Sunday, January 31, 2010

Amazon's Uncomfortable Dinner Party

They're fighting again.

Throwing dishes and swilling wine and shouting about how the other one has been making time with that Jezebel, Apple.

Yes, it's happening again. It's messy and confusing and it's all over the papers -- The New York Times and Publisher's Weekly are both reporting that this weekend, the uneasy relationship between and publishers reached that awkward stage when their friends start avoiding them.

The marriage between Amazon's Kindle and publishers has never been particularly easy. For the most part, pubs have been skeptical of the e-Book format from the word go. Most just thought that the Kindle's default (and seemingly arbitrary) asking price of $9.99 was well below the margin at which even an electronic book could be written, edited, typeset and published. Then Apple came along and offered to do for publishing what they did for music downloads. Apple would let the publishers set the prices (in the manner that they always have) and take a percentage.

Apple. What a tramp.

You might have heard this called the "agency model" -- which just means that Apple acts as a sales agent for the publisher, earning a cut or comission of around 30%. You know... like bookstores have for the past hundred years or so?

This model can be good or bad. The publishers argue that the prices would be higher, but quality would be better. Amazon argues that higher prices for e-books means fewer people will buy books (And Kindles). 

The argument is about e-Book pricing. (What, that doesn't prompt plate throwing at your house?) Amazon has been busily trying to get the bookbuying public to expect that e-Books shouldn't cost more than $9.99. In fact, they made a point in the New York Times recently about how the top downloaded books are usually free. All part - say publishers - of a far-reaching goal of undercutting the value of books. So publishers have apparently been coming to Amazon's Kindle team demanding the same deal they're being offered by Apple.

To teach publishers a lesson, Amazon de-listed all titles sold by Macmillan press. In the words of Science Fiction author Scott Westerfeld "Amazon more or less “de-friended” one of the six big US publishers". Saying they did it "in protest", Amazon stripped all of the "Buy" buttons from every new Macmillan book both in physical and Kindle format.

Gee... Passive-aggressive much?

The Internet lit up with the rage of a thousand dissed novelists and their fans. Picking on a publisher with that many sci fi authors was tactically unwise. As Scott Westerfeld noted on Twitter: "They'll blog you dead". And boy, do those folks know how to blog.

Which is where we venture into Shakespearean territory: Two industries, alike in dignity, here in Interwebzia where we lay our scene. The trouble is, Amazon thinks they're in Taming of the Shrew and the publishers are terrified that they might be in Romeo & Juliet and they've read the end of that play.

So I ask you, is it a comedy or a tragedy? Publishers are clinging to life, bookstores are laying off staff and closing stores... it certainly doesn't carry the air of comedy about any of this. If you think the literary landscape would be better off without publishers (and bookstores), then I suppose you will disagree with me, but for all their sins I feel that they do more good than harm. One thing is for certain: no matter how you feel about iPad (that shameless hussy), the Kindle can no longer dictate terms to publishers. But on behalf of both readers and writers, I say unto both of you: No matter what anyone tells you, this is a pox on both your houses. Get those houses in order, your public tussling serves no one, least of all yourselves.

 Think of the childr... er... books.

 Get your coat honey, we're leaving.


  1. Great points. I wasn't present at this drunken soiree as I have been staring at page 25 of my book for 3 weeks now, waiting for it to edit itself. Now I find out that Mom, Dad, Crazy Uncle Morty and Drunk Aunt Sally are having a brawl. DAMN, I missed out!

    I agree that they have to get on the same page in order to benefit the customers, which includes writers. I can't even imagine a world without bookstores. It is enough to make baby Jesus cry!

    Disney tried this once with the networks and that lasted a grand total of 2 weeks before they backed down before they looked like even bigger whankers than they already did. Hopefully Amazon will take a note and not go down the bad Eisner road. Let us pray.

  2. Dre, I really must get you to write a guest post or two for this blog. You crack me up. Are you interested?


Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).