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.
We’ve been deep in stealth mode of late designing The Writer’s DashBoard. But lest you think all we do is burn the midnight oil in search of your audience (don’t worry, our beta will be out in September and then you really will be able to find your audience), occasionally we play hookey on a Friday afternoon and head up to the mountains for natural, as opposed to caffeinated, inspiration (“Make me thy lyre,” wrote Shelley of nature – and we second the thought!).
Access to nature is the reason why many of us live and work in Boulder. The natural beauty of the Front Range serves as a source of inspiration and is also a refuge from the daily grind. Whether it be biking, running, rock climbing, kayaking, hiking or yoga, Boulder is an ideal place to blend an active lifestyle with creative endeavors.
Wordsworth wrote in his “Ode on Intimations of Immortality” that
- There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
- The earth, and every common sight,
- To me did seem
- Apparelled in celestial light,
- The glory and the freshness of a dream.
One often feels that way in Boulder. Seriously.
Below are a few pictures of our hike up at Wild Basin, about thirty miles north of town.
I received a text today. Or maybe it was yesterday. I can’t be sure…
It was from my youngest daughter, who was attending the Buenos Aires Book Fair. She couldn’t pass up the chance of sending me a photo of Buenos Aires’s own great writer, Julio Cortazar, author (most notably) of Hopscotch, amongst other works. A handsome fellow, that Cortazar, and with that cigarette hanging from his mouth, he reminds me of Camus (famous picture of whom below) – and there are other similarities, too (the fight against oppression, the fascination with memory, etc.).
I believe that for my daughter Buenos Aires may have a tenuous, albeit unconscious, connection to another city she experienced as a young girl, a city where the older people carry within them secrets and painful memories, where they walk in a similar manner, still cast furtive glances when out on the streets (J’accuse!). A city where they give books and roses to a loved one once a year. Barcelona, that is. Like Buenos Aires, a stylish city, yet one full of ghosts, one that still bears the pall of dictatorship.
Are books always the great foe of dictatorships? Is imagination our last refuge? The only place we can be free?
Buenos Aires has been on my mind a lot lately…
Whilst wandering the streets of San Telmo, Buenos Aires’s well-known historic barrio, I was struck by the presentness of its past – different epochs meld into each other, historical figures have a life, are tangible on a daily basis (the Perons, for example – and Evita’s visage is prominently displayed on buildings).
One can see a Porsche plying its way through the streets followed by a horse-drawn cart. On one side of Plazza Dorrego couples will dance the tango, a mating ritual seemingly as old as time – and on the other, kids will be playing techno pop, banging drums. It all works, like some fabulous Magritte painting. Garcia Marquez said of Mexico that “surrealism runs through the streets.” The same can be said of Buenos Aires.
At night the streets of San Telmo are crowded with los cartneros searching through the garbage bins for recyclables Not one or two, mind you. There are families. Gangs. Running mates. Solitaries. People pushing carts. When the sun comes up, they disappear.
I barely know Buenos Aires, but like Cortazar’s Hopscotch, it seems to invite one to play a game with it – to begin where one finds oneself, to be swept up in a postmodern gesture that eschews structural and cultural unity.
Cortazar said, “These days, my notion of the fantastic is closer to what we call reality. Perhaps because reality approaches the fantastic more and more.”
Buenos Aires is a fantastic city. I will be returning soon…
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!