Publisher vs. Distributer – the “Great” Book War of 2014

I don’t really have a dog, cat, raccoon, or velociraptor in this fight. But watching the hissing fits, vapors, dueling petitions, and PR battles provides ample fodder for popcorn nights and some musing about publishers and what they do. Or did.

For those not following the latest episode of “As the Pages Turn,” Amazon and Hachette Publishing Group, a branch of the French conglomerate Lagardere, are having a dispute over pricing and payments. This stems from both an expiring contract, and from the federal court decisions last year about publishers and Apple conspiring to price-fix. Anyway, there’s a PR battle being waged along with the contract renegotiation, trying to paint Amazon as an evil empire that’s hurting poor, innocent authors by denying readers the ability to pre-order books and not offering discounts, or big enough discounts, or something. There’s a great deal of slung ink and muddy waters involved, and writers pointing at everyone around them and blaming everyone short of G-d Almighty for the mess. Such as it is.

As an aside, in 2013 Simon and Schuster had a similar tiff with Barnes and Noble over special display privileges and shelf space (among other things), with B&N refusing to stock books from S&S unless people special ordered them by title. No one aside from the authors involved wailed to the heavens, and no one called B&N rude names (again, aside from S&S and the authors caught in the middle.)

One of the results of the Amazon-Hachette fight is that even more authors are looking seriously at self-publishing or small-press publishing. Control over one’s intellectual property is beginning to outweigh the conveniences offered by traditional large publishing houses, especially as more and more information about the sales of genre fiction books comes to light.

Which leads me to muse on publishers. Do you buy books based on who publishes them? I didn’t think so. Oh, there are a few presses and imprints that are known for certain niches: Baen Books developed a brand and niche that is thriving, leading the way with web-scriptions and e-arcs, and a chat network (Baen’s Bar) for fans and authors. Regnery Press publishes generally conservative titles and the Politically Incorrect Guide (PIG) series of history, religion, and economic books. D&K are photo-heavy travel and pop-culture-ish books. De Capo is military stuff. Tor is sci-fi and fantasy, and some horror. Everyone knows Harlequin, especially those who swear they don’t read them (on an e-reader, everyone is reading Tolstoy). But tell me what Borzoi specializes in. Or Little, Brown and Company? Routledge? Penguin? Mirror? Basic Books? Norton? Bueller? Bueller?

If you are in academics or policy work, you probably know a few more imprints, like university presses that focus on works in your field, or Island Press.

Otherwise, who knows what’s published by whom? The Big 5, as the conglomerates are called as a group, also called “Legacy Publishing” by some, have swallowed so many smaller presses over the years that no one knows. And most readers don’t care. That’s what the publishers have forgotten, in their attempts to continue business as it was before 2010. Readers, the people who buy books, rarely shop for books by publisher. They have authors and genres they like, and go to those shelves and names. A history book could be from Routledge or Basic Books, and the reader doesn’t particularly notice. Who’s the author and does the book look good, both to the eye and after skimming through a few pages? That’s what readers want.

That’s why self-published (aka Indie Authors) writers are doing so well. In fact, we’re starting to dominate genre book earnings. We’re also distributing our books through more and more bookstores as well as electronic outlets. We learn the necessary skills and/or hire editors, formatting specialists, cover artists, illustrators, and other specialists, and produce work that (alas for the big presses) more and more often have fewer editing problems than the Big 5 titles seem to have. We’re pushing out of the old, shelf-determined genres, crossing romance with fantasy with police procedurals, or spinning tales of time-traveling mercenary alien-hybrids who work for reptiles and fall in love with other aliens in an alternate-history version of Earth. Cozy mysteries have come back to life, and not in a zombie way, through small presses and indie-authors.

What the fuss over Amazon forgets is that Amazon is a distributor, not a publisher (with a very few, niche, exceptions). Indie authors have other, albeit smaller, ways to distribute our wares, such as D2D, Smashwords, setting ourselves up as presses and going into business that way, B&N, Kobo, Gumroad, iTunes Books, and even smaller, more regional distribution channels.

For the sake of the authors with Hachette contracts, I hope it and Amazon (and B&N) work out a contract soon. As the other contracts with the Big 5 come up, we’ll see the Sturm und Drang repeated. And I suspect more writers will go indie, and more ways to get books to readers will arise. I don’t have a dog in the fight, so I can eat my popcorn and plot my books. But the future will belong to the author and reader, that I’m willing to wager on.