The latest Amazon wrangle, and the challenge of growing new writers

I’m a bit late to this chat—”real work” keeps obnoxiously interfering with blog writing and other activities—but Charlie Stross discusses the latest publishing imbroglio in “Amazon: malignant monopoly, or just plain evil?“, but like George Packer before him he is distinctly anti-Amazon. It’s a somewhat justified point of view, but I think his followup, “A footnote about the publishing industry,” is less vituperative and consequently more interesting. As usual with these kinds of stories Stross ignores an important point: Amazon is great news for readers and writers who don’t have (or, sometimes, want) a big publisher (like yours truly) but not particularly good news for those who already have a publisher.

But there’s a more interesting and often overlooked point embedded:

But [the reading business is] still a more or less global zero sum game (competing for readers eyeball-hours). And because the rate of individual production is relatively low and the product is still produced artisanally by cottage industries, product lead time is measured in years, time to achieve net positive revenue is also measured in years, and it’s important to keep the back list on tap because it can take decades to grow an author’s career. Stephen King was an overnight success with “Carrie” after a decade of learning to write, but Terry Pratchett took about 15 years to finally break big. J. K. Rowling took 3 books to really get rolling, and she grew eye-wateringly rapidly by industry standards. And some authors are slow-burn successes: my big breakthrough book was my tenth novel in print (“Halting State”). J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was in print for a decade or more before it really took off in the 1960s. If you practice ruthless commercial Darwinism, weeding out any hopeful mutants that aren’t immediately successful, you will miss out on a lot of huge opportunities.

So reforming the publishing industry is a very non-trivial undertaking.

Which is also why Jeff Bezos picked it as his #1 target when he founded Amazon. He set out to disrupt an incumbent mature industry using the internet, and picked publishing because it was obviously the most dysfunctional. After all, if he’d gone after groceries he’d be competing with sharks like Tesco and WalMart.

It takes an incredibly long time for writers to get good, and publishers may have lost interest in that process. The process also seems especially long relative to what’s happening on the Internet, which is still in its Cambrian explosion phase. In ten years everything touched by Moore’s Law gets a thousand times better, but writers still do our thing at about the same pace. Learning the craft is long, and a lot of it still occurs in a very slow, very old-school master-apprentice fashion. It may be that self-publishing or de-factor self-publishing takes the place of the previous publishing model, and that the publishing of novels becomes more like the publishing of poetry, which the big houses haven’t been doing in earnest for at least twenty years and possibly longer.

Not everyone shares Stross’s views about the evilness of Amazon; here is James Fallows posting an anonymous e-mail from a small publisher who likes Amazon for the same reasons similar to mine (“Amazon is the best deal going for a small publisher: a better price and better reach than any other options”). I’m also not real worried about Amazon-as-monopoly; if there’s a book I really want to read, it’s not hard to get it from Barnes & Noble (for now), or the various other sites that have popped up to help authors (Lulu, etc.). Amazon is fighting in a thin-margin business with highly differentiated products in which almost no product is a perfect substitute for another, with the possible exception of some specific genres (romance, thrillers).

EDIT: I forgot to add that most writers are still helped along by editors, and that the self-publishing system doesn’t really help with that. It’s possible to find sympathetic readers, but I’m not sure sympathetic readers can take the place of professional editors for most people. I don’t really foresee a good solution to this problem. MFA programs are one possible measure, but only for some people who do some kinds of writing.

Complaints about Amazon’s rise ignore how long it has taken the company to rise

The latest raft of articles about Amazon and its power over the publishing industry appeared in the last couple of days (“Amazon, Destroyer of Worlds,” “What Amazon’s ebook strategy means,” “Booksellers Resisting Amazon’s Disruption”), and the first two note what is the most significant thing about Amazon, at least to my mind: how much better an experience Amazon is than the things it replaces (or complements, depending on your perspective).

Like any incumbents, publishers, as far as I can tell, want the status quo, but readers (and consumers of electronic gear) are happy to get something for less than they would’ve otherwise. Stross gets this—”Bookselling in 1994 was a notoriously backward-looking, inefficient, and old-fashioned area of the retail sector. There are structural reasons for this” and so does Yglesias—”But for consumers, it’s great. An Amazon Prime membership is the most outrageously good deal in commerce today. But competitors should be afraid.” Stross is suspicious of Amazon, and so is the New York Times writer. Their suspicions are worth holding, but the basic issue remains: Amazon is successful because it’s good.

Their books are cheap and arrive fast. Their used section is really great, for both buying and selling. Prior to Amazon and its smaller analogues, used bookstores simply wouldn’t buy books with writing in them. Amazon used buyers, however, don’t care, as long as the book is described honestly. I’m getting ready to move, which means that I’m selling or giving away somewhere between a couple hundred and a thousand books. I sold about 15 through Amazon, resulting in about $100 that I wouldn’t have otherwise. That efficiency is great, but it’s great in a way that publishers don’t like, because publishers would rather have everyone buying new books.

Amazon looks particularly good to me because I’ve spent a lot of time trying to wrangle a literary agent and failing. Five or six years ago, that meant my work would’ve spent its life on my hard drive, and that’s about it. But now that I’m done with comprehensive exams, I have time to hire an editor and a book designer and see what happens through self-publishing. The likely answer is “nothing,” but the probability of nothing happening is 1.0 if I leave the novels and other work on my hard drive forever.

Most of this was predictable: in 1997, Philip Greenspun wrote “The book behind the book behind the book…“, in which he observed: “Looking at the way my book was marketed made me realize that amazon.com is going to rule the world.” I’m sure others predicted the same thing. The publishing industry’s collective response was to shrug. I guess no one read The Innovator’s Dilemma. If publishers once were innovators, they’re not anymore.

Stross is averse to profit to the point that I think he’s signaling mood / group affiliation to some extent, but his basic economic analysis is good. Stuff like this: “piracy is a much less immediate threat than a gigantic multinational [. . .] that has expressed its intention to “disrupt” them, and whose chief executive said recently “even well-meaning gatekeepers slow innovation” (where ‘innovation’ is code-speak for ‘opportunities for me to turn a profit’)” could be rephrased; Amazon selling for less means more consumer surplus, and it appears that Amazon’s whole modus operandi is to very low, if any, profit margins; if it had margins as high or higher than what publishers and retailers shoot for, it wouldn’t be such a threat.

Anyhow, I too don’t want an Amazon monopoly or monopsony, but I don’t see a good alternative to Amazon. Barnes and Noble is, at best, second-best; their online prices finally became competitive with Amazon’s a year or two ago, but they still they’re chasing the leader instead of striving to be the leader.

If DRM on ebooks actually dies—as Stross thinks it will—that will make Barnes and Noble and other players more viable, in the same way that killing DRM on music made Amazon a viable purveyor of music (although a lot of people still use the iTunes Music Store).

Thoughts on Steve Jobs — Walter Isaacson

I don’t think Steve Jobs, seen as a whole package, holds much of a lesson for us mortals, as Gary Stix argues here. Nonetheless, Steve Jobs the book is as fascinating as one should expect. The broad contours of his life and the book’s contents are well known, so I won’t repeat them here; I will note a few things:

1) As early as 1980, Jobs was “thrashing about for ways to produce something more radically different. At first he flirted with the idea of touchscreens, but he found himself frustrated. At one demonstration of the technology, he arrived late, fidgeted awhile, then abruptly cut off one of the engineers in the middle of their presentation [. . . .]” Notice how early he was thinking about a product that didn’t make it into shipping products until 2007. But I’m not that interested in touchscreens because, at least so far, they’re lousy for typing and other kinds of content creation. More than anything else I’m a writer, and I don’t see much use for iPads beyond checking Facebook, reading e-mails, and watching YouTube videos. Maybe they’d be useful as menus and such too. Charlie Stross gets this, and he a) actually has one and b) explains more about their uses and limitations Why I don’t use the iPad for serious writing.”

2) Not all of the book’s writing is great—phrases and ideas are too often repeated, and Isaacson shies from figurative or hyperbolic language, like a 13-year-old not quite ready to approach the opposite sex. Nonetheless, the books has enough evocative moments to balance its stylistic plodding, as in this moment: “Randy Wigginton, one of the engineers, summed it up: ‘The Apple III was kind of like a baby conceived during a group orgy, and later everybody had this bad headache, and there’s this bastard child, and everyone says, “It’s not mine.”‘”

I have yet to see an “individual orgy,” as opposed to a “group orgy,” but the metaphor nonetheless resonates.

3) Jobs didn’t think the same way most of us do about a wide array of topics. He didn’t think like the idiotic managers who think anything that can’t be measured automatically has no value. One can see non-standard thinking that works all over the book—it would be interesting to look too at people with non-standard thinking who fail—and I noticed this moment, at a Stanford class, where Jobs took business questions for while:

When the business questions tapered off, Jobs turned the tables on the well-groomed students. ‘How many of you are virgins?’ he asked. There were nervous giggles. ‘How many of you have taken LSD?’ More nervous laughter, and only one or two hands went up. Later Jobs would complain about the new generation of kids, who seemed to him more materialistic and careerist than his own. ‘When I went to school, it was right after the sixties and before this general wave of practical purposefulness had set in,’ he said. ‘Now students aren’t even thinking in idealistic terms, or at least nowhere near as much.’

Students are too shocked, and by the time they get to me they’re too often well-behaved in a dull way. I’ve mentioned weed in class, and the students are usually astonished. But I remember being a freshman, and most of the shock is undeserved. I went to school at Clark University, where mentions of pot smoking and LSD seemed fairly normal.

“Practical purposefulness” can be impractical when it blinds one to alternative possibilities that the well mannered simply cannot or will not imagine.

4) The last four paragraphs of the book are perfect.

5) Here’s Steven Berlin Johnson on the book; notice:

After devouring the first two-thirds of the book, I found myself skimming a bit more through the post-iPod years, largely because I knew so many of the stories. (Though Isaacson has extensive new material about the health issues, all of which is riveting and tragic.) At first, I thought that the more recent material was less compelling for just that reason: because it was recent, and thus more fresh in my memory. But it’s not that I once knew all the details about the battle with Sculley or the founding of NeXT and forgot them; it’s that those details were never really part of the public record, because there just weren’t that many outlets covering the technology world then.

This reminded me of a speech I gave a few years ago at SXSW, that began with the somewhat embarrassing story of me waiting outside the College Hill bookstore in 1987, hoping to catch the monthly arrival of MacWorld Magazine, which was just about the only conduit for information about Apple back then. In that talk, I went on to say:

If 19-year-old Steven could fast-forward to the present day, he would no doubt be amazed by all the Apple technology – the iPhones and MacBook Airs – but I think he would be just as amazed by the sheer volume and diversity of the information about Apple available now. In the old days, it might have taken months for details from a John Sculley keynote to make to the College Hill Bookstore; now the lag is seconds, with dozens of people liveblogging every passing phrase from a Jobs speech. There are 8,000-word dissections of each new release of OS X at Ars Technica, written with attention to detail and technical sophistication that far exceeds anything a traditional newspaper would ever attempt. Writers like John Gruber or Don Norman regularly post intricate critiques of user interface issues. (I probably read twenty mini-essays about Safari’s new tab design.) The traditional newspapers have improved their coverage as well: think of David Pogue’s reviews, or Walt Mossberg’s Personal Technology site. And that’s not even mentioning the rumor blogs.

So in a funny way, the few moments at the end of Steve Jobs where my attention flagged turned out to be a reminder of one of the great gifts that the networked personal computer has bestowed upon us: not just more raw information, but more substantive commentary and analysis, in real-time.

Except I’m a native to this environment: by the time I came to be cognizant of the world, this was already, if not a given, then at least very close. The later sections of the book had the feel of stuff I’ve already seen on the Internet, and much of the most interesting work analyzing Steve Jobs’ personality, predilections, and power had been done earlier.

To some extent, it’s always easier to chart rises than plateaus, and this is certainly true in Jobs’ case. The very end of Steve Jobs described the steps he’s taken to try ensuring the company continues in the mold of a company capable of producing great stuff—unlike most companies, which slowly come to be ruled by bean-counters and salarymen. Japanese companies like Sony are instructive here: Akio Morita‘s departure from the company coincided with its stagnation, which is most evident in its failure to see the iPod coming.

6) There are many subtle lessons that would be easy to miss in Steve Jobs and from Steve Jobs.

July 2011 links: Internet privacy, plot, Charlie Stross, Academia, typos, and more

* Has plot driven out other kinds of story? The market’s stress on keeping stories moving means we’re in danger of losing some truer fictions. If anything, it seems like the opposite to me.

* The Legislation That Could Kill Internet Privacy for Good.

* The only way to know how good you might be at something is to fail trying it. This is one reason I keep writing fiction: I do not wish to be 40, look back, and wonder why I didn’t try. Really try, which is much different than most people’s definition of “try.”

* Academic English Is Not a Club I Want to Join; may be behind a paywall.

* Charlie Stross, interesting as usual:

In the period 1997-2010, in the UK, Parliament created an average of one new criminal offence for every day the House of Commons was in session. I asked a couple of legal experts how many actual chargeable offences there were in the English legal system; they couldn’t give an exact answer but suggested somewhere in the range 5,000-20,000. The situation in the USA is much, much worse, with different state and federal legal systems and combinations of felonies; the true number of chargeable felonies may be over a million, and this situation is augmented by a tax code so large that no single human being can be familiar with all of it (but failure to comply is of course illegal).

Now, most of the time most of these laws don’t affect most of us. But there’s a key principle of law, that ignorance is no defence: I’m willing to bet that most human beings are guilty of one or more crimes, be it smoking a joint or speeding or forgetting to declare earnings or failing to file the paperwork for some sort of permit we don’t even know exists. We are all potentially criminals.

* He Sexts, She Sexts More, Report Says, this from the NYT.

* Why I will never pursue cheating again, which resonates too much with me and explains a lot of what’s wrong with contemporary school culture, which is itself a reflection of larger cultural forces.

* From a Scrivener case study: “Like serial killers (whom they in many ways resemble) writers tend to fall into one of two broad camps – organised and disorganised. Although I try not to, I work in a spectacularly disarranged manner. I keep a lot in my head, and in my head it kind of makes sense, in a hazy and optimistic way. But during the actual composition I’m all over the place.”

I tend towards disorganized, with the American spelling.

From an interview with Neil Cross.

* The Price of Typos, which also includes the “price” of their removal.

* How Cisco’s “unmitigated gall” derailed one man’s life.

Charlie Stross on the Real Reason Steve Jobs hates flash (and how lives change)

Charlie Stross has a typically fascinating post about the real reason Steve Jobs hates flash. The title is deceptive: the post is really about the future of the computing industry, which is to say, the future of our day-to-day lives.

If you read tech blogs, you’ve read a million people in the echo chamber repeating the same things to one another over and over again. Some of that stuff is probably right, but even if Stross is wrong, he’s at least pulling his head more than six inches off the ground, looking around, and saying “what are we going to do when we hit those mountains up ahead?”

And I don’t even own an iPad, or have much desire to be in the cloud for the sake of being in the cloud. But the argument about the importance of always-on networking is a strong one, even if, to me, it also points to the points to the greater importance of being able to disconnect distraction.

In the meantime, however, I’m going back to the story that I’m working on. Stories have the advantage that they’ll probably always be popular, even if the medium through which one experiences them changes. Consequently, I’m turning Mac Freedom on and Internet access off.

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