Monday, June 2, 2014

Down and Out in Mingo City

by John Popham

What with being a ruthless tyrant and all, I'm sure Ming the Merciless is mindful that he has spent a lifetime cultivating an image that is not, it is safe to say, personable.

Ming is not the sort of leader who expects to be invited round the corner for a pint, or to book club. Not that Ming seems the book club sort; but rest assured he does not sit about lamenting that, even so, it'd nice to be invited now and then. Ming is quite upfront in expressing his preference for a certain emotional distance between himself and the people of the empire over which he exercises absolute power.  After all, one doesn't tack the descriptor 'Merciless' onto one's name if one wishes to communicate to the public an interest in how the public feels.

So, if Ming the Merciless were to suddenly make a public appeal for my sympathy and support on the grounds that his enemies are not competing fairly against him, it would leave me rather taken aback.

That's largely been my reaction to this month's public media and press offensive led by Hachette Book Group against Amazon.

It seems that Amazon, pressed by its shareholders to actually turn a profit, is seeking to bargain for a bigger cut of e-book revenues with the major book publishers.  Needless to say, book publishers are not in business to make money for Jeff Bezos and thus Amazon has reached an impasse in its negotiations with Hachette.  By way of demonstrating its importance to Hachette's bottom line, Amazon took the step of eliminating price discounts on Hachette products and began delaying delivery of Hachette titles.

The publishing establishment seems to have been waiting for such a moment; when Amazon would seek to leverage its dominance in the book retail world by tipping the retail playing field against publishers unwilling to meet its terms. The publishing industry having, for good or ill, become dependent on Amazon as a retail outlet, has fallen in line behind Hachette, painting Amazon as the retail equivalent of  Star Wars' Emperor Palpatine. To this end the publishers have mobilized their stables of writers to reach out via social media to dedicated fans and make the publishers' case against Amazon.

Among the writers taking the publishing industry's part in this fracas has been the noted Science Fiction author Elizabeth Bear.  She put up a string of aggressive posts to her followers on Twitter that were widely re-tweeted by a number of other writers and publishing industry hangers-on.  Her posts are passionate statements, fired from the hip and, I believe, reflect her honest view of the current goings-on.  Unfortunately, they are the comments of an industry insider with an financial interest one of the dogs in this fight.  And they are surprisingly self-oriented, conflating the interests of readers with her own interests.  

Two key points in Ms Bears position jump out at me:

1) Jeff Bezos is not on your side.

Well, of course Jeff Bezos is not on my side. Jeff Bezos is in a for-profit business. I don't buy books from him because he's on my side. Ours is a business relationship.  I buy them from him because he is the best at giving me what I, as a consumer, want.  He has the most complete selection of titles, has an effective and efficient user interface and gets the books to me promptly.  To the degree he can't deliver the titles I want when I want them at a price I'm willing to pay, I will purchase them elsewhere.  And I don't feel bad about letting Jeff down when I shop elsewhere, be it through another website or a brick-and-mortar book store.  I'm not on Jeff Bezos' side any more than he is on mine.  I don't have an emotional or financial stake in Amazon.  I do, however, like the level of service Amazon provides.

The publishing industry likes the services and marketplace Amazon provides as well.  However they are ever mindful that it is a marketplace that does not exist to serve their interests and over which they exert little control. While they are quick to deplore Amazon's negotiating tactics as unfair or monopolistic, the major publishing houses are every bit as quick to leverage their own size and market advantages when negotiating with suppliers and authors.

Like Amazon's Jeff Bezos, Hachette's Michael Pietsch is running a for-profit business and has financial targets to meet.  Neither Jeff nor Michael are on my side and do not expect it would be otherwise.

2) The publishing industry is Elizabeth Bear's bread and butter. She very much likes the industry as it is and depends on it for her livelihood.  Amazon is a threat to the status quo, willing to turn Ms. Bear and the other established writers into literary sharecroppers in order to return value to Amazon shareholders. 

Ms. Bear justifiably feels that Hachette's Michael Pietsch is on her side. And well she might. She is a successful, established writer, heavily vested in the current publishing industry business model; a business model that has been in place for a very long time, has become somewhat blinkered and ossified, and is increasingly under pressure.  Nonetheless, it is a business model that has been very good to her and, she holds, to those who enjoy her works.   

However, much as it pains me to admit it, her livelihood is not my lookout. Nor are the livelihoods of the various middlemen and gatekeepers who populate the literary ecosphere of concern to me any more than mine is to them.  I appreciate that Ms. Bear is living the life to which most would-be authors aspire, but if the business model that sustains her is not viable, it's no never-mind to me if she has to take up literary sharecropping alongside the rest of us.

By way of analogy, you could say that Ms. Bear is a Mingo City insider, the gatekeepers of that metropolis having found her worthy of citizenship.

It's a nice place, Mingo City.  The trains there run on time, the trash is picked up promptly, and it's safe to walk the streets at night (provided one's papers are in order).  Say what you will about Ming, he's very impatient with failure and knows how to motivate civil servants.  And, as the capital of Ming's evil intergalactic empire,  Mingo City is a great place to make a living as long as one steers clear of politics and shouts 'Hail Ming!' enthusiastically when the appropriate occasion presents itself.  Mingo City boasts all the cultural amenities one might expect from a city of its stature.  It has quite the night life and its arts and literary scene, while subject to certain editorial controls, is second to none.

I mean, sure, Ming is an absolute ruler who will extirpate any opposition, real or perceived, to his steely grip on power.  But for Mingo City's movers and shakers invested in his continued reign, he's not so much a bad guy as...driven.  Our Ming is not a hugger. Our Ming is a doer.  If Ming were such a bad guy, why would there be such a loud and annoying rabble camped outside the gates of Mingo City, clamoring for entrance?  Everybody, it seems, wants the sweet life; the gala luncheons, the acclaim for their work, the adoring fans.  Alas for these unwashed masses, the gatekeepers are discriminating.

But the world is changing.  Emperor Palpatine's Death Star hangs above the horizon, and Imperial Walkers are slowly calumphing toward Mingo City's gates.  Ming's legions, with their old-fashioned rocket ships and death rays are simply out of date and no match for Palpatine's modern arsenal. Ming the Merciless, it seems, is a traditionalist and slow to adapt to the times.   

The city's insiders call down to the huddled masses camped outside the gates and urge them to battle against the interlopers. Palpatine, they say, is not on your side.  He's not competing fairly.  Ming is the keeper of tradition and all that is beautiful within Mingo City. If the city falls, then to what will you aspire?  How would you continue without us?  

For the book publishing industry to survive it is going to have to do more than appeal to reader's sentimental attachment to it or to the authors it publishes.  However special or holy the high priests of the industry regard the business of book publishing, from a pure business standpoint they are primarily an intermediary in a content provision chain that stands between content creators (authors) and content consumers (readers). The publishing industry must come to terms with changes in the marketplace, what value-add it can deliver in the context of that marketplace, and how to do so most effectively in terms of costs and revenues.

They can no longer afford to hold themselves as gate-keepers.  Because, from the mud at the foot of Mingo City's walls, one tyrant looks pretty much like the other.


  1. While your analysis is correct in the short-term, one must also consider the longer-term costs and benefits. If, for example, the result of Palpatine crushing Ming is a reduction in the production of books that you like -- or an increase in their prices -- then even if you live outside the city, you may decide that Ming better serves your interests.

    After all, better the Emperor you know...

  2. Ah, but I know both emperors.