Hachette Memo & Indie Publishing, Pt. 1

The Hachette memo is weak. If that was supposed to really the troops … Well, maybe not so much.

And J.A. Konrath and Barry Eisler crush Hachette’s attempt to reframe the issue as one of value and expertise.

And onto my comments.

Pull Quote #1 (Hachette)

1. Curator: We find and nurture talent

Any business that has “superstar economics” as its central operating principle doesn’t “find and nurture talent.” It’s in the lottery and cultural commodities businesses. As Yochai Benkler has noted

When the economics of industrial production require high up-front costs and low marginal costs, the producers must focus on creating a few superstars and making sure that everyone tunes in to listen or watch them. This requires that they focus on averaging out what consumers are most likely to buy. This works reasonably well as long as there is no better substitute. As long as it is expensive to produce music or the evening news, there are indeed few competitors for top billing, and the star system can function. Once every person on the planet … can easily talk to their friends and compatriots, the competition becomes tougher. It does not mean that there is no continued role for the mass-produced and mass-marketed cultural products—be they Britney Spears or the broadcast news. It does, however, mean that many more “niche markets” — if markets, rather than conversations, are what they should be called — begin to play an ever-increasing role in the total mix of our cultural production system. The economics of production in a digital environment should lead us to expect an increase in the relative salience of nonmarket production models in the overall mix of our information production system, and it is efficient for this to happen — more information will be produced, and much of it will be available for its users at its marginal cost. (Benkler, 2006: 55-56)

Said another way, if you need to push units — and Hachette is under enormous pressure to push units — you are not in the business of trying to find talent that can sell consistently. Talent that sells consistently doesn’t even cover the annual cost of photocopying. Business that need to push units need blockbusters. If they can get that from singing and selling Snooki as opposed to, say, KMD, then it sucks to be somebody like KMD if KMD wants a major publishing contract. If KMD can’t move big units, KMD is done as a major publishing prospect.

But, see, KMD had no options before. Even as an author who can’t move blockbuster units, an author like KMD has options now.

One more thing: there’s a credible argument that indicates large publishers aren’t even good at pushing units. As Konrath noted, “[W]ith so many books losing money, so many authors being dropped, so many titles going out of print, perhaps expertise isn’t quite the right word.”

Pull Quote #2 (Hachette)

We protect authors’ intellectual property through strict anti-piracy measures and territorial controls.

First thing I thought of when I saw “territorial controls” was DVD region encoding. The thought is not favorable. Separately, Eisler cogently remarked this sounds like “Your book will not be available in many markets where people would like to buy it.”

As to publishers “protect[ing] authors’ intellectual property,” standard publishing industry contracts seem less onerous than comparable contracts in the recording and movie industries. But comparing favorably to contracts offered by mainstream movie and recording companies is sort of like asking whether you prefer to be gored by a bull in Pamplona, or struck by a black mamba in Mozambique.

Further, I question whether publishers are interested in “protect[ing] authors’ intellectual property.” Instead, what publishers seek to protect is their perceived economic entitlement, which is attached to the intellectual property right. The right, nominally, belongs to an author. The perceived economic entitlement, on the other hand, belongs to the publisher. As a business proposition, a publisher cares little about the author — or even the rights — beyond its belief that the exclusive rights are the work’s earnings mechanism, and that the publisher is entitled to earn upon production of the work.

It is piracy paradigm thinking at its most basic.

Written by Dr. K Matthew Dames

12/16/2011 at 10:15

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