Recently, the conflict between Hachette and Amazon has taken the debate over self-publishing and digital books to the forefront of the public mind. With names like Rowling and Patterson often thrown around when mentioning the dispute between the companies, the arguments for either side are no longer being restrained to just the publishing world and blogosphere. However, the war over mediums has implications well beyond just eBooks. Rather, it’s just another step in the long-coming question over the future of our entertainment and media.
The question of traditional vs. digital is nothing new; tt’s not relegated to just the book world. The moment Metallica famously filed a lawsuit against Napster, the future of how we consume our media would forever change. It has all but consumed the music world, and now remains spotlit in the world of television and film, as highlighted by the SCOTUS American Broadcasting Companies, Inc v Aereo Inc case expected to have a ruling released this week. As our world evolves and new technologies are created, companies grounded in physical mediums are struggling to find a way to evolve with them without suffering from a loss in profit.
In the case of Hachette vs. Amazon, the debate is extremely complicated. On Amazon’s side, proponents argue that Hachette is one of just many of the traditional publishing arm that is trying to monopolize the publishing process with high-priced goods and an exclusive list of authors who get the lion’s share of attention while newer authors are given little while giving up much. There is some merit to this argument, as Hachette was one of the book publishers, along with Apple, to be slammed by the US Department of Justice of price fixing in 2012. There is also little denying that the royalties given to authors are significantly lower than the oft-quoted 70% quoted by self-publishing advocates. And, of course, this is all assuming a new writer is even able to get published, fight through dwindling help in the marketing front, and keep a book on the shelf for more than a month.
On the traditional publishing end, Hachette’s supporters state that Amazon has been using brute force tactics to control the online market and their model drives down the overall cost of books. For their side, they quote business practces such as delayed shipment of ordered books by certain authors, removal of sales pages, and lack of pre-orders available for authors under the Hachette arm. These practices are hardly acceptable in even the worst of negotiations, and showcase the growing dominance Amazon has over the book marketplace.
The gritty details of the dispute may never be known; the negotiations are under a strict Non-Disclosure Agreement. What is apparent, however, is that this is a perfect showcase of media industry’s struggles to come to terms with advancing technology and demand.
Often, this debate comes down to the growing success of self-publishers in the digital market. A person can hardly Google the word “self-publishing” without hearing tale-after-tale of authors who can make a living by releasing books on their own. Even The Guardian has recently posted about the expanding sales of eBooks. Self-publishers would claim that the traditional publishing industry in on its last legs, cornered into concession by authors who are fed-up with old business practices. They often point to Hugh Howey, author of breakout hit Wool, as the beacon for the future of publishing. They also claim that the Big 5’s claim as gatekeepers of quality no longer has hold either as independent editors and awards begin to spring up.
This is only one side of the coin, though, and requires several footnotes not usually mentioned by self-publishers in the debate. For example, it is true that more and more and authors are making livings off of their works… if they write in Romance. Or that, as per the Guardian article above, the vast majority of overall book sales are still physical copies, especially for international sales. This does not even establish how often authors must release new material in order to stand on their own (i.e. individual book sales). And, the biggest question has yet to be answered: what is the longevity of an eBook in the public’s mind? Sales are great, but will any of these success stories still be remembered and purchased 40 years down the road (50 Shades notwithstanding)? Are the sales of self-published authors worth the trade-off of having several short-term successes every few months that are entirely forgettable in the long run?
Part of these issues stem not from the supporters of eBooks; often these sales and trends are difficult to track due to the secretive nature of the companies selling these books. And how does one really measure the cultural impact of a book? Movie deals? Toys? And have any of these successful books gained notoriety without the aide of a traditional publisher (even Wool was sold for physical book rights, which undoubtedly increased its stock).
It’s a question that can only be answered with time, which can be in short supply for traditional media at our current crossroads.
No, the facts show that while self-publishing is growing, there are still a great deal of qualities that make traditional publishers still relevant in today’s world. Until there are more self-published books requested for signing tours, getting massive franchises and remaining on the NYT best-sellers list for more than a couple of months at a time, there is still a great need for the marketing, research, and sheer power of the traditional publishing arm. That’s not to say that ePublishing won’t reach that point; it’s essentially inevitable at this point. However, it is still several years and recognizable authors away. They do not have a Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird to show with certainty that eBooks can be timeless and relevant in the long-term to the public interest. That is what they need to gain the respect of their audience.
On the flip side, traditional publishing must come to terms with that; the future is ePublishing. The film/tv world, after an initial struggle, managed to adapt fairly quickly after accepting that they would have to lose in the short term while they adapt. It was a far cry from the recording industry, which was all but devastated by the advent of Napster and torrents. So which way will the Big 5 go?
In the end, they will have to accept that readers are no longer interested in inflated prices and that authors no longer wish to accept sub-standard royalties for a medium with no distribution cost. While Hachette would claim that Amazon will devalue the medium, that is simply not the case. Amazon does not set the prices for self-published books. Authors do. And, even in growing competition, the results vary wildly on what an eBook is “worth.” The only simple answer is that traditional publishers are greatly overvaluing them but that the call that all books will be $.99 also has little backing. People tend to buy at whatever price they tend to think a book is worth and that also depends on a great variety of factors. Which is how the free market works. Either way, the industry’s insistence on trying to charge $10 for an eBook while also giving little of the royalties (compared to self-publishing) to the author is an attitude that has to change if they wish to continue doing business. They must adapt and recreate their business model from the ground-up, since they ultimately stand to lose much more than whatever they would lose short-term by investing in a new sales practice.
So, either side has its drawbacks and there are no clear winners here despite what either side claims. What we can say as readers is that the industry is changing. What remains in question is how that industry will change in the end, and whether or not our plugged-in culture will manage to merge the two worlds we currently know into a single practice. The attitudes that worked 50 years ago is unsustainable, but so is the “got mine” attitude of the eBook author in terms of the overall public image and their books’ lasting legacies.