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Brittle Publishers

I spent a couple of hours yesterday catching up on posts I hadn’t seen before concerning the Amazon vs. Hachette conflict. Most of it was what I call “nyahh-nyahh” stuff, which is easy to spot and click past. My eyes rolled so hard I could see my own pineal gland. I mean, really, is a ten billion dollar corporation “the little guy”?

In truth, the conflict is and will remain a standoff, for two major reasons:

  • Amazon is doing nothing illegal. I’ve covered this in some detail before.
  • Hachette (and the rest of the Big Five) can’t get what they want (in essence, to form an ebook cartel) without running afoul (again) of US antitrust law. (See the above link.)

So there’s nothing left to do but wage a PR war. This was The Latest Thing for awhile, though I think everybody is rapidly losing interest, probably because it’s really hard to make people feel sorry for James Patterson or Steven King. Calls for compromise will fail, as long as “compromise” remains what it is in today’s political sphere:

  • Unconditional surrender of the Wholly Evil Other (WEO) to My Tribe;
  • Self-humiliation of the WEO on national media, with apologies for existing;
  • A pledge by the WEO to do everything My Tribe tells it to do while quietly dismantling itself and vanishing.

What I found fascinating about yesterday’s session is that nobody is talking about what the Big Five should be doing, which is competing with Amazon. Duuhh. In wondering why, I was reminded of a phenomenon I read about twenty or thirty years ago: brittle thinking. In a business context, brittle thinking appears when an organization has been doing things its own way for so long that it literally can’t imagine any change that wouldn’t destroy it. My theory is that brittle thinking is a consequence of narratives that we tell and repeat to ourselves until they become a sort of Holy Writ that cannot be challenged, lest the world end. The older a business is, the more vulnerable it is to brittle thinking. This may be why so many successful companies eventually fail. A narrative, like a habit, is a cable. The Big Five are all tied up in their own cables, and have become what I call brittle publishers.

The Big Five could take on Amazon. They could even win. They probably won’t, because they may be too brittle to imagine the changes that will be necessary. I’ve refined my thinking on this, and will offer a few points, aimed squarely at the foreheads of the Brittles:

  • Break the Snowflake Mindset. Publishing is just a business. It has its quirks, like any other business. There is nothing magical or inherently special about it.
  • Get out of Manhattan and San Francisco. The Brittles’ mantra that nobody outside Manhattan knows anything about publishing is hooey. I used to run Arizona’s largest book publishing company from a dodgy industrial park in North Scottsdale. My fixed costs were probably a third (or less) of what they would have been in Manhattan. My staffers, furthermore, were nothing short of brilliant. If it can be done in Scottsdale, it can be done in Omaha, Denver, Des Moines, or any other mid-sized heartland city. Hell, I bet I could do it in Cozad, Nebraska.
  • Eliminate DRM completely. Many have commented that DRM was what caused the platform lock-in that gave control of the ebook market to Amazon. Yup. And it was the publishers that demanded that DRM. The only way to reduce piracy to manageable levels is to make the product cheap, good, and easily purchased. Oh–and don’t try to claw back what the honest customers have paid for, or you’ll just be giving them a full ride to Pirate University.
  • And now, the biggie: Create an electronic retailer to rival Amazon.

Huh? What? Am I crazy?

Of course. I’m an SF writer. Tune in tomorrow, boys and girls, for our next exciting episode!


  1. TRX says:

    > And now, the biggie: Create an electronic retailer
    > to rival Amazon.

    I’ve mentioned this to some of the SFWA types. Why can’t you buy, if not a member’s current work, at least their “long tail”, through a link off the SFWA web site?

    “We’re not in the business of selling books.”

    Oh. I thought that was sort of what it was all about…

    1. Does anybody care about SFWA anymore?

      I used to belong until they started to obsess about whether I had to keep qualifying for my membership. Then I understood that it was about being a clique and not supporting SF authors. And this recent tempest…don’t get me started.

  2. Bruce C. Baker says:

    No doubt I’m missing some obvious pop culture reference, but I’ll run the risk of totally embarrassing myself anyway by asking: Cozad, Nebraska?

    1. No pop culture reference. I just like Nebraska, and Cozad is famous for being on the 100th meridian. It’s the quintessential small town in a state where there’s an entire county with a population of 400 or so. Carol and I stop there sometimes for a burger while we’re driving between Colorado Springs and Chicago.

  3. Bruce C. Baker says:

    Then you would likely enjoy James Likeks’ regular Thursday “Main Street/What’s left ~ What’s Lost” Bleats. The most recent one on Waukon, Iowa:

  4. TRX says:

    The only people who care about the SFWA are its members. For the rest of us, it’s reality-TV-grade entertainment.

    Most of those involved would be better served by devoting all those extra keystrokes to writing something that made them some money, instead of proselytizing about whichever One True Way and backbiting each other.

    From comments I’ve seen here and there, it seems like it has always been that way. Looks like a good example of an organization that has outlived its reason for being.

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