Much ado about not-a-whole-lot: the Amazon/Macmillan kerfluffle

>> Saturday, January 30, 2010

A tweet from Lance Weber, an online friend, brought the Amazon/Macmillan kerfluffle to my attention. The short version is this: Macmillan insists should charge more for e-books; Amazon (presumably wanting to keep e-books cheap as an incentive for people to buy Kindles) insists that they will continue to sell e-books at a lower price point; in response to Macmillan's demands, Amazon has pulled Macmillan's books from their virtual "shelves"; furor has ensued.


Some commentators have pointed out that Macmillan has every right to insist that their books be sold at a higher price point, and this is, of course, correct--a publisher can, indeed, sell books at any price they want, even prices they're not likely to get. What at least one of these commentators has seemingly overlooked (at least when I read his blog post on it--maybe he addressed it in a further comment I didn't get to) is that retailers have exactly the same right, governed only to the extent of any contractual agreements they may have with the publisher; this includes a right not to sell a publisher's books at all for any reason they see fit. This, too, is how a free market works.

Consumers--who are the ones making this dispute between two soulless, indifferent, corporate behemoths into a bigger fuss--also have rights, namely the right not to purchase from a particular retailer, or a particular publisher, or (as long as there are public libraries) not at all. (I'm not sure it's necessary to add, but someone who isn't even interested in reading the book at all aren't even consumers; setting aside, I suppose, those shopping for gifts--they'll just have to find something else to give, I'm afraid.)

Writers, particularly those who depend on a slice of sales for income, are screwed. But one is reminded of that line from Dune--"For the father, nothing," as in the writers were pretty much in the get-screwed-one-way-or-another position on this one. Selling fewer books at a higher price point isn't really different from selling more at a lower, would be one thing. But even if writers were to somehow slip out of this making out like bandits, the truth is it was never about them at all--the writers are mere commodities in this dispute, product whose disposition is being negotiated by giants who would be quite happy, I suspect, if they could work out a way to publish and sell books without any of those awful little writers gumming up the process with their "creative needs" and plaintive cries of "I'm hungry" or "My kid needs shoes." (You know whose kids don't need shoes? Robots. But they're lousy writers, dammit.)

Most people are blaming Amazon, which is a bit silly, since nobody's forcing anyone to buy from Amazon. Yes, I buy things from them because they tend to have seriously competitive prices and will send books right to my door, and I sometimes feel pangs of social anxiety when I have to go to places where bookstores are located and even, sometimes, in the bookstores themselves. (I know, this seems strange given what I do for a living. How do you explain the totally irrational, especially when the subject is feelings that are inconsistent or irregular? Mall parking lots usually make me nervous, and frequently--but not always--when I'm inside a large store--like a Barnes And Noble, for instance--I start feeling like people are following me around. Which, in all fairness, sometimes they are; a few months ago I bought a book I'd never heard of or planned on buying entirely because a helpful clerk followed me around, helping me even though I had already found what I was looking for and was just browsing, and when she pulled a book off a table and said, "Oh, this one's discounted and it's supposed to be really good," I just didn't have the heart or balls to tell the poor woman to kiss off and I meekly added it to what I was already carrying; thank goodness it's a Dennis Lehane and not some kind of awful self-help book or something, I think maybe I liked a short story of his that appeared in Playboy, maybe, unless I'm thinking of somebody else. But I digress. Where was I?)

Ah, yes--people blaming Amazon. Well it's not like there isn't Powell's. Or (notwithstanding my digression regarding my intermittent neuroses), the local bookseller. It's perfectly fair, of course, to boycott a seller because you don't like a policy or stand they've taken; what I don't get, however, is the sense I see in some posts and tweets that Amazon is somehow required to sell books from a particular publisher under whatever terms the publisher dictates.

In the thick of this, of course, is the Kindle and all of the DRM issues pertaining to it. I'm unsympathetic--it's not like customers who purchased a Kindle couldn't find out beforehand what Amazon's deal was, caveat emptor and all that. Complaining that one has a Kindle but can't read certain books on it strikes me more than a little like purchasing a PS3 and getting angry upon discovering that it won't play Mario Kart.

But then people don't do that, do they? Of course not, because the idea of console-specific games is well-ingrained, I suspect because the technological limitations of the early days of electronic gaming meant that games came with an accidental form of physical DRM--the RAM cartridge. It was a given that a device manufactured to play Pac-Man on the Atari 2600 was not going to fit into the slot on your Intellivision. Further, the physical device reified the software--that is, it was understood that if you lost your cartridge or changed to a machine that used a different format, you were the one who was out-of-luck, the manufacturer was not under any obligation to replace the cartridge or guarantee that you'd still be able to play Atari 2600 games at some point in the future. The game was the thing in an actual sense--a thing you could hold, put in your pocket, hit with a hammer.... People no longer think of their software in those terms, however--the idea of a device-specific text, music or video file offends; it occurs to me that this may be a failure of the consumer who misunderstands what he's purchased (and who has failed to demand something else) as much as it may be corporate greed; if the book or song or video came on a RAM cartridge, you wouldn't think twice about having to buy new cartridges for new devices. (See also the early days of CD, in which a significant portion of music sales were driven by people buying albums they already owned.)

These are an awful lot of words for something I'm a little indifferent to and/or think is something of a non-issue. I was thinking about it in the shower, and then decided I might as well write some of it down as I needed to do some writing and my creative efforts are a little stymied at the moment. So, there you are.

Hope you're having a good weekend so far; we have snow, which is a rare and wonderful thing in this part of the South.


neurondoc Saturday, January 30, 2010 at 2:20:00 PM EST  

I'm a non-starter her, but I guess I have something to say. I have, so far, resisted purchasing an e-reader because of the DRM issues, most especially a Kindle (stop using Kindle and most, if not all of your e-books disappear into the mists of the ether, so to speak). I also love the feeling of a well-bound book in my hand. I won't buy new paperbacks that are clearly poorly bound because they feel weird in my hand. So for me, I would most likely purchase the e-book in addition to the "real" version. So, as long as there isn't an industry-wide "get the e-version extra cheap when you buy the tree-version", I am not buying an e-reader.

I don't think my comment really addressed your post, but here it is.

inglo = light shining through an igloo

Eric Saturday, January 30, 2010 at 2:41:00 PM EST  

ND, I think your comment does go to something addressed in my post: unlike some of the people who have expressed buyer's remorse after this flap and the earlier flap over Amazon "killing" downloaded books they'd previously sold but lost the license to, you read the fine print, metaphorically speaking, and made a decision not-to-buy in the first place.

Something that I meant to touch on in the post, bu didn't: I actually have bought a number of e-books from for PDAs and smartphones I've owned; the DRM sucks, I've worried about "losing" books when changing devices, and the user experience is second-rate to reading a real book. But I'm not complaining and wouldn't: I traded access and tactile enjoyment for having something I could read while waiting somewhere or if I forgot to bring a real book to lunch or somewhere. This was a rational trade-off of ownership for convenience. My point is that owners of devices like the Kindle must make a choice like yours or mine: i.e. don't buy a device you won't be happy with or accept the limitations of what you are buying. But whatever they do, don't buy something and then complain that the thing you bought is what it is.

Michael Rawdon Saturday, January 30, 2010 at 3:40:00 PM EST  

Paper books:

- No device necessary.
- No DRM.
- You'll still be able to read them in 20 years because the format won't be obsolete.
- Still with zero commercials per hour.

Dr. Phil (Physics) Saturday, January 30, 2010 at 9:30:00 PM EST  

One issue -- Amazon pulled their direct sales to all Macmillan media forms. Print books included. So their actions aren't limited to eBooks. That seems vindictive and weird.

Others claim even that doesn't matter, since you can still buy through 3rd party vendors. Alas, the 3rd party sources via Amazon don't participate in the Free Shipping, so the irony is that Amazon is raising prices on books they want to charge less for the Kindle.

Yeah, it makes that much sense.

Dr. Phil

worros -- A paranoid Error Correcting operating system.

Eric Sunday, January 31, 2010 at 12:45:00 AM EST  

From an update at the NYT this afternoon (same link as in the original post):

Macmillan offered Amazon the opportunity to buy Kindle editions on the same “agency” model as it will sell e-books to Apple for the iPad. Under this model, the publisher sets the consumer book price and takes 70 percent of each sale, leaving 30 percent to the retailer. Macmillan said Amazon could continue to buy e-books under its current wholesale model, paying the publisher 50 percent of the hardcover list price while pricing the e-book at any level Amazon chooses, but that Macmillan would delay those e-book editions by seven months after hardcover release. Amazon’s removal of Macmillan titles on Friday appears to be a direct reaction to that.

If Amazon wants to push back against Macmillan, they have to pull all editions, and not just the e-books--because pulling only the e-books is practically the same as what Macmillan wants--i.e. more money or a seven-month delay (which is practically forever in the bookselling business--I've seen books end up in a remaindered bin faster than that).

I understand why people are going after Amazon, and I'm not real interested in defending Amazon; however, I think this is going to really boil down to who you're going to hate less. I'm skeptical that Macmillan pushing for a higher price is going to benefit authors; while I'm not sufficiently familiar with author contracts and thus I can't categorically say Macmillan's position won't benefit writers, I will say that similar posturing over similar issues in the music business has added up to exactly jack shit for most recording artists--labels taking a bigger slice of money from more expensive downloads mysteriously doesn't translate into a bigger cut for musicians.

Amazon, rightly or wrongly, isn't trying to make a point specifically about downloads, it's trying to make the point that Macmillan can't unilaterally dictate terms to retailers, and to do so they have to hit Macmillan fast, hard, and where it hurts most. Removing just the e-catalogue would be an almost worthless symbolic gesture and might even risk validating Macmillan's buff that losing Amazon e-books sales won't have as big an impact as being able to dictate favorable terms to Apple.

Which, incidentally, brings up another reason getting mad at Amazon may be penny-wise and pound-foolish. Amazon was able to get favorable terms for e-books in the same way Apple was able to dictate terms when they opened iTunes--they were the only game in town. Apple is now willing to let Macmillan and other publishers dictate terms because they're the new kids and it gives them a competitive advantage against Amazon when dealing with the publishers. But if that gambit succeeds, it's unlikely to last--that is, if Apple's iPad actually kills the Kindle, it's very unlikely Macmillan or any other publisher will continue to dictate terms to a company famous for taking "My way or the highway" stances on almost every other aspect of their business. (The healthiest scenario for consumers and publishers--and maybe even authors--is probably one in which Amazon, Apple and Fictionwise are healthy competitors, but good luck with that.)

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