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If You’re Buying Cheap EBooks From Amazon.com, You’re a Brainwashed Zombie. So Says Melville House.

As someone who has 4,000+ physical books in my house, and has spent more time in bookstores than some people employed in the publishing industry, it pains me to see book publishers grappling and fumbling their way to Publishing 2.0 (at this point, it’s realistically 7 or 8.0).

Melville House tried to argue for higher-priced books and eBooks in this recent essay. Frankly, if you couldn’t guess by the title above, I don’t much agree with them.

In addition to the 4,000 aforementioned books that are packed into every nook and cranny of my house, I also have a creaky Gemstar RocketBook eReading device, a long defunct Handspring Visor PDA that I downloaded ebooks onto from Fictionwise,com, 2 iPads, 2 Kindles, 2 Nooks, and a couple of MacBook Pros (but I cringe whenever I have to open Adobe Digital Editions or Kindle’s desktop software). Books are my life blood, and as a result I’ve followed the book publishing industry and book retailing industry for many years, including 3 years working at a NYC literary agency in the mid-1990s.

So, as someone who absolutely adores books as I hope I’ve explained, I’m also passionately interested in gadgets/technology, the rise of eBook technology, and the current transformation of book publishing. And, oh yeah, I definitely disagree with Melville House’s assessment.

Brain washing

Amazon customers buying cheap eBooks

Setting up Bezos as a the evil eBook overlord isn’t going to matter much in the long run. Is Bezos spotless? Far from it. The working conditions in Amazon’s warehouses are something that Charles Dickens couldn’t have dreamed up after a week spent in an opium den. (If you’re not familiar with how Amazon treats their low-level warehouse employees, hree’s one nice anecdote, the managers start every shift threatening to fire anyone who can’t keep up). So, why would I defend someone in charge of that insanity?

I’m not defending him. I’m simply saying for book publishing employees across NYC to focus their anger on Bezos is missing the point. If it wasn’t Jeff Bezos, it would be Sergey Brin and Larry Page (they’ve got their eBook plans too), or it would be Tim Cook, or Larry Ellison, or Steve Ballmer, etc., etc. The fact is that the day in 1971 when Michael S. Hart created an eBook of the Declaration of Independence and went on to start Project Gutenberg, the structural foundations of traditional book publishing were changed forever. Those changes didn’t crystalize until Amazon began selling the Kindle on November 19, 2007.

Amazon did everything right – one-click ordering thanks to a built-in, no-cost wireless connection, the willingness to commandeer the powerful Amazon home page to market the device relentlessly, and yes, the willingness to lose money by discounting eBooks that were priced artificially high.

Again, if it hadn’t been Bezos, it would have been Steve Jobs launching iBooks on the iPad, or some other tech exec prescient enough to realize that the technology devices and cloud infrastructures had matured to the point that eBooks were absolutely viable.

In an industry governed by Moore’s law, when change does come, the iterations on top of that change happen fast and furious. Hence the intro of multiple Kindle form factors, Nook’s launch, iBooks, Kobo’s launch, Readmill and numerous other iPad eBook apps.

And, the industry aims their anger and frustration at Bezos. How about this. Bezos ain’t your enemy. You should be aiming that enmity and vitriol at yourself for hanging onto business models that technology has blown apart. Business models that result in blog posts like Melville House’s that scorn low-priced eBooks.

People buy low-priced eBooks, because they love reading and they want their book-buying dollars to go as far as possible. Hello, we’re in the fourth or fifth year of a major economic recession/depression. Of course, book lovers are flocking to cheap books/eBooks.

If a devoted reader budgets $25 every two weeks to buy new eBooks, and they can buy 5 eBooks priced at $5 or 2 eBooks (1 priced at $20 and 1 priced at #5), I think Bezos will win if he’s the merchant offering reasonably priced eBooks.

The key is volume. Publishers can win this game on volume – and some readjustments to traditional business models.

1. Slash book advances dramatically (or pay absolutely no advance) and increase the author’s royalty rate. Publisher’s don’t have the upfront costs of book advances, and they start making money (and sharing a greater percentage with the author) once their production costs are recouped.

2. Publish more books. If you’re making less per book (Amazon and other retailer’s discounting of ebook prices), publish more books. As long as publishers maintain quality – quality editing, quality art and cover design – there’s nothing stopping them from publishing more books and making up the declines per book in volume. If Melville’s list is typically 10 books per month (I don’t know the exact number), publish 15 or 20. If you’ve eliminated the cost of advances, how many more books could you publish while maintaining quality?

And, of course, many editors and publishers will consider this idea, and scoff, and so it goes.

The one paragraph from Melville House’s essay that angered me the most:

“Given what we now know about the exorbitant rates Amazon is charging authors for delivery of their e-books to readers, and how significantly those rates cut into author royalties, coupled with our new understanding surrounding the price of producing an e-book, it’s difficult to see Amazon as much more than a digitized Wal-mart — a vendor supplying devalued products for a reading public whose tastes, due to the Bezos hype, crave quantity over quality.”

Sorry Melville, as much as we may healthily disagree about book publishing business models, this is nothing but NYC-hipster smugness. It reminds me so much of the classic New Yorker cover where the world ends at the edge of Manhattan. If someone buys a lot of reasonably-priced ebooks because they love reading, then their taste in books and reading is called into question.

And the Wal-Mart dig is misplaced. Some folks latch onto Wal-Mart’s obvious evils without realizing Wal-Mart’s historic strides in retailing. Some people (often people who have never lived in a small, rural town) are rhapsodic about the glory-days of mom-and-pop retail in the small towns dotting America. But, go back in time about 25 years ago, and ask the people living in those small towns how they felt about paying exorbitant mark-ups (100 or 200% or more) for toilet paper, paper towels, and other staples at those local mom-and-pop stores.

Despite the current evils of Wal-Mart, they did something that’s often overlooked by people riding the L train, they eliminated those ghastly mark-ups for working-class men and women in those small towns. Know your retailing history in the U.S. before making statements filled with assumptions.

And, circling back to what I started with above, I love books. I love book publishing. It’s good that we can have these healthy debates about the future of the industry.

Melville House publishes some great books, and you should go buy some right now. I especially like their International Crime novels.

Nairobi Heat by Mukoma Wa Ngugi

He Died With His Eyes Open by Derek Raymond

Death in Breslau by Marek Krajewski

Southern Seas by Manuel Vazquez Montalban

 

 

 

 

 

 

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