Rocket Bomber - publishing

The Fallacy, and the Truth, of "Big Publishing"

filed under , 25 February 2014, 20:35 by


“In the last 20 years, two multi-billion-dollar bookstore chains rose — and one fell. A hell of a lot has changed in 20 years.
“In 1994, Viacom owned Simon & Schuster and was buying Macmillan USA; now in 2014 Macmillan (via the original UK root) is back in the US book business – but under the imprimatur of privately-held German firm Holzbrinck. Viacom spun off S&S, as the publishing arm of CBS. Hachette Book Group USA (Hachette Livre being the bookish face of French multimedia conglomerate Lagardère) was born in 2006 with the French purchase of Time Warner Books — and more recently Hachette has also added on Disney’s Hyperion. (Hyperion, I’ll remind you, was built by Disney from scratch in 1990.)
“Rounding out “The [old] Big Six” – HarperCollins is only 25 years old, assembled from parts by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation over the course of the 1990s. And everyone is shadowed by the Randy Penguin merger: the imprints of Random House already read like a directory of 1947 New York publishing houses; added to Penguin’s haul the new Penguin Random House is set to publish half of all adult trade books (or more). That merger isn’t even a year old yet.”
Forbes: Please Hire Someone Who Understands Books, or Math, or Both : Rocket Bomber, 11 February 2014

Up until last year, we used to talk about The Big Six – the six largest US publishers: Random House, Penguin, Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan — In 2013 The Big Six became The Big Five (or alternately, Randy Penguin and the Following Four) after Bertelsmann and Pearson came to an agreement to merge their subsidiaries (incidentally, the two biggest US publishers), Random House and Penguin Putnam.

OK, first: Randy Penguin and the Following Four is a great band name. But more importantly: what [now] gets referred to as The Big Five are just the publishing arms of major international multimedia conglomerates — so far in this post I’ve name-checked Viacom, CBS, Holzbrinck, Lagardère, Time Warner, Disney, News Corp, Bertelsmann, and Pearson — the publishing houses get handed around like poker chips by media giants who [editorializing here] just don’t give a shit about print anymore, but hey, it’s still a multi-billion-dollar industry and everybody else has one “so I guess we need a publishing arm, too”

Publishing is worth (rough numbers) $27 Billion, but that’s only in the very-low-two-digit-billions, so to a Viacom or 21st Century Fox or Time Warner, the whole book thing just isn’t worth futzing with. Each of those entities has—when given half a chance—sold, spun-off, or otherwise dumped a “Big Six” publisher and retained the ‘real’ media assets … in 2013 Disney bought Marvel (technically a publisher) but the $4 Billion price tag was for characters and “IP” and what is now a blockbuster movie studio, not the floundering funny-book business. The year after Disney bought Marvel, you might have noticed they sold off their actual book division, Hyperion, in favor of concentrating solely on ABC/Disney (and soon-to-be Marvel and Lucas) tie-in product. Fox has similarly shed its News Corp skin, taking the TV and Movie studios and leaving the publishing behind. CBS is stuck with S&S only because they were cast aside with them back when Viacom split. Time Warner (which has been Time Warner since 1990) (and which sold off Little, Brown and Time Warner Books in 2006) even has plans to spin-off the Time Inc. magazine distaff branch and soon (mid- to late-2014) the last vestige of dirty, dirty print will be purged from Warner Brothers’ balance sheet — except for Batman and the other ‘DC Entertainment’ characters.


From 1989 to 1998, if you mentioned “the Big Six” to someone working in publishing in New York, they’d assume you were talking about accounting (or maybe poetry). The Big *whatever*, as a term, is too recent — and definitions are fluid.

[source: Google Ngram]

“New York Publisher” was (and occasionally still is) the disparagement of choice when talking about corporate inflexibility, but more and more we were actually talking about media giants and corporations, not about publishers per se. The Big Six emerged in the late 90s (note, not a historic and ever-present phenomenon) and were part of the larger media consolidation then taking place between movies, TV, cable… and yes, the internet and video games, too: AOL Time Warner and Vivendi Universal, anyone? Man, the aughts were weird. Book publishing, as ‘ur-content’, got swept up into the whole mess. The fit was often bad.

Books, newspapers, comics and magazines—what we call publishing—are the red-headed stepchildren of media, of note only in context. HBO gets all credit for Game of Thrones, Harry Potter is a Warner Brothers property, Lord of the Rings is New Line Cinema, Walking Dead is an AMC TV show. Marvel Studios had an immaculate conception in 1996, springing forth from nothing, whole and wholly-formed, into a super-hero movie desert and eventually becoming so popular that there were even popular comic book adaptations of the movies.

On the TV side, we also have Justified, Bones, Orange Is the New Black, and House of Cards — and hell: Roots, Shogun, this is nothing new. Masterpiece Theater has the occasional original story (nod to Downton) but for decades its bread-and-butter was literary adaptation.

This is a looooong aside (and trivial, or trivia, or both – you can skip it), but having done the research I had to include it: Two-thirds of all books that hit #1 on the bestseller list for the past century were made into movies — another 10% made the jump to TV, so three-quarters have been adapted.

The exceptions are kind of fun to note:

  • Mr. Britling Sees It Through by H. G. Wells, 1917
  • Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith, 1944 (eventually, an Oscar® nominated short in 1978, but not a feature-length adaptation)
  • The King’s General by Daphne du Maurier, 1946
  • The Source by James A. Michener, 1965
  • Trinity by Leon Uris, 1976
  • Chesapeake by James A. Michener, 1978
  • The Covenant by James A. Michener, 1980
  • The Matarese Circle by Robert Ludlum, 1979 (…is in development hell – though at one time both Tom Cruise and Denzel Washington were attached)
  • The Partner by John Grisham, 1997 (optioned)
  • The Testament by John Grisham, 1999 (optioned)
  • The Litigators by John Grisham 2011 (optioned)

There’s a batch that haven’t been adapted, but we could argue that doesn’t matter because others in the series* have been:

  • The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien, 1977
  • The Mammoth Hunters by Jean M. Auel, 1985
  • The Cardinal of the Kremlin by Tom Clancy, 1988
  • The Plains of Passage by Jean M. Auel, 1990
  • Desecration by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, 2001

And the TV movies and mini-series:

  • Wheels by Arthur Hailey (Book 1971, on TV in 1978)
  • Centennial by James A. Michener (1974, TV 1978)
  • Noble House by James Clavell (1981, TV 1988)
  • It by Stephen King (1986, TV 1990)
  • The Tommyknockers by Stephen King (1987, TV 1993)
  • Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley (1991, TV 1994)
  • The Street Lawyer by John Grisham (1998, TV movie 2003)
  • For One More Day by Mitch Albom, (2006, TV movie 2007)

The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub (1984) was being developed as a mini by TNT but never made it to air

Out of the whole list (and for more info on that, I’d direct you to Matt Kahn and his site, where he not only lists the Publisher’s Weekly #1 Bestsellers for each year, he’s also slowly reviewing each and every one) there are only four I couldn’t find more information on:

  • The Brethren by John Grisham 2000
  • The Summons by John Grisham 2002
  • The Broker by John Grisham 2005
  • The Appeal by John Grisham 2008
    …but it’s Grisham, so I’m sure these have been optioned even if it wasn’t internet-link-generating-news at the time.

And of course, there are the pair of bestsellers from the early 1980s: the bestselling book in each of these years were novelizations of movie scripts: E.T., The Extraterrestrial in ’82 (by William Kotzwinkle) and Return of the Jedi in ’83 (by James Kahn). If pressed for a date when publishing died, I’m picking 1982.

My point — yes, I had one — is that books and publishing are, in the corporate view, just the minor leagues. Even big names like Stephen King, John Grisham, and J.K. Rowling are just the ‘farm team’ for the real business, which is making movies and TV. Books are a static property to be strip-mined, not a resource to be conserved — or hell, a vibrant product that can be nurtured and will multiply if given even the slightest bit of care and feeding. The major media companies, and the publishers they’ve hobbled, can’t be bothered.

Amazon gets some credit here. But…

Well, Amazon gets credit for throwing Miracle-Gro® on a field of weeds and wildflowers — the seeds were there already, there was even some minuscule growth — indeed, this was a field that used to be tended by the pulp magazines and rack paperbacks.

[And honestly, I’d feel better about e-books and the new self-publishing Revolution if it were like the pulps of decades past and not a wholly-owned subsidiary of Conglom-o. But that’s my bias…]


We talk about Traditional Publishing like it’s a single thing, a single model, or a single company. It’s not. To claim that all publishers are the same is to equate The Big Five with Osprey, Harlequin, Regnery, and Soft Skull. The big “New York” publishers are actually run out of Gütersloh, London, Paris, and Stuttgart — of the two remaining “New York” publishers, one is more concerned with their (Hollywood-based) TV programming and the other’s major asset is financial information firm Dow Jones.

If anything, Amazon has managed to flourish because first, consolidation squeezed the publishing industry practically dry, and then the new corporate owners criminally neglected it.


For perspective, check out Publishers Weekly’s list of The World’s 60 Largest Book Publishers, 2013 – which not only is a global list but also incorporates the huge educational/textbook and financial reporting sectors (Reed Elsevier, ThomsonReuters, and Wolters Kluwer are the major players you’ve never heard of, each with about ~$5 Billion in revenue — not gross sales, revenue) — and we really should be talking about Scholastic as one of the [new] Big Six — and Europe and Japan are massive book markets, and the eventual digital book solutions in both might impact the digital book market in the US. Of Course Amazon is a player, but not the only one. (The side battle in Brazil is also of note)

I’d love if some of the “new book” self-publishing evangelists addressed the Fall of Publishing (1982-2006) in their arguments, and perhaps would explain why their new corporate overlord is in any way better than the old ones. It would be one thing if we were advocating for a creators’ collective to advocate rights for all designers/producers/writers against the many companies and web sites who seek to exploit authorship – but instead I only see efforts to pit the new model against the old one for internet ‘points’.

Who owns a kindle ebook? More importantly: what happens to a kindle ebook if Amazon stops hosting it? Prodigy and CompuServe were the shit in 2000, and in practical terms, were also ‘the internet’ for their user base. Amazon seems different (but awfully similar) but once again we’re looking at a walled garden and 2015 in practice isn’t all that different from 1985.

Dollars are great, I need more myself. But if the discussion is about business models and propagation of books, I need more than hagiographies of KDP and some by-the-way statistics based on web-scraping. Let’s talk about the future of publishing, not the panning-for-gold in the effluvia of a commerce-site-cum-social-network. Talk to me about how this all works in 2024, or 2034. Amazon is Fantastic, but can’t be the only player: tell me what’s next, and how to participate.

If your imagination fails at KDP, then your imagination fails. If “big publishing” is what you’re against, then tell me what you are for. Howey, what’s next?

Average words for average people

filed under , 18 February 2014, 12:09 by

“And I advised them to consolidate their brands into a single web shop. Because when you sell average products for average people, it’s practically impossible to achieve any usable conversion rates for each brand on their own, but combined you can create scale.”

“Note: The opposite of this, of course, is to be a niche channel from the start, during which you use your uniqueness to make people feel special, which in turn allows you to connect and leverage your market. But you can’t do this with without cool products.”

Thomas Baekdal (whom you all should be reading anyway) said this as part of a much larger discussion of how digital adoption (and the lack thereof by older folks) is creating a generation gap — Not a new point, mind you, but Baekdal expresses it well and we all need a reminder anyway. If you spend all your time online, sometimes you forget that even though Grandma is on Facebook she uses the web, and technology generally in a way that is very different. Grandpa uses his iPhone to make phone calls (can you imagine) and there’s the old saw about how neither of them can program the VCR, which is kinda true but also a joke made obsolescent by things like Tivo-style DVRs and Netflix.

…which is all beside the point – or at least the point I’d like to make.

The reason I pulled those 4 sentences out of Baekdal’s article and presented them out of context is because I think he’s saying something important about writing, too.

Book authors and bloggers need to think about what the product is, and who’s “buying” (literally buying or just reading). “Average products for average people” describes many, many blogs on the internet, no matter what the subject or focus is. What we write about can be the most amazing thing you guys, really the best but the writing itself is merely average. Informational. Journalistically bland, short because it needs to be short and not boring, but boring in its own way because too much style-for-its-own-sake obscures the meaning and makes your blog unreadable.

“And I advised them to consolidate their brands into a single web shop. Because when you sell average products for average people, it’s practically impossible to achieve any usable conversion rates for each brand on their own, but combined you can create scale.”

I think this is why we see blogs staffing up and why someone ever thought “platisher” was a term that had to be coined. [aside: No. – longer aside: A so called platisher is just another publisher, though one that is smarter about how readers read and prefer to interact with their content. The blogging platform is nice but has as much to do the with bones-and-bolts of writing and publishing as glossy magazine paper.]

The new publishing companies that are attempting to settle in the unpopulated space between blog and magazine are consolidating brands and voices to produce usable scale.

Keep that in mind. Now go read Baekdal’s post, “The Generational Divide” because I know you passed over the link the first time. Good, thought provoking stuff there.

The Long, Long Tail

filed under , 13 February 2014, 22:17 by


Writing Doesn’t Pay?

“This is a story that has been sensed by many. The clues are all around us, but the full picture proves elusive. It is being told in anecdotes on online forums, in private Facebook groups, at publishing conventions, and in the comment sections of industry articles. Authors are claiming to be making more money now with self-publishing than they made in decades with traditional publishers, often with the same books. I’ve personally heard from nearly a thousand authors who are making hundreds of dollars a month with their self-published works. I know many who are making thousands a month, even a few who are making hundreds of thousands a month. But these extreme outliers interest me far less than the mid-list authors who are now paying a bill or two from their writing.

“My interest in this story began the moment I became an outlier. When major media outlets began asking for interviews, my first thought was that they were burying the lead. My life had truly changed months prior, when I’d first started making dribs and drabs here and there. And I knew this was happening for more and more writers every day. But that inspiring story was being buried by headlines about those whose luck was especially outsized (as mine has been).

“Before we reveal the next results of our study, keep in mind that self-publishing is not a gold rush. It isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme. There are no short cuts, just a lot of effort and a lot of luck. Those who do well often work ludicrous hours in order to publish several books a year. They do this while working day jobs until they no longer need day jobs. This is also true of the writers earning hundreds or even thousands a month. Please keep this in mind. The beauty of self-publishing is the ownership and control of one’s work. You can price it right, hire the editor and cover artist you want to work with, release as often and in as many genres as you want, give books away, and enjoy a direct relationship with your reader. It isn’t for everyone, but you’re about to see a good reason why more authors might want to consider this as an option.”

Author Earnings: The Report : : 12 February 2014, Hugh Howey

Hugh and Company have used web spiders to pull data from Amazon’s listings (why has no one thought of doing that before?) and then used that data to figure out some odds and ends about self publishing using Amazon’s Kindle ebook platform.

Several important items to consider:

  • The data from the Author Earnings report is restricted to just three genres: Mystery/Thriller, Science Fiction/Fantasy, and Romance.
  • The Author Earnings report is only for ebooks
  • “Again, daily unit sales are estimated by sales ranking” – the Sales Ranking is pulled right from item listings on Amazon, but the ‘sales’ ascribed are estimates only. How good is the estimate? I don’t know. Good enough?
  • However, that fact that “The Report” is based on a snapshot of a single day on Amazon is worrysome.

Howey and the Author Earnings website gave us the data, though, and practically begged us to use it.

The Long, Long Tail.

The y-axis, unit sales, are the estimates provided by “The Report” – could be anything, really, but these were the numbers chosen by Howey and associates and the same numbers they used to prove their points.

The x-axis is as labeled: Amazon Sales Rank. This is direct from the data provided. Sadly, in a graph like the one above there is no way to account for the 916 books that tied for their Amazon Sales Rank (458 pairs; first for #14, then #30, then #58 …and so on, go look). My guess would be that these pairs are a result of the collection method: Amazon updates at least hourly and the web scrapers obviously took more time than that.

SO… my “long tail” chart omits 458 books that tied. We’re looking at 5585 data points, and that’s fine — honestly, with the way LibreOffice Calc draws the chart, the teeny tiny blips on my graph are still plenty big enough to cover even a five- or 20-way tie. If anything, the line still looks too solid.

Anyway, that’s the data. Unit sales vs Sales Rank.

And we all already know about the Long Tail, from the Chris Anderson book, or from math classes about power law probability distribution.

And we look at the graph and we see a bog-standard long tail distro (it’s Amazon, after all) and we shrug and a select few in the reading audience are wondering what in the hell I could be on about with this.

Note again, the x-axis: in the picture above we’re creeping up towards 3500 and yes, it’s obvious where this is going, blah blah blah.

3500? Fine, but the data provided — 5585 books, from #1 to Amazon Sales Rank #99873 — means that we’re only about 3.5% done. Tippy toes in the water. In fact, if one were to extend the graph above, instead of taking up most of the width of your computer monitor, it’d be 25 feet long.

At least, it is on my computer: The pic I posted above is just a screenshot.

If I compress it down a bit to fit (sort of) on your computer screen, instead of a nice ski-slope leading into the long tail, we can see just how dire a drop off it is:

This isn’t even All Of It – there’s one more thing to consider. “The Report” went to great pains to find the top 7000-ish bestselling genre Kindle titles — And of those, 6042 had an Amazon Sales Rank under 100,000. An additional 845 books are listed in the .xls file available from Author Earnings — and these slide quickly further down the ranks, from Amazon Sales Rank #100054 for the book that didn’t quite make the cut-off to #752309 for the last, 6887th book to appear in their spreadsheet. 752,309th place sounds bad enough, but just how many ebooks are on Amazon, anyway?

2.4 Million. A very long tail, indeed. Amazon has absolutely no problem with this, by the way: The files themselves are small and only use bandwidth when downloaded. If the Number One Ebook sells a million copies, that more than pays for the lot — and the whole point of Anderson’s Long Tail is that sales are made along the whole length, not just the bestsellers on the far left end.

My first pic, the graph out to 3500, is about one-tenth of one percent of all Kindle ebooks. The odds may be slightly better with ebooks, as opposed to traditional publishing, and the payout better, but we’re still talking about lottery tickets. So, bright and shiny First Time Author, where do you think your book is going to end up on this graph? In that very slim top 0.1% way on the left, or somewhere in the long flat bottom with the rest of us?

Forbes: Please Hire Someone Who Understands Books, or Math, or Both.

filed under , 11 February 2014, 15:41 by

Forbes just put up Amazon Vs. Book Publishers, By The Numbers – claiming at least on the face to “ignore the overheated rhetoric for the moment and focus on the raw data.”

Fine. But can you hire someone who can do math?

Forbes: “$5.25 billion: Amazon’s current annual revenue from book sales, according to one of Packer’s sources. That means books account for 7% of the company’s $75 billion in total yearly revenue.”

I’d take that one further. Books, at least as has been self-reported by the members of the Association of American Publishers, is a $27 Billion a year industry. To be fair, trade books (publishing minus the textbook market) is only (only) $15 Billion. Amazon is the big, ugly, 500lb. gorilla of the market but two-thirds of books are still being sold elsewhere.

Putting that $5.25 Billion in context and knowing the publisher’s side is at least as important: one could argue that Amazon is only 7% invested in books and the Amazon-Publisher relationship, while publishers are at least 30% invested and growing increasingly worried as that fraction keeps getting bigger. This is the wrong way to think about the numbers (note my use of the phrase “one could argue”) but knowing the relevant percentages is more important than throwing around billions — and does a better job of putting the original New Yorker piece in context.

* Forbes: “19.5%: Amazon’s share of the e-books market. E-books now make up around 30% of all book sales, and Amazon has a 65% share within that category, with Apple and Barnes & Noble accounting for most of the balance.”

edit 14:59 12 Feb 2014: I’m not totally mean spirited. On review, Forbes poster Bercovici did go back and post a correction. The quote above now reads “19.5%: The proportion of all books sold in the U.S. that are Kindle titles. E-books now make up around 30% of all book sales, and Amazon has a 65% share within that category, with Apple and Barnes & Noble accounting for most of the balance.” — I still feel that this is a misreading of the 30%/65% data as Amazon’s Kindle Direct Program operates independently of AAP/mainstream publishing. My other points below are still valid. —M.

Thank you, Jeff Bercovici, Forbes Staff — you have successfully demonstrated you can multiply the integer 30 by 65%.

The number is completely meaningless, but you’ve certainly nailed the arithmetic. What in the hell am I supposed to do with 19.5%? I suppose, if it were described as the percentage of the Total Book Market that Amazon Happens to Sell as Ebooks Rather Than Physical Books, there might be some point in knowing about 19.5% — but this isn’t what the data means.

19.5% is NOT “Amazon’s share of the ebooks market” – a point directly disproved in the very next sentence of the Forbes article, where Amazon’s [estimated] share of the ebook market is listed as 65%.

Also, ebooks are only “around 30% of all book sales” when we restrict ourselves to sales self-reported by the 1200 or so publishers participating in AAP industry reporting, and again, that would be 30% of the $15 Billion in trade books, excluding the other $12 Billion in publishing annually from textbooks, which are still resistant to the widespread ebook adoption we’ve seen in other publishing categories. Of course, Amazon’s books sales would also include their Kindle-exclusive ebooks — a number not reported anywhere and also not part of the AAP’s estimates (the 30%-ebook number we all like to throw around). The stronger one assumes KDP to be, the smaller Amazon’s share of the trade book business—including the AAP’s publishers’ ebooks—but, if anything, a thriving Kindle program is even more worrisome to a publisher.

Just how much of Amazon’s [estimated] $5.25 Billion is ebooks? – more than 30%, I’d bet, since the publishers report 30% and Amazon sells at least as many ebooks as print books, by their own reporting. (or is that bragging?)

Just how much of Amazon’s [estimated] $5.25 Billion in book sales is Amazon’s? – This is a big ol’ question mark, because Amazon isn’t saying. Kindle Direct Publishing and the menagerie of imprints are, if nothing else, a growing fraction of Amazon’s book sales, and could be a significant fraction. How we parse it can make a big difference. If Kindle ebooks, CreateSpace print-on-demand, and Amazon Publishing account for exactly zero of Amazon’s [estimated] $5.25 Billion, that means Amazon really is selling 35% of all adult and juvenile trade books. I’d say the combined-Amazon-book-cheetah is getting close to a billion dollars, though, because the fraction I keep hearing for Amazon’s share is closer to 30%.

Ebook cheerleaders and Amazon partisans keep sharing anecdotal stories about just how great things are on their side of the dome. How much of Amazon’s ebook sales are Kindle native?

I might read the Forbes article and think 19.5%, but now I’m just rubbing it in.

How about used books, also available from Amazon – Are sales on Amazon’s marketplace figured into that $5.25 Billion? They shouldn’t be, as Amazon only collects fees on these transactions and the sales are actually banked by the seller-of-record. While used book sales wouldn’t impact the reported sales from the AAP, they certainly affect the public perception of Amazon as an online “book store” and that means Amazon’s mindshare for books is bigger than $5.25 Billion and the estimated dollar figure for “book” sales is almost certainly off.

George Packer did an excellent job describing how many publishers feel about Amazon. Forbes, in reporting on the article, pulls out some numbers from his article (in a mildly condescending way) for their puff-piece-listicle but adds nothing to the original, or the conversation.


I’m not done.

Forbes: “>50%: The decrease in the number of independent bookstores over the past 20 years. There used to be about 4,000 in the U.S.; now there are fewer than 2,000. Amazon’s arrival on the scene is only part of the story here, of course; the decline of the indies started with the debut of big-box stores like B&N and Borders.”

Do you want to go there, Mr. Bercovici? Amazon, Big Boxes, indie bookstores, wow things have changed but from the tone of the Forbes author we get the impression that Amazon’s “part of the story” is supposed to be the largest part. Let me show you how we provide context for a story:


“The Wasserman piece [“The Amazon Empire: How the Online Colossus Snuffed Out Competitors and Their Next Battle for Publishing” : Steve Wasserman, 3 June 2012, The Nation article reposted at] is a long read, but a good one. Please note that in 1994, if the figures/fractions quoted are correct, then in the year Amazon launched 55% of the total book market was selling outside of bookstores! – we have short memories, it seems, and a long list of assumptions to work through when it comes to book retail. If Amazon were merely displacing book-of-the-month clubs and hoovering up the book retail that (in the 1980s) was happening in grocery stores and newsstands (newsstands! remember those?) then their stratospheric growth has a ready explanation that doesn’t involve the death of book stores. In 1994 the big-box-bookstores were just getting started: Borders & Waldenbooks were still owned by K-Mart (yes) and hadn’t been spun-off yet, that division consisted of 1,102 mall stores and just 75 Big Boxes; B&N had 268 stores alongside 698 (B. Dalton) mall locations. (Remember mall bookstores? I used to buy books there every weekend. The local mall had two bookstores in it. Good times, good times.)”
Let’s Talk About The Business, Then. : Rocket Bomber, 8 May 2013. [some edits for clarity; it’s OK, I cleared it with the author]

In the last 20 years, two multi-billion-dollar bookstore chains rose — and one fell. A hell of a lot has changed in 20 years.

In 1994, Viacom owned Simon & Schuster and was buying Macmillan USA; now in 2014 Macmillan (via the original UK root) is back in the US book business – but under the imprimatur of privately-held German firm Holzbrinck. Viacom spun off S&S, as the publishing arm of CBS. Hachette Book Group USA (Hachette Livre being the bookish face of French multimedia conglomerate Lagardère) was born in 2006 with the French purchase of Time Warner Books — and more recently Hachette has also added on Disney’s Hyperion. (Hyperion, I’ll remind you, was built by Disney from scratch in 1990.)

Rounding out “The [old] Big Six” – HarperCollins is only 25 years old, assembled from parts by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation over the course of the 1990s. And everyone is shadowed by the Randy Penguin merger: the imprints of Random House already read like a directory of 1947 New York publishing houses; added to Penguin’s haul the new Penguin Random House is set to publish half of all adult trade books (or more). That merger isn’t even a year old yet.

Publishing has gone on, of course: the day-to-day of editors and booksellers is of more immediate import than the boardroom maneuvers and empire building going on behind the scenes, but the corporate shenanigans still matter. It’s not that the publishing world suddenly changed in November of 2007 — a monolithic seeming industry that was already beset by supervolcanoes, tsunamis, and major tectonic shifts also got hit by an asteroid. (If a few bookselling dinosaurs are wandering around looking confused, I think they can be forgiven.)

The way people read has changed; the things people read have changed. Your options in the 1980s consisted of newspapers, magazines, mass market paperbacks, or maybe, rarely, an amateur newsletter or ‘zine — now people read more than ever but we’re staring at a screen, and occasionally it’s the screen we keep in our pocket. You can start your day reading an news aggregation site, follow up with a few expert blogs, churn through email, go back to the blogs (the funny ones), check your email again, waste time on tumblr, twitter, reddit, and then finish up by reading fan fiction in bed before falling asleep. You don’t even need to fire up your old-school-desktop-PC to do any of it, and seemingly, amateurs are in control of all of it. You can spend 14 or 15 hours of every day staring at a screen, reading.

Reading Demand has not changed. In fact, given all the new options, it may be increasing. The ways we meet that demand have adapted to the new tools — primarily the web, which is still the best part of the internet. Like the internal combustion engine revolutionized agriculture and oh-by-the-way also could be used for personal transport, the concoction of url-html-http that we call the web has revolutionized publishing (“the act of making something public”) and we’re still in the very earliest days trying to figure out what the ‘oh-by-the-way’ impact is going to be — on society as a whole, and on our personal lives. In 1914, whether we were riding in a horse-pulled omnibus, a steam-cable trolley, electric street car, or driving ourselves in a horseless carriage — we were still just going about our day. Motels, drive-ins, drive-thrus, the Interstate Highway system, and suburban cul-de-sacs came later.

Book retail, like all non-food retail, will suffer as we make the online & digital shift. The “major book publishers” may stall out as a ‘forgotten’ $15 Billion a year industry — no longer growing but instead, just serving the same niche for decades as we re-align our lives around the new technology. That doesn’t sound that bad to me. I know, ‘If you’re not growing you may as well be dying’ but if there were ever an industry that was readymade for a caretaker role, the stereotype of the quirky local bookshop supplied by small, early 20th century publishers fits perfectly — direct from central casting; a cliché right out of the gate.

Amazon isn’t the only thing to impact publishing and bookselling.


“Let’s go through that again: In November of 1998, B&N had their own website, 15% of the book market, was looking to buy Ingram — the company supplying Amazon with more than half of their inventory at that point — and was being run by a driven, ruthless bastard whose modus operandi was buying up companies to either consolidate operations or just get bigger. Can I remind you that at that point Riggio had also bought Babbages, Software Etc., and GameStop and had built up this sideline into a chain of 500+ stores?

“This raised all-kinds of antitrust flags, apparently, so it’s no wonder the B&N/Ingram merger didn’t go through. I think when the deal went sour, Riggio took a step back to reappraise strategy. GameStop was spun-off into its own company and Barnes refocused on books. B&N built a massive warehouse of their own, and took up in-house distribution and logistics like a new religion. This quiet and behind-the-scenes stuff isn’t as flashy as mergers or new store openings, but the efficiencies B&N built over the 2000s are part of the reason they’re still open today, after 4 years of recession and shrinking consumer demand.

“Amazon borrowed a billion dollars (no exaggeration: they were carrying $1.4 Billion in debt by 1999) to build up the infrastructure they needed following this close call — 15 years ago the market changed, more distribution and warehousing was brought in-house and verticals were built. You might also be forgiven if you pointed to 1999 as the year Amazon changed strategic focus: from building a website and sales portal to building a business.

“I find it amazing that in 1999, the owner of a physical, brick-and-mortar bookstore chain was precluded from purchasing a book distributor (even when neither was the only player in their individual markets, and on the cusp of market changes already in motion and being trumpeted by both online-sales advocates and voices in the business press) — and the same sort of monopoly-building in 2012 is not just condoned by the state, but is being actively supported so long as some Justice Department lawyer can buy his ebooks for $9.99 instead of $14.

“It is said Amazon has 30% of physical book sales and 60-70% of all e-book sales. 15 years ago, Barnes & Noble was blocked on anti-trust grounds when they had only 15% of the book market. I find this fascinating.

Rocket Bomber, ibid.

I wrote that longish piece last year, and George Packer did all my research and a hell of a lot more to write the 12,000 word article that inspired an ongoing, and very relevant conversation about books.

That’s how you cite “raw data” and put things into context, Forbes. It’s fine to pretend that you’re the ‘serious’ one in the room, and that publishers and book partisans are the ones engaging in “overheated rhetoric”. But if you’re going to present to all the world as a business publication: at least do us a favor and learn about the business.

(And get the math right, too, while you’re at it.)

Ebook sales projection, 4th update

filed under , 13 January 2014, 15:27 by

Original Projection : 1st update September 2012 : 2nd update December 2012 : 3rd update April 2013

With the introduction of the joint AAP/BISG BookStats program, the reporting that used to be available in free press releases is now locked behind a paywall. It still leaks out, in dribs and drabs, but getting numbers to plug into this graph is difficult, to the point where I don’t even want to bother with it.

The other fun fact is that AAP sales numbers are only those from the 1000+ publishers who voluntarily submit their data to the surveys, and as such are not complete. Most glaringly, and a fact noted over and over again by others, the ebook sales numbers do not include Amazon or other self-publishing.

[click for larger]

If you really want to know about the math, click through (up top) to some of the previous updates. [tl;dr the projected sigmoid growth curve is a tanh(t) function which ticks off monthly t-for-time in teeny fractions of π.] Needless to say, the projections I made in 2011 haven’t quite held up to the test of time.

And there’s that chunk, unreported, invisible, of self-published books that make up a small? large? portion of ebook sales each month.

Follow me along through this thought experiment:

What if self-published ebooks had their own growth curve? Separate from the major publishers (and other AAP members) and reflecting a different time frame, adoption rate, and limiting factors. Would this explain “the drop” we noted with glee (or skepticism) this time last year?

I think it does. I think we can even pinpoint the moment this independent market began to grow and while the total numbers were initially small, after a couple of years the “interference” this introduced was enough to move the “official” sales reported by the AAP. On the graph below, check what happened around and after July of 2012:

[click for larger]

Of course, since Amazon holds tight to any actualsales numbers that might illuminate the issue, my guess (educated, inspired, or otherwise) is still just a guess. If anyone at Amazon has the numbers and can see if my projection is close, then of course please contact via email and we can discuss my future employment at your fine company.

For everyone else: I see a market for ebooks currently at $150 Million a month—and slowly growing—for the orthodox publishing companies, and a smaller (related, but separate) self-published ebook market that currently stands at about $75 Million a month and will likely be double that at year’s end. Self-publishing is smaller and will remain smaller than the output of the orthodox publishers until mid 2015. (in ebooks; the impact on print books and text books are still great big question marks and beyond the scope of this little thought exercise.)

So far, I don’t think I’m wrong. Even my first chart 30 months ago wasn’t wrong — I was just waiting for more data. Given the data we now have, I like this version well enough.

What say you? Do you think self-published ebooks are clearing $75 Million a month? What is their growth potential?

Under the Dome: Authors and "Publishers" in Kindlespace

filed under , 26 December 2013, 12:08 by

“But again, this is a bad comparison. Royalties to authors aren’t the same as profits to publishers. We are the publisher when we self-publish. So start comparing our 70% take to a publishers’ 60% take when they deliver a book to a bookstore — keeping in mind that we don’t have a physical location to lease, shipping costs, or employee wages — and you’ll see that this is a very fair, sustainable, and permanent rate. If anything, there’s room for it to be more generous.
“Just like the sky, this rate isn’t coming down. And I’m not afraid to put a public declaration on this. Because hey, the chicken littles and the Jeremiads are wrong every single time. Yes, even tomorrow. Especially tomorrow.” [emphasis in original]
The Sky is Falling! The Sky is Falling! : Hugh C. Howey, 20 December 2013,

Mr. Howey was responding to this Kindleboards post: A thought on how it could get much tougher, which I saw first via The Passive Voice

— Hugh Howey deserves credit, kudos, and all due respect for what he has been able to accomplish as an author and businessperson (in that he makes money; that’s how business-types keep score) but I can’t say I see any improvement in a market where there were once 50 different players, and now there is functionally only one.

Hugh casts his relationship to Amazon in one light: He, acting as his own publisher, provides the books to Amazon’s bookstore — selling to Amazon wholesale for 30% of the retail price. When put this way, Amazon appears to be Howey’s customer (and we maintain the illusion that Amazon is a “bookseller” and “bookstore”).

If allowed, I’d like to re-phrase Hugh’s main point: Actually, Amazon is allowing Hugh to use their app store to sell downloads, for which they take a 30% commission on sales. Amazon doesn’t need to collect more than 30% because they aren’t really doing anything except listing the book and facilitating downloads (just like Apple does with their App store, for example – and Apple also charges software developers 30%).

Hugh is right: the sky isn’t falling, Amazon is likely just fine paying authors 70% and hell, over time, they might even be willing to pay more. But Amazon is not the customer in the current KDP program: The Authors are. Authors give up that 30% to use the Amazon website to facilitate their own sales. Amazon makes commissions off the sales, but isn’t ‘publishing’ them, and certainly isn’t buying the virtual books to put on virtual shelves. It’s a listing; Amazon isn’t a bookstore, just like the old Books In Print wasn’t a bookstore.

Amazon and the Kindle ecosystem they’ve built are great tools for authors, but the things that make them great are also the things that make Amazon so very different from the old publisher-bookstore pipeline. To gloss over the differences with bold declarations that We are the publisher is, dare I say it, attempting to blind people to the real truth by shouting.

As “author” or “publisher”, where else do you go that isn’t Amazon? I don’t care how good the rates are, he kind of skims over the fact that Amazon set the rate for him: Hugh did not negotiate it. The Sky isn’t falling. There is no sky, when we all have to live under Amazon’s dome.


I’d like to point out that Hugh Howey is a New York Times Bestselling author, and is making lots of money, and also managed both feats starting out as a self-published author on Kindle so maybe he knows something I don’t about how this all works. And now that he’s famous with an established fanbase, he could easily go it alone and sell direct to readers outside of Amazon, so maybe his perspective from his current position is correct. But for the rest of us? I don’t know.

I do think that self-publishing in 2014 is different than it was in 2011. If nothing else, the field is more crowded — plus Amazon continually tweaks their listings to make it harder to ‘game’ their system, so breaking out of the ebook pack like Hugh did is much tougher. This idea that Kindle authors are ‘publishers’ and not clients using Amazon services isn’t going to help anyone navigate that system.

Publishing and Payments, recap and redux

filed under , 2 December 2013, 14:21 by

“Lately, two recent trends are taking place in e-book publishing. First, several articles in the past few months indicate that e-book returns have grown among readers. Some readers are abusing Amazon’s generous Kindle book return policy in order to get their money back after purchasing a book.

“While it’s important for Amazon and other online retailers to have a mechanism in place to allow readers to return books — due to publishing errors or technical problems — the idea of reading a book then returning it is a big problem. It hampers self-published author sales and minimizes the purpose of a return policy.”

E-Book Returns and the Problem With the Subscription Model : Kevin Eagan, 2 December 2013, Critical Margins

“Have you ever returned a Kindle ebook? That option might soon be going away, thanks to a petition over at

“The petition calls on Amazon to change their customer-friendly Kindle ebook return policy. Even though this petition is only 4 days old it has over 2 thousand signatures from authors and publishers, all of whom want Amazon to now block some types of returns.

“The petitioners don’t see the return policy as reassurance to readers that we can return a poorly written or poorly formatted ebook. Instead they view it as a loophole that is being gamed by serial returnees.

“There is some truth to this idea, but would it surprise you to know that Amazon is a step ahead of serial returnees?”

There’s No Need to Change Amazon’s Kindle eBook Return Policy : Nate Hoffelder, 3 April 2013, The Digital Reader


Amazon’s Kindle Publishing programs are not (despite the name) publishing platforms — ebooks are a format, not a publishing platform — blogging software running on a domain you own is a publishing platform, a working knowledge of CSS, HTML, and FTP along with a text editor is a publishing platform. In fact, ebooks are just web pages (right down to the CSS, XHTML, and XML.)

Amazon makes things easier to publish (hey, just like Wordpress) and goes to great lengths to hide the fact that text delivered over an internet connection isn’t a html document, but the real secret sauce is money.

It’s not that Amazon makes it easier to publish: they make it much easier to get paid. …well, until you don’t get paid, at any rate (see the foofaraw over ebook returns, cited above).

Authors using KDP are trading control for convenience. (In a way, authors have always made this devil’s bargain with publishers, but in the past there seemed to be more work done on the publisher side to justify giving up control) (you know, plus money) — Amazon makes money off the transaction, and doesn’t know or care which books are “transacted”, so long as there are plenty of transactions in aggregate. Amazon has the system all set up: manuscripts in one end, downloads out the other, and the rest is accounting. No quality control, no editorial voice, no plagiarism filters, just the bookkeeping.

And yes I know it’s stupid to publish an ebook and ignore Amazon: Amazon is a big damn user base, and right now a lot of ebook affectionados exclusively buy from Amazon (because they’re lazy, perhaps, or more likely because they don’t know better, don’t care, and no one else is offering anything compelling that might persuade them to switch).

Amazon makes payment easy: taking payments from readers, making payments to authors. But processing credit card transactions is a far cry from running a publishing business and the real ‘digital disruption’ in publishing is not Amazon. Digital Disruption in Publishing is Facebook. Twitter. Blogs. Buzzfeed and Huffpo. Napster and Limewire. Torrents, Tor, Pirate Bays and Pirate Parties.

Here’s the conclusion to a piece I wrote 4 months ago:

What we have here is a stalemate: On the one side, we have ebooks. Apparently everyone, even my Mom [true fact], is buying ebooks — and I, the Lone (old-school, physical bookshop) Bookseller Left on the Internet… I’m just a plaintive, fading voice in the e-wilderness, unable to see the e-forest for the e-trees.

I’ve been assured that the digital revolution has already taken place and we’re just taking a decade or two to sort through digital winners and losers, and well: nothing I’ve said or can say will shake your convictions.


“To me, it seems like the revolution already occurred back in 1993 and you all missed it. Every argument made for ebooks is also an argument that could be made about web pages: text served up via html and http actually has numerous advantages over .mobi, epub, and pdf (the current ‘e book’ formats available to us).”

The digital revolution already happened. I’m defending one payment structure: distribution and sales of books through bookstores. Ebook partisans are merely defending a different payment structure, Amazon et al. and the “electronic book” — but both models are susceptible to digital disruption.

“Modern” publishing (I’m going to pick 1836) had a good run, 1836-2007 — 172 years. Over the course of that run, corporations lived and died, business models rose and fell, new and cheaper book formats were born, and at the tail-end of that era: the internet came to prominence. We are now 5 years into the “new” publishing model…

Or, we are 5 years into a dead cat bounce. Are “Kindle ebooks” the future, or merely that last gasp of 200 years of publishing business?

I think the current environment has much more in common with the post-Gutenberg early era of newspapers (1605-1700): we are still figuring out what the platform can be used for, what we want to use it for, and how we can use internet publishing to make money. (I’ll remind you again here: Dickens’ first book was serialized in an 1836 magazine.) Straight, non-DRM web distribution is still the disrupting factor that has yet to be felt in Amazon’s KDP biodome, and however enamored one is of Amazon’s ebook payment structure — the payments have nothing to do with books or publishing.

Project Gutenberg predates the Kindle by 37 years, the Internet Archive hosts 4.4 Million ebooks, and facilitates 15 Million downloads each month [hattip] — so, yeah. Amazon’s e- efforts almost seem like a sideline in comparison.

The book is dead. Long live the book.

And before you come at me as obviously wrong [I am, as always, obviously wrong], ask yourself: “Am I about to defend books, digital distribution, or merely the new payment models that have been laid over the old publishing model?

and with that parting shot: I open the floor for discussion.

[…some new emphasis added by me, but since I also wrote the original do I really need to make a note?]

A rare batch: books and publishing round-up for 25 November.

filed under , 25 November 2013, 13:34 by

I don’t often do a link-roundup post (I personally am of the opinion that no one really clicks any of the links, and many folks will skim a list, only pick up on 2-3 headlines, and the rest just scrolls past unread and unremarked) however I seem to have accumulated way too many interesting articles related to books and publishing to tweet in an effective manner, so…

A link roundup.


“Last week, BusinessWeek published a themed issue entitled, ‘The Year Ahead: 2014.’ It’s a fascinating compilation of interviews, data, projections, and ideas. I will be reviewing my copy of this superbly useful print publication for weeks to come.

“One article in particular caught my attention: ‘The Year of the Paywall.’ In a single page, it neatly summarizes the problems facing newspaper, entertainment, and magazine publishers, while touching on problems facing scientific and scholarly publishers by extension.

“The major premise? Publishers were demonized for having paywalls for individual subscribers, but now are finding that every alternative is either too unreliable or simply insufficient, and are returning to individual paywalls with a vengeance.” [/blockquote]

Will 2014 Be the Year of the Individual Paywall for Publishers? : Kent Anderson, 25 November 2013, The Scholarly Kitchen

for reference: The Year of the Paywall : Edmund Lee, 14 November 2013, Bloomberg Businessweek


Is Government the Only Force Able to End Amazon Dominance? : Roger Tagholm, 25 November 2013, Publishing Perspectives

What If Amazon Was Run By the US Government? : Roger Tagholm, 25 November 2013, Publishing Perspectives

Are Book Machines the Right Fit for Indies? : Judith Rosen, 22 November 2013, Publishers Weekly

For those not familiar with On Demand Books or the Esspresso Book Machine I’d start with a simple Google search for Espresso Book Machine and start clicking links.

This guy even used the sentence “It’s a telling sign of how blind postmodern thinking can make us” and still manages to miss the whole point : The Bechdel test: Application, historical context, and introducing a male equivalent : Bonus points for “If the people who complain about movies using the Bechdel test would instead proactively contribute to making the postmodern movies they want, maybe things would look differently” like we all have a couple million lying around to make movies, or are even given the opportunity to ‘vote’ for better options with our dollars, in a world without options.

From campfire to holodeck : Joanne Jacobs, 24 November 2013, (“Linking and Thinking on Education”)

The Absence Of Serendipity, Or, Why I Hate Shopping At Amazon : Tim Worstall, 19 November 2013, : via The Passive Voice where you’ll find additional commentary

10 Reasons Amazon is Great for Book Lovers : Joel Goldman, 21 November 2013,

Comment: How I learned to stop worrying and love Amazon : Anne Treasure, 21 November 2013,

What’s the Key to Solving the Book Discoverability Problem? : Laura Fredericks, 18 November 2013, Publishing Perspectives

The main factor contributing to the problem of book discovery is the sheer volume of books out there : Stephanie Anderson, 19 November 2013, Bookavore


“The digital revolution brought forth a frenzied hoard of futurists who declared the publishing industry is dying. They say publishers simply can’t compete with authors who can self-publish or the growing dominance of Amazon. I disagree. I don’t think the end is near. I think we’re looking in the wrong direction. Rather than look at the end, we need to look down the middle.

“To illustrate, draw a horizontal line and write ‘Free’ on the left side and the number ‘$9.99’ on the right side: Free represents content that readers can get at no charge, such as book samples, blog posts, free resources, etc. The number $9.99 represents the typical price used to sell digital e-books. To date, most publishers and authors concentrate their efforts on either end of the line. They give away free content to promote their titles and entice readers. Then, they charge consumers around $9.99 or more to purchase a digital e-book.

“Notice the wide gap between free and $9.99. I call it the ‘Digital Middle’” [/blockquote]

Making Millions in the Digital Middle : Rob Eagar, 25 November 2013, Digital Book World


As noted in the post title, this is a relatively rare exercise on my part, but I needed to clear the link cache. My next essay on books will be on the discovery problem, or discovery “problem” depending on your approach to the topic, so I might be referencing a couple of these sites again there.

Tomorrow is a travel day, and then it’s family, Thanksgiving, a wedding (on Friday), and more family. If I can find wifi and the beer holds out I might be posting — else I’ll be back with more Monday next.

E- versus Print? Burgers and Steak.

filed under , 11 November 2013, 06:09 by

where’s the beef? actually, I suppose that should be “what’s the beef?”

beef /bēf/ noun secondary, informal use: a complaint or grievance. synonyms: complaint, criticism, objection, cavil, quibble, grievance, grumble, gripe, grouse [thank you, Google.]


This is not the first time I’ve used a ‘steak’ analogy; something about media consumption generally lends itself to the inevitable comparison. (DVDs have menus, social media and rss both have feeds, we even talk about information diets)

  • Cheaper, faster, available from more outlets? Call that a ‘burger’.
  • More expensive, often considered a prestige item at many vendors, and with a so-called-best expression found at decades-old establishments dedicated to it? Call that a ‘steak’

A steak can cost $25 or more, you make the purchase of it a special event, or part of a ritual. Oh, sure: a steak can be had for $15 from some neighborhood “bar and grill” but somehow the identical cut (often prepared the same) isn’t given the same regard: If you want a decent steak you go to where the chef and the cooks and the staff are all on board with the experience. You go to a steakhouse. If you happen to be at some other restaurant and take a flyer and order the steak, you’ll be pleasantly surprised if it’s any good and honestly, not really disappointed if it’s not. (Unless you’re the asshole who sends back plates at a Tuesdays/Fridays/ApplePepper… dude, …you had that option before walking in the door, don’t torture the staff)

In contrast: Burgers are fast and cheap; not $25 but to be had in under 5 minutes and for as little as 99¢ — and if the 99¢ burger is a little small and not as satisfying, you don’t complain.

For a decent lunch — grabbed on the go — you expect to pay $2.99 or $3.99 (or maybe a little more, if you’ve ordered from this joint before and you happen to really like their burgers — value for the money)

Do the price points I’m citing (or the title of this blog post) give you an idea of where I’m going with this?


You go to the bookstore: you get recommendations, some guidance, some free samples [open a book, fool, that’s what they’re there for], they have a comprehensive ‘menu’ and even a comfy seat.

This costs more at the steakhouse; it costs more at the bookstore.

‘Steak’, right? Oh, but steak doesn’t cost $25, you say? You can get a decent rib-eye (about a half pound or so) for $4.99.

Sure you can. If you’re lucky you went to the butcher, but more likely it’s just the cut in a styrofoam tray at your supermarket. And then you’re on your own: how to season it, how to cook it, cast iron or grill? Is either of those even an option?

A cheap steak requires a certain amount of expertise. (AND I glossed over the choice of cut: sirloin, rib-eye, new york or kansas city strip, t-bone, porterhouse, london broil, flank, skirt, flatiron, top and bottom round — and those are the US cuts; a British or Brazilian butcher will take the same cow and divide it differently.) Hell, finding a cheap steak and figuring out what to do with it is work.

Any wonder why some would rather just get it from a steakhouse, inflated price be damned?


YES, OF COURSE if one believes in anecdotal evidence, we can all easily relate:

  • that really awesome steak we had for like $12 at some hole-in-the-wall, mom-and-pop restaurant
  • that $8 burger which was literally the best thing ever, transcendent really
  • the diner with an awesome $4 burger — honestly I order like 4 without sides and that’s all I eat there
  • the highfalutin’ hoity-toity place that made me put on a jacket, charged me $50, and the steak sucked.

Here I will note again: yes. That’s fine. Your experience is valid,
but this whole post is just an extended metaphor.

There are what, one hundred thousand restaurants across the US? More? A million? I don’t actually think it’s a million but hell, call it a million restaurants.

There are at least 129 Million Books and another million get added each year.

Relying on only anecdotal evidence: I could pick any one book and it would either prove or disprove any generalization. I could pick whole genres.


Let’s go back to customer experience and expectations:

If your budget is smaller, and you tend to “eat out” often, you’ll naturally gravitate to the Burger-end of the beef spectrum: give us this day our daily burger (and fries) and lead us not unto heart disease.

Expectations are smaller, price points are lower, we need something that satisfies but are not looking for transcendent experiences. You go through the drive-thru. Convenience matters more than quality. Sometimes you celebrate the quick-cheap-and-easy aspects, and might even be caught out saying A Good Burger Trumps a Mediocre Steak in my book, any day of the week and twice on Sundays.

(If you plan ahead and make a reservation, are bringing a date, plus fronting $30 bucks a plate just for the entrées: your expectations are higher.)

Let’s say you’re some kind of a douchenozzle and you demand home delivery from a steakhouse — your expectations haven’t changed (and the prices haven’t either) but the beef you end up eating is not what you ordered. (By taking the dining experience out of the dining room you’ve necessarily changed it — not just your time waiting but also the time entrées spend hanging out and cooling: time, distance, reality, etc.)

…so of course the first thing you do is spring to Yelp and write a scathing take down and denounce the steakhouse for not being a drive-thru or delivery joint and for serving you a steak that had already been off the grill for whole minutes by the time you saw it.


So. [putting my metaphors in a blender and hitting ‘frappe’]

By taking the ‘bookstore experience’ out of the bookstore: you’ve necessarily changed it.

Ebook consumers with a burger budget and burger diet complaining about the cost of steak kind of piss me off.

Ebook consumers with a burger budget and burger diet complaining that the Bookstore (our Steakhouse stand-in) doesn’t serve burger — or sell the burgers at a whole dollar mark up — kind of miss the point of bookstores.

Ebook consumers with a burger budget and burger diet complaining about the Cost of Steak also kind of miss the point: A good burger, prepared well and plated with exceptional skill, is a meal that often exceeds the customer expectations and also quite often is even more satisfying than a steak. This is attributable to the skill of the staff, and the chef/author, and should be considered only on a plate-by-plate (book-by-book) basis.

One-off experiences are not how we price burgers *or* steak. You had an exceptional meal; great, go you.

A single reaction to a single experience is not how pricing works.

Authors have been turning dog food into Delmonico’s for decades, and the list of genres that started out as pulp that have been rehabilitated into literature starts with mystery and is rapidly gaining on erotica. Science fiction and romance gained on the first rehabilitation, and in the current climate, are still gaining in comparison.


So, why is the quality/price dynamic — even with the many context-specific nuances — easy to understand when we talk about Hamburgers vs Steak (with the implied associations provably false as we have all been served transcendent Burgers and Inedible steaks) but in an Ebook vs Hardcover/Paperback debate it always comes back down to price?

No consideration of the discovery process, or the venues that enable the discovery process?
No consideration of the differences between products, and between markets?
No consideration of quality as a differentiator, or something that might—in a completely free and open market—be a factor that demands a higher price?

There is no steakhouse in the hybrid-bookstore-and-ebook model, just varying degrees of fast-food joints?

Since it’s all just beef (just books), it should all be available from just one source and all at a single price point?

This is the position you’re staking out as a starting point?

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