A big water cooler talking point in the publishing industry right now is the “war” between Amazon and Hachette. You can read all about the details in this excellent summation. Most publishers are against Amazon because reasons. Which is fine, but here’s the ridiculous thing: a lot of the arguments revolve around whether or not Amazon is being evil by withholding Hachette books.
Evil. Like, SPECTRE / Emperor Palpatine / Joffrey Baratheon levels of badness.
Well of course they aren’t being evil. They are doing precisely what the system intends them to do — trying to increase their longtime revenue and marketshare.
We’re in this dissonant, dysfunctional relationship with the system that powers everything we do. We love Capitalism, but we hate its effects at the same time. It’s a grandiose case of the human proclivity for having ones cake whilst eating it.
We’re all part of an economic paradigm that doesn’t just allow for inequality, it celebrates it. But for some reason we’re still baffled when we come across individuals and companies that do things we consider unethical. Why are we so surprised? Capitalism is not set up to reward people who do the right thing, it’s set up to benefit those who do the smart thing.
Not to be un-American (heh), let me clarify: I think that, so far at least, Capitalism is the best way of doing things we’ve found. There are more equitable systems, but they are always hampered by the necessary inclusion of human beings. We can be nasty, selfish, arrogant, and our chosen system harnesses those base impulses and makes them productive. It’s also usually the case that being seen to do the right thing is good business sense.
So it’s the best system, but it’s not a perfect system. We know this, right? Yet we still throw up our hands in shock every time we hear of some inequality. Of course there’s inequality — look at the system we’re working with!
Meanwhile In Publishing Land
The current dispute is a crucial one for traditional publishers. If Hachette loses, they might not go out of business, but they’ll end up having to drastically change their business practices and expectations. This will set a precedent for a lot of other similar companies. Not only are we fighting the previous battle here, we’re completely ignoring the next one. There is no future in which the big publishing houses can continue to exist as they have for the past few centuries.
The thrust is always towards cheaper, faster, more efficient. And right now these publishers are still enjoying the benefits of the friction in the market that allows them to make a relatively enormous amount of profit on the ebooks that they sell. But this is a blip — a temporary sidewater in the ineluctable flow of progress.
We should be celebrating this dispute between Amazon and Hachette, because it’s exactly the kind of thing we want to get behind us. Evolution is painful — the short-legged tree frogs die in horrendously painful ways. But it leads to overall improvement.
As always, it boils down to this question: are you more interested in what’s good for publishers, or what’s good for authors and readers? Because if it’s the latter, you don’t want Hachette to win this. Are Amazon’s tactics (delaying Hachette books, throwing their immense weight into the dispute) friendly and according to some mythical idea of sporting behavior? Perhaps not, but they’re the only ones with the power to make a change here.
It helps if you look at the likely future of the author/reader relationship, and the machinations between those two entities. The thrust towards efficiency and speed is leading us away from the traditional publishing model of distribution.
In a few decades, I expect that distributing books won’t necessarily be handled by an intermediary at all. I imagine something like a very advanced 3D printer. The author provides online a digital pattern that you can purchase, and then a machine right there in your home will print you out a physical book. Or maybe you’ll just get an ebook — but I think there’s always going to be some demand for a physical product. Some components of publishers (editing, design, even collecting and marketing quality work) will be necessary. But the great behemoth of printing and distributing will be a memory.
Place the Amazon/Hachette dispute in the context of the not-so-distant future. It’s just a part of the evolution of the medium. There is no evil at work here, we’re just in thrall to the immutable march of progress, within the rugged landscape of Capitalism. Take heart!
Published on June 5th, 2014