Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Publishers, "the book business", and modern-day Luddites

A mostly innocent but extremely misguided piece by Michael Wolff of USA Today:

"The book business believes that Amazon is unfair in the way it sells books. It believes, in fact, that Amazon in its sales practices — pressuring the book publishers to lower their prices and profits — is the enemy. Amazon's ultimate design, publishers believe, is to ruin them or to wholly shift the center of gravity in the business from the creators of books to Amazon, the dominant seller."

I'm amazed at how inarticulate professional mainstream journalists are nowadays. The "book business" encompasses an entire supply chain--which includes not only publishers, but also writers (many of whom now publish independently), and book retailers. The book retailing sector includes not only Amazon, but also Walmart, BN.com, and even your local grocery store. (I have bought a lot of books at Kroger and Walgreens over the years.)

"Indeed, while Amazon may be the worst thing to have ever hit the book business..."
Amazon is not "the worst thing to ever hit the book business". Amazon makes reading more affordable and more accessible to more people than all those overly romanticized corner bookshops ever could. Amazon encourages reading by making the process of book purchasing easy, convenient, and affordable for the masses. How is that bad for "the book business"?

Wolff then suggests that publishers can "win" by selling books directly to consumers, thereby bypassing the need for evil retail outlets like Amazon. 

It's a grand idea, but it displays Wolff's ignorance of the function of the retailer: The retailer serves as a market aggregator: Readers want to do all of their book browsing in one place; they don't want to visit a dozen different publisher websites every time they purchase a new book. (And how could publishers based in high-rent New York City ever compete economically with Amazon's distribution system?)

Wolff closes with a bit of wishful thinking about building a "culture for books". The best way to do that, again, is to make them more affordable and easier to acquire. This is exactly what Amazon does. And while I share Wolff's contempt for most celebrity-authored books, the USA Today columnist comes off, overall, as a Luddite and an unrealistic nostalgist.

I miss the past, too. I miss the days when Ronald Reagan was in the White House, all four of my grandparents were still alive, and rock music was worth listening to. I miss the days when I had a full head of hair, and most people whom I met were older than me rather than younger. But time marches on.

And truth be told--I do miss those old brick-and-mortar bookstores a little bit myself. It was indeed fun to while away a few hours at Borders on a Sunday afternoon. 

But I don't miss paying full list price on a $29.95 hardcover novel, and I don't miss having my selection limited to what could be housed in the shelves of the Waldenbooks at my local mall. 

Wolff's basic premise, that Amazon and ebooks are an evil force to be "defeated" is just plain silly. It ignores the facts of consumer preferences, technological changes, and the economics of bookselling. 

Should we wage a campaign to bring back the cassette tape and the 8-track while we're at it--defeat the CD and the MP3?

Also: Whatever happened to the days when left-leaning journalists cared about saving trees--which, economics aside, is a huge selling point of ebooks?

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