Sunday, January 31, 2010

Publishing and Throwing Elbows

So the weekend 'net has been alive with comments about the latest Macmillan and Amazon shenanigans. Here's the short version - Big Six publisher Macmillan (which, among other imprints, controls TOR books) and online book colossus Amazon are in a urination contest over pricing of ebooks. Once an impasse was reached, Amazon pulled all the Macmillan books off its site - not just its kindle-friendly versions, but ALL of them, save for those available by third parties.

On the subject itself, I don't have a lot to say that has not been said by author John Scalzi, author Charles Stross, and author Jay Lake. Jay Lake gets a particular mention for pointing out that Books are a product, Ebooks are a service. And yeah, when you think about it he's right.

But while I know a lot of author and publisher guys that are currently grinding their teeth while watching this whole thing play out, I'm instead marveling at the fact that this spat has gotten this public this fast (all hail the mighty Internets). Such distributor/publisher inter-murals are pretty common, and often involve the throwing of many sharp elbows.

Case in point, Random House and TSR. No complete history of TSR will ever be written until it takes into account the influence of TSR's distribution deal with RH and how it affected what was published. I was there, but up in the game design group, which meant I heard only the deepest of the rumblings from distant lightning strikes.

In short, starting during the "early middle years" of TSR, the company sold its games to the book trade through Random House. And this had a number of results in what you were buying and how you were buying it. The creation of the "gaming ghetto" in the big box and mall bookstores was a result of this team-up, as was the move away from boxes and towards book (less damage and shrinkage (boxes being opened and pilfered)). Random House had a department that was strongly motivated to expand our presence and TSR was trying to break into larger markets, so it was a very good relationship.

But the arrangement was not always polite. And when Random House wanted its feelings to be known, it had a very good tool at its disposal to may those feelings known.

TSR games and books were traditionally sold through a game sales model - they were non-returnable. In the book trade, that made them effectively "trade paperbacks", which was one of the reason TSR books always dominated such lists - they were trade paperbacks which looked like, and sold like, regular paperbacks. TSR-published books were considered "sold" when they shipped out the warehouse door (TSR books and games were briefly distributed by St. Martin's/Holtzbrinck, but are now distributed once more by Random House. I have no idea what the details of the current relationship are).

But TSR books and games sold through the Random House distribution had a slightly different deal - they could be returned by RH, in exchange for price breaks on future product. So every so often, trucks would appear at the TSR warehouse and offload TSR product, mixed up in huge shipping gaylords. Sometimes this was an end-of-the-year balance books thing, and sometimes it was a chance to get dented and dinged merchandise out of the pipeline. But sometimes it was used as a sign that RH was unhappy with TSR. If RH was unhappy, then we saw more gaylords of product come back.

Now for the design team, this was a chance to pick up a lot of stuff that we could use in our work - back issues of product, extra copies of things worked on, and piece parts that could be cannibalized for future designs (I have a full collection of multi-colored Ralph Kramden pieces from "The Honeymooners" game that I use for "Cosmic Encounters"). For the management, it was a regular pain in the lower back - Random House could (and sometimes did) make its wishes known with a sudden return of product and a demand for accompanying credit.

In short, it would put the squeeze on us, and since they were ALL of our book trade work, it was a very squeezy squeeze indeed.

As always, things change in time - the distributors embraced "Just In Time" delivery (which meant they wouldn't have to store as much stuff, and could charge the publisher if they did), and TSR went heavily into recycling and salvaging the returned material that was still in near-mint condition, which was the end of our literary dumpster diving. New ways were found to throw ones' publishing weight around, and this battlefield over e-publications is only the latest.

Such brawls between distributor and publisher are not horribly uncommon, though what is unusual is that it gets publicized outside the beltway of publishing itself. Usually by the time the writers find out about such things, the matter is either resolved or considered the "new normal". Seeing the thrown elbows showing up on half a dozen sites reflects a different response than is normal in such dealings, and reflects new players (such as the authors) showing up in the discussions.

In short, expect more elbows to be thrown in the future.

More later,

Update: And as quickly as the storm appears, it moves on. Here's the quote from Amazon I love -
We want you to know that ultimately, however, we will have to capitulate and accept Macmillan’s terms because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles, and we will want to offer them to you even at prices we believe are needlessly high for e-books.
Saying Macmillan has a monopoly over its books is like saying Toyota has a monopoly over all Prius cars. True for very specific definitions of "monopoly".

Update Update: I spoke too soon - it is now a week after the initial strike, now called #Amazonfail, and the Tor books are still not available on the Amazon site. In the meantime, Macmillan has promoting books with the tag line "Available in better bookstores, except Amazon". And the Lovely Bride has discovered that other sites, like Barnes & Noble, offer competitive pricing and lower shipping costs. Way to make people look to new sources, guys!