I shouldn’t be writing this post, and yet, here I am, writing this post. Why? Because I can’t stop myself, that’s why. I’m unstoppable!
I am, very foolishly, going to try to explain the ebook debacle AS I UNDERSTAND IT. I do this with the full knowledge that I may get a minor (or major) point of order wrong, and if I do so, I WISH TO BE CORRECTED. But I am going to divide this post into two parts, because I REQUIRE NO CORRECTIONS ON THE FIRST PART, because it’s all opinion.
FIRST PART: EBOOKS, AS A GENERAL TOPIC
I feel like whenever the word “ebook" is even whispered on the breeze, some people get their hackles up. Even in the case of discussing the legal intricacies of the ebook pricing business, some people will just hear EBOOK and have a MAJOR SPASM.
Famous Cranky Person Jonathan Franzen, for example,* feels that “serious readers” don’t read ebooks: “I think, for serious readers, a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience. Everything else in your life is fluid, but here is this text that doesn’t change.”
Except, I guess, when they print new editions? And maybe he thinks that EVEN AS HE READS, the words will be SWIRLING AROUND IN A VORTEX OF ELECTRIC WORD CHOWDER? I cannot even begin to speculate what goes on inside that golden cranium, but I feel like this is pretty typical of people who don’t like ebooks—this creeping fear that THE MACHINES ARE TAKING OVER and WE MUST CHOOSE SIDES AT ONCE BEFORE THE REVOLUTION COMES.
Fear of change, any sort of change, however small … that’s always been a part of human behavior. Lots of times, this fear dresses itself up in various outfits and goes under the mantle of snobbishness or prejudice. Fear can be perfectly justified. I have many fears, and I cultivate them carefully! But fearing change is not one of them, as it is a useless and endless fear.
Also, I think that saying one type of reading is somehow better than another is just dumb. I don’t actually care what people read with or on. What would Franzen say to a blind reader who preferred an audiobook over a Braille book? Does he think that’s ALSO sorcery of the worst kind? MUST the book be made of a SPECIFIC SUBSTANCE in order to be “real”? I am full of questions.
I don’t think you need to take sides, and there is no evidence that reading an ebook makes you ANY LESS OF A READER. In fact, I find the position a little insane. I own both ACTUAL BOOKS and an a e-reader. I like them both. I do!
Here’s why I bought an ereader:
1. I read a lot of manuscripts. A lot of my friends are writers, and I read a lot of in-process books, which are usually in the form of Word documents (or similar). Reading long documents on a computer screen can mess with your eyes, because of the refresh rate. Printing out the manuscripts is a) wasteful and b) a huge pain to carry. E-readers don’t have the same eye-injurious issues and are neat and compact.
2. I live in New York and don’t have enough space for my books anymore. They’re everywhere. They’re like Tribbles. I have them double-stacked on shelves and piled on the floor. I purge all the time. AND YET THEY PILE UP. I just can’t keep them all in that format.
3. I travel a lot, and I have this bad shoulder. I have a bad shoulder. I was hurt in a car accident, and I’m not supposed to strain it. But I was straining it with the MANY BOOKS I was hauling everywhere. I might as well have been hauling GREAT BAGS OF BRICKS. Also, now everyone carries everything they own on to planes and shoves it in the overhead bin and there is NO ROOM FOR ANYTHING. My reader allows me to carry hundreds of books in my purse, and that is awesome.
4. Because I felt like it.
I also read lots of paper books, so it’s not like I am TIPPING THE BALANCE FOR THE MACHINES. I’m like SWITZERLAND, without the Alps and all the delicious fondue. Read what you want, how you want. If you are paper books only, that’s it, period, I say, jam on, paper-lover! If you prefer ebooks, I say, electric boogaloo to you too. DO WHAT WORKS FOR YOU.
I AM ONLY SAYING ALL OF THIS because whenever ebooks come up, in any context, I feel like many people immediately need to address their perceived merits or demerits. It’s not actually relevant. I put this here to preemptively deal with comments that I SEE IN MY IMMEDIATE FUTURE.
SECOND PART: THIS EBOOK COURT CASE THINGIE
(This is the part I am accepting corrections about because it is really complicated and I am trying to explain it AS I UNDERSTAND IT. I will POST CORRECTIONS as/if I get them.)
IF YOU ARE VERY FAMILIAR WITH THIS ISSUE, very little of what I say below will be new. This is my attempt to explain this issue to people who do not read news about books … and also my attempt to parse this issue for myself.
So, today, the Department of Justice filed suit against Apple and several major publishers because it claims they colluded to set the prices of ebooks in something called “the agency model.” If you want to read the whole thing, you can find it here. There are also tons of articles on the subject floating around.
But here are the basics. It begins with Amazon! *thunderclap*
Amazon is a company with a very clear prime directive: pricing. Pricing, pricing, pricing. That’s it. Amazon cares about having the lowest price. it’s not about experience, or knowledge of product, or community, or anything else. It’s about pricing. Which is not, in and of itself, evil. A prime directive of “killing the maximum number of puppies in the shortest space of time” would be an example of an evil directive, but low price is a legitimate thing for a store to go for. (I’m not saying it ends up being a good thing, I am just saying it’s not inherently evil.)
Amazon takes this to different levels. For example, it sometimes encourages people to go into local stores, which pay rent and local taxes, stock products, and provide (usually) knowledgeable staff to show you the product … then go to Amazon and buy it cheaper. That’s totally weaselly.** Plus there are many other issues at play which I don’t have the time or space to get into here … pricing. That’s what I need to get across.
So Amazon had this idea in 2007 to set the lowest ebook price around: $9.99. Publishers looked at that price and said, we can’t do that. Apple looked at that price and said, “That price totally sucks.”
So it was agreed to construct what is known as the “agency model.” Before, ebooks were sold in a wholesale model—retailers bought the ebooks wholesale and set a price. The agency model stipulated that publishers set the price ($12.99 and $14.99), and the retailers act as agents to sell that book, taking a 30% cut. So no matter when you bought the ebook, the price would be the same. This defeated Amazon’s prime directive of PRICING, because it now no longer mattered. So if people wanted to buy books for their Nooks or iPads or iPhones or whatever, it would all cost the same.
The case claims that a whole bunch of publishers sat down with Apple in a series of secret meetings in a volcano lair.*** The case itself concerns the question: did they collude? Because collusion between businesses to fix prices and kill competition is illegal. I don’t know the answer to this, and weirdly, I’m not sure I care. Except that I would say that it would probably have been pretty stupid to do so. Anyway, collusion like that is illegal, and I have no idea whether or not it happened and do not want to speculate in any way.****
Anyway, the agency model went into effect in 2010 and now everyone is exploding.
The more interesting question is: is it bad to collude against Amazon? Who was setting an absurdly lower price? And therefore, ostensibly, gaining a monopoly the ebook market, flooding the world with Kindles, crushing all competition, and eventually using the funds to build an actual Death Star? Or something like that?
(Technically, yes it is, because collusion is still illegal. I mean, “is it bad to want to outmaneuver Amazon?” perhaps. Which is very different from collusion, in the sense that it is legal.)
Many interesting questions pop up. Is Amazon the enemy of all books, or it is the friend to readers who cannot afford high prices? What’s wrong with paying $9.99 for an ebook, anyway? Does helping Apple benefit readers any more than working against Amazon? Are brick and mortar store going to die anyway? What the hell is going on? And where are my pants?
The internet asked all of these questions and more. I certainly can’t answer them, especially that one about the pants. But I can look at this as an author (who works with several of the publishers listed in the suit) and buyer of books.
Here are some things I have heard:
"I love to read! I want to pay more to give the author more, but I am broke and can barely afford what I read now. I need that low price." To this I say, I feel you. I feel extremely lucky to be able to afford books now at the rate I consume them, and also to get free books. Because pretty much all I ever wanted was a STEADY FLOW OF BOOKS. Being able to afford my habit-that’s new. When I went to grad school, we were given six-page reading lists of books to buy and told to budget about $2000. TWO THOUSAND DOLLARS! I didn’t have that kind of money. So I sat on the floor of a bookstore for days and weeks on end, reading the books for free (after draining the libraries of all copies they had of the things I needed). I have been trying to get books ANY WAY POSSIBLE for most of my life. So I feel you. I refer to my incessant book buying now as my “payback plan.” So, yes, there is an inherent something about selling the books cheaply. But also, BOOKSTORES SUSTAINED ME. And they have done so for SO MUCH of my life.
"But books take time to write and produce, and writers and publishers need a fair wage for their work. It’s valuable!" Also true.
"But why can’t an ebook cost $9.99?" Answer: I don’t actually know, except that the math does not appear to work on most P&Ls? Publishers lose money on most books. They make it back on blockbusters. They can’t afford to lose much more. It’s possible that it could work, if the sales were high enough? Look, I don’t know everything.
"WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN FOR ME, THE READER?" Right now, like it or lump it, Amazon has a bit of a stranglehold on book sales, and they are not primarily book sellers. Yes, they started selling books back in 1995, but they sell EVERYTHING. They are a GENERAL STORE. But books are still kind of the backbone of what they do, and they sell ‘em cheap. There is an argument that because Amazon is essentially just a big warehouse, they might benefit authors in some way … because it’s much easier to stock a book in a warehouse then on valuable shelf real estate in a store, and therefore EVERYTHING can be available at all times. Right?
BUT ALSO, Amazon slashes and burns and slashes at prices. They don’t particular care what you buy. You can’t go in, browse books, talk to booksellers, and generally engage with the book experience.
And the goal is to sell you everything. It was Amazon who had the monopoly because they were willing to go lower than anyone else, because they could. So, what seems to have happened was that during a battle to beat Amazon at its own game, publishers and Apple may or may not have broken an antitrust law. I have no idea if they did. But it was an attempt to restore competition, not limit it.
It’s coming down to a lot of bedrock issues about how you VALUE things in general. What’s the VALUE in paying more? What should electronic items cost if the physical value is largely held in the device? How do we maintain a thriving literary life in the face of these new developments? Is this a sign that publishing is an outmoded business of “gatekeepers,” or is this a rallying point to stand up and say we’re willing to pay more for things that are of value to us?
Are publishers even TOGETHER enough to participate in this kind of conspiracy? Why do all the internal emails from Apple sound like they are written by a 12 year old boy high on a Bruce Lee movie binge?
And where are your pants?
I leave you with more questions than I have answers. I welcome comments and YOUR ANSWERS.
NOW WITH QUESTIONS/COMMENTS FROM YOU:
* I am just perpetuating the “let’s quote JF on every literary matter, just because” problem, I know.
** Not Ron. I mean “like a weasel.” Weasley is my king.
*** Okay, in a restaurant or something.
**** As of this writing, three publishers have made settlements, one is fighting back, and the others and Apple have no comment.