Not much news here, but a BBC story suggests that, as part of its digital book initiative, Google may sell e-books sometime in the future. CEO Eric Schmidt – being extra careful in this area it seems – said “that this would depend on permission from copyright holders.” Google already provides links to online booksellers from its book pages, but, as far as I can tell, this would be the first time that Google was selling books directly.
For the past year, to the rising horror of publishing-industry insiders, the federal government has been on a campaign to stamp out price fixing in the e-book trade between the last remaining major publishing houses and Apple, which sells e-books for its iPads and other devices. On Wednesday, Denise Cote, a federal judge in Manhattan, ruled that Apple had indeed colluded with publishers to raise prices of e-books — in the process giving aid and comfort to Amazon, the single strongest monopolistic force in the book business.
The case is far from over. Apple is one of the world’s largest corporations, and it is in a knife fight with Amazon and others over the future of digital content, so you can count on it to carry on its appeals as long as it can. But Wednesday’s ruling follows an earlier decision by the major publishers to settle with the government rather than fight the case, so in some ways we are already living in the economic environment Justice Department lawyers believe is best for the book business. It isn’t pretty. Borders is gone, Barnes & Noble is on the ropes, and with the recently approved merger of Random House and Penguin Books, the already absurdly conglomerated Big Six publishers have become the Big Five.
As a matter of law, it is altogether possible that the government is right that Apple and publishers conspired to set prices higher than Amazon would charge, which would have forced consumers to pay more for e-books in the short term. But to see this case in this narrowly legalistic light is to completely misunderstand how the book business actually works, and, more dangerously, to undermine its ability to find and publish books people want to read.
The government’s case suggests that it views book publishing as essentially a commodity business. Publishers, this line of reasoning supposes, produce these things called books, consisting of several hundred pages of printed matter and a cover, each of which is more or less interchangeable with any other. A book then is like any other commodity, such as soap or motor oil, and the only legitimate concern for consumers is the unit price of the commodity. Any increase in the unit price beyond the absolute minimum the free market will bear is an injustice to the consumer.
But books are not bars of soap. When you go online to buy a book, you are not merely paying for a file full of random ones and zeros. You’re buying the original ideas and stories contained within that book, and frankly nobody has any idea how much those ideas are worth until people start reading them.
This is the crucial point the government missed in bringing this lawsuit: book publishing is in essence a vast, bumbling R&D operation — a sort of pharmaceutical company churning out stories rather than mood-stabilizing drugs. Like pharmaceutical companies, publishers are constantly testing out products of unknown efficacy to find the one in a thousand that works, and, like pharmaceutical companies, publishing houses have to charge above-market rates for their successful products to amortize all those failures. If you limit their ability to do this, books will indeed be cheaper, but they also will be lower in quality and variety because publishers will have less ability to finance experimentation.
This was what was at the heart of the publishers’ negotiations with Apple: publishers wanted to be able to set their own prices. Put simply, when it comes to e-books, Amazon sets the price — for a time, the standard unit price was $9.99 — and then pays the publisher a royalty per unit sold. Often, Amazon was actually losing money on its per-unit sales, but that was fine with Amazon, because what Amazon really wants to sell is not so much e-books as the delivery system of those e-books, called a Kindle.
Apple was offering a wholly different deal, called “the agency model,” in which publishers would set the price for an e-book and then Apple would take a cut — usually 30 percent of the list price. In other words, Apple was offering to once again give the publishing industry the freedom to overcharge for all those e-versions of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey flying out the virtual doors to make up for the risks it is taking on thousands of other titles that may have literary merit, but won’t sell nearly as well.
It is easy to see the Apple antitrust suit as merely a clash between multi-billion-dollar corporations, but at heart the case asks a fundamental societal question: what, legally speaking, is art? Is it a thing, a commodity like a bar of soap or a can of motor oil to be bought and sold in an unfettered free market, or is it something else, deserving of special allowances? If you see a work of art, in this case a book, as a commodity, then there is no question that Judge Cote’s ruling is correct. As a society, we long ago decided that when people sell things, the consumer is best served when the government allows the free market to work its magic on cost control.
But the framers of our Constitution recognized that ideas aren’t things and should occupy a special place in our laws. In enumerating the powers of Congress in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, the framers noted how important it is “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts” and thus created copyright protection for authors and inventors. I am not suggesting copyright law has any direct bearing on the Apple case. I am merely saying the framers were onto something. Books and other works of art aren’t widgets, and art does not now nor has it ever flourished in a truly efficient market.
As a matter of law, the Department of Justice might be right that Apple conspired with publishers to raise e-book prices, but as a matter of governance, the DOJ did not have to bring this suit, which everyone understood from the start would hurt publishers and help Amazon. The full effects of Wednesday’s ruling remain to be seen, but this much seems clear: if the government prevails, it may bring down prices of e-books, at least in the short term, but in doing so it will have created a far less genuinely competitive and vibrant book business.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Using the words “advertising” and “books” in the same sentence seems to cause panic among fans of literature. Recall when Nigel Newton, chief executive of Bloomsbury Publishing, lashed out at Google Books for the “predation” of their “silly ads” over a year ago. In the intervening time, our favorite works of literature have not been overrun by ads, but some publishers, aware of the value of their Web presence, have begun to experiment with advertising, according to the Wall Street Journal.The WSJ article takes Frommers.com as a case study. The travel imprint of John Wiley & Sons drew at least 728,000 unique visitors in May and, along with the Web sites for its Dummies do-it-yourself series and CliffsNotes educational books, brings in $10 million to $15 million annually.For publishers of reference books, guides, and manuals, the compatibility with advertising is pretty obvious. After all, newspapers and magazines have loads of this sort of content – particularly in the form of reviews of films, music, restaurants, travel destinations, etc. – and they do quite well selling advertising against it. With loads of original content, there’s no reason why a site like Frommers.com shouldn’t experiment with making more of that content free to readers and ad supported.Moving away from the more utilitarian publishing categories, however, the questions become a bit more challenging, a fact that I think is betrayed by the confused identity of many publisher Web sites. Typically they offer what seems to be a hybrid of a catalog and original content, though neither end up being terribly useful. On the Web, people want access to all the available information. Why would readers browse for a book on the HarperCollins Web site when they could go to Amazon or Google Books (or even the library) and see everything that’s available on a particular topic. Likewise, there is plenty of free, ad supported, quality original content available online from magazines and newspapers.While selling ads against an excerpt from the latest Philip Roth novel is not likely to be a winning proposition (though the New Yorker manages just fine), publishers could ratchet up their original content offerings in order to promote their own products as well as to bring in ad revenue and highlight their brands.Publishers have dabbled in this sort of thing before. Random House once had an online literary magazine called Boldtype, but cut it loose in 2003, and the site has enjoyed a second life as a part of the Flavorpill Network of sites. Bold Type in its current incarnation may not be the perfect model for publishers looking to create a new revenue stream on the Web, but the point for publishers to remember, I think, is that they are purveyors of content, and with a little creativity publishers could easily extend their expertise in this area to the Web.
Bryan Gilmer of Durham, N.C., teaches newswriting at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and writes for institutional and corporate clients. Until 2003, he was a reporter at Florida’s largest newspaper, the St. Petersburg Times. He has just independently published a crime thriller novel, Felonious Jazz.Last week, I created a Kindle version of my indie crime thriller novel, Felonious Jazz, using the tools at Amazon’s Digital Text Platform. It took about nine minutes, a “why-not” side project alongside my trade paperback, which I published using Amazon’s print-on-demand company, CreateSpace.My Kindle edition went live last Monday at $7.99, so I announced it on a couple of Kindle message boards online. By Wednesday, I’d sold one copy. One! Message board replies said, “If you want us to try a new author, give us a really low price. It’ll generate sales and reviews.” So I marked it down to $1.99 Thursday morning and posted the price change on the same boards. What happened next was remarkable:As of 5 p.m. Friday – about 36 hours later – Felonious Jazz was the No. 1 selling hard-boiled mystery on the Amazon Kindle Store and the 17th best-selling title in Mysteries & Thrillers – the only title not by huge names like John Sandford, Michael Connelly, and Elmore Leonard in the top 25. Its overall Kindle sales rank was as high as 133rd out of all the 283,000+ fiction and non-fiction titles available in the Kindle Store.I thought, now that I’m in the rankings, I shouldn’t have to be so cheap. I bumped the price to $4.99. Sales continued, but at a slower pace, (and Felonious Jazz has slipped in the rankings. I probably should have stuck with $1.99 longer). I also drew in some people who just buy cheap Kindle offerings who don’t normally read the genre, though they may have been less likely to enjoy it than fans of similar books.But overall, what a no-budget way to gain visibility. A few big lessons here: Readers expect Kindle books to be much cheaper than dead-tree books (because they know it costs less to publish them and they can’t share them and worry they won’t have them forever). A cheap price is enough to buy your way up the rankings among national names with a zero-dollar PR campaign. Now that there’s a free Kindle app for iPhone, the potential audience for a Kindle title is not just the half million people who spent $359 for the device but many times that large. It’s surprisingly comfortable to read book text on the Kindle iPhone app. If you haven’t tried it yet, get the app and grab my free sample from Amazon, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s transformative to have a book you’re reading (or several) on your phone to pull out whenever you have to wait in line or for an appointment.More worrying for conventional publishers is that Kindle board posters don’t think big publishers are pricing their titles cheaply enough, and when prices get above $9.99 they get angry about it. I’m not sure whether the high prices are due to higher costs, more parties to share the revenue with, or the fear of cannibalization of paper-copy sales. (But the advantages! Near-zero production costs. No warehousing. No shipping. No returns. New edition at any moment. Never out of print. And the Kindle makes people read and buy more titles.) Could big publishers go from being at a tremendous advantage to competing for top-25 sales rankings – if not profits – with a guy in his home office? Will a Netflix-like company launch without the expensive legacy infrastructure of the big New York houses and take advantage of elasticity of demand at much lower price points? As I type this I realize – maybe that’s Amazon.A bad side effect is that without barriers to entry, a lot of non-professional-quality content creates clutter. But to some degree, crowd sorting (via online reviews and such) can cope with that.
Twitter had its big moment last week, but unlike so many other technology start-ups in the seeming parade of millionaire-makers over the last two decades (with the obvious exception of Amazon.com), Twitter has developed a special following in the literary community, from high-brow to low. Perhaps that’s not surprising. Writers revel in words, and Twitter, nearly alone among hot technology start-ups, is mostly about words, crafting them to meet the medium’s peculiar restraints and sending them out into the world to be engaged with or ignored. Twitter is like some atomized version of the writer’s process. With Twitter, ideas go out piecemeal, the whole process taking a millionth the amount of time it would if you were to glom all those ideas together into one big whole and turn it into something as unlikely-seeming by comparison as a book. This speed, then, may be deeply satisfying — even addictive — as writers bypass so much of the toil of getting a book out of their brains and off to readers (New York’s Kathryn Schulz elaborated smartly on this idea last week.)
There is no uniform stance on Twitter in the literary community, of course. Some, like Teju Cole and Colson Whitehead, find it vital; many others — led by a certain one-time Time coverboy from the Midwest, do not. Some writers have more prosaic feelings about Twitter. Novelist Peter Orner wrote, “Some are talented at it; others, less so.”
Zadie Smith is not on Twitter. Nor are Jeffrey Eugenides (though his vest once was), Michael Chabon (not really, though his writer wife Ayelet Waldman is), George Saunders, or David Mitchell. Jennifer Egan is, but just a little bit.
Nonetheless, Twitter appears to be here to stay, for a while anyway. And it will remain a pastime for writers looking for book news, inspiration, distraction, literary puns, and every other thing they might want. But it wasn’t always that way. In the not too distant past, the literary lights of Twitter pecked out their first 140 characters and waited to see what Twitter would bring.
Curious, I dug back into the Twitter archive to see how these writers took their first steps into Twitter. What follows are the very first tweets of some of Twitter’s well-known practitioners from the literary world.
Finishing the website entries for my fall novel The Year of the Flood.
— Margaret E. Atwood (@MargaretAtwood) July 8, 2009
How does a petty trader come by N30 million worth of cars? Police hope Israel Ubatuegwu, of Ajah, has a good explanation.
— colson whitehead (@colsonwhitehead) March 15, 2009
Preparing for Book Expo America in the office in Dumbo. The last time we’ve to schlap boxes ourselves. Next year we pay the Teamsters…
— Richard Nash (@R_Nash) May 30, 2007
Last night at the Norman Mailer Award Ceremony in NYC, Oliver Stone said beautifully: “A serious writer is a rebel.”
— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) October 5, 2012
trying to figure out if someone does a decent MP3 workout, which will magically transform my iphone and my body at the same time.
— Dani Shapiro (@danijshapiro) April 24, 2009
Slaughtered by Sam A. and Jefffery Y. at post-diner breakfast ping-pong. Licking wounds.
— Dwight Garner (@DwightGarner) February 13, 2009
Here’s a video of my speech at the NBCC in NYC last week: http://tinyurl.com/dfe8rt
— Ron Charles (@RonCharles) March 17, 2009
— Sarah Weinman (@sarahw) April 24, 2007
— Susan Orlean (@susanorlean) December 23, 2007
doesn’t want to be an editor. oops, too late.
— Emma Straub (@emmastraub) December 3, 2008
I just opened my present from Dave McKean, The Big Fat Duck Cookbook. Heavy as a stone and beautiful. “See?” he said. “I do read your blog.”
— Salman Rushdie (@SalmanRushdie) September 15, 2011
Fine, then. I’ll twitter.
— John Green (@realjohngreen) December 11, 2008
No matter what I do there are always 5 emails in my inbox that I am avoiding.
— Doug Coupland (@DougCoupland) April 1, 2009
I’ve reached the limit on how many Facebook friends I can add. So here is a new page.
— Amy Tan (@AmyTan) August 12, 2010
— E L James (@E_L_James) April 12, 2011
First Tweet ever, prompted by Jeff Howe’s essay in Sunday’s NYTBR. Velly interesting. Helloooooo?
— William Gibson (@GreatDismal) April 1, 2009
coveting Susan Lewis’ hair.
— Chuck Palahniuk (@chuckpalahniuk) January 28, 2009
Becoming far more wired than I probably really need to be.
— Gary Shteyngart (@Shteyngart) December 1, 2011
I’m going to do it right this time.
— Emily Gould (@EmilyGould) May 21, 2009
today felt like the unabomber but i wasn’t plotting anything or planning anything or trying to bomb anything and i was wearing 4-inch heels
— Kate Zambreno (@daughteroffury) June 29, 2012
Wessex Man http://tinyurl.com/yw93xb
— New York Times Books (@nytimesbooks) March 18, 2007
News: Netherland wins PEN/Faulkner award: It was overlooked for the Booker prize and the prestigious US Nat.. http://bit.ly/AufPL
— Guardian Books (@GuardianBooks) February 26, 2009
— NY Review of Books (@nybooks) July 2, 2008
Check out our feature on the best audiobooks coming this spring.
— Publishers Weekly (@PublishersWkly) January 31, 2009
Mario Bros. meets Macbeth: What do a pixelated plumber and a murderous king have in common? Nintendo DS — in En.. http://tinyurl.com/5gr5m4
— L.A. Times Books (@latimesbooks) December 10, 2008
Hello, world! Official Library of Congress Twitter feed here. So nice to see 215 followers before so much as a single tweet!
— Library of Congress (@librarycongress) January 27, 2009
Welcome to the new GalleyCat Twitter feed, regularly collecting tweets from Senior Editor Ron Hogan, Editor Jason Boog, and Jeff Rivera.
— NPR Books (@nprbooks) January 8, 2010
We noticed lots of sites use Twitter for feedback. We created this account as a placeholder, but please visit our Feedback Group anytime!
— goodreads (@goodreads) August 19, 2008
56 years after William Styron warned us about chasing the zeitgeist, The Paris Review is now on twitter. From issue 1: http://bit.ly/BCnnE
— The Paris Review (@parisreview) September 4, 2009
Culling together work for Electric Literature no.2, planning events for October, spinning splendidly through another day at the office.
— Electric Literature (@ElectricLit) August 31, 2009
Rick Moody on running out of luck: http://tinyurl.com/ckno8d
— The Rumpus (@The_Rumpus) January 29, 2009
What will be named top book of the decade? http://bit.ly/AMgq8 What’s your pick?
— The Millions (@The_Millions) September 21, 2009
What’s the best part of B.G.’s “Bling Bling” video? Pre-tattoo’d Wayne, zooming red VW Beetles, or the crew’s outdoor fine china picnic?
— Nick Moran (@nemoran3) February 2, 2011