October 30, 2012

Operation Book Deployment: The Penguin Random House Juggernaut

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 12:20 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

Tonight I’m watching Sandy stomp her way inland from the East Coast, infiltrating tunnels, flooding subways, soaking parks and attracting Anderson Cooper and his doppelgangers to the flooded streets like dogs to the cat litter box.

It’s hard not to draw the parallel to the other news taking shape relatively quietly under the noise of the election and stormageddon that Penguin and Random House, two of the biggest, most bloated publishers in the world will merge creating a publishing Superstorm of their very own.

The New York Times article about this is a must read. Especially this little gem where they report Penguin Random House will “invest in books and in new ways of deploying them.” (apparently we deploy books like unmanned drones now) “This could include digital platforms for selling books directly to consumers… as well as new digital formats.” [italics and sarcasm mine] Awesome. Now bookstores can compete against publishers AND Amazon. Is there anyone in the world who doesn’t want to destroy bookselling? Anyone?

Let’s just dial it back a tick and take a good look at what’s going on here, shall we?

The United States Department of (in)Justice looked up from their Kindles briefly to side with Amazon on the Agency Model lawsuit – a decision that was as patently ridiculous as the Seahawks/Packers Replacement Ref call – and the heads of virtually every major publisher in the world looked at each other, held up their stock trade orders high above their heads and said in unison “SELL.”

Why?  Because the Agency Model allowed the publishers and bookstores to combat the rape of the the bookselling industry by Amazon.  Now that the assault is legitimized by the government, publishing is trying to find a way to shut that whole thing down.

What do you do when your company has no control over its profit margin and is being willfully undercut by it’s main customer?  If you own an independent bookstore, you call that a normal day.  If you’re a corporate giant like Penguin, you merge with another more powerful giant so that you have bargaining power.

But what does this mean for the other 99%?  The authors, the booksellers, the readers?  It means less competition.  For everything.  And that, my friend, is bad news for everyone.

  1. If more of the big boys merge (MPS, Hachette, HarperCollins, etc.) authors will have even fewer places to shop their books, meaning they’ll get paid less.  Meaning they won’t be able to even make the modest living they do now.
  2. Which leads us to consequence number two – readers won’t enjoy as many new releases.  Not only will authors get squeezed out of the game, the types of books that get published will represent a narrower and narrower range.  If there are only 2 or 3 big publishers, who is going to take a chance on the next Kurt Vonnegut?  Who is going to stick with the next Gillian Flynn through a couple smaller releases before the big “Gone Girl” break?  More importantly, who will represent the infinitely important books to marginalized people (think Stone Butch Blues to an entire generation of working class Butch Lesbians and Gender Queer people.)
  3. How can I put this?  Bookselling isn’t generic retail, folks. It’s specific.  Sure, you can scroll through endless lists for recommendations, but you need a real, live person to tell you if those recommendations (often paid for by the publicist or publisher) are bogus or on the mark.  Really, if you love cats, poetry and humor, an algorithm might not direct you to I Could Pee On This – but I would.    And that sells books.  I mean, I know I’ve talked about a lot here, but isn’t selling books the point?  Readers don’t want to be “deployed” to.  They want to talk to someone they trust.

I haven’t even touched on the cash flow nightmare owing only a few gigantic vendors would cause for hundreds of bookstores, or the jobs that will be lost when this merger deems the additional sales reps, credit reps, editors, publicists and eventually entire imprints “redundant.”

The only (and I do mean only) tiny, infinitesimal scrap of light this trend allows through the gathering clouds is the small hope that Amazon and its unregulated Monopoly could possibly have to actually participate in the economy rather than suck it dry.

But that is a very small consolation prize.  Like getting an ice cream cone after watching your house burn down.  For the record, I’m requesting chocolate.  With sprinkles.  And a waffle cone at the very least.

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