Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Good & Bad Possibilities of Random Penguin

If you make another Random Penguin Tumblr I will eat your cat.
Though its been coming for a few months the world now officially has a Random Penguin; a publishing company that will be responsible for about 25% of all English language books. (Here's a handy list of countries whose GDP will be smaller than Random Penguin, compiled by the juggernaut of awesome that is Melville House.) The Big Six have become the Big Five and many expect we'll end up with the Big Four soonish. It's hard to blame these companies for merging. The Department of Justice, whose case against now only Apple has slid from dubious to downright embarrassing (though, apparently not embarrassing enough to lose), essentially legislated against any kind of publisher-lead attempts to rein in Amazon's predatory pricing, dramatically limiting publishers' ability to work towards a stable and sustainable market. Ironically, one of the options still open to publishers, because I guess we misplaced those anti-trust laws that helped save the American economy a hundred years ago, is to create an entity with enough market share to be able to push back against Amazon. To put this another way, Amazon can not afford to take down the Buy Button from all of Random Penguin's books, whether or not Random Penguin kow-tows to Amazon's discounts or negotiates the next ebook contract to look like the agency model.

But a lot of questions and concerns remain about Random Penguin (I know that's not the official name, but it's cuter, and it saves me a word every time I write it, all of which I used for this disclaimer). Here's my take on the good and the bad possibilities in this merger. Let's get the happy shit out of the way first.

Says here "Monopoly" is trademarked, so you can't use it in court.

The Good
They'll say a lot about “the publishing of the future,” and other board room jargon, but this merger, first and foremost is about defending publishing from Amazon. It is a couple of private companies realizing the government would not protect them from unfair business practices defending themselves. This merger was designed to create leverage against Amazon and it will. Anything that limits Amazon's power is good for books. Even though very few, if any, other publishers will be able to negotiate terms with Amazon the way Random Penguin will, Random Penguin will open the doors to new types of contracts and new approaches to contracts for everyone. And, they'll be able to say “no.” Other publishers have successfully said “no” in the past, but 25% of English language books saying “no,” has a much different volume.

There's been a kind of awakening in publishing since the demise of Borders. Publishers have always said they value independent bookstores and those in publishing who work directly with us, like our sales reps, generally do their best to demonstrate that value. Yet, for every lofty moment of quotable praise, there was a collection call, a restriction of credit, a short discount. But that's beginning to change. As indies get better at being 21st century bookstores, as the effect of show-rooming is better understood, as we delineate and discover the paths of, um, “discovery,” it becomes clear that indie bookstores influence book sales far more than is reflected in their market share. Sure it's direct show-rooming and social media and author events and the serendipity in the shelves, but it's also relationships with readers who are influential with their friends and family, leading the buy local movement, and guiding and generating coverage of books in local media (e.g. how many more readers picked up The Ocean at the End of the Lane after seeing the little article in the Globe about the line for tickets to our reading with Neil Gaiman? Impossible to know, but whatever that number is, I bet most of those sales didn't end up with us.) In short, publishers have realized indies are a vital, though indirect, force in book sales and publishers are beginning to find ways to support us for that.

A lot of those ways are back room stuff about dating (when we pay) and discounts (how much we pay) that don't effect things customers see, but make our accountants, maybe not happy, but certainly less crabby. If Random Penguin decides to lead this effort to support indies for all those sales they create the momentum for but lose to Amazon (and they said they would), they could help revitalize indie bookselling in America. If Random Penguin is successful with whatever programs it develops, whatever large publishers remain will likely follow suit. Existing stores will expand. Fewer stores will close. More will open. More bookstores is good for publishers, everybody who works in publishing, authors, and readers. Hooray!

I only read the death parts of Death & the Penguin
The Bad
There's a reason why we have anti-trust laws, even though we don't enforce them anymore. Monopolies are bad for consumers and bad for the economy. I mean, imagine if something went really, really wrong with the parent companies, like what happened to Publishers Group West, and, regardless of the state of books, the company responsible for 25% of English language publishing declares bankruptcy. What if they just make a string of really, really bad publishing decisions and end up having to struggle to make ends meet? What if there's another recession? What if they get sued? What if they get swindled? Too much market concentration makes the industry extremely fragile and publishing just became very concentrated.

Furthermore, though we all hope publishers are different, gigantic corporations tend to be really bad at long term thinking. There is absolutely no guarantee Random Penguin will play the indie long game described above. When those quarterly profit margins start to loom, we could hear talk of “efficiency,” or “streamlining,” or “eliminating redundancy,” or maybe even “modernizing,” which will translate to folding imprints, most likely the more vibrant, more interesting, more literary, and thus, less profitable ones, laying off support staff (both of which are likely to happen at some level anyway), switching to freelance editors and squeezing authors and book stores. In short, they might act like EVERY SINGLE OTHER GIGANTIC CORPORATION IN THE WORLD, with the end result being fewer interesting authors getting published, less support for those that do, and probably zero practical financial acknowledgment of the sales efforts made by indie bookstores. We'd end up in slightly worse world with another juggernaut to worry about.

The results are probably going to be somewhere in the middle. To survive, Random Penguin will have to have some kind of conflict with Amazon, but whether that conflict improves publishing in general remains to be seen. I imagine they will make an effort to support indies and I'm also pretty sure they're going to act like a big stupid soulless corporation. But even with the best of intentions that kind of market concentration causes problems. Power, as literature and reality have been telling as long as there have been both, tends to create far more problems than it solves.

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