This post may do nothing more than re-assert my ignorance. It won’t be the first time.

I have no dog in the Amazon-Macmillan pissing contest. I’m not published, and I’m not particularly hopeful about the prospects, so it doesn’t have much of an effect on me, other than potentially forcing me to buy books by Macmillan authors elsewhere. I have friends who are potentially effected by this, and I feel for them (John McFetridge must feel like Joe Bftsplk by now), but I have a little objective distance, which leads me to say,

A pox on both their houses.

As several others have noted, this is not about serving customers, and it’s sure as hell not about doing anything for writers. It’s about control. Period. It was brought to a head by Apple’s introduction of the iPad last week, but its roots have grown in the fertile soil of publishing’s inane distribution policies.

Let’s all forget we’re readers and/or writers for a few seconds and put on our MBA hats. (I know, that’s as demeaning as asking Jackson Pollock to paint your house, but bear with me.) No matter how much we treasure books, in the grand scheme of capitalism they’re widgets. Someone makes them, and someone sells them. The manufacturer (in this case, Macmillan) sells the widget (in this case, a book) to a retail outlet (in this case, Amazon) for whatever the traffic will bear. Amazon then sells it to the general public, fixing its price in a similar manner. Both set their prices just high enough to maximize income, but not so high total sales are too adversely affected.

This is as it is for just about everything sold in this country. If Macmillan sets its wholesale price too high, Amazon will but fewer, or no, books. Same deal for Amazon vis-à-vis the public. It should be none of the manufacturer’s business how much the retailer charges its customers for the product; that’s restraint of trade. They can set a manufacturer’s suggested retail price, but that’s about it.

This would necessitate two dramatic changes in publishing. First, advances and royalties would have to be pegged to the wholesale cost of the book, as the publishers have no say in what it can be sold for. Second, and possibly more stressful—because neither side in this dispute really gives a rat’s ass about the writers’ profits*--returns would be forbidden. Imagine ordering 100,000 tires, then telling Goodyear they had to take 50,000 back, at their expense. Right.

I’m sure there’s a hole in this logic somewhere; arguments born of as much ignorance as mine usually have several. “This is the way it’s done,” or, “This is the way we’ve always done it” don’t count. If nothing else, it sure would make bookkeeping a lot easier.

* -- Before someone sticks up for how concerned publishers are with making sure their writers make a good living, ask yourself one question: do you really think your publisher would pay you—at all—if they thought they could get you to give them your rights for free?

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Comment by Neil Nyren on February 4, 2010 at 7:45am
Jon, on the question of levels, we use a number of different criteria: our experiences with the author (if we've published him before), our experiences with books of a similar nature, other publishers' experiences with books of a similar nature, and then a host of other factors, including timing, special hooks in the book, special hooks in the author's bio -- anything that might make a difference. Several months before publication (for instance, we're busy planning Fall 2010's titles now), we have a series of meetings and all the departments get together -- editorial, sales, publicity, sub rights, promotion, etc. We pool our knowledge and, based on what I've described, we settle on where we think the book is likely to come in.

That doesn't mean that figure is graven in stone, though. A lot can happen between those meetings and publication -- publicity breaks, great advance reviews or quotes, feedback from the accounts -- and so we keep reviewing where we are and often that means adjusting the get-out higher (or, sadly, sometimes lower). And then when the book is actually pubbed, we keep a constant watch on what's happening, to be able to take advantage quickly of any movement. These days, the keys are flexibility and rapid-response.

That isn't to say that we're always right, of course, even with all that. When I speak at writers' conferences, I often regale them with stories about high-profile books that went storming out into the market and then promptly fell flat on their faces; and other books that crept up stealthily and astonished everybody. Because that's one of the things I love about this business: It's still unpredictable. No matter how many business people and conglomerates enter the picture, there are still things that can't be computerized. Each book is still a separate product, each purchase a separate decision, and except for certain guaranteed books and authors, which are always with us, what a reader will buy is sometimes still a mystery. People will buy pure tripe while ignoring works of art. They will also ignore strongly-hyped so-called commercial books while making marvelous writers into bestsellers. There is still the capacity to surprise, and who would want it any other way?

Dana, briefly (because I've already gone on too long), I probably shouldn't have said "nonexistent," because in truth every book, no matter how small, has something. They're given a spot in the catalogue, they're sent out for review to all the appropriate places (which these days includes online), and on the pb side, solicitation jackets are made up. But if a book's going to have a small printing, that doesn't throw off much money for promotion -- we budget book by book. Just because someone thought it MUST be published doesn't mean it necessarily has a big market. So the emphasis will be on review coverage and word of mouth (whether print or online) and whatever can be done cheaply, with the goal being to try to establish enough of a base, so that the next book can start off larger.
Comment by Dana King on February 4, 2010 at 3:10am
Pearlstein's chat has ended; the transcript is available. Mots of the quesitons were about the iPad, but there was one salient exchange that is of interest to this group:

McLean, Va.: So the introduction of competition into the electronic book reader marketplace has the effect of ... higher prices to the consumer? I demand that the FTC get involved and reinstate the monopoly!

Steven Pearlstein: Selling something below cost isn't a sustainable model. Now, in fact, you could argue it wasn't below cost at $9.99 because Amazon also attributed some of the revenue from the sale of each Kindle to the sale of the subsequent books -- deferred revenue. So the real cost was more than $9.999, it is just that some of it was hidden in the kindle. In which case, of course, the actual price didn't rise and you have no complaint and no reason to call the FTC.
In fact, what the FTC should be looking into is the potential collusion among all the publishers to "set" the price of e-books at $15. They didn't get in a room and collude but they colluded through their new "agent", Apple, with one following the lead of the other. It's an old story that we've seen many times over the years in many industries. But at the least the FTC should put these folks on notice that any attempt to fix the retail price (as opposed to setting a standard agency percentage fee) would be suspect if it appeared they were acting in concert.
Comment by Dana King on February 4, 2010 at 1:55am
I want to piggyback onto Jon Loomis's comment below about promotion. Neil, you admit some writers get small to non-existent promotion. I have to wonder why the book was published at all, if it's not going to be promoted. If someone thought it MUST be published, what was the point of printing them up and leaving them on their own?
Comment by John Dishon on February 4, 2010 at 1:26am
Six and eleven seem like very reasonable numbers to me. G.P. Putnam's Sons is only one imprint of the Penguin Group USA, which, according to Wikipedia, has an unholy number of imprints. If they're all publishing say, five new authors a year, then that's a lot of new authors. And then you have the other big publishers doing the same. If anything, that's too many being published. I read somewhere that 172,000 new books were published in the U.S. in 2005.

At least we're not filmmakers. According to the MPAA, in 2008, only 610 films were released domestically.
Comment by B.R.Stateham on February 4, 2010 at 1:01am
Agreed , Neil; rant ended. I'm stepping down from my soap box and going to the kitchen to make me a salami sandwich.
Comment by Jon Loomis on February 4, 2010 at 12:35am
Hi Neil,

Usually when you're on the board I try to keep my mouth shut and listen, figuring I might learn something--and this has, indeed, been very enlightening. One thing you said just now piqued my curiosity: "It all depends on the level of the book." What does that mean, exactly? I mean, it's obvious that publishers have to establish a kind of hierarchy in order to figure out the best places to spend those scarce promotional dollars, but what kind of criteria are you looking for? What are the qualities of a potential best-seller, and how do you know a "small" book will be a small book before it's even released?

Thanks for your time. Fascinating as always.
Comment by Neil Nyren on February 4, 2010 at 12:27am
B.R., my post said the six and eleven were all first novels. There was new nonfiction, too, of course, as well as many small/medium second and third novels. The point is that we're all very far from the immensely tired cliche of bestselling mega authors only. I know it's a popular whine, and, yes, Dana, I read the blogs, too, but it's simply not true.

It's also not true that all the new writers get small to non-existent promotion. Some do, yes, no question. Others get a lot. Others get in-between. It all depends on the level of the book. We launch new writers all the time because that's where the prize-winners and best-sellers of tomorrow come from. If "everything you hear" is true, how do you account for THE HELP? HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET? BEAT THE REAPER? THE PIANO TEACHER? Among many other first novels that were very successful last year.

And, yes, Eric is right: "Good enough" to get published isn't good enough. It has to be (in our judgment, which of course is subjective and varies from house to house) a book that rises above the crowd, that has something extra on it, that makes an editor think, "I MUST publish this book." By and large, "good enough" simply means "mediocre."

Sure, plenty of mediocre books are, in fact, published. I read stuff all the time that makes me wonder what the publisher was thinking. But somewhere there was an editor who said, "I MUST publish this book." That's where the subjectivity comes in. I'm sure you love stuff I would never read. I'm sure I love stuff you would never read.

And, B.R., let me politely point out that you are incorrect: "Colluding" is exactly what it would be.

End of rant.
Comment by Dana King on February 4, 2010 at 12:08am
The Washington Post's Steven Pearlstein discusses the Amazon/Macmillan controversy in today's column. His weekly chat takes place at 11:00 this morning. (Wednesday.) Questions may be submitted in advance by using the link at the bottom of today's column. Pearlstein's chats are always educational and he's happy to address all comers.
Comment by Eric Christopherson on February 3, 2010 at 4:51pm
The odds of success in the arts are always long, B.R., often very long indeed. I remember feeling proud of myself when, years ago, I got acceptance letters from an Ivy league school and from (what is now my alma mater) Duke, but that was kid's play compared to acceptance by a major publisher, a goal I've yet to achieve though I'm at work on my fourth manuscript.

Love to hear from Neil on this, but I doubt that a thumbs up from a major imprint is ever simply a matter of whether a writer is "good enough" to be published; the saleability of the work must be key too. In fact I once heard a literary agent say that he thought about 90% of newbie authors doomed their chances of publication at the conceptual stage.
Comment by B.R.Stateham on February 3, 2010 at 3:01pm
Neil--let me politely point out the 'collusion' by legal definition, is an act between two or more parties meeting secretly to defraud or a third party. An open agreement between publishers stating the reasons why bookstore chains had to stock new writers along with best selling writers would not, in my opinion, be collusion.

Insurance companies openly set parameters mutually agreed upon. Other industries do the same.

And let me point out that last year, by your own words, your house put out six new writers. Six. Just six. For the entire year. And how many of them were fiction writers? And this year. . . only eleven. You mean to say that, out of all the writers there are out there, a mere eleven writers were good enough to crack into the market?

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