Today, we’ll revisit the infamous Amazon vs. Hachette dispute. The usual consensus seems to be along the lines of, “we don’t know what will happen, but it will assuredly change the face of publishing.” This statement might seem like a blinding flash of the obvious to some, but losing the status quo is fairly significant.
Back in 2006, when Elizabeth started graduate library science school, she showed me a video that predicted what the internet would be like through the next six years. I’ve tried for a while to find it again, but I can’t–so I’ll just have to describe the parts I remember best. It correctly predicted Twitter, smart phones, and e-books, as developments in the near future (2007 – 2008ish). I don’t think any of these things would be considered a far stretch of the imagination. After all, Twitter was founded in 2006. But I think the video gets some credit for calling how integrated these services would be in our daily lives.
By 2012, they had predicted large media corporations would merge, in order to survive the disintegration of their traditional platforms. The New York Times, for instance, was predicted to merge with Amazon. At some point there would be a lawsuit that would pit old world versus new world, and then the video ended.
In a battle of “old versus new”, it’s typically the new we’re rooting for, particularly in the tech world. Firefox, for instance, won a lot of cheers as it began to nip at Internet Explorer’s market share. But the Mozilla team resembled the Rebel Alliance defending themselves against the great empire that was Microsoft. It’s easy to cheer for the little guy, especially when they haven’t grown large enough to have any power to abuse.
Amazon and Hachette, however, are two giants, and neither with pristine names. I’d imagine it’s easy to pick Amazon’s side in the library world. Elizabeth commented the following a few weeks ago, and worth noting if you’re in the habit of checking out e-books from your local library:
I think the idea of libraries offering e-books is scary to publishers, and they don’t really know how to sell e-books to libraries – they’ve had to come up with a process/structure to do so. I did get an e-mail from one of the other librarians in our e-book consortium saying another publisher has signed on with OverDrive and thus will sell e-books to libraries, which is good news. I still am seeing an embargo with some authors – I can buy last year’s book by him or her for the library as an e-book, but not this year’s. I assume this is because publishers are afraid of losing paper book sales if they sell e-books to libraries. By the way, some e-book bestsellers cost $12 if an individual buys in on Amazon, but $80 for a library to buy the same title through OverDrive. [rest]
While disappointing, it’s hard to blame publishers for resisting new technology. New tech means new risks, and publishing doesn’t exactly have a history of easy profits. Current practices are to treat e-books like print books. Did you know library e-books expire after so many checkouts, supposedly to simulate “wearing out”? From a price and dollars per reader standpoint, it makes sense. From a practical standpoint, simulating physical limitations seems to defeat a primary purpose of electronic text. I think what we’re seeing is publishers trying to come to terms with the changing face of publishing, from the perspective of the only world they knew.
In light of the above, it’s easy to view Amazon as the champion of freedom of expression. But Amazon has a near monopoly on e-books, and it’s record isn’t exactly clean. Books are also expensive to produce, and the cost of printing isn’t as much as commonly believed. The argument for cheaper e-books is that there is no print or warehousing overhead. However, this doesn’t save as much as one may think. The cost to print An Ember in the Wind, for example, is about $4. So where does the rest of the list price go? I earn about a dollar for each copy sold. The rest goes to the various distributors and wholesalers, including Amazon, B&N, etc. I could price the e-book about $2-4 less, and earn the same revenue. Coincidentally, I pulled up a few random books on Amazon, and the e-book prices were about $2-4 less than the paperback–new releases aside. Let’s also not forget we’re talking about revenue. Authors, editors, marketers, etc., don’t work for free.
It seems that the battle lines have been drawn between traditional and self-published authors. I wonder how many of these groups are asking how their own “side” can see the other’s point of view. It’d be a shame to see this issue divide the literary community, although I’m not surprised that everyone will support the party they view best serves their own interests, and turn a bit of a blind eye toward its faults.
Fortunately, civil discourse is the American way. Don’t forget to vote this November.