Stop conflating the woes of book publishers with the decline of books

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Over the last decade, whenever the subject of the state of journalism has come up, the most common assessment presented is that “journalism is dying.” The evidence for this? Massive layoffs at newspapers, which began hemorrhaging jobs in the mid 2000s and accelerated their death spiral when the recession hit and advertisers’ budgets collapsed. The main culprit for this decline, we’re told, is the internet, or, more specifically, the likes of Craigslist, Google, and Facebook, which have stolen away eyeballs and, more important, advertising dollars. And because of all this, society is worse off; without journalism, we have no government and corporate watchdogs, no method by which to keep the public informed.

But this viewpoint adopts a major logical fallacy, that just because newspapers are dying then that also means journalism is dying as well. Put another way, while the internet has played its part in crushing newspapers and their business model, it’s also given rise to other forms of journalism that, I think, have improved the industry for the better. Not only have we seen the emergence of new news products, from explainer sites like Vox and FiveThirtyEight to local news startups like TAPinto, but everyday people who don’t consider themselves journalists now have vehicles with which to contribute on-the-ground reporting. We saw this with the tweets that arose during the Ferguson protests and videos that emerged on Facebook in Hong Kong. Cynics will note that many of these new journalism jobs are for bloggers who merely partake in aggregation and frivolous content, but newspapers have always relied on repackaging content and still do. I worked as an editor for a major magazine as recently as 2013, and much of its reporting focus consisted of following the news cycle with a cursory call to a company or politician’s spokesperson for a fresh quote. Little of what we did is what I’d consider “original reporting.”

I was reminded of this relationship between newspapers and journalism when reading about the current battles between major book publishers and Amazon. Though a lot of ink has been spilled on this dispute, Franklin Foer made perhaps the most definitive case for labeling Amazon a monopolist and prosecuting it as such in a long article for the New Republic.  He details how “Amazon has left a trail of destructioncompetitors undercut, suppliers squeezedsome of it necessary, and some of it highly worrisome.” And in a Vanity Fair article published this week, Keith Gessen gives us a detailed history of how Amazon went from savior of the publishing industry to a supposed cutthroat monopolist that will hasten its death. But buried within a several thousand word article, we have this startling paragraph:

Meanwhile, in the background, a funny thing was happening. The publishers were doing well. Print-book sales were down, but e-book sales were up. On a unit basis, the new e-book sales more than made up for lost print-book sales. On a dollar basis, because e-books were cheaper than print books, revenues were flat. But with e-books there were no manufacturing costs, no warehousing costs, no shipping costs, no returns. Even at a lower price, the profit margins were higher. Some revenues, it turns out, are better than others. “I’ve been in this business a long time,” one publisher told me recently, “and it’s always been that one house was up one year and down the next, whereas another house was down one year and up the next. But for all the houses to be up at the same time, year after year? I’ve never seen that. And the number-one reason is the Kindle.” The Kindle was doing what Amazon had claimed all along it would do: it was making publishers money.

So Amazon was lowering the price of the books for consumers while generating the same profits for publishers? It hardly seems like the work of a monopolist to create an ecosystem in which nearly every side benefits. Instead, what we’re seeing here is a resistance from major publishers over two things.

The first is their sense of pride. Whenever they sit down to try and negotiate pricing with Amazon, they’re told to take it or leave it. They find it outrageous that another corporate behemoth would have the gall to dictate to them the price at which their products are sold (nevermind that they’ve always had the power to launch their own ereader apps and sell at whatever price they want). To them, Amazon is a schoolyard bully they must stand up to, even if it that bully, like Robin Hood, distributes its benefits to the masses.

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The second naturally arises from the first. Sure, publishers are making money now, but if they don’t fight to regain control then Amazon will consistently squeeze them until both authors and publishers make virtually nothing.

Both of these motivators, of course, lie within their own corporate interests, and the public rarely becomes incensed on behalf of huge corporate behemoths, so their public relations strategy has been to present this battle as one over the very future of books, enlisting several of their own authors to mobilize their fan bases and declare Amazon the enemy of the written word.

But just as we saw with newspapers being conflated with the journalism industry, major New York book publishers are conflating themselves with the book industry. It’s hard to argue that books are in danger, for instance, when you read the National Endowment for the Arts report that found that “for the first time in over a quarter-century … literary reading has risen among adult Americans.” The most significant gains were among young adults (ages 18 to 24), a demographic, I’ll note, that sees some of the highest adoption rates of smart phones and tablets.

We’re not just seeing an expansion of readers, but of writers as well. The author Hugh Howey issued a report finding that, of the 120,000 bestselling titles on Amazon, 25 percent were written by self-published authors. Many writers, after trying unsuccessfully to penetrate the New York publishing scene, are now selling thousands of books a month on the Amazon Kindle and other ereader apps. And they’re getting a bigger cut of the sale as well, pulling in between 35 and 70 percent on every ebook sold vs the 10 percent given to traditionally-published authors.

We’ve also experienced the expansion of book-like products, like the proliferation of longform journalism. While most the articles promoted on LongReads are shorter than your average book, they still scratch that itch all book readers have to dive more deeply into a particular subject.

Matt Yglesias has argued in Vox that not only are book publishers on the wrong side of the dispute, they also deserve to be crushed. The publishers, he argues, have become superfluous in a world where technological tools allow anyone to lay out an ebook, and they often fail at what they should arguably be best at: marketing books. “The real risk for publishers is that major authors might discover that they do have the ability to market books.”

So when book publishers argue that the book industry is under threat, what they really mean is their own bottom lines are threatened. And if you believe that your book reading experience will thrive after Amazon relinquishes and gives them better negotiating terms, well then I have a newspaper to sell you.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

Image via Blunderbuss