Friday, February 19, 2016

Fisking Lee Child

I like Lee Child. He's a generous guy, pleasant, smart, and a decent writer.

But Lee has aligned himself with the pinheads of Authors United, and though his views differ enough to be considered on their own merits rather than instantly dismissable like the majority of AU alarmism, Child's continued anti-Amazon stance is getting boring.

Yes, I know he wants to defend the crumbling establishment that has made him a gazillionaire, and suck a few more bucks out of it. But be honest that's the intent. Don't spout self-interest under the guise that Amazon is bad for readers, or writers, or the world in general.

I'm very open about my pro-Amazon bias. Amazon has allowed tens of thousands of authors who were screwed or spurned by the legacy publishing industry to make a few bucks. It has brought down the price of books, allowing more readers to enjoy them. I've personally benefited from Amazon's policies, but so have the majority of readers and writers. And the only reward I get for my pro-Amazon activism is thousands of thank yous from writers who have self-pubbed and can now pay bills with their writing income.

Who is thanking Lee? Doug Preston? Scott Turow? James Patterson? It's good to have friends. I'm sure it's rosy at the top, and those megasellers want to keep it that way. But at some point you maybe need to do some soul searching and admit your success is fueled by a corrupted, archaic machine that is ultimately bad for society and culture. And luck, of course. A lot of luck.

Which brings me to Child's piece in The Guardian, Lee Child on Amazon’s real-life bookshops – and why we should be worried.

Don't you love that title? I mean, just think of how terrible the world would be with--gasp!--more bookshops!

The stuff of nightmares, it is. Let's fisk.

Child: In December, Amazon US released its 2015 in-house all-format all-category bestseller list. They also published other lists, for bestselling paperbacks on Amazon in 2015, regardless of publication year and a Kindle list too. Then the newspaper USA Today came out with its own industry-wide all-sources version. What was the difference? Two words: The Martian (good movie, but the book was better). It was number four on USA Today’s list and number four on Amazon’s Kindle list – but it was number 16 on Amazon’s physical book list. There were other titles in the same anomalous situation. Why?

Joe sez: Don't get me started on the WTF factor of bestseller lists. USA Today compiles a list based on surveys of polled outlets. Since publishers don't release actual sales figures to the public (or even to their authors, according to the many who have called for--and won--audits), comparing paper sales of The Martian on USA Today's list and on Amazon's list is apples to oranges.

But for the purpose of this post, let's say that both USA Today and Amazon have bestseller lists that accurately reflect true sales figures.

Child: Because, even now, for most books and most people most of the time, the biggest spur to purchase a physical book is seeing that actual book in a physical place.

Joe sez: That's one interpretation. While I fully believe in the power of the point-of-purchase sale, and I personally believe shelf space and distribution are what has created the name-brand bestselling authors who have dominated bestseller lists for decades, there could be other interpretations of the discrepancy.

Maybe the publisher of The Martian didn't pay Amazon as much co-op as it paid other retailers, so it wasn't as prominently displayed on Amazon.

Maybe people on Amazon prefer buying ebooks, which is evident in The Martian's #4 standing on the Kindle List. (Which would beg the question, where did The Martian fall on USA Today's ebook bestseller list, and why?)

Maybe some publishers paid Amazon more co-op than The Martian's publisher, and so their books had better placement on Amazon and thus sold better.

Maybe some Amazon published or self-published books--which aren't tracked by USA Today--sold better on Amazon than The Martian did.

As I said, I know point-of-purchase is a real thing. Because that's how I believe I've sold two million books. Readers have no idea who I am. I'm not a name brand. But my books are visible on Amazon, and visibility sells books on Amazon the same way it does in airport bookstores.

Child: Because for most people most of the time, reading is a take-it-or-yawn-leave-it activity. Books are not quite distress purchases, but neither are they exciting enough for enthusiastic online hunting. (Again, for most people most of the time, which I’ll stop repeating now, but only if the e-fanboys agree to discuss the real world, not their pretend version. Deal?)

Joe sez: No deal.

Lee, for your audience--like the audience of most mega-bestsellers--book buying may be a take-it-or-yawn-leave-it activity. I won't argue with that. But you're a rare bird. You're the 1% of the 1% of the 1%. Your books are everywhere, so you sell everywhere, and I don't doubt that the vast majority of your buyers are those who read occasionally, picking up a book while on vacation, or for a long flight, or as a gift for the in-laws.

I also have no reason to doubt that the majority of book buyers are casual readers. I can believe that a few hundred bestsellers per year sell far better than their few million competitors, and that most books sold are bought by those who buy fewer than five books per year.

But the majority of authors don't subsist on those type of readers. We make a living from the solid core of medium-to heavy readers, who go through more than a few books per year. This may be a fraction of your audience, but it's still a billion dollar slice of pie to split up among us.

As a legacy fan-boy, you seem to think that unless an author is making an eight figure deal, they're a hobbiest. That is not the "real world" as known by the tens of thousands of our peers who are making a few bucks for the first time ever. Your world is a fairy-tale that you seem to think is the norm (or worse, that you somehow earned).

Congrats. You got really lucky, and won the publishing jackpot. Enjoy it, but stop talking down to us e-fanboys who are making ends meet, because you come off sounding entitled and elitist.

Child: So why would a physical book be number four on one list and 16 on another? Nothing sells physical books better than physical displays in bricks-and-mortar locations.

Joe sez: I can agree with this. It would sure be great if I could get some of that love. Bookstores tend to boycott me, however.

But your argument hasn't even attempted to show why paper sales are somehow better sales than ebook sales for anyone other than the 1% of 1% of 1%. "We" don't need to be worried about this phenomenon. You and Patterson do. And even then, not really. You may lose your eight figure advances as the publishing industry changes, but I'll bet you'll still be able to pay the electric bill if your paper sales disappear.

Child: Millions of people passed by bookshop windows or airport bookstalls, and saw The Martian, and some vague impression clicked in and they said, “Oh yeah, that’s supposed to be cool”, and they bought a copy, and enjoyed it. Same for the other anomalous titles. That is still how books get sold.

Joe sez: No. Nope. Nuh-uh. This is how paper bestsellers get sold.

None of my books have sold this way. Granted, I've only sold two million, not half a billion. And I'm as much of an anomaly to most self-pubbed authors as you are to me. But you're using The Guardian to preach to the Everyday Joe (unless I'm wrong and The Guardian's circulation is limited to members of Authors United), and Everyday Joe simply doesn't have your concerns. The vast majority of writers can't relate, and readers just don't care. Both the casual and the power reader find their books however they find them, and will continue to do that even if the retailers change and the format changes.

Child: Research bears it out. Physical eyeballing is way ahead of any other prompt, be it word of mouth, spam, social media or other kinds of advertising.

Which is a problem for Amazon.

Joe sez: Sure. Except for, you know, the billions of things they sell due to people physically eyeballing Amazon.com. You may have heard the Internet terms surfing and browsing. One does not need to be standing in a shopping mall to impulse buy.

In fact, you may have noticed that Amazon is pretty good at recommending items for customers to buy. The airport kiosk has your latest, a Stephen King, a Nora Roberts, a James Patterson, and whoever took over for poor, dead Michael Crichton. This limited selection ensures that you'll sell a fuckton of paper. I'm sure you like that a lot. I sure would.

But I'm stuck with Amazon, which democratizes that limited shelf space into equal unlimited space for all writers (except for that co-op thing, which we'll get into shortly).

Amazon doesn't have a problem, here. Brick and mortar stores do. Because they have limited space.

You know this. And this is a big reason why you're concerned about Amazon opening 300 stores. Because Amazon could attempt to democratize physical shelf space the same as it has done with virtual shelf space, and that would mean readers would have more than you and six other old white guys to choose from (No disrespect to Ms. Roberts, but old white guys have dominated the bestseller lists for decades.)

Child: Classically it uses books to hook customers and then data-mine them. But it gets only dedicated book buyers.

Joe sez: I have no doubt Amazon is data mining me. Google data mines me. Apple data mines me. My own government data mines me, except they're trying to arrest people without due process rather than sell them stuff. But I don't understand your "dedicated book buyers" comment.

Amazon does get the heavy readers who buy more than a few books a year, and Amazon certainly has loss leads and incentives to get customers to shop for more than just books--they do call themselves "The Everything Store".

Sure, there are more cases of someone grabbing a Red Bull and some M&Ms in an airport and also grabbing your latest paperback at the same time than they are of seeking out a specific Konrath title on Amazon, but what's your point? You sell more so your way is better? You sell more so your way is what the Common Man really prefers?

I think you sell more because you're everywhere. And you're everywhere because you got lucky and won the Big Pub Lottery and could plug into a gigantic distribution network that allows casual readers to find you.

That doesn't make airport impulse purchases the better way to sell books, or the only way. But it certainly discriminates against the vast majority of authors.

Some shoppers look for something specific, like a predator on a game trail. Some graze and devour whatever is in front of them. Most of use do a bit of both. But there is no superior way to buy a book.

Child: Browsing on Amazon isn’t great as a casual experience: fatigue sets in.

Joe sez: Have you ever gone to the mall on Black Friday? You really want to argue fatigue?

Child: (How do you make something totally invisible? Put it on page 17 of an internet search.)

Joe sez: How do you force a midlist legacy author to take a day job? Don't give her a six figure marketing budget.

You're being either myopic or intentionally disingenuous. I'll wager Amazon has allowed many more authors to reach readers in the last five years than the Big Publishing has since 1950.

True, Amazon hasn't created another Lee Child. But I think most people will settle for a hundred Hugh Howeys instead.

Child: And Kindle hasn’t taken over the world. It has settled into a solid niche, like those tiny tubes of toothpaste – essential for travel, but no one uses them at home. (Down, fanboys! Real world!)

Joe sez: Ah, the real world. Do you even remember what that was like, Lee? Worrying about bills? Self-promoting to reach fans? Being paid twice a year and budgeting to make that money stretch?

I like your toothpaste tube analogy, though, even though you intended it to be insultingly dismissive. There are a lot of companies making a lot of money selling travel sized toothpaste. And it may be a niche, but I can subsist in that niche, along with tens of thousands of my peers.

Of course, I really don't believe it's a niche. I believe it's a shadow industry that is a lot bigger than you and your cronies think. It may not have hurt your bottom line, yet. It may never. But my career path doesn't require paper books to fail for me to succeed. My path doesn't require paper sales at all.

Here's a simpler way to explain it. Is it better to have ten people feast until they're stuffed, or for a whole village to eat enough to not starve?

Right there is the difference in our ideologies.

Child: So there is no way for Amazon to replicate that happy, random encounter with a physical bookstore window. Yes, there are bots and algorithms, but those casual millions of three-books-a-year people never see them: they don’t buy books online.

Joe sez: You're proving my point, here. Other than incorrectly romanticizing the selling process of paper books (I debunked paper infatuation way back in 2010), you're preaching to a crowd of a hundred authors, and the bloated industry that has made them rich. The majority of writers don't agree and don't care. Neither do readers. Because those casual three-books-a-year readers will find those books elsewhere if the current paper source dries up, or they'll do something else with their leisure time, like Angry Birds.

Your argument is like saying people truly enjoy the experience of going into a 7-11 and impulse buying a Twinkie. Lots of people certainly do that. But it is far from the only way people choose to snack. And if the Twinkies were gone, these people will find something else to eat, or search elsewhere.

Child: Which is a defeat for Amazon. It prides itself on going where the customers are, and doing what the customers want. And it needs to. Its growth demands all the customers there are.

Joe sez: You have the first part backwards. Amazon's strategy thusfar has been to lead customers to it, not to go where the customers are.

Child: So now, rumour has it, Amazon plans to open another 299 physical bookstores (it already has one, in Seattle). The rumours are denied – or at least, not confirmed – and at first glance they appear economically insane. At the best of times, books are low-velocity, low-margin items, and commercial rents are geared to the opposite – clothes, handbags and other high-profit stuff. But then, for 20 years Amazon has proved willing to eat losses, and investors have allowed it to.

So, what if? And suppose those 300 stores were only the start? We’d quickly approach a de facto monopsony.

Joe sez: And here were go again. I'm so tired of debunking this one. And I'm also tired of repeatedly stating that the Big 5 are a de facto oligopoly; a cartel that fixes prices and censors books. But as much as I debunk the monopoly/monopsony argument, no one has ever challenged my accusations about the Big 5.

Child: Amazon would become the only practical route to market for 1,400 US publishers and a million US self-publishers, for either digital or paper product.

Joe sez: Currently Amazon is the only practical route for millions of self-publishers. Your point?

I've blogged about this before, but can't find the link. In a nutshell, once a company becomes powerful enough to dictate terms for consumers or suppliers, it still has powerful incentives to play fair. That's why Wal-Mart, when it opens in a new town and destroys all the Mom and Pop stores, doesn't raise prices when the competition is killed. If they did, it would allow the Mom and Pops to return and compete. So they have to keep prices low.

The same thing works with suppliers in a digital world. We're not talking oil barons owning a limited amount of land. We're talking the Internet. If Amazon starts screwing authors (you know, maybe like slashing their ebook royalties to 17.5%--who would do something so awful?) then that's just asking for competition to step up and lure authors away with better terms.

And unlike the Big 5 cartel who don't compete on terms (for us mere mortal writers they only compete on the size of advance), Amazon isn't ever going to go the oligopoly route and collude with competitors. Amazon wants to have the widest selection, and they don't want to share. They incentivize authors with Kindle Unlimited in order to offer readers the widest selection. This alarmist notion of "Amazon Will Slash Your Royalties" has no basis in reality.

Or does it? Let's see what Lee digs up...

Child: The history is worrying. Amazon has already tried to use its power in a punitive fashion, as if determined to hurt publishers financially.

Joe sez: Uh, no it hasn't. Anyone who followed the Hachette nonsense on this blog knows what that was really about; publishers wanting higher ebook prices. Which has harmed publishers, and lots of authors (though not Lee Child because he sells buttloads of paper books.)

Child: All kinds of fees and “contributions” are required. “Pay to play” was openly the name of the game, until Amazon’s lawyers suggested a less explicit description. One publisher resisted, and a senior Amazon executive boasted: “I did everything I could to screw with their performance.”

Joe sez: As if Amazon invented co-op. C'mon, Lee. Stop being disingenuous. Publishers have always paid to play. Hint: the reason your books are front and center at Barnes & Noble is because your publisher paid out the ass for it. I don't hear you bitching about those "contributions".

Child: Already, self-publishers have only “terms and conditions”, which change capriciously – so far only to Amazon’s advantage. Is it good public policy to allow one corporation to have total power over a nation’s published output?

Joe sez: Give me "terms and conditions" over the greedy, moronic, inept fuckers who wanted my rights, forever.

You keep demonizing Amazon for things that Big Publishing has already done, and done to a much worse degree. They had total power, and the exercised it lockstep, and fixed prices, and kept millions of books from reaching readers, and screwed authors.

Amazon can never have total power, because they don't own rights, and they can't censor other sales outlets for authors. The Big 6 could and did censor, because they controlled distribution.

You said earlier that the Kindle is niche. So pick an argument, Lee. Does Kindle cater to only a small percentage of the book market, or does it command total power over everything published?

And why, exactly, should we be worried if Amazon opens 300 bookstores? Didn't you say that readers prefer that "happy, random encounter with a physical bookstore window"? What's wrong with 300 more windows?

Oh... wait. I know.

Those are 300 windows that your books won't be prominently featured in unless your publisher pays for it. And how could your poor publisher hope to afford that when they keep giving you eight figure advances?

My my, this is a dilemma.

As for me, who has had zero physical premise in brick and mortar bookstores since Shaken was published in 2010, I'm hoping Amazon does start opening stores and giving those casual readers a broader choice than that same handful of old white guys. And I'm not worried about Amazon having "total power" because, unlike you, I have an understanding of how Amazon works. Every Amazon imprint, every section, functions as its own company. It has to bid for co-op just like publishers do. That's how it avoids any DOJ problems. Amazon will sell used products alongside new ones, for less, via third parties. Amazon allows third party vendors to sell things that Amazon doesn't even carry. Consider that. If you're really worried Amazon will boycott your publisher, Amazon will still offer your publisher's titles on Amazon.com via third parties.

Probably not at the discount you'd like, though.

Amazon won't ever have "total power" because it competes with itself. It wants to sell everything to everyone. Even at the expense of its own profits and shareholders.

The Big 5 want to sell certain books to certain people in certain ways. They want higher prices, and will collude to get them. Except for 1% of 1% of 1%, they pay they authors much less than Amazon does. They keep rights. They demand unconscionable clauses like non-compete and next option.

Amazon has allowed me a career. But I'm only pro-Amazon for as long as they are pro-author.

I said "pro-author" not "pro-Joe."

The Big 5 are not pro-author. They are pro-Lee Child.

That's awesome for you. But--down legacy fanboy!--the rest of us live in the real world.