“We have three behemoths now competing,” the C.E.O. of one house said. “So one of them can’t force us to do anything unless the others go along.”
The big piece in the April 26 New Yorker (partly because E.L. Doctorow’s story is so lousy) is Ken Auletta’s inside look at the e-book wars being played out between Amazon, Apple, and the big publishing houses (with Google sitting on the sidelines, waiting to pounce later this year). With the iPad for leverage, Macmillan and other publishers went up against Amazon’s e-book pricing model and forced concessions that may turn out to be in the publishers’ favor in the short term.
The machinations on the publishing and distribution business are interesting, I suppose, but I’m not convinced that a deal with the devil (and really, both Amazon and Apple, with their histories of arbitrary disappearances and electronic memory holes, have more than a tinge of the diabolical) is going to save the publishing world in a post-literate society. At best, they’ll sqeeze a few more pennies per e-book out of their distributors until the dwindling market for their product evaporates.
My modest proposal to the publishing industry would be to focus on compelling products instead of tactical e-book deals. Stop paying ridiculous advances for celebrity books that end up on the remainder tables a few weeks after publication; quit following the “me too!” trends (vampires this week, zombies next, with periodic eruptions of DaVince Code knock-offs); forget about the movie, game, and t-shirt tie ins. Instead, pay small advances and generous royalties to writers who can stay the course for a career; keep the back list alive (this was the great service that Amazon offered the publishers in the early days of the web) with creative cross-selling; and embrace the niche. The population of book buyers may never again be a mass audience the way movie, video game, and device app buyers are now; the Golden Age of Literacy, which existed from maybe 1860 to 1950, may well turn out to have been a weirdly aberrant historical blip.
The successful small presses–Graywolf and Soft Skull come immediately to mind–are making a go of it with a small but solid catalog of writing that will outlast the trendiest trends and find new readers for years to come. And that, not the latest distribution deal with Apple, Amazon, or Google, is where the hope of literacy lies. Haggling over a dollar or two on e-book prices is like trying to cut a good deal on deck chairs while the Titanic sinks.