Scott Turow is more than just a massively successful author of legal thrillers, he’s the head of the Author’s Guild — an 8000 (or so) strong cabal of writers, agents, and publishers who’s only goal is to block less successful writers from getting to market and competing. So it’s no surprise that, like one of our readers who defended onerous licensing for transport companies (he owned a taxi service), they would have a problem with Amazon’s publishing model, which releases writers like me to not only get my product to market without having to go through the “guardians of taste” (publishers and worse — agents who don’t understand their job is to represent me, not me writing to make them look awesome to the publishing house buddies), and which allow me and others like me to make a bit of tuck off our works that would otherwise have been reduced by middlemen that provide only access.
It’s perfectly understandable. I’ve glanced through one of Turow’s books and he is a competent, but to me somewhat uninspired, author. He makes a shitton of money off his books. Good on him and I hope his success continues, but that does not excuse hurting other authors who would not otherwise get the same chances he has because of the guild system that publishers and agents have used for a century to keep the riff-raff out. Publishing, after all, is a game for gentlepersons and intellectuals.
You can see this attitude in his response to the Department of Justice’s case against Apple and the big publishing houses for colluding to fix e-book prices. He writes that the case “…is grim news for everyone who cherishes a rich literary culture…” How so? Wouldn’t cheaper ebooks and more authors provide more competition and better product? Or does he mean that rich literary culture should be nourished by those who know best, namely, big publishers and well established authors. Sorry, that was rhetorical; of course, it’s the later.
This elitist papp is why some of the more dazzlingly boring, narratively-vague crap has made its way to the bookseller shelves because it is “art.” Telling a good story is “low culture.” Or in the case of Mr. Turow, churning out one after another of a formulaic legal thriller that will make tons of cash…that’s art. Wait, I mean “low culture.” Or more simply put: art is what the audience decides it is.
Turow isn’t finished. Now he turns a monopolist’s eye toward Amazon: “We do know that collusion wasn’t necessary: given the chance, any rational publisher would have leapt at Apple’s offer and clung to it like a life raft. Amazon was using e-book discounting to destroy bookselling, making it uneconomic for physical bookstores to keep their doors open.” [Italics mine] This is, of course, utter swill. It is destroying a bookselling business model, yes, but destroying book selling? Hardly. Kindle, Nook, and iPad have revolutionized reading, allowing for multimedia books, for cheap dime novels/pulps to return, and have opened the market to millions of writers who couldn’t (Turow would certainly say shouldn’t) get their work to their audience. That Amazon discounts pricing on some ebooks (mostly popular works like Turow’s) is seen as predatory to Turow, instead of realizing that it allows people that weren’t going to blow $26 for a hardcover of his lastest sexy lawyers doing something sexy while solving sexy crimes story…but would toss $5-10 down. More readers, more money.
“Publishers had no real choice…it was seize the agency model or watch Amazon’s discounting destroy their physical distribution chain.” Crap — publishers had no choice but to seize the agency model because competition from cheap, independent authors means less money for the big boys who wouldn’t publish them. Physical publishing is, to be fair, expensive…and it’s rarely a money maker outside a few names like Turow, or Clancy, or Rowling. And like the movie industry — another paragon of terrible business modeling — they lose out on most of the material they put out, and are only bolstered by those bestsellers that they turn into a profit mill. Tom Clancy or Steven King, for instance, are the Star Wars or Nightmare on Elm Street of the book world. They make money, no matter the quality.
“…bookstores are critical to modern bookselling. Marketing studies consistently show that readers are far more adventurous in their choice of books when in a bookstore than when shopping online. In bookstores, readers are open to trying new genres and new authors: it’s by far the best way for new works to be discovered. Publishing shouldn’t have to choose between bricks and clicks.” Wrong. I used to be a big fan of the bookstore, but through the 1990s and 2000s, it became obvious that the “blockbuster” mentality of crowding the shelves with the new publishing house-appointed bestseller what limiting shelf space for new or less successful authors. There was a point where science-fiction author Walter Jon Williams opined that it was getting near impossible for even established writers to get more than a copy of a novel or two on the shelves for readers to find.
That hardly allows the reader to be adventurous in their buying habits. More likely, they’re popping in to nab the next installment of the infinite book series by Robert Jordan.
Turow goes further in his attempts to save the bookstore…and fails egregiously: “Apple thrives on this very model: a strong retail presence to display its high-touch products coupled with vigorous online distribution. While bookstores close, Apple has been busy opening more than 300 stores..” One problem, champ…Apple does not sell books in their stores.
“For those of us who have been fortunate enough to become familiar to large numbers of readers, the disappearance of bookstores is deeply troubling, but it will have little effect on our sales or incomes. Like rock bands from the pre-Napster era, established authors can still draw a crowd, if not to a stadium, at least to a virtual shopping cart.” This is what is called whistling in the dark. It is precisely the loss of stadium-level audiences that has old-timer rock bands bitching about the mp3 age. I no longer am locked into throwing down $20 for a mostly shitty album, when I can throw $1.29 for a popular song on iTunes. (Apple, you’ll note, isn’t being castigated by Turow for destroying the music industry.)
“For new authors, however, a difficult profession is poised to become much more difficult. The high royalties of direct publishing, for most, are more than offset by drastically smaller markets.” Wrong and right. No longer shut out of the market entirely by agents and publishers (agents, of course, usually were publishers before they became agents…ah, the closed ecosystem!) writers can get eyes on their work. Yes, you make more per unit than you would from a publishing house, and yes, you are more likely to reach a smaller audience…but for instance, I have two novels and a single short non-fiction work on Amazon (and other e-venues), and I have a slow but steady trickle of money coming in. And only Amazon, of the online purveyors, has really seen movement of the works. (Nook pulls about 10% — at best — the profits of Kindle. iBooks, so far, has been useless.) Now the average print run for a paperback is about 2500-5000 units, depending on genre, how likely it is to sell, yadda yadda…after agent fees, and other miscellaneous expenditures for marketing, you’ll be lucky to clear the $1/book I make on Amazon. That run will be expected to sell over the course of 2-5 years. So, worst case scenario: you’re not super successful, but you sell 3 books a day on average, you will move the same amount of product you could if you had 2500 books moving over 2 years.
It’s very unlikely you would move that much product that fast. The difference between self-publishing or going through the guardians of taste is that they take the hit if it doesn’t sell and you still get paid. (However, there are plenty of contracts that would leave the author on the hook for unsold units!) E-publishing on your own means zero risk — you sell, you make money; you don’t, it’s no worse than if you let the work languish on your hard drive.
Here’s my formula for success: 2500 units over 5 years. An averagey sort of success. I have to average 1.3 units a day. I’m hitting that most months. The difference is, instead of getting the money in a lump sum, I’m getting paid monthly. It’s enough to fuel my Triumph (which right now is nothing to sneeze at.) And that’s with almost no marketing, the one thing publishers are supposed to (and rarely do) provide. Other than my blogs, Facebook, and a few kind mentions on other blogs, my stuff is discovered by readers browsing around Amazon…just like they might in a bookstore.
Lastly, Turow opines, “And publishers won’t risk capital where there’s no reasonable prospect for reward. They will necessarily focus their capital on what works in an online environment: familiar works by familiar authors.” That’s already the model and is the reason that many, many writers could not even get to a publisher’s desk for review.
Techdirt.com did a nice homage to Turow’s inanity in this posting. I feel they wouldn’t mind if I posted it here: