based on covering costs. For example, if a Press has $X of operating costs, is paying a $Y advance, $Z to a translator, $M in marketing, $P in printing, wants $$ profit, and assumes sales of H hardcovers and P paperbooks, you can math that up and figure out what the prices should be to cover your costs. Done and done.
3) Even if you wanted to do some sort of technical customer surplus undercutting price war thing, what would the best alternative for a specific book even be? (A: A movie and a six-pack.)
But thanks to technology, there is a way of comparing best alternatives for a specific book: the print version versus the eBook. And this is where things start getting complicated. . . .
Corporate Publishing is premised upon earning 10-15% profits on an annual basis, and a good portion of its revenues come from sales of hardcovers, paperbacks, and now eBooks. Although I don’t work at a publisher of this sort—and never have—from my conversations with other people, it seems that looking to the future, Corporate Publishing wants to retain its current scheme—use expensive hardcovers to cover upfront costs, profit off of paperbacks—while realizing that the world is changing and that it’s perfectly logical to believe that in ten years, eBooks will make up 50% of sales.
So what? Well, so, a couple of things. First off, we all know that eBooks reduce a huge number of costs for publishers (hold up there, HarperStudio, I’ll get to your bit in a minute), such as printing, shipping, warehousing, pulping/remaindering, and other distribution related costs. (And, in a radical position moment—I’d say marketing is reduced as well, because you can reach customers more efficiently and more directly. Not that marketing is free, but if you shift the way you look at everything, you can find new ways of doing things that you used to solve simply by throwing money at them.) Chopping with a dull axe, there are two main possible outcomes: keep the prices of eBooks equivalent to hardcover/paperback and make more money for the corporation and author, or reduce the price of eBooks since readers believe you’re screwing them.
That’s crass, I know, but in France all the talk from big publishers (on both sides of the Atlantic) was how the acceptance of a $10 price for eBooks would DESTROY FOR TIME ETERNAL the business model for publishing. A publisher absolutely can not survive if people are paying so little for their product. As Bob Miller will explain over and again, publishers still have some fixed costs: editorial salaries, marketing, office costs, etc. EBooks cost money to make. OK, we all get that.
quick long interlude: the complaints about Amazon.com and its influence on this price point are very interesting to listen to. As you’ve probably read about, Amazon.com is selling a lot of eBooks for a loss. Check The Lost Symbol: the retail list price for the Kindle version is $29.95, but you can buy it wirelessly for only $9.99. Typically, publishers give retailers a 50% discount, so for every Kindle version purchased, Amazon.com owes Doubleday $15. So they lose $5 on every sale. Why? Capture market share. We all can agree on that. But the long-term impact of this strategy is more complicated.
Big Publishers believe that this will crush them in the future in one of two ways: either they’ll have to reduce the price of their e-offerings, or Amazon.com will start demanding a larger discount so that they can start making money on these sales as well. Either way, the fear is that Amazon.com will find a way to screw with the publisher’s revenue streams. But the fear is abstracted beyond these specifics—as someone said last week, “it’s never good for the market when a retailer is selling your product for at a loss.”
What’s interesting to me as a former indie bookstore employee is there wasn’t nearly the same level of strident complaints from Big Publishers when Costco & Co. decided to sell Harry Potter at a loss and really decimated (more than decimated) sales and potential revenue for the independents trying to compete.
And really, I think Amazon.com’s long-term strategy is more nuanced than people want to believe. Most likely, future pricing for Kindle versions will follow the pricing for print books: best-sellers will be heavily discounted, long-tail titles that don’t sell a lot of copies won’t be. And if you have enough of these long-tail eBooks available, you can offset your losses from the top sellers. This assumes a more stable eBook market and all sorts of things, but still. Digression over.)
Let’s flip over to the customer: First off, readers don’t care who’s losing money on eBook sales. They want to pay as little as possible, and, I’d argue, they actually have a price ceiling that has been created via a decade of purchasing other digital goods. We pay $10 for a CD, why pay more for a product that’s not as fun, not as immediate, not as culturally cherished? And more importantly, where’s the customer surplus equation? I can buy the print version of a book for $18 let’s say, and that gives me a certain amount of satisfaction. What would the eBook have to be priced at to give me an equal amount of satisfaction?
And once again, in broad strokes, we have two camps: that the eBook is inferior to the printed book or that it’s actually worth more.
I fall into the inferior camp. With Kindle, you don’t technically own your eBooks, which is a bit of a drawback. But that aside, you can’t share them, you can’t display them (showing off my bookshelves is how I pick up chicks, er, well, yeah, that never works, but I can dream, right?), you can’t hand them down to your kids, drop them in a bathtub, read them as easily on the beach, buy first editions with cool covers, etc., etc.
On the other side of the argument people point to the fact that you can click on any word and get the dictionary definition (which is super-cool, I’ll admit), that you don’t have to carry so many heavy books (having just moved more than 30 boxes of print books, again, I’ll concede), that you can embed multimedia attributes, and that your books won’t get lost or damaged or misplace or loaned out and never returned, etc., etc.
Recapping: the Corporate Publishers need revenue to remain the same as it was in the days of only print books. They’re afraid that eBooks could cannibalize sales of print versions. They know people don’t want to pay more than $10 for an e-version. So what to do?
Again, big broad strokes to be finely detailed tomorrow (always tomorrow), but there are once again, two main paths. Molly Barton from Penguin (who does, like everything for Penguin and is extremely bright) was the best at articulating the one that seems to be driving most corporations—the idea of adding value to eBooks through the addition of various multimedia things. Like video. Audio. Etc. If you can create a cool product, people will pay $16 and Penguin remains profitable.
Although she’s focusing on the coffee, there’s a way of talking about the cup that sort of fits this same idea. I wrote about this presentation at TOC Frankfurt that focused on doing things to the eBook itself to make it more valuable. Like, for an additional $1, you can share it with a friend. For $2 you can “merge bookshelves” with your life partner. Etc.
The other, more radical approach, is to realize that your business model is flawed. That readers who want eBooks want them for $10 or less. That they can now communicate directly with authors (remember them?). That we’re entering a new world in which old square pegs don’t fit round holes. That you have to find a new business model.
That was really the point of our Study Trip, and the topic of tomorrow’s post.
OK, so despite my best efforts, I don’t really have an overarching design to all of these posts about the study trip. I do have ideas about what I’m going to write about tomorrow (good/bad of eBooks and pricing) and on Friday (authors and business models), but I can’t actually imagine that reading these from one day to the next builds in any coherent, logical fashion. I’m just not that talented, or that clear on what my exact feelings are about eBooks, about the future, etc. It’s a lot easier (some would call it laziness) to just hone in on one aspect of the trip/discussions and try and explore that in ways that hopefully resonate with ideas from the other sections. (This is a long winded way of trying to defend the fact that post trips to Iceland, Frankfurt, Paris, and with Pasadena next week, and moving, and divorcing, and hosting events, and and and, my brain is a bit muddled these days.)
One of the concepts that I find extremely fascinating and fully support in theory, although tend to disregard in practice, is the “Fixed Book Price” law. This was established in France in 1981 as a way of protecting independent bookstores and encouraging publishing diversity. (As I said on our public panel, in the 80s, the French got protections to encourage literary culture, whereas we got Reaganomics. U.S. policy fail.)
(One other worth aside: when the French use the word “diversity” in relation to publishing, they’re talking about the publication of a broad range of titles, including books that have very little chance of selling, but are culturally valuable. Like poetry. Or, uh, translations from languages other than English. This isn’t about race—every single publishing person we met in France was white—or about sex or anything like that.)
It’s pretty self-explanatory, but the fixed price law ensures that any book is sold for the same price at all retail outlets. In other words, there is no discounting on books in France (rather, there’s a maximum discount of 5%). There are no insane prices wars (you hear me, Target?). And Amazon.fr sells 15 euro books for 14,25. Also, the fixed price law established a lower VAT on sales of books (5.5% in comparison to 19ish%).
Initially, people were very against this, claiming that it would prevent the not-so-affluent from being able to access literature (adding a dimension to Robert’s question about the digital divide and who can afford to read). And more importantly—to Americans anyway—this law eliminates one of the major competitive advantages for larger retailers. “If you can’t discount books, how can you get customers and market share? This is some communist-style shit . . .”
Although it was never really stated this way, the fixed book price law has prevented France’s noble book culture from devolving into the quasi-cesspool that we have here in the States, where celebrity “books” are stacked miles high and offered for 45% off, and people read a lot of crap (but not always) because it’s cheap and everywhere. Our book landscape is like a 180 to France’s: Whereas the French state that “books are not a commodity like any other,” a huge proportion of businesses and business people in America tend to see them as exactly that—a commodity plain and simple. (A commodity with crappy profit margins, but still.)
As stated above, the goal of the fixed price law was diversity. Diversity achieved by protecting the independent booksellers and independent publishers. Now although there are like 800 “points of sale” for books in Paris (the bookstore count was a number is complete dispute over the course of our trip . . . seemed that every day, someone would cut this in half, from “800 stores! We rock!” to “well, there are really only 400 bookstores“ to “there are maybe 200 real bookstores,” to “we really only deal with the 100 great indies.”), we didn’t actually meet with any indie booksellers during out trip. So, I don’t have a good sense of what the indies actually think about this law, but based on material evidence—like the fact that there are actually independent bookstores that are surviving—I think they’d approve. And that they like competing with FNAC (the major French bookstore chain) on categories such as presentation, selection, ambiance, rather than something so crass as price.
And this is just the start of government regulation and support of the book industry. There are also grants for bookstores and publishers, loans to expand stock, and a new designation for the absolute best stores in France. (More information about all of this can be found in Lauren Elkin’s fantastic article in the recent issue of Five Dials. She’s got all the details in a much more comprehensive way than I can present them here.)
Most of the ramifications of this law are obvious: there are more books available from more publishers at more bookstores. And publishers get to retain a lot of power, since they can set prices based on their internal costs, and the market pressures are a bit diluted since there’s very little price experimentation and adjustment.
Now, although I can’t prove this (yet), my belief is that the greatest impact of this law is that, relatively speaking, in France a wider variety of titles sell at a higher percentage of overall booksales than what we have in America. Let me try and explain this a bit more clearly: if you plot sales on the y-axis, and number of titles selling that many copies on the x-axis, in America you get an insanely steep drop-off, with a few books selling tons and tons of copies (Harry Potter, Twilight, etc.) and millions of books selling very, very few copies. In France, I suspect the general shape of the curve is the same, but not quite as precipitous. That the relationship between the “long tail” (so to speak) and the mega best-sellers isn’t nearly as huge a proportion as it is in the States.
I could be wrong, and I’m going to try my best to figure this out, but if I’m right, this—to me at least—would be the greatest argument for the fixed book price and would be numerical proof that this law increases reading and publishing diversity.
But—and this is the topic for tomorrow—the fixed book price law doesn’t apply to eBooks. So as eBooks grow in readership, something has to happen. Every publisher/retailer in the country wants the law to be extended to eBooks, and yet, there are huge issues in the marketplace with pricing eBooks at (or above) the price of a printed volume. Seriously, tomorrow is all price points and value added. This paragraph is just an intellectual tease . . .
So, anyway, to hit briefly on the actual topic of this post . . . One of the indie presses we met with was Zulma, a relatively young press that recently rebranded itself and changed its business model, cutting back on the total number of books it’s publishing (dropping from 30 to 12-15) and focusing more on international literature. They also redesigned their books, branching off from the traditional French style of plain white covers with just the author’s name and title of the book on the front cover and creating something extremely attractive. (The guy who does the Penguin Great Ideas series designed these.)
Our conversation with Laure Leroy was extremely interesting, in part because of her adverse reaction to eBooks and certain digital ideas. (I can’t get into it here, but there was an amazing website created for one of her books that is no longer available online because it was giving away the entire text of the 700-page book for free. I have my issues with this . . . tomorrow, tomorrow.) But what stood out to me was her advice on how to sell books in France. Rather than focus on reviews—which she claimed were totally corrupt, using the charming phrase “send the lift back up” to describe the back-scratching, incestuous nature of the review media—she claimed that getting the indie booksellers behind a title was by far the most important thing a publisher could do. So she works closely with the 800/400/200/100 great bookstores of France, sending them review copies, calling them, getting them to handsell certain titles, etc., etc.
This is not unlike what we do with Open Letter and did at Dalkey Archive Press. But imagine this sort of marketing strategy in a world where discounts don’t exist and people still talk to booksellers to get recommendations instead of trending like lemmings to the massive stacks at 50% OFF! (Sure, people still all read the same book in France—I’m not that naive. But there does seem to be a respect for literature that we don’t quite have here. At least not in certain, massively Midwestern parts of the country.) There’s a certain amount of power and respect for bookstores in France—something that’s being eroded here.
All told, I’d love for the fixed book price to exist in America. But introducing that into a congress incapable of getting us health insurance is as likely as building a bookstore on the moon. But one can hope . . .
Coda: Despite all my love for the consequences of the fixed book law, on the last day in France, we were in a bar/bookstore drinking wine, celebrating the closing of my house back here in Rochester, summing up and checking out the book selection. In addition to the absolutely spectacular L’abécédaire des super-héros there was a copy of the Penguin Classic edition of Georges Perec’s Species of Space that caught my eye. But at 11 euros (roughly one thousand American dollars), there was no way I was going to buy this. I mean, it’s only $10 on Amazon.com . . . If only they could knock off a few bucks, or at least barter on the price . . . If I could’ve Bittorrented that book right then and there, I totally would’ve.
As is only appropriate for someone writing about technology, publishing, and audience development, I’ve been posting all of these French Study Trip posts on my Facebook account as well. Personally, I don’t imagine anyone ever reads these (did you see that one yesterday? It was like the War & Peace of abstracted publishing babble!), but actually, yesterday evening two friends posted a few interesting questions that I thought I’d share here (this is digital cross-pollination) to help foster a conversation.
First off, Robert Richardson (I worked with Robert at Schuler Books in Grand Rapids, MI some years back) asked about who would have access to eBooks: “Did you talk much about how eBooks and eBook publishing may reinforce and expand a global class system via the digital divide?”
A: We actually didn’t talk about this, but it’s a really good point. I still believe print books and eBooks will co-exist, but if they co-exist like CDs and digital music . . . well, that could be a problem. Although it’s likely that e-reading devices will drop in cost, cell phones will be used for this as well, and eBook prices will be lower than printed books. (More on that issue on Thursday.) So maybe . . .
Douglas Carlsen from Whitman College Bookstore brought up a ton of good points: “Some random thoughts – If Indie and Corporate publishers value books for different reasons – your aesthetic/profit dichotomy – then must it necessarily follow that one cannot amplify the other? If brand means no sales – this must mean no readers. If no one is reading a particular work, was it worth printing? What is worth worth? Will the . . . Read More accessibility of ebooks reduce the cost of such works making them more likely to be read and make them more “worth” publishing? What value (aesthetic/profit) is any work that is not read? From the profit point of view none, from the aesthetic some – but, in the end from either point of view, troubling. It comes down to a question – “can we justify our value?”. If accessibility by way of ebooks enhances readership at an aesthetic level then what? Yet will anyone read – let us say for argument – Gravity’s Rainbow as an ebook? or Ulysses? or The Ephemera of a Maid’s Dreaming? What is lost what is gained. Does Reader have more import in the process than publisher, or distributor, or bookseller? Or is all a matter of point of view? But it was noted that there was little of note on the author. Without the author’s endeavors there are no works to read. Can an ebook go directly from author to reader? Yes, of course, but what of the aesthetic/profit issue for author? Are those efforts worth it without value? Ah, to be read. If to write to be read were all, what then? The end.”
I have no answers for this . . . yet. Although to be honest, the author comes back into my rambling posts on Friday . . .
Anyway, chime in below. This should be a discussion—after days of debating and questioning and speculating in Paris, I’m not sure we really figured out jack, except to say that things were changing and that this is scary and filled with opportunities. But I’d rather hear what you think.
There are any number of ways to approach the idea of eBooks and the havoc (and joys!) they might play on the business of publishing. As I alluded to yesterday, our group broke into a few different camps relating to this: there was the corporate side of things (Maja from Hachette, Molly from Penguin, Julia from Harper) whose biggest concern was Amazon.com’s influence on the price of eBooks ($10 will crush big publishing!), there was the idea that digital can democratize the distribution platform (btw, there could’ve been a drinking game revolving around the word “platform”), and there was the camp which included Todd from Opium and Paul from Bomb that were interested in the possibilities of developing readership through digital initiatives.
There are a lot of subtleties to these various viewpoints, both in terms of the larger picture, new business model sense and in more precise ideas of how these things play out day-to-day, but I think that I’ll ape the French method once again and start with a more grand, abstract picture of the shifting nature of the publishing world and spend the next few days explaining, exploring, and telling funny stories.
(Todd and I joked that every single meeting on the trip could’ve started with a single statement involving a few key words—“platform,” “digitization,” “fixed price,” “diversity”—and then the rest of the time could’ve been spent unpacking this. “I run a digitization platform that promotes diversity through the fixed price law. Questions?”)
So, on the last day of the trip we had a quasi-spontaneous lunch with Vincent Piccolo of La Martiniere Groupe. Vincent is an economist turned publishing person who works on the platform (drink up!) for eBook distribution that Flammarion, Gallimard, and La Martiniere built together in order to compete with Hachette and Editis, the two biggest publishing players in the French market.
Vincent—who has pretty rad hair—talked to us a bit about what he did, but my favorite moment of the lunch was when he flipped over his placemat and drew out his understanding of the nature of the book world:
I know this looks like random scribbles, but let me explain . . .
The bottom drawing—the linear one—is the traditional publishing model. The Author is on the far left and the Reader is on the far right. In the middle are the Agent, Editor, Publisher, Salesforce, Printers, Distributors, Retailers, and Booksellers. Pretty damn long chain of people to work through to be able to connect with your audience . . . Most importantly, in this traditional model, the Publisher (and arguably, the Retailer) have the most power. They generate the product, they set the price, they work together to extract enough money out of the Readers of the world to pay all the middlemen (and the Author . . . sometimes), they act as gatekeepers as to what’s made available, they craft the tastes of the reading public by promoting certain books over others.
This is a very comfortable situation—especially for French publishers. (More on that tomorrow when I get into the intricacies of the “fixed book price” law.) There is a clear chain of economic command, and everyone’s role is well defined.
But. Things are changing. The world isn’t so publisher-centric anymore thanks to Amazon.com. Thanks to Google. And that’s what the circle drawing on the top is meant to represent.
We now live in a i-fricking-everything world in which the Reader has much more power than he/she has ever had before. Thanks to technology, thanks to the Internet, Readers have almost unlimited choices for how to spend their time. Instead of a quaint world in which Readers rely upon the Publisher-Retailer chain to identify, produce, and make available for sale a work they might be interested in, the Reader can now search for and, in the eBook dominated world of the near future, find basically anything he/she might desire. Without having to rely upon a Publisher or necessarily a Retailer.
So the situation Vincent was describing places the Reader at the center of the Book Universe, with the Publisher-Salesforce-Distributor-Retailer chain in a ring on the outside. Amazon.com—an extremely reader-centric company—is a bit closer to the Reader, giving him/her instant access, personalized recommendations, a way of interfacing with the entire long tail of published materials, including ones generated by self-published authors . . . And Google might end up being even a step closer, offering access to an equally enormous range of materials, but also giving Readers a way to sync their experiences and to get to these works from any computer anywhere in the world. As if they’re run by diligent MBA students, both companies are trying to give the customers what they want, when they want it, and how they want it.
This is frightening to Big Publishers. The comfortable model that has defined the development and evolution of this century’s book world is under siege. Disrupting the supply-chain loosens the control that Publishers-Retailers (I should redefine that as “Traditional Retailers”) have had over the past X number of years.
I know this is painting with broad, sloppy strokes, but continuing down that theoretical path for a moment it seems to me that publishing (at least over the past few decades) has been a supply-side game. Because of the structure of our business with its returns, its payment structure, its sunk costs and bets on public taste (no one really knows if a book will click with readers or not), publishers have evolved in a way that they’re always trying to outrun their expenses. Publish more books in more categories to reach more niche readers to sell more than you’re currently getting in returns. Outrun yourself. And if you can’t do it on the production side of things, then simply buy another press. Get bigger. Share costs across imprints. Synergize this shit. Make money by producing more varied content rather than spend time to ensure your content is reaching as large of an audience as possible. Put all of your proverbial eggs in the basket with the biggest advance.
This is an insane model that only really works if publishers are in charge and readers can’t circumvent the traditional distribution chain. But once the Reader is the center of the book world, things have to change to being more oriented to the demand-side of things. There’s too much available now. There are too many books, too many options, too many devices that allow you to do too many things. In this vision of the world—sketched by Vincent on the back of a placemat—the role of the Publisher in the future is to find ways to create an interest in its books. To return to audience cultivation and giving readers what they want. (Just wait: this idea is what’s driving Penguin’s ideas about eBooks and how to drive up the price through the addition of new media. But that’s for later.)
Following on the ramifications of this idea, we (Todd Zuniga and myself) drew out a couple more charts that explained the role of the Book to an independent, reader-centric press/magazine and to a traditional, corporate, bottom-line oriented publishing house:
So the larger circle in the center is how Todd sees Opium functioning. The book is at the center, and everything he does—producing the magazine, promoting it through Facebook, organizing Literary Death Matches—has the goal of elevating the work itself and finding readers to appreciate it. This is “Book sub Aesthetic.” From his perspective what’s most important is the quality of the work. The book’s “value” is in the quality of the text itself.
The smaller circle is my jaded view of corporate publishing. The book is also at the center, but it’s “Book sub Profit.” What’s most important to Big Publishing is the amount of money that can be extracted from a given work via sales of the book, sales of the foreign rights, sales of the film rights, sublicenses of the paperback version, etc., etc. (And the Reader exists on a little planet off on her own . . . And no, I don’t remember what the box in the upper right hand corner represents . . .)
This isn’t to say that corporate publishers don’t publish aesthetically interesting works—they most definitely do! Some of the best books in the world are coming out of Harper, Penguin, Hachette, Random House, etc. That’s not the issue. What we’re trying to
say draw is that is that “indie” vs. “corporate” Publishers value books for different reasons. I would look at Twilight and decide against publishing it because I don’t want to unleash that aesthetic sensibility on the reading public; Hachette looks at Twilight, might be wary of its literary merit, but can value the fact that it will make them tons of cash and it doesn’t really matter how people are affected by reading the book. (OK, I shouldn’t pick on Mormon writers, especially never having opened a single volume of the “Twilight Saga.” But I’m assuming. And you know what I mean.)
Should small presses be seeking out books that can simply make them money? That might suck, but could underwrite a dozen other titles that won’t break even? We all want to sell as many copies as possible, or, put more gently, reach as many readers as we can. But I think the answer to those two rhetorical questions resides in a publisher’s belief in branding as a function of editorial vision.
And this is a topic for a later post on the value of publishers in the digital future . . . I think for now, this post is more than long enough, and filled with completely insane capitalization . . .
We’ll have a few other sorts of posts going up this week (like maybe, finally, a few new book reviews—this fall has been rather rough on our schedule, but I have pieces in the works on Anonymous Celebrity by Ignacio de Loyola Brandao, The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, and Running Away by Jean-Philippe Toussaint), but for the most part, I think I want to explore some of the ideas, themes, events, and jokes of the French Study Trip I was on last week.
And unlike my normal long, multi-part posts that are organized in some semi-coherent format, I think I’m going to go all Parisian on this experience and just start from a few simple diagrams and see where everything leads me. I can already feel a record number of digressions coming on . . .
But actually, this is an important point: When we were at our first lunch, I sat across from Aimee from the Maison des Cultures du Monde (the organization responsible for the program itinerary) who got to talking about her school experience at a bilingual school where some classes were taught in French, others in English. The differences in the two sorts of classes went beyond language to conceptual structures though. In English classes, essays had strong theses that were stated up front, backed by three or more pertinent examples, concluded in a precise, summarizing form. In French classes, essays started from point A with a question, then drifted, touching on various points and hopefully coming to some sort of opinion/answer about the original question by the end.
I know, I know, that’s so French, but also starts to sort of explains the reasons why both American and French readers are so dismissive of contemporary French literature. I can’t tell you how many times people—publishers, editors, critics, ministry officials—made self-deprecating comments about how French literature (especially post-Nouveau Roman) was self-indulgent and written for other intellectuals, not for readers.
Personally, I don’t think this is very fair . . . Writers like Jean-Philippe Toussaint, like Jean Echenoz, like Lydie Salvayre, like Mathias Enard, have created interesting, readable books that are rather engaging. But they do tend to drift . . . The other French book I’m reading right now — Jacques Roubaud’s The Loop — is almost a perfect example of the overly-intellectualized writing that contemporary readers shy away from. Not that The Loop isn’t good — it’s pretty damn fantastic, in fact — but it’s a book without a solid, singular plot/thesis that can be traced from point A to point B to point C.
This is something I’ve noticed all over the world during my various editorial travels: Wherever I go, it seems that the local publishers apologize for the recent literary history (“during the 70s, our writers were rather, um, how should I put it, experimental, but now . . .”) and claim that the more contemporary writers are heavily influenced by the American and British writers that have been published in translation (“he’s like an Icelandic/German/Czech/French Jonathan Franzen!”).
To get back on track and to provide a bit more of a framework: This week-long study trip was organized by the French-American Foundation (and the amazing Emma Archer), the French Ministry of Culture & Communication, and the Maison des Cultures du Monde (special shout-out to Juliette Farcy and Mariska de Jonge), to provide seven American publishing professionals (myself, Molly Barton from Penguin, Julia Cheiffetz from HarperStudio, Eli Horowitz from McSweeney’s, Maja Thomas from Hachette, and Todd Zuniga from Opium) with an opportunity to explore the future of publishing on both sides of the Atlantic, especially in relation to the growing eBook market. Over the course of the trip we met with government officials, publishers, bookstores, database developers, people who create eBook platforms, magazine editors, and each other to talk about business models, gadgets, economic theories, and literature.
It’s no surprise that looking back on this week of meetings things are still a bit hazy . . . There was a hell of a lot of information—and opinions!—shared over the course of the five days, and personally, my trip got off to a rather rough start. Due to “weather-related events” (oh, and a busted bathroom), I spent seven hours at the airport in Rochester, waiting to board a flight to JFK, where I totally missed all flights to France and was forced to sleep on the floor of Terminal 4 and wait till 8pm the next day to catch a flight to Paris. For those keeping score, I was in an airport or airplane for almost 40 hours prior to showing up halfway through the first official meeting of the study trip. I was like a Toussaint character: bumbling, discombobulated, in a permanent state of jet-lag with a shirt whose collar was a bit dingy. (This too is exceedingly French: Everything is autobiographical.)
But once settled in, I found the other people on the trip (a couple of whom I already knew) to be extremely interesting and cool. (I believe the phrase used by all the organizers was “Best Study Group Ever.”) I’ll describe them in more detail over the course of this week, but one thing worth noting right from the start is how odd it was that all four guys were from indie presses/magazines and all three women hold powerful positions at huge corporate publishers. We all got along swimmingly—as should be expected—but it was interesting to see the interplay between all the different points of view: from those wanting to charge hardcover prices for eBooks to those wanting to use technology to cultivate larger readerships to those wanting to smash the current publishing system.
Maybe the best way of getting into all of the knotty issues surrounding digital, the future of publishing, French “fixed book prices,” and whatnot is with a series of graphs that we drew on placemats at our final lunch of the week . . . But I’ll save that for tomorrow. The only other thing I want to say in terms of scene setting is that Paris is the first world city I’ve ever visited that is even more beautiful than people had described it. Stunning. Grand. Bigger than life. And filled with beautiful buildings, artwork, and people.
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