Back to the Audience

As an author, you think about your audience. Your “dear reader.” Or at least you should. Even if it’s only your inner audience. After all, there’s a reason you’re committing all those words to the page. A message, perhaps?

But getting your work published adds another dimension or two, enough so that you start to think perhaps the publisher is your audience. I say this from the perspective of someone for whom it took eight years from inception to publication. Twenty rejection slips. A complete rewrite of the entire work. The publisher held the keys to the kingdom and was, in a very real way, an arbiter between the author and her audience.

The rise of the internet and eBooks is supposed to change all that. Chris Meadows over at TeleRead takes it as a given that writers whose books the Big Six won’t take can sell directly to customers via Amazon, Apple and Barnes & Noble. The counter-thought, here from publisher Teresa Nielsen Hayden, is even more provocative:

Stated axiomatically: If you’ve written a book that people want to buy and read, you stand an excellent chance of getting it published by a real commercial publisher. If you haven’t, no clever workaround publishing scheme is going to help, because there’s no way to force readers to buy and read books they don’t want.

The backdrop here is whether or not publishers — traditional publishers — really care about “dear reader.” The accusation, which some in the industry (like Brett Sandusky) are taking seriously, is that publishers are not as customer-focused at they should be. If not, the argument goes, the customer is being underserved. This creates an opening for others. Are independent publishers more attuned to customers? Will they take over while the giants fail? Is Amazon poised to play a similar role?

The critical question is whether traditional publishers still hold the keys to the kingdom. Or even matter.

Certainly the pressure is being felt on all sides. Publishers are getting hit over agency agreements, which drive up prices. Authors are finding their work potentially highjacked by Amazon, which is pushing wholesale pricing at a cost to author royalties. Some customers are having second thoughts about eBooks themselves (though eBook sales are up 202%).

The tragic thing is what’s being lost in this conversation. All the forgoing “pressure” is focused on customers and the bottom line. Consumers want cheaper books. Authors want higher royalties. Publishers want profits.

But there is an older relationship that, I think, is more important. As an author, writing for your audience is paramount. They are more than mere customers. They’re your first duty. If you just write for the money, you’re a hack. Let me repeat. A hack. Good publishers — great publishers — recognize and support these obligations. And find writers whose work deserves a wider audience because it actually has something to say.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden puts it better than I: “Being focused on readers and their reactions is a marker for people who work in the commercial publishing industry. Reader-fixation is water, and [they spend] decades being a professional fish.”

Is the model that Hayden defends the only way? Heavens no. The internet is there, eBooks aren’t going away. But you better write the best book you can.

The Mess That’s Called eBooks

As we wrote back in November, there’s a battle going on in the world of eBook publishing. The topic then was Amazon using wholesale pricing as a benchmark for author royalties as it promotes its Prime Program (and juices sales of the Kindle Fire). The upshot for content creators: You probably want to review your publisher contract and make sure you are fairly compensated (as a percentage of the retail price, not wholesale).

The battle itself, however, is being fought on multiple fronts. In August 2011, the Hagens Berman firm filed a class-action suit claiming Apple and five top U.S. publishers “illegally fixed prices of electronic books, also known as e-books.” They are demanding a jury trial, always a sign that they want the most generous settlement possible.

The basis of the Hagen Berman complaint is the claim that the five publishing houses “forced Amazon to abandon its discount pricing and adhere to a new agency model, in which publishers set prices. This would prevent retailers such as Amazon from offering lower prices on e-books.”

If Amazon defied the publishers and tried to sell e-books below the publisher-set levels, the publishers would simply deny Amazon access to the title, the complaint details. The defendant publishers control 85 percent of the most popular fiction and non-fiction titles.

The publishers, the complaint goes on, feared Amazon’s pro-consumer pricing, especially as it threatened the established brick-and-mortar model.

Now it appears that the European Union’s antitrust commission wants a piece of the action. The E.U. investigation will look into charges that “international publishers… have, possibly with the help of Apple, engaged in anti-competitive practices affecting the sale of e-books in the European Economic Area (EEA), in breach of EU antitrust rules.”

As Philip Elmer-Dewitt notes in this Fortune piece, the E.U. appears dead serious. “In preparation for the formal proceedings announced Tuesday the commission raided the offices of some or all of the five publishers named in the probe.” [Actually, the E.U. press release calls them “unannounced inspections.” Ah, so diplomatic.]

In case that isn’t interesting enough, back in August 2010, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal also investigated potential anti-competitive e-book practices. The A.G.’s complaint?

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is investigating agreements between the country’s largest e-book publishers and two of the largest sellers — Amazon.com, Inc. and Apple, Inc. — that may block competitors from offering cheaper e-book prices.

WTF? Who’s colluding with whom?

Takeaways
(Hey, I’m no lawyer, but I am an interested party. At least I think I am):

  • If you are a content creator, an Amazon win here means get ready for wholesale to be the new retail.
  • If you are a consumer, an Amazon win means e-books will fly off the shelves at giveaway prices, as Amazon juices its Kindle sales.
  • If you are a publisher, an Amazon win means they are one step closer to moving into the publishing business. As Philip Elmer-Dewitt notes, Amazon is the 500-lbs gorilla in the e-book biz.

And who knows, at the moment, Amazon may need all the help it can get. There’s already speculation that as many as a half-million Kindle Fires will be returned post-holiday (via Philip Elmer-Dewitt). Usability guru Jakob Nielsen, meanwhile, is reporting that “Amazon.com’s new Kindle Fire offers a disappointingly poor user experience.” It gets worse… Over the Black Friday sales season, iPad and iPhone were dominant [Chart of the Day].

Even 500-lbs gorillas deserve some good news now and then…

Another EPUB Win?

The eBook format wars seem to have lost a major player when Sharp announced it was discontinuing its Galapagos tablet, which used their homegrown XMDF format. This reversal has caused at least one writer to speculate it will drive Japanese publishers and device makers toward EPUB3.

The historical blocker for EPUB in Japan was its anemic support of Japanese typesetting standards, including arcane character sets and vertical type. Sharp built XMDF to address those issues. But now, according to Hiroki Kamata, writing in the Ebook 2.0 Forum:

EPUB3 now adequately supports Japanese typesetting rules (much of the work accomplished by a team of Japanese engineers) and is also usable with web browsers supporting HTML5, as well as the Japanese typesetting extension already implemented by Apple’s Safari.

While the Japanese market is a tough one to crack by any measure, the prospect that EPUB will become viable in yet another market helps streamline the global eBook conversion process. More importantly, it can help stave off platform fragmentation. We can live with two eBook formats. Three is one road too many, even for a unique market like Japan.