BY NICO VREELAND
Every time Amazon makes the news for predatory business practices or just downright meanness, independent booksellers call on the general public to rebuke them. It’s about time we held publishers’ feet to the fire, too.
Here are a few things publishers have been screwing up recently, whether through incompetence or greed.
- Publishers are hanging indie bookstores out to dry. They control the prices of every book they print, and they allow Amazon to sell books for up to 50% off the cover price. Retail bookstores buy their books, wholesale, for more than that. Remember when the Big Six banded together to renegotiate the prices of ebooks? They fought tooth and nail to get Amazon to agree to an agency model pricing structure that actually made them LESS money than Amazon’s existing $9.99-across-the-board pricing scheme. They could do the exact same thing with Amazon’s regular books, and they should because Amazon’s prices are a greater threat to indie bookstores than $9.99 ebooks were to the future of digital publishing. But publishers will not fight Amazon over this, because publishers do not care if indie bookstores go extinct.
- Instead of getting in fights with Amazon, publishers get in fights with libraries, and they don’t even understand what libraries do. Not only do libraries create future writers, they create and nurture readers. In fact, statistically, library users are publishers’ best customers. Despite all this, publishers claim borrowing ebooks from libraries makes it too easy to get around paying for books, and they fear their profits are being hurt. Random House is the only publisher left who doesn’t impose strict sanctions on the ebooks they allow libraries to lend. Macmillan and Simon & Schuster don’t allow any library copies of their ebooks.
- One publisher is actually helping Amazon get its books into brick and mortar stores. Because, again, they do not care about indie bookstores.
- Their hardcover-first business model is archaic. I’ve said this before, but it doesn’t get any less true. Forcing artificial price inflation by selling hardcover editions which are obviously cheaply made is a terrible way to go about bookselling. It also increases the financial risk of overprinting, so publishers sometimes get caught with their pants down. For most of December, it was impossible to buy print copies of such bestsellers as The Hunger Games, Steve Jobs, The Art of Fielding, Thinking Fast and Slow, and many more. For much of the month after the release of the movie Hugo, on November 23, and before Christmas, Scholastic was out of stock of The Invention of Hugo Cabret. You could not buy the book in any store, and because they refused to make it an ebook, that meant you couldn’t buy it at all.
- They lie about the costs and benefits of ebooks. Publishers dragged their feet for years on the digital front, and then dragged their feet on digital pricing, often claiming that ebooks cost almost as much to produce as hardcover books. Those were all lies. Those printed books that went out of stock before Christmas? The ebooks didn’t go out of stock (except Hugo Cabret).
Publishers know they can get away with this because you don’t buy books from publishers. You buy the new Jeffrey Eugenides novel, not the new Random House book. Books are not commodities, and they are not interchangeable. People have no favorite publishers (although Random House is the least backward), and boycotts would be impossible to organize. But that works both ways: if big authors jump ship to Amazon or elsewhere, readers will follow them. If the Big Six collapse entirely, most readers will not care, provided they can still find decent books to read.
So publishers: it’s time to embrace technology, put your customers first, and entirely revamp the logistical architecture of the your industry, or Amazon’s publishing arm will do it for you (and nobody wants that).