Amazon and HarperCollins strike deal to avoid “doomsday scenario”

April 15, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

Amazon_logoAmazon, the world’s largest online book retailer, and HarperCollins, the second-largest of the so-called “big five” publishers in the U.S., have entered into a multiyear contract, avoiding a protracted battle over discounts and pricing. Bloomberg Business quotes Erin Crum, a spokesperson for HarperCollins, as saying, “HarperCollins has reached an agreement with Amazon and our books will continue to be available on the Amazon print and digital platforms.”

According to Engadget, the deal with HarperCollins is similar to deals struck last year with Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Hachette, in that it allows HarperCollins to set prices on e-books – long rumoured to be a point of contention with Amazon, which likes to keep prices artificially low. This is ironic, since it basically represents a capitulation to the agency pricing model that the retailer rejected several years ago, leading to a publisher revolt and accusations of collusion from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Earlier this year, Business Insider indicated that Amazon had reached an impasse in contract negotiations with HarperCollins, potentially paving the way for a protracted battle resembling the one the retailer engaged in with Hachette last year. That contretemps saw Amazon delay shipments of Hachette titles and remove buy buttons from the publisher’s books (something Amazon had previously done to Macmillan). The battle turned exceedingly ugly, with more than 900 authors eventually signing an open letter criticizing Amazon for its bullying tactics.

Following the Business Insider piece, a blog on the Melville House website asked whether Amazon might be preparing to engage in a “doomsday scenario” with HarperCollins, something the blog post suggested would be tantamount to an “apocalyptic development.”

HarperCollins_logoOverheated rhetoric aside, this never seemed like a very plausible scenario. HarperCollins is not Hachette: it has much more leverage over Amazon when negotiating terms. Its stable of authors – including Neil Gaiman, Dennis Lehane, and J.R.R. Tolkien – features big names that Amazon would not want to risk losing access to. Among the big names in HarperCollins’s stable, one looms larger than all the others this season. Harper Lee’s much ballyhooed second novel, Go Set a Watchman, is being published on July 14; there is no way Amazon would risk being the only online retailer in the U.S. not to feature that title.

But more that that, HarperCollins has been aggressively pursuing alternate avenues for distributing its wares online. It signed with the subscription services Oyster and Scribd, and last year revamped its website to include the ability to sell direct to consumers.

When Macmillan signed its contract with Amazon last year, CEO John Sargent stated that the retailer accounts for as much as sixty-four percent of the publisher’s revenue from e-books. HarperCollins has obviously taken measures to mitigate this market dominance, and – combined with its size and market clout – these seem to be working. Though with agreements already in place with three other big five publishers (Penguin Random House is now the lone holdout), Amazon had no real incentive not to agree to similar terms with HarperCollins.

Which in a way is disappointing. It would probably have been ugly, but a knock-down, drag-out, no-holds-barred battle between Jeff Bezos and Rupert Murdoch would surely have been entertaining.

Blurb this! McClelland & Stewart edition

March 9, 2015 by · 5 Comments 

Persona_Non_Grata_Tom_Flanagan“Flanagan raises some provocative questions about the limits of free speech to engage in theoretical speculation that tests the boundaries of conventional wisdom or morality. There is also a persuasive argument to be made against the judgmental impulse of an Internet lynch mob capable of destroying lives without recourse to due process or considered thought. Unfortunately, these salient points are drowned in a sea of self-serving, pugilistic rhetoric.”

Steven W. Beattie on Tom Flanagan’s Persona Non Grata, Quill & Quire, April 2014


“‘Flanagan raises provocative questions about the limits of free speech to engage in theoretical speculation that tests the boundaries of conventional wisdom or morality. A persuasive argument against the judgmental impulse of an Internet lynch mob capable of destroying lives without recourse to due process of considered thought.’ Quill & Quire

– Paperback edition of Tom Flanagan’s Persona Non Grata, March 2015

This one is particularly egregious, for a number of reasons. First, there is the blatant manipulation of the second sentence to make it sound as though the quote says precisely the opposite of what it does say in context. Second, this blurb appears on a page with the header, “Praise for Persona Non Grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age.”

But perhaps most galling is the blinding irony in appending a bastardized quote to a book focused in large part on the dangers of taking someone’s words out of context.

Inaugural edition of the Inspire! book fair was both “positive” and “deflating”

November 20, 2014 by · 2 Comments 

Inspire!_Toronto_International_Book_FairExpectations were high heading into the inaugural iteration of Inspire! Toronto International Book Fair, as were anxieties.

Initially intended as a combination trade fair and consumer event, the fair morphed into a consumer showcase, attracting more than 200 exhibitors and featuring over 300 hours of programming. Big-name authors graced the various stages arrayed throughout the Metro Toronto Convention Centre’s north hall, including Anne Rice, Sylvia Day, Dav Pilkey, Jeff Kinney, and Margaret Atwood, in her first public Canadian appearance to promote her recent story collection, Stone Mattress.

The fair, which ran from Nov. 13–16, was the brainchild of co-executive directors John Calabro, former president of Quattro Books, and Rita Davies, formerly with the Toronto Arts Council and the former head of culture for the city of Toronto. Along with co-executive director Steven Levy, whose credits include the One of a Kind craft shows, the Interior Design Show, and the Festival of Canadian Fashion, Calabro and Davies conceived of an event intended to allow publishers to interact directly with consumers, and to spotlight some of their marquee titles heading into the all-important Christmas buying season.

From the start, there were worries about how the fair would transpire. Indigo Books & Music was brought on as official bookseller for the main stage (where all the brand-name authors would appear), provoking consternation among independent booksellers and publishers (as did the notion of a book fair luring buyers away from bookstores during the most lucrative season of the year). The Convention Centre was seen as an uninviting location for a consumer-oriented event, and publishers questioned whether the potential sales would be sufficient to recoup booth-rental costs, which ran anywhere from $500 to $8,800.

Though it is too early to determine publishers’ ROI – most are still crunching the numbers – anecdotal evidence suggests that things at the fair were a bit more sluggish than anticipated. A generally sunny article in Publishers Weekly quotes Davies as saying that attendance for the weekend was in the “ballpark of between 20,000 and 25,000,” well below the promised 50,000 attendees.

“I hate that 50,000 attendees figure,” Davies told Quill & Quire. “All year we used 30,000, and I don’t know how that got into a late media release.” This is disingenuous, to say the least. An Inspire! press release dated December 20, 2013, announcing the addition of Nicola Dufficy as programming director for the fair, includes the headline “Four-Day Fair to Captivate 50,000 Readers with Programs Dedicated to All Things Books.” Davies’ name and contact information appear at the bottom, so it’s hard to understand how she was unaware of where the 50,000 figure came from.

Regardless, 25,000 attendees – which Davies suggests are accounted for by advance ticket sales, scanned tickets at the door, and a manual tally of children (who were given free admission to the fair) – falls well below expectations. Wandering the fair floor on Sunday morning was particularly disheartening, in large part, one suspects, because many potential fairgoers chose to attend the Santa Claus Parade instead.

St. John’s poet and children’s author George Murray, who was programmed on the kids’ stage on Sunday morning, found the experience “a little deflating.” Though grateful for the opportunity to present his recent children’s book, Wow Wow and Haw Haw, to a Toronto audience, external competition provided stumbling blocks. “The downtown was a traffic mess and virtually all the kids were lining the streets outside,” Murray says. “So I read to about three children and a smattering of adults.”

Low attendance levels were not the only hiccup in the fair’s first outing. The convention centre did indeed prove a tricky venue, though not entirely for the reasons anticipated. The north hall essentially amounts to one cavernous room, which meant that the various programmed stages were constantly competing to be heard over the general din, and over one another. Authors presenting their books on the Spark Stage, located at the west end of the pavilion, had to contend with noise from kids’ programming on the TD Children’s Stage, which was virtually contiguous. Introducing her memoir The Temporary Bride on the Discovery Stage on Saturday afternoon, author Jennifer Klinec was completely drowned out – to the mortification of everyone in attendance – by a booming voice resounding through the entire hall, enticing people to come to the Main Stage for Sylvia Day’s appearance. (Full disclosure: I was onstage to moderate the panel that was interrupted when Klinec was speaking.)

The nature of the room, and the set-up of the various exhibitor booths, made navigation difficult; large publishers with central booths – like Simon & Schuster Canada, Penguin Random House, and Scholastic – were easy to find, but Coach House Books, in the Discovery Pavilion, was tucked behind a pillar that virtually obscured the press from sight, and I never was able to locate the Humber School for Writers. Nor were the various stages clearly adorned with schedules delineating author appearances and times.

“I wasn’t sure going in if the convention centre was really the best venue to draw in readers, and particularly our readers,” says Coach House publisher Alana Wilcox, “and in the end I don’t think it was. … I had hoped, too, that it would draw an entirely different demographic for us, one that wouldn’t have bought those same books at local booksellers, but I’m not sure that’s true.”

Despite the hurdles, some people were optimistic about the weekend. Clare Hitchens, who does marketing and publicity for Wilfrid Laurier Press, says that the fair was a “positive” experience overall, providing the out-of-town academic press with the opportunity of “putting our titles in front of a broader set of readers.”

“Contributors to our Indigenous Studies series [including Neal McLeod, Lee Maracle, Joanne Arnott, Armand Garnet Ruffo, and Daniel David Moses] were well represented in the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Literary Circle,” Hitchens says, “and those conversations were invigorating.”

The First Nations programming was, by all accounts, one of the highlights of the fair: the stage was well attended overall, and the anecdotal response coming away from this aspect of the event is almost entirely enthusiastic.

A number of publishers I spoke to pointed out the benefit of having a chance to network with contacts from the Ontario Arts Council, the Ontario Media Development Corporation, and other professional associations, leaving the impression that the trade aspect of the fair was underutilized and could afford to be given greater attention should the event recur in future years. “I was under the impression it was to be more like a rights fair, like Frankfurt or London,” Murray says, “but I didn’t see any evidence of that.”

A few “tweaks” aside, Davies seems convinced that the inaugural edition of Inspire! will not be the last. “We’ll look at some of the floor plan, where we might send our marketing,” she tells Quill & Quire, but she doesn’t anticipate “any major changes.” Whether that will be enough to entice publishers – including HarperCollins Canada and House of Anansi Press – who stayed away this year, or whether there is a chance of achieving that magic number of 50,000 through the gate, remains something of an open question.

The summer is ended and we are not yet saved

September 10, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

That seems like a fairly accurate summary of where things stand in the realm of books and publishing as we move into the second week of September 2013. Joey Comeau’s short novel is also one of the books That Shakespearean Rag missed out on covering during its summer hiatus (or, in the spirit of our federal and Ontario provincial governments, its period of prorogue).

During the summer months, Indigo, Canada’s largest book retailer, released its first-quarter report, which did not paint a particularly rosy picture for the bricks-and-mortar book retailing sector. Sales of physical books were down year-over-year, as – somewhat surprisingly – were sales of e-readers. According to the report, online sales “have seen less erosion as more customers move to purchase books online instead of in-store.” This represents a significant shift in consumer buying patterns, although the fact that sales of e-readers are down indicates the move to digital may not be the panacea everyone hoped for. (This trend could be accounted for by consumers abandoning dedicated e-readers in favour of tablets capable of multitasking and performing other functions besides reading.)

Also this summer, the world’s richest author, J.K. Rowling, won a “substantial” settlement against a law firm that breached confidentiality by leaking her name as the author of a pseudonymously published mystery novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling. According to The Independent, “Ms Rowling’s solicitor Jenny Afia told the court her client, who was not present during proceedings, ‘has been left dismayed and distressed by such a fundamental betrayal of her trust.'” A breach of trust, it must be noted, that resulted in exponentially increased sales of the novel once the author’s true identity had been revealed. To Rowling’s credit, the damages from the settlement were donated to a charity that supports members of the U.K. military and their families.

Bad news comes in threes, or so it is said, and this summer readers lost a trio of beloved writers: Iain Banks, Elmore Leonard, and Seamus Heaney.

Simon & Schuster Canada, which had been cleared by Heritage Canada in May to inaugurate a domestic publishing program, announced its senior staff. The new roster of executives includes former HarperCollins editor Phyllis Bruce, who will run an eponymous imprint. Bruce, who will work with S&S Canada publisher Kevin Hanson and associate publisher Alison Clarke, told Quill & Quire that she wanted her first acquisition “to be a new writer and a new theme, to signal that I’ll be doing what I did at my previous imprint, and that’s to go out and search for new writers.” Bruce’s first acquisition is a novel by Ann Choi, a recent student at the University of Toronto’s creative writing program, about a family of Korean immigrants who run a convenience store in Toronto. Readers who feel a slight sense of déjà vu may be forgiven, though it appears the author had not seen Ins Choi’s award-winning play before writing her novel.

Details about another significant title for S&S Canada came clearer over the past few months. The long-awaited book by Canada’s sitting prime minister, Stephen Harper (who appears as “Stephen J. Harper” on the book’s cover), was given a pub date and a title. A Great Game: The Forgotten Leafs and the Rise of Professional Hockey will appear in bookstores on November 5.

Harper’s is not the only big book to appear this fall, as a quick glance at Quill & Quire’s previews for fall fiction, non-fiction, and international releases will attest. Indeed, the final four months of 2013 comprise the most jam-packed season in recent memory. Major new novels are on the way (or have already started appearing in bookstores) from Margaret Atwood, Joseph Boyden, Michael Winter, Wayne Johnston, Douglas Coupland, Mary Swan, David Gilmour, Craig Davidson, Eleanor Catton, and Catherine Bush. And that’s just the Canucks. International releases include Stephen King’s highly anticipated sequel to The Shining, along with new novels from 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize juror Jonathan Lethem, Thomas Pynchon, Amy Tan, Chuck Palahniuk, and the much-touted sophomore novel by Marisha Pessl.

There is also a mammoth oral biography of the late J.D. Salinger making its way to bookstores as of this writing. Written by David Shields and Shane Salerno, the volume accompanies Salerno’s new documentary film, which has so far been garnering less-than-positive reviews. Regardless of the book’s critical reception, it is sure to be of interest to readers who maintain a fascination with its eccentric subject, and has already offered one bombshell revelation: five unpublished Salinger manuscripts exist and will begin appearing in 2015.

A penguin walks into a random house …

July 2, 2013 by · 2 Comments 

Penguin_Random_HouseYesterday, news broke that Random House and Penguin, the world’s two biggest multinational publishing houses, had completed their merger with the creation of a new entity, Penguin Random House. The parent companies, Bertelsmann and Pearson, own 53% and 47%, respectively. According to a press release, the new company “will employ more than 10,000 people across five continents,” and industry estimates suggest that it will control fully 25% of the global market in trade book publishing. The Wall Street Journal states that the company’s annual revenues are in the neighbourhood of $4 billion, which Alex Shephard of Melville House points out is larger than the GDP of some forty-six countries.

By any reasonable measure, the new megapublisher is a monster.

Yesterday’s release indicates that, for the time being at least, the company will retain its various independent international imprints – which number upwards of 250 all told. The press release quotes new Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle:

As separate companies, we have long performed outstandingly by every benchmark; as colleagues, we will share and apply our passion for publishing the best books with our enormous experience, creativity, and entrepreneurial drive. Together, we will give our authors unprecedented resources to help them reach global audiences – and we will provide readers with unparalleled diversity and choice for future reading.

Certainly, the new entity will have the capability to reach more readers around the world than any other so-called “legacy publisher,” and it also boasts a formidable backlist, which includes the Penguin Classics line, the Vintage line, and others. Whether this will translate into “unparalleled diversity and choice for future reading,” however, remains to be seen.

In recent years, domestically at least, the large houses have been highly conservative in their acquisitions: previous award winners, sequels, and safe bets have been the order of the day. Random House of Canada’s vaunted New Face of Fiction program, which helped launch the careers of writers such as Yann Martel, Ami McKay, and Mary Lawson, this year released only one title: Kenneth Bonert’s historical epic The Lion Seeker. Besides scaling back on novels by first-timers, story collections have been scarce (none from Random House of Canada or Penguin Canada in the first half of 2013; last year saw Miranda Hill’s Sleeping Funny from Random House imprint Doubleday Canada and Penguin’s Hamish Hamilton Canada imprint published D.W. Wilson’s Once You Break a Knuckle in 2011), and poetry has been non-existent, except for collections published by Random House imprint McClelland & Stewart.

Fall 2013 is a strong season for both Random House of Canada and Penguin Canada, with new books on the way from Margaret Atwood, Joseph Boyden, Wayne Johnston, Mary Swan, Douglas Coupland, Mary Lawson, Michael Winter, Peter Robinson, Craig Davidson, Kelley Armstrong, Anthony De Sa, and L. Marie Adeline. And that’s just the Canadian fiction. But these are all established names: bestsellers and award winners or nominees. If the new edict for Penguin Random House is profit above all, will there be room to take chances on untested authors or risky material?

One test case this season may be Eleanor Catton’s second novel, The Luminaries, published by M&S. A stylized historical novel that clocks in at a whopping 850 pages, Catton’s book may serve as a bellwether for how risk-averse the company’s various imprints prove to be moving forward.

Of course, the other way the new publisher might impede readers’ diversity of choice is by further siphoning the air from the national conversation around Canadian books and literature, making it even harder for the smaller independents – the ones who do take chances on new or risky authors – to survive.

The one place Penguin Random House might be able to exert some influence is in the digital sphere. Its sheer size and the power of its combined lists could offer it the muscle to stand up to Amazon, which has a virtual monopoly in online book sales, and has historically acted as a bully in demanding steep discounts from publishers. In December of last year, Penguin settled its lawsuit with the DoJ in the U.S., effectively putting an end to the company’s practice of agency pricing and paving the way for regulatory approval of the merger with Random House. Jeremy Greenfield, digital publishing reporter for Forbes, asks some salient questions about how the new company will proceed in the arena of online sales: “So, when will Penguin Random House sign new contracts with retailers? When will their prices be subjected to the same kind of discounting now happening with ebooks from every other publisher? We’ll wait and see.”

“Wait and see” seems to be the only real recourse at this point, including in the matter of staffing. When two large companies merge, there are inevitably “rationalizations” that occur to eliminate newly created redundancies; while not ruling out future cuts, Dohle told The New York Times that those decisions will be made later. “We have the luxury to take the time before we make any strategic decisions,” Dohle told reporter Julie Bosman. “There is no need to rush.” Quill & Quire enumerates the Canadian executive for the merged company; it appears that, for the moment, the changes are minimal.

The bottom line, at least in the short term, is perhaps best expressed by consultant Mike Shatzkin in Bosman’s NYT piece: “If you’re a Penguin author or a Random House author, you should be pretty happy today. If you’re another publisher or an author with another publisher, you should be watching this with a wary eye.”

Blurb this! House of Anansi edition

July 9, 2012 by · 3 Comments 

It’s not satire, per se, that is a problem for audiences, but a particular kind of satire: the kind that stings and bites and very frequently withholds happy endings. The kind Jonathan Swift, one of the form’s most impressive practitioners, famously characterized as “a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.”

Riche’s satire, by contrast, is amiable and often overly broad. The California religious cult with members who walk around in shoes made out of loaves of bread are unlikely to inspire a frisson on the part of readers, nor is the ex-talk show host now living as a derelict in the ravine that runs beneath the tony Toronto neighbourhood of Rosedale. Elliot meets this latter character after tumbling down a hill into the ravine while in the process of stealing a coveted bottle of wine from his new boss’s cellar, a scene that has more in common with slapstick than satire.

This is particularly ironic in a book that spends so much time bemoaning our culture’s inability to appreciate art that is nuanced or uncomfortable. On numerous occasions, Elliot lectures his interlocutors on the subtleties of complex wines and the deeper pleasures these can yield over lesser vintages. A wine that is easy to like, for Elliot, is not as ultimately satisfying as a wine that divulges its riches only gradually, requiring patience, dedication and a sophisticated palate to fully appreciate. Finally, that is perhaps the central problem with Riche’s novel: It’s easy to like.

– Steven W. Beattie, National Post, September 9, 2011


“It’s easy to like.” – National Post

– Paperback reprint of Easy to Like, July 2012

Reefer Madness

March 21, 2012 by · 2 Comments 

Roy MacSkimming referred to publishing as “the perilous trade,” but it becomes even more perilous when what you’re trading is tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of illegal drugs.

The Smoking Gun is reporting that two parcels of marijuana originating in San Diego were earmarked for shipment to the New York offices of St. Martin’s Press, one of the biggest publishers in the United States. Apparently, a California postal worker alerted authorities when two packages from “ABT Books” were deemed to have a “distinctive scent.” ABT Books was later determined to be fictitious; when the packages were opened, inspectors discovered the marijuana, which had been bundled beneath Styrofoam chunks and dryer sheets (commonly used to mask the odour of pot while in transit).

According to TSG:

Both packages were addressed to “Karen Wright,” which appears to be a fictitious name. A company phone operator said that nobody by that name works at the company, which is one of the country’s largest publishers (and a division of the Macmillan conglomerate). St. Martin’s roster of authors includes Robert Ludlum, Augusten Burroughs, and Frederick Forsyth.

Apart from seizing the marijuana – which, depending on its quality, could have had a street value approaching $70,000 – federal agents do not appear to be seeking to determine whom at St. Martin’s was expecting to receive the pot.

How do we know this could never happen here in Canada? Apart from most of the industry being way too staid and uptight to even contemplate such a thing, practically no one in Canadian publishing could afford to front $70,000 worth of weed, at least not without help from a government grant.

Scott Turow, Amazon, and the publishing wars

March 12, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice indicated that it was looking into the possibility of filing suit against Apple and five of the country’s largest publishers – Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, Penguin Group, HarperCollins, and the Hachette Book Group. The DoJ is alleging collusion and price fixing in the area of e-book sales. At issue is the publishers’ agreement with Apple to adhere to an agency model for e-books, which allows the publishers to set prices and prohibits Apple (and other sellers) from discounting them.

The agency model is opposed to the wholesale model, which allows sellers to set prices, and has resulted in steep discounts from Amazon, an online retailer that has parlayed losses on lower e-book prices into a virtual monopoly in the area of e-book sales.

The conflict between the two business models, and the possibility of action on the part of the DoJ, prompted Scott Turow, best-selling author and president of the U.S. Author’s Guild, to issue an open letter decrying the potential legal action. By selling e-books at a loss, Turow contends, Amazon is actually engaging in a practice of predatory pricing meant to drive competitors – including bricks-and-mortar bookstores – out of business. The agency model, Turow argues, promotes competition, which is essential to a vibrant literary culture:

Two years after the agency model came to bookselling, Amazon is losing its chokehold on the e-book market: its share has fallen from about 90% to roughly 60%. Customers are benefiting from the surprisingly innovative e-readers Barnes & Noble’s investments have delivered, including a tablet device that beat Amazon to the market by fully twelve months. Brick-and-mortar bookstores are starting to compete through their partnership with Google, so loyal customers can buy e-books from them at the same price as they would from Amazon. Direct-selling authors have also benefited, as Amazon more than doubled its royalty rates in the face of competition.

Let’s hope the reports are wrong, or that the Justice Department reconsiders. The irony bites hard: our government may be on the verge of killing real competition in order to save the appearance of competition.

The vitriolic responses from proponents of cheap books and digital publishing were as swift as they were predictable. Writing on Joe Konrath’s blog, author Barry Eisler takes Turow to task for foolishly suggesting that Amazon is killing bookselling by selling a metric shit-tonne of books:

Watch the linguistic dodge: Scott is implicitly arguing that the only model that counts as “bookselling” is the current model, built and maintained by legacy publishers and brick-and-mortar stores. That is, “bookselling = physical bookstores. Online bookselling doesn’t count as bookselling.” He’s arguing as though physical booksellers are the only legitimate organisms in the forest, while Amazon is some sort of exotic interloping alien species rampaging through a healthy native ecosystem. This is the only way to make sense of an argument that states, “Amazon is destroying bookselling by selling so many books.”

Well, actually, that’s not what Turow is implying, although that is clearly what Eisler is inferring. What Turow is actually arguing has less to do with the volume of Amazon’s sales and more to do with the reason behind them. It’s the artificially depressed prices Amazon offers that are the problem, at least in Turow’s conception, and it is this point that often gets lost in these arguments.

One side-effect of the steep discounts Amazon offers – discounts that, at the risk of being repetitive, mean Amazon takes a loss on sales because they sell their e-books at a price point lower than their own cost – is that they condition consumers to expect books to be so cheap. The consumer advocate will argue that he or she should not pay more than what the market will bear, but this conceals a basic fallacy. Amazon’s prices do not reflect what the market will bear, and they sure as hell don’t reflect fair market value. Professionally produced books – whether they be digital or otherwise – require editing, type design, marketing, and sales support. None of this comes for free. (In point of fact, most people performing these tasks in any publishing house in North America are likely being paid much less than their skills are worth.) Other booksellers don’t artificially mark their prices up; Amazon artificially marks its prices down. This is what has convinced consumers that $30 is too pricey for a hardback novel, and it is also what has contributed to Amazon’s monopoly over the e-book marketplace.

The problem, as The Washington Post‘s Steven Pearlstein points out, is that breaking this monopoly will result in higher prices for consumers.

So which is better: a market in which Amazon uses low prices to maintain its e-book monopoly and drive brick-and-mortar bookstores out of business, or one in which the major book publishers, in tacit collusion with Apple, break Amazon’s monopoly and raise prices?

Pearlstein’s own answer is, at least provisionally, the latter:

[T]he danger of regulators and judges focusing solely on short-term price effects is that it can mean turning a blind eye to business practices that temporarily lower prices even as they drive competitors out of business, lock in customers or limit entry into the market by new firms with better products.

Or to put it another way, it’s great to be able to buy e-books for $9.99, but maybe not if the alternative is accepting an Amazon monopoly that drives Barnes & Noble and your local bookstore out of business.

The only really safe mechanism for setting price is open competition, says Andy Gavil, an antitrust expert at Howard University, and anything that prevents that ought to be viewed with suspicion.

Meanwhile, Konrath reprints a letter author Suzanne White sent to the Author’s Guild in response to Turow’s own missive, in which she criticizes the guild for not working on behalf of authors, but rather trying “to protect what is obsolete”:

Where in the traditional publishing industry can an author command 70%? Where can an author have utter dominion over cover art? Formatting? Content? Illustrations? Impact? Marketing? The answer is Amazon. And a little bit Pubit and sometimes Smashwords or Apple as well. Where in the standard publishing industry can an author revive a book that he or she wrote in 1982, sold to a publisher who printed it, didn’t sell very many and took it right off the market? Amazon, that’s where. Author gets rights back, re-formats the book, slams it up for sale on Kindle and in six months is making money with that book.

Where? Tell me. Where can an author do better?

Why does a Guild for Authors rail on about monopolies and decry the demise of old-fashioned publishing as we knew it? Dinosaurs still prowling the streets of Manhattan want their good old boy industry back. Give it up already.

Any publisher worth her salt knows that in many cases, giving authors “utter dominion” over things such as cover art, formatting, and marketing is a recipe for disaster. By the same token, no publisher worth her salt is currently resting on her laurels, hoping to exploit authors and consumers by raising prices above all reason, or acting like a “dinosaur” prowling the streets of Manahttan or Toronto. Indeed, most of Konrath, Eisler, and White’s despised “legacy publishers” are bending over backwards in an attempt to innovate. ECW Press now offers free digital copies of their frontlist books when customers purchase a hard copy. Coach House Books has done the same. Penguin Canada has recently experimented with modestly priced e-book “singles” publishing. None of these is the action of so-called “dinosaurs.”

Perhaps the time has come for both sides in this debate to tone down their rhetoric, to shelve the righteous indignation on the one side and the frequently paranoid defensiveness on the other and try to find some common ground. Of course, in order for this to happen, each side will have to admit that the other has some valid arguments. In my experience, the “legacy publishers” have historically been much better at this than the upstart digital evangelists.

New PayPal policy brings charges of online censorship

March 8, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

A new policy instituted by PayPal, an offshoot of eBay, has prompted online self-publishing service Smashwords to revise its terms of service and has sparked calls of censorship from a diverse group of organizations representing publishers, writers, and Internet advocates. On February 18, according to a Reuters article reprinted in today’s Globe and Mail, PayPal sent a letter to Smashwords founder Mark Coker indicating that access to PayPal services might be “limited” should Smashwords continue to host writing that featured “obscene” content, including incest, bestiality, “underage erotica,” or “rape-for-titillation.”

In response, on February 24, Coker sent a letter to all “authors, publishers, and literary agents who publish erotica at Smashwords,” redefining what is and is not allowable for publication. According to the letter, prohibiting “underage erotica” is “not a problem” for the administrators of Smashwords, even though a strict reading of this term would disallow Nabokov’s Lolita. Similarly, Coker writes, “We do not want books that contain rape for the purpose of titillation.” This sounds reasonable, although it would arguably prohibit the works of the Marquis de Sade and the pseudonymous erotica of Anne Rice. Bestiality is also a no-brainer, although Coker is quick to clarify that “this does not apply to shape-shifters common in paranormal romance provided the were-creature characters are getting it on in their human form.” So the Twilight crowd can breathe a sigh of relief. Whether Marian Engle’s novel Bear would pass muster is another matter altogether.

Only when it comes to incest does Coker acknowledge the “slippery slope” that is created when one starts to set artificial boundaries on imaginative works:

The legality of incest is murky. It creates a potential legal liability for Smashwords as our business and our books become more present in more jurisdictions around the world. Anything that threatens Smashwords directly threatens our ability to serve the greater interests of all Smashwords authors, publishers, retailers, and customers who rely upon us as the world’s leading distributor of indie e-books. The business considerations compel me to not fall on the sword for incest. I realize this is an imperfect decision. The slippery slope is dangerous, but I believe this imperfect decision is in the best interest of the community we serve.

Meanwhile, the Reuters article indicates that a number of groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Authors Guild, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, and the Association of American Publishers have signed a letter protesting PayPal’s new restrictive policies:

PayPal “is now holding free speech hostage by clamping down on sales of certain types of erotica,” the groups said, according to a draft of the letter sent to Reuters. “We strongly object to PayPal functioning as an enforcer of public morality and inhibiting the right to buy and sell constitutionally protected material.”

They are right and they are wrong. The American constitution only protects speech that is infringed by the government; it does not protect speech that is infringed by private enterprise. PayPal is perfectly within its rights to decline any transaction it sees fit. Writing on the Electronic Frontier Foundation blog, Rainey Reitman elucidates this point:

Frankly, we don’t think that PayPal should be using its influence to make moral judgments about what e-books are appropriate for Smashwords readers. As Wendy Kaminer wrote in a forward to Nadine Strossen’s Defending Pornography: “Speech shouldn’t have to justify itself as nice, socially constructive, or inoffensive in order to be protected. Civil liberty is shaped, in part, by the belief that free expression has normative or inherent value, which means that you have a right to speak regardless of the merits of what you say.”

But having a right to speak is not the same as having a right to be serviced by a popular online payment provider. Just as a bookseller can choose to carry or not a carry [sic] particular books, PayPal can choose to cut off services to e-book publishers that don’t meet its “moral” (if arbitrary and misguided) standards.

When Heather Reisman decided that her chain of Indigo bookstores would no longer carry Mein Kampf, people who wanted to access the book simply went elsewhere. One problem with PayPal’s move is that they are, if not the only game in town, at least the most visible and influential. Their new mantle as moral arbiters of what gets published online may be legally sound, but it sets a dangerous precedent in what should be a free and open marketplace of ideas.

Margaret Atwood, Judy Rebick, and the iTunesification of literature

March 7, 2012 by · 4 Comments 

Are we witnessing the iTunesification of literature?

Over the past two days, news broke that two heavyweights on the CanLit scene are releasing new work online, in the increasingly popular “single” format, as spearheaded by companies such as Amazon and Byliner.

Yesterday, Penguin Canada announced that activist and author Judy Rebick has launched a new e-book entitled Occupy This!, about the Occupy Wall Street movement, a grassroots uprising the author finds as significant as the social revolution of the 1960s. The 74-page book is available through online retailers such as Kobo, or direct through the Penguin Canada website.

Meanwhile, Margaret Atwood, arguably Canada’s most Internet savvy canonical author, has released a new short story, entitled “I’m Starved for You,” via the San Francisco–based digital publisher Byliner.

The Rebick title is selling for $3.99, and the Atwood is priced at $2.99.

At the beginning of the year, Quill & Quire published an article about the rise of “singles” online publishing, which numerous commentators have suggested could be the salvation of long-form journalism. In the Quill article, Jason McBride writes:

What has become known as the “singles” model – advertising-free, tablet- and smartphone-friendly, book/magazine hybrids designed to be read in one sitting – could be the silver bullet that writers and print media, long beset by declining ad revenue in print and a fickle, penny-pinching market online, have been waiting for. “It’s really a frontier,” says Mark Bryant, the former editor of Outside magazine and one of Byliner’s co-founders.

Bryant likens his company to Random House’s Vintage Contemporaries fiction imprint, and, indeed, the distinctive branding of Byliner Originals, which sport digital “covers” featuring a signature bright yellow and consistent typefaces, appears to be the product of a traditional publisher. Byliner has now published more than a dozen titles by writers such as William T. Vollmann and Ann Patchett, and plans to eventually offer a new Byliner Original, ranging in price from $0.99 to $5.99 (U.S.), almost every week.

Writing in The New York Times, Dwight Gardner calls Amazon’s version of the idea – Kindle Singles – “probably the best reason to buy an e-reader in the first place.” The long-form journalism contained in the singles format, Garner says, hits “the sweet spot between magazine articles and hardcover books.”

Moreover, Garner points out, there are significant incentives for authors to publish in this format:

For writers, there’s money to be made here. Amazon offers 70 percent of the royalties to its Singles authors. The all-time best-selling Single, a short story titled “Second Son,” by Lee Child, the British-born thriller writer, was originally published by Delacorte Press; it is priced at $1.99 and has sold more than 180,000 copies.

So far Amazon has issued more than 160 Singles, at a rate of 3 per week. It has fairly strict rules for the nonfiction it selects. No excerpts from books. Generally no expanded versions of articles that have appeared elsewhere. Barnes & Noble offers similar material in its Nook Snaps series, and Apple has Quick Reads on its iBookstore, but neither is offering original material.

As an avowed advocate of short fiction, it would be foolish of me to criticize any vehicle that allows for more stories to get disseminated to more readers. And the singles idea is not new: it’s merely a digital version of the kind of long-form journalism once found in general-interest magazines such as The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Atlantic. And while the two former publications still regularly feature short fiction, other magazines have been scaling back on their fiction in the last decade, so this new venue seems to be a good way to fill that void.

And yet, I remain conscious of the experience of the music industry in the wake of Apple’s iTunes. All of a sudden, $0.99 singles were in, and full-length albums were, if not out, at least exponentially less popular. The rise of Kindle Singles, Byliner, and a similar initiative launched by The National Post at the end of last year offer bite-sized works of fiction and non-fiction that can, in most cases, be consumed in one sitting. With luck, these newly popular formats will constitute one part of the literary ecosystem, without cannibalizing longer works, such as full-length novels or works of non-fiction.

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