On the business of books: On E-Book Prices, Indie Authors, and Libraries

On the business of books -- Creative Destruction: Elegy for a Bookstore and a Book Culture

Creative Destruction* is now a business term meant to convey the necessity of clearing the way for the new -- capitalism's periodic way of preparing the foundation by leveling existing structures, if necessary, all in the goal of new efficiencies, progress, etc., etc. The book business is in the midst of one such leveling. Like all situations where euphemisms are attached, the term is often in jarring dissonance with what is witnessed on the ground, where real lives and livelihoods are impacted directly.

It's common news now for bookstores, long in business, to be closing their doors. Village Voice Bookshop in Paris is closing after a thirty year run. It's also common to say, of course...this is the way of life, as we all turn toward our laptop screens and tablets for more minutes and hours of the day. Most in the book business were never in it for the money; surely, not the independent booksellers, those that provided a physical space where it was never solely about the purchase of a book. In business terms, judging by marketplace efficiencies, the move to e-books has been a no-brainer. What we're losing with this predominately economic mindset is worth noting.

Independent bookstores have long provided their communities with an intellectual space where like minds -- book lovers -- could gather. Each bookstore expressed the quirkiness of the owner and said something about the local community, too. The pleasure of browsing, the potential for chance meeting with an author, usually in the form of a book, sometimes at a reading, or bumping into another patron with similar taste, was always in the air. The business of a bookstore was always socially minded. The pure arrangement of aisles and bookcases reminded you how much the world offered and how little one lifetime allowed. 

At the same time that bookstores are folding from economic pressures, library funding is being questioned in many communities. The recession has had a great impact on budgets, and library hours and staffing are being cut back. The library has always been the primary landscape and provider of the common good, where no one was ever turned away for the lack of money.

As books become something only read on devices, we will all be locked into the culture and cultural limitations of the device providers and their shareholders. The grand hope of the democratization of publishing, with the fall of the gatekeepers, will exclude those not able to pay the initial device fee and the ongoing per item cost. Libraries matter, if community matters, and if the common good matters.  

Community can be made online, though it is difficult -- not impossible -- to do from behind a screen. With time and thought maybe real communities will form. Matthew Stadler is trying to do so with Publication Studio. I've learned much from him. 

I have novels ready to publish. I've been thinking about finding another agent, but I've hesitated so far. For many reasons, I may publish on my own. I do so with full knowledge of what's at stake and what has been lost along the way. We're at a crossroads, culturally; a clear path has not been cut yet. As readers and writers we need to take these steps mindfully, with suasion.   


the history of Creative Destruction on wikipedia

On the business of books...in the current New Yorker - The Paper Trail by Ken Auletta

The New Yorker (June 25, 2012 - page 36) has an article, The Paper Trail, written by Ken Auletta, on the current struggles facing the publishing industry in the wake of the suit filed by the Justice Department. The suit alleges price fixing on the part of five publishers and Apple in their attempt to maintain market share of e-books in their dealings with Amazon. Three of the five publishers have already settled, admitting no wrongdoing, leaving Apple and two publishers to battle it out. What's at stake, as the publishers see it, is their very existence as cultural providers. The argument goes that without the ability to establish and maintain base prices on books, the established order will crumble. Publishers will not be able to afford to offer advances to authors and certain books will not be written. We will all suffer in ways not yet fully understood. Discoverability, a term applied to a new author's chances of being seen and heard in the din of onrushing texts, is also at stake without a thriving bookstore environment. They do have a point. 

Elisabeth Sifton dilineates the multi-layered problems facing the book world with her insightful essay in The Nation, back in June of 2009. It's even more relevant today:

The Long Goodbye? The Book Business and its Woes

Amazon, and now the Justice Department, see things differently. I've heard many business terms applied here: creative destruction; market efficiencies; the publishing world as late adopters...the publishing world had been operating on a century old model and Amazon has, in short order, tossed that model overboard. More importantly, the consumers are trending toward e-books and e-readers. The Justice Department's concern is for the consumer. Amazon is willing to take a loss on a book for its own reasons, but the consumer wins with the lower price point. Any attempt by other players to collude to fix prices is illegal.

These are interesting times. It looks to be an uphill battle for Apple and the publishers. 


Paper Trail - Did publishers and Apple collude against Amazon? by Ken Auletta, The New Yorker


The New Yorker Out Loud - podcastthe discussion on e-books starts at the 7:00 minute mark -  "Are cheap e-books bad for readers?:  Ken Auletta and Leo Carey talk to Sasha Weiss about the dramatic effect of e-books on book publishers."  

On the business of books...

It's impossible to know the impact the DOJ's decision to bring a lawsuit against Apple and five publishers for price fixing will have on the book business, but this is, no doubt, the precursor of great changes. Three of the publishing houses have settled:

Justice Dept. sues Apple and Publishers Over E-Book Pricing 

Cut in E-Book Pricing by Amazon is Set to Shake Rivals

This is a rather convincing argument as to why the DOJ was correct in bringing this anti-trust lawsuit: 


John Sargent, from MacMillan, responds on The Authors Guild website:


On a personal note, I have decided to continue honing American Gothic Chicago, while I finish writing Under the Picasso. I'll have both books ready to launch at the same time. There is so much chaos in the marketplace right now that it is difficult to know whether it is smarter to go the traditional route and find an agent -- I had a great one, but now I will need another -- or is it best to strike out on my own and indie publish? When I come closer to finishing the novel, I will make a decision.

Are any of you grappling with these questions?