Fights and rights—Amazon and the evolution of publishing

Virginia Woolf. Flush- A Biography. London- Hogarth Press, 1933For some years now, Amazon and major publishers have been arguing about how the book industry should work. Most recently, Amazon has been tussling with Hachette. Alistair Fairweather has a neat overview in the Mail & Guardian:

For more than six months Hachette, a large publisher, has been wrestling with Amazon – the largest online retailer of its books – over pricing. The dispute soon escalated from private negotiations to a public brawl with all the hallmarks of a schoolroom hair-pulling fight.

(Read the rest here, it’s interesting.)

Amazon is becoming a vertically integrated book company, a single house that handles everything from commissioning to sales. That’s what many publishers were a hundred years ago. Think Virginia Woolf and the Hogarth Press. (In some countries, like Egypt, they still are, as Ramy Habeeb explains in this great talk.)

Over the years, businesses that specialised in certain parts of the publishing process became independent of the rest of the publishing chain, until they formed distinct industries of their own. Specialist printers took the work of the publisher’s printing department. Specialist agents and editors took on the role of curating authors’ work. Specialist booksellers took on the work of putting books in front of consumers. The days of the vertically integrated publisher were over, at least in the developed world where books are big business.

Some companies managed to keep two publishing functions in-house: rights and branding. Rights mostly means entering into contracts, and branding means deciding which stories to tell and how to package them. Pretty much anything else could be left to the specialists. But if you kept rights and branding in-house, you could call yourself a publisher, because you got to decide where and how your books would reach people. And so, in the world of books, we use the word ‘publisher’ really to mean specialists in rights and branding.

USE, Re-use, repeat, recycle, rejoice! via the Incline Press at Chetham's LibraryIn this world, for fifty years or more, the specialists lived in relatively peaceful symbiosis. This was possible while the constraints of the book trade were constant: given available technology and good sense, you could change very little about the way books were made, moved and sold. Advances like computerized typesetting and print-on-demand shuffled things a little, but they did not fundamentally change the natural constraints of making, moving and selling books.

Most of us grew up in that world, so we think it’s normal. But it’s really just a phase in the evolution of the book business. A phase held in place by constraints on what was possible. And perhaps the biggest constraint – an effect of the physical nature of books and the way we sold them – was the book-selling specialists’ inability to sell books to exponentially more consumers.

Amazon changed that. Bezos and his team solved the constraint on sales, as Fairweather puts it, “by consistently pleasing millions of customers for nearly two decades”.

With a key constraint removed, the symbiosis was over. For a few years now, Amazon has been vertically integrating publishing under its very big roof. Today, Amazon is a publisher (rights and branding), a self-publishing service in ebooks and in print, and of course a marketing and sales powerhouse. It owns a large piece of the Internet’s infrastructure. And last year Bezos bought a major newspaper, which may help Amazon do and learn more about marketing.

Don’t think that this is normal, either. Or that Amazon will remain the only troll under the bridge. This new phase may last fifty years, as the last did. Or the rapid change that the Internet makes possible will shorten it dramatically.

In the meantime, if you’ve been working for a publisher, it may be useful to focus on this: if rights and branding are what you’re good at, get better at it. Most importantly, be creative about it. Ever since the Internet made copies almost free, the biggest barrier between you and new customers is a rights barrier. Don’t make rights your admin person’s side job. And don’t clog your rights department with lawyers: a lawyer’s job is to eliminate risk, and finding new customers always involves risk. While you may have to lose battles with Amazon, you don’t want to lose the battles over rights, such as battles over exclusivity, lowest pricing, and territory.

Of course rights are exactly where Amazon needs to win on its road to vertical integration. Amazon often asks for exclusivity in key areas (such as lowest pricing), for instance. And its direct approaches to authors are a move on original rights. Your best defense in rights discussions may be your own precedents: if you are already creatively exploiting rights you control, it’s that much harder for Amazon and others to claw them off you.

There is another reason to get creative with rights, too. In another part of this galaxy, but not so far away, open-licensing players are getting stronger every day. They are doing high-quality, game-changing work. The publishing industry’s us-vs-them attitude to open licensing (see this PDF press release and this PDF paper) is self-defeating: open licensing isn’t other than book publishing, it’s a creative tool of business.

I would love to see the publishers of today become the creative rights managers of tomorrow. Not only would it make my job at Paperight easier, but because publishing companies employ so many of my good friends and family. Ultimately, we all care most about the individual lives affected by all this fuss; the people who make the books and the people who need them. Wherever they’re coming out ahead, the book business is doing well.

3 thoughts on “Fights and rights—Amazon and the evolution of publishing

  1. This is so true. I also believe that publishing by ‘rights & branding’ companies needs to re-look at the long-tail concept of business whereby they invest in developing and curating more talent.
    The drive for quick fix, over-night success stories seems to have extinguished their desire to discover and nurture talent.
    This is great for the authors with will and means who can then self-publish and grow themselves into competitive positions, but not everyone has such skills or access. I can’t help but feel that literature is the net overall loser when the focus is primarily profit.

  2. Pingback: Running Smack Into The Garden Wall: More On That ‘Perfect eBookstore’ Project | Thought Catalog

  3. “the people who make the books” = very small group, “and the people who need them” = very large group held hostage by the first group over pricing, availability, and limited spaces in catalogs.

    Amazon has helped more people read by rewarding lower prices from authors – and cutting out the middlemen who think they have the right to get between readers and writers, and select what the former are allowed to read.

    It was almost impossible before to get a book published if it didn’t fit into some publisher’s category. Now, for us writers, there is the opportunity to publish what WE think should be published, and for the readers to select what they like.

    Don’t undo the good you are doing making books available by restricting the readers’ choices. And you will probably find indies more willing to make books available to those who need to read but can’t pay, or pay much, than the for-profit publishers.

    It’s a complicated open world – the publishing models are changing (by force – and the old publishers don’t like it) – but the model for the future is not going backward in time.

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