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A recent editorial by Joe Nocera in the New York Times got me looking at this conflict in a new light. Nocera, a business writer with keen insight and an alert conscience, boils the conflict down in this way:
No matter what you think of Amazon’s tactics, they surely don’t violate any laws. It is acting the way hardheaded companies usually act — inflicting some pain on the party in a dispute to move it toward resolution. On some level, the book industry has never fit comfortably in the contours of big business. But over the years, as one house after another was bought by conglomerates, as they merged with each other, as they tried to increase profits with the kind of regularity that pleases Wall Street, they began the process of commoditizing books. Jeff Bezos? He’s only taking that process to its logical extreme.
With all due respect to Joe Nocera, I have to ask: really? Books are inevitably headed down the path of widgetification, in which the only thing that matters is maximizing profit margins and moving units? And there is nothing to be done about it? What a dispiriting reality, if that is true.
But I don’t think it is.
Let’s take a quick look at commodification. When it comes to the market economics of products, commodification is at the far end of the Value-Volume spectrum.
At the Value end of the spectrum, the market price of a product depends more on the unique qualities of the product. A Stradivarius violin or an original Picasso are examples of the farthest Value-based valuation. Lower down the scale, you might find a Bentley or a Rolex, elite luxury goods whose prices are based as much on their quality as on market demand and production costs (although these factor in). With a traditionally lower supply for Value products, the price skews to the highest price that buyers will pay for it (such as an art work sold at auction).
As we move down the spectrum toward Volume-based valuations, profit margin (factoring in costs of production, distribution, and marketing along with price) becomes all important. If you have the formula for producing a product at even a small profit, and you can scale your production efficiently, you can maximize overall profit infinitely by increasing volume. Most consumer packaged goods (CPGs) in the world (such as soap and soybeans) are securely toward the Volume side of the spectrum. These are commodities. Prices for commodities skew toward the lowest price a manufacturer or producer can bear.
In aggressively driving to minimize the costs associated with their supply chain, which Amazon is unquestionably doing, they are certainly abetting the commodification of books. I don’t think any writers believe this is a good thing, nor do I.
Hachette of course is taking the position that not only is commodification bad for writers, but that publishers are an intrinsic part of the value-creation process itself (they are not just glorified “manufacturers”); they provide curatorial, editorial and marketing services which raises the quality of goods across the board, which ultimately serves both readers and writers.
To a certain extent this is true, although I agree with Nocera that corporate aggregation in the publishing industry has generally worked against the Value proposition for writers, and more towards a corporate bottom line orientation. You may feel (as I know my colleague Mark Schroeder does) that Hachette’s recent round of layoffs, followed quickly by its corporate acquisition of Perseus Books Group, puts the lie to Hachette’s moral high ground stance.
I’ll conclude by affirming my own belief that the best way to look at this dispute is not to look at what is best for Amazon or Hachette, and how that might then effect our economy down the line, but instead to look at what is best for readers and writers, and ask how the publishing industry might be best aligned to serve society down the line.
Books have always been an elite product, and they have served society magnificently. Does driving book costs down for consumers really serve society? I would prefer the costs of books remain higher, to better serve readers and writers.
Let’s face it, the majority of us have day jobs. So our writing is delegated to the early mornings, the evenings, lunch breaks, and the weekends. Indeed, the majority of us write, as blogger Mike Shatzkin notes, “because [we] have something to say, or a story to tell, and [we] want both to express it and have people read and react to it.” Ah, yes – have people react to, and even like, it! I don’t know about you, but the pleasure I take when someone likes my work is akin to first love – well, almost, and a platonic first love at that, but you get the point – and may have had a similar feeling.
At Find My Audience we are building a software tool that will help writers (and by extension, all creatives) “find their audience” on the social web – and then engage with that audience. But at the end of the day we go home and scratch away on our sheets, also. It’s not only how we fully express ourselves, but it’s a way of documenting our point of view – our existence, really. This week we learned that our own L.V. Torio had made it to the Quarter Finals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest for his novel The Holding Company Loves You. And then we learned that Mark Schroeder had received the American Movie Awards’ Silver Prize in the Television Pilot Competition for his work, TrainHoppers. Getting noticed. That’s the first step. And soon, we might also be able to find our audience…and yours!
For the last few weeks our colleague, the multi-talented Thomas Mims (graphic artist, illustrator, musician) has been holed up in his studio working on the Find My Audience home page. He recently emerged, bleary eyed and with a beard that Duck Dynasty fans would be proud of, with the following designs. Leave a comment below or send us an e-mail at mark@findmyaudience or a tweet at @findmyaudience to let us know which one you like best. Thanks!
click each image to view full-size…
Hi Writers, if you have been following our blog posts, you will know that Find My Audience has been envisioning — and now furiously building — a Writer’s DashBoard for the last six months.
The Writer’s DashBoard will enable any writer to more rapidly and accurately “find” their audience — and then connect with them. We locate and assign a “match” score to your potential readers by analyzing their use of language across the social web.
We have been driven by the vision of a writer waking up in the morning, grabbing his/her coffee (always a first!), and then taking a look at Find My Audience’s Audience’s Page. As this page is constantly adding new audience members , every morning promises a new surprise!
Here’s what the Audience Page looks like:
There are a few things to take note of:
Left Column: you’ll see the icons for Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and more running down the left column. By clicking on one of those icons, you’ll see your audience in each of those channels. If you prefer, you can click on a view that shows you all of your audience members.
Main Frame: Here’s where you can see your audience. The little red box in the upper right of each picture indicates that person’s “match” score. You can sort your view of your audience in a variety of ways.
Right Column: Here’s where you can more directly engage with a specific audience member. If you like to do mass marketing, you can select a few folks to communicate with or you can engage with your whole audience. Yes, it’s true: the world is your oyster (or at least your audience members are!).
We will be releasing more screen shots over the next few weeks. If you have a great idea for a feature you would like us to add to the mix, just send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Beta coming in three months….
What if silence were your only power? Amidst the rural landscape of the Dominican Republic, Ame comes of age in a time of poverty and political discord. She is born the only daughter of the Almeda family, disgraced as traitors to the Trujillo regime ruling the nation. Ame grows up isolated, born unable to speak and with a past that is kept from her by her family. She relies on the guidance and love of her abuela Milagros, brothers and her childhood love, Manu. When she comes of age, she is given away by her father into a relationship with a military trujillista. Ame struggles to escape her abusive circumstances. In her journey to take back her life, she must choose to risk everything to join with the men of her family in the clandestine movement, la Catorce de junio, against the oppressive dictatorship swallowing the island.
Jessi Hanson is from Boulder, Colorado. She received her undergraduate degree in English , with a focus on Latin American literature, from Colorado State University. She served in Peace Corps, in the Dominican Republic. She holds a Master of International Education Policy, from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has lived in: Washington, D.C., Latin America and West Africa. She continues to work international in development and aid relief