When Buddha wanted to show his followers the danger of subjective experience, he told them the story of several blind men who each encounter an elephant for the first time. Only feeling one part of this multi-faceted creature, each had a very different account. To anyone listening, they would think it impossible to believe that all the men were describing the same creature. And I feel something like this is going on with publishing right now.
There are a lot of analysts out there whom I admire as people, even as they do a very poor job of covering the publishing world. There are dozens of stories that should be covered heavily right now that are going completely ignored. To name a few:
• The manipulation of bestseller lists, from the NYT list to the online B&N store. In both cases, readers are made to believe that these lists signify actual sales rank, when they do not. The B&N list features co-op spaces paid for by major publishers, and self-published romance authors are artificially shoved down to the #126 position and below. Readers might be interested in knowing this. Some may want to start browsing at position #126 to find some hidden (buried?) gems.
• The increased profit margins of e-books is not being passed along to readers and writers but is being kept in-house.
• An exploding number of self-published authors who are not household names are having their lives changed because of the ability to reach readers directly and on increasingly democratized platforms.
• Publishing contracts are becoming more draconian and harming writers’ careers. The most favored nation clause, the increasingly strict non-competes, the rise of high-discount sales and how this lower royalty rate buried in contracts is impacting writers, and the abusive term of copyright in an age when books no longer go out of print.
• Publishers offering lockstep royalties and refusing to compete on price. How was this email not front page news every day for a week?
• Any investigation into the reversal of publishers to do print-only deals. At least some digging into whether they regret these deals and why?
• A call for an end to DRM or a call to start bundling e-books or audiobooks with hardbacks.
• Any reporting on e-book prices that are double that of mass market paperbacks.
• And I haven’t seen a single analysts link the rise of independent bookstores the past three years with the decline of big-box discount bookstores to show how Amazon is putting the latter out of business and possibly helping save the former.
All of these omissions might seem odd at first, until we remember Buddha’s lesson on blind men. After an interview at a conference recently, I had a reporter confide in me about a top-name analysts she approached with some similar questions. The curt response from this analyst to one of her questions about self-publishing was: “I don’t know anything about self-publishing.” This is a pundit paid to know what’s going on in an industry, and that pundit has decided that roughly 10% of the industry (and the fastest growing sector) isn’t even worth looking at or understanding. We can assume that small and medium presses are also a distant concern. Which leaves these analysts with roughly half of the market to wax on about.
But it hit me the other day, and I finally saw where these analysts truly go wrong, and that’s this: They focus their reporting on the middlemen. Once you realize this, you’ll see it everywhere. They aren’t covering the book trade; they aren’t even covering the publishing industry (because that would include self-publishers and small presses); they are simply covering five companies and their distributors.
Most of the coverage, of course, revolves around Amazon. And most of it is negative. I even saw one pundit exclaim that he had a brilliant new idea, and that was for authors to publish their works exclusively with Barnes & Noble in exchange for co-op placement. Think about that. Give up distribution diversity for a month on a rack in a dwindling bookstore. The only way this makes sense is through the lens of anti-Amazon bias. There is no other way to make sense of it. It’s one of the worst ideas I’ve ever heard, and it was announced as if bread had finally met with knife.
Any news to do with publishing concentrates on five companies. That’s it. The numbers reported by those companies are passed on as though it encapsulates the entirety of the market. We hear about e-book growth while ignoring the fastest growing sector of that growth. We get info based on ISBNs, when the same explosive sector often avoids using them. And the small presses that are employing POD and e-book adoption are treated like non-entities, when they are the true underdogs with the most to gain (and deserve more coverage).
The worst of it is this, and here is what becomes readily apparent and why you won’t see coverage on any of the stories in my bulleted list: The analysts don’t care about readers, and they don’t care about writers. That’s what their coverage tells me, anyway. High prices are not a social injustice, they are a savvy grab for corporate profits. The authors’ share of earnings is never discussed, only the publishers’, even though we now know that self-published authors are out-earning traditionally published authors on the largest e-book platform in the world.
What we have are airline experts covering their industry by reporting exclusively on travel agents. Again, look at this e-mail that shows the CEO of Penguin asking the CEO of Barnes & Noble to punish Random House for daring to compete with them and not collude to raise prices on readers. These sorts of stories are reported with a shrug. Because the analysts don’t care about the only two parties who truly matter in this business, and that’s those who write the books and those who enjoy them.
Yes, publishers can add value to manuscripts. Maybe they add 10% of that value, if I’m being generous. Manuscripts that need more than that never get to a publisher in the first place (or they are published as-is because of a celebrity’s profile). Does a 10% increase in value warrant a 100% share of media coverage?
The Authors’ Guild is no better. A mouthpiece for the top 1% of bestselling writers, their advocacy focuses on bookstores and on the largest publishers. Again, the middlemen and the distributors. There is no outrage over these pernicious contract clauses, no horror at the marriage of big publishing and Author Solutions rip-offs, no questioning the lockstep royalty rates or the slow payment processes. If the guild really was for authors, you would see them praising Amazon for changing the lives of so many writers and for growing the pool of readers. You get the exact opposite.
Middlemen should not be our concern, expect in how they facilitate the union between artists and the purveyors of that art. Those who work to bring these two parties together deserve all of our respect and praise. Those who stand between them deserve our condemnation until they improve. Until and even when that happens, they should only get a small percentage of the coverage. What we should be reporting on is the health of reading around the world and how to increase participation in this pastime that we love. We should be covering the job market for writers and all the new opportunities cropping up. Once you notice what they do cover, you’ll notice that almost no one is doing any of this reporting. And that’s a damn shame.