Thursday, November 8, 2012

Publishers and Grocery Stores, or: Why we all might be screwed.

So I messed up on the dates for the freebie day. It's today, guys. If you have not yet read Rise of the Winterlord it is free today. Go get a copy.

The big news in the publishing world has been the Penguin/Random House merger. Until they have an official name I'm calling it Penguin House, because I can and because I find the whole idea to be rather scary. At first I was all like, Self Publisher here:

And then I started pretending that I had a career. And if I had a career as a real writer I would NOT like my industry right now. At all.

I used to work for HEB, a grocery store here in Texas. Now, those of you who live up north may not understand what it's like here in TX. You have many choices. Piggly Wriggly...uh...other...stores. I don't know. Here in Texas there are two grocery store options. You can go to HEB, or you can go to Wal-Mart. That's it. And I don't mean "That's it, except for the Mom and Pop store down the street" I mean THAT'S IT. If you don't count the guys selling watermellons out of a pickup truck, HEB and Wal-Mart are the only options in Texas. And I think Wal-Mart is still here because they've got a store everywhere and can divert resources to Texas when they need to. HEB is the nicer option--someday remind me to tell you about what happened when Galveston got clobbered by a hurricane. It was freaking awesome--but as far as consumers go, you might as well flip a coin.

What does this have to do with Penguin House?

The problem with comparing grocery stores to publishers is, grocery stores allow for competition within the store. You want macaroni, you can buy Kraft, you can buy Velveeta, you can buy the store brand, which may or may not be as good, but it'll be cheaper. Grocery stores are more like Amazon. They got books from everybody, and they got a store brand--KDP. It might not be as good as the name brand books, but it's cheap and there's a bigger selection.

The Penguin House merger, in my VERY humble opinion--and I am in NO WAY qualified to offer anything more than my own shitty analysis--creates the potential for two big problems.

The first, obvious problem is, you only get one shot at publishing. Once you are, that's it. That's what you get. You get one chance to impress an agent per project, one chance to impress an editor, and if you're self published, you might as well have put your career up against the wall, blindfolded, and offered it its final cigarette. So if you want to be a real writer, you have to pour your heart and soul into your projects, make them their very best thing possible, and then repeat the process over and over when the Powers That Be tell you to stuff it. Yes. I'm bitter.

This system works great if you have talent, and lots of publishers to choose from. Let's assume that you are good (and that's a big assumption) and you have THE BOOK. There are six publishers to choose from: A, B, C, L, Y and X. After doing research, you find out that  A and B don't publish your genre, and that C has some financial issues and has gained a reputation for screwing its authors over. L, Y and X are all fine. Unfortunately THE BOOK is a lot like THE OTHER BOOK, which is published by X. X is not going to buy THE BOOK because X will not compete with itself. They reject you. L has bought all its books for this year, so it passes. Y, however, is focused on competing with X, and it would really like part of THE OTHER BOOK's pie. So Y buys THE BOOK, makes lots of money, gives you lots of money, and everybody's happy. Except X, because now THE OTHER BOOK has competition. (Why people who like THE OTHER BOOK wouldn't also buy THE BOOK is never explained).

Now, let's say before you submitted THE BOOK, X and Y merged. Now X and Y are both X, and X is still the publisher of THE OTHER BOOK.

This is a competative industry. X has more resources, so its books do better than the others. A, B and L do alright, too, though there is a little belt tightening involved. C, however, was already in trouble. It goes down like the Titanic in a blaze of unpaid royalties and uncertain rights holdings. You still have a book to sell.

A and B don't publish your genre.

L rejects.

X is not going to compete with itself.

Your project is DOA.

Publishing is a crap shoot, where the first requirement is loaded dice (AKA a good book. And Good=Gaurenteed Bestseller).  The current model only works for authors when there are a large number of places to gamble at. If you don't win at Harper-Collins, you might win at ROC or DAW or Del-Ray (Yes. My genre is Fantasy, how did you guess?) or, if you're lucky and have an agent, Little-Brown et al. Now, not only has the casino taken one of the tables away, the remaining table has taken up a MASSIVE amount of the floor (35% of the market.)

Is this a good thing? Bad thing? I don't know. I don't know what the game at the new table (Penguin House) is going to be like. Are they going to allow for internal competition? Are they going to take risks? Can they afford to take risks? Who knows.

The second problem, though, and let me stress HARD that I am in NO WAY QUALIFIED, and am probably wrong in this analysis, is something that could be hugely bad for this industry as a whole. INCLUDING self-published writers, given how hugely dependant we are on Amazon.

I do not see this merger as an attempt to better compete with the other book publishers. I see this merger as an attempt to compete with Amazon. And if this is true, it's going to torpedo the publishing industry.

 I might be wrong, and I expect a lot of people to tell me that I am, but Amazon has a freaking choke hold on the book industry. Part of this is the Kindle. Part of the the appeal of the Kindle is, at any one point in time (like today) you can go on there and get good books free. Or cheap. I forgot my bible last time I went to church. So I got on Amazon and downloaded three of them onto my phone, in about five minutes. I'm sad today because I can't get obscure e-book titles I already own in hardcopy. And a lot of authors, me included, have for one reason or another, gotten sick of rejections and being told either "NO" or "NOTHING" and have published on Amazon. A lot of these books suck, but enough of them don't for Amazon to be making a LOT of money. And eventually Amazon is going to get sick of losing its bestsellers to publishers, who are a lot more difficult to deal with than authors, and is going to try to keep most of them for themselves. Which puts Amazon in direct competition with publishers.

 Now, I might be wrong in this, but most publishers are already in a state of conflict with Amazon. They need Amazon to offer their books to the public, but because Amazon is THE book distributor, Amazon can absolutely tell anybody they want to go hang themselves and get away with it (temporarily). Sure, a publisher can withdraw their product, but that'd be like taking Kraft macaroni off the shelf. The grocery store still has Velveeta shells and the store brand. It'll survive. The loyal customers will make an extra trip to the other stores, and the undecided will give the store brand a try.

If I'm right, and I really hope that I'm wrong, that I'm an alarmist, that I'm an idiot and that I need to shut up now, but anyway, if I'm right Penguin House will eventually focus, not on the other publishers in the industry, but on freaking Amazon. There will be strong arm tactics first, and we know how that works (Macmillian: Let us price OUR BOOKS the way we want. Amazon: Let me about NO *disables buy button*) and then probably a boycott or two, a major regrouping, and then an all out war.

Which will, not incidentally, take out most of the other publishers as collateral damage. Think WW2. Hitler didn't conquer Europe because he wanted Europe. He conquered Europe because he wanted Russia. Europe had resources he needed, and it was in the way.

Again, I'd like to be wrong. I want to be proven wrong. I want to be told to sit down and shut up. Repeatedly. But I don't see Penguin House merging to compete with Tor-Forge and Little Brown. I see this as them wanting to take on Amazon, because breaking Amazon's choke hold is the only way publishers can survive. The only way to do that is to have the clout (read as resources and market share) to tell Amazon to stuff it.

Like with HEB and Wal-Mart.

And a universe where we have ONE bookstore (B&N) ONE online store (Amazon) and ONE Publisher (Penguin House) is a VERY ugly universe for writers, no matter which side of the contract you print on.


  1. Does this mean I'll be able to get your stuff on Smashwords and Kobo soon?

    'Cause I fucking hate Kindle.

  2. As soon as the terms I agreed to are up. Dec 17th I can start putting stuff back up.

    Mostly what I wanted to do was be able to offer stuff for free VIA amazon, as Smashwords was, uh, less than stellar. That's what I find frustrating. I HATE Amazon. I don't like their policies, I REALLY don't like supporting the monopoly, but ALL of the non-family sales I've made have come from Amazon.

    THANKFULLY I think I can work around them. I think. We'll see how well it goes later.

  3. "As soon as the terms I agreed to are up. Dec 17th I can start putting stuff back up."


    "ALL of the non-family sales I've made have come from Amazon."

    I bought one of yours through Smashword. I read it on my Kobo app. Unless it was a free download at the time and doesn't count as a 'buy', I can't remember now. But either way I still read it on Kobo. Because epub *rocks*.

  4. Well...yeah, but I kind of count you in "Family". Because I can nag *YOU*

  5. "I kind of count you
    in "Family". Because I can nag

    I am experiencing mixed feelings about that. ;)

  6. Yeah, sorry, I wasn't really thinking