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The Reading World

Noted Opinion, June 21, 2009

A couple of articles crossed my radar today. Some thoughts….

Zombie Publishers, a nice philippic by Morris Rosenthal with a video interview with Harlan Ellison that’s worth the link alone. I’ve been approached about writing the kind of slap-dash book by “contributors” that he describes by a surprisingly wide range of well-known publishers, it’s not a feature of “bad” publishers, it’s becoming the norm. Like Rosenthal, I don’t like the trend. Ultimately, he’s making the argument that paying a writer to write well is a worthwhile investment or, if you are contemplating self-publishing, writing well is worth the effort. Yes!

Democracy’s tough, but Amazon’s role isn’t pure as switch11 argues over at iReader Review. First off, I agree with the initial points made in the article, that Google v. Amazon, Kindle v. Sony Reader, Plastic Logic v. Kindle DX are all distractions from the real transformation of the publishing market. They are sideshows, as I wrote yesterday. However, the article then veers into the ideologically charged topic of “democratizing publishing” an identifies enemies of progress. The author throws unfocused charges about misinformation from publishers and “other sites, and bizarrely characterizes Scribd as an enemy of democratization, apparently because it will “let Publishers determine pricing.” “People who are stuck in the past” are also enemies of progress; I’d argue they are barriers to, but more likely poised to become victims of, progress. There is also discussion about misinformation, which is rampant in this market, though it seems to me to be coming from many different sources, not just the enemies identified in the posting.

Stay grounded during an industrys evolution
Stay grounded during an industry's evolution

Switch11 goes on to say that Amazon’s position in the market is essentially “democratic,” even though it acts as a pricing arbitrator. Governments that set pricing ruin economies. Amazon is making useful early suggestions about pricing but is smart enough to know it must let prices find their own level. Building on the Amazon qua democratizing hero, Switch11’s argument goes: “Publishers are used to the status quo i.e. they control what gets published, they make the lion’s share of the profits, we read what they decide we should read, and so forth.” There is also the standard “we are at the beginning of a revolution” rhetoric, but really, it’s an evolution. Revolution is what is happening in Iran. In publishing the krill shrimp that were authors and small publishers suddenly are equals in the food chain with industrial publishing whales. The big question now is what to do with all the blubber in the old system, and that’s Switch11’s point, though it is buried in a lot of finger-pointing.

Kindle didn’t start this change, desktop publishing and cheap printing exploded the economics of the publishing industry in the 80s, as did the Web in the 90s. Self-publishing innovation has dramatically expanded the number of titles published in paper each year, with more than 10 times as many titles published in 2008 than in 1990 (a link to this coming, in the growing BooksAhead statistics pages). That’s an order-of-magnitude change in paper titles published. You won’t see one often. We’re early in a long change, but not a competition between aristocratic publishers and the reading public, rather it’s a rising tide of competition within publishing, from all corners of the map, that cannot be accommodated by existing distribution and marketing infrastructures.

Putatively, anyone can reach an audience with a book, in either paper or electronic form. The reality is that it is hard to reach a large market, but the economics continue to change. For this market to develop most efficiently, a distributor like Amazon cannot be setting prices. Instead, all publishers should be free to set prices and let the market work out what the right price is for each intellectual product out there. My guess is that Simon and Schuster’s price experimentation with Scribd will be useful as an exercise in facing reality, as Amazon has set the market’s expectations at $9.99 for a recent bestseller. But even Amazon doesn’t enforce a single price point. One price doesn’t fit all, and it’s good that we’re seeing price-based competition in the market. What we really need, in addition to that, is more innovation in the idea of what a book is. We haven’t even scratched the surface of how texts and culture will change as a result of innovation.

Switch11 writes that “by 2012 we’ll be living in a world where the majority of the power and benefits lie with readers and authors.” With publishing margins in low single digits, it’s clear we live in that world now. What will continue to change is the number of people and companies that will be publishing for a profit, as well we’ll see a flood of quality free publishing efforts that seek other compensation, such as social influence, political power and commercial relationships with an audience. If we’re going to measure the success of this “revolution” by the shuttering of publishing house offices, that is the mistake.

There is no enemy, and no need for enemies, just for more participation.

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