The thing about the end of Agency is that it’s not over. That is to say that the rearguard action by the legacy publishing establishment isn’t finished. And make no mistake, Agency Pricing and the rules and agreements that supported it were an attempt to stop the clock and buy the established players a breather against the tide of innovation. That the establishment chose to work with one of the greatest innovators in another sphere doesn’t make the move any less defensive, Apple certainly didn’t break too much new ground in the digital book world (though the game is a long one and they may yet).
For the record, the legacy establishment is almost duty bound to protect its position and I don’t resent the position it held. In many ways I have been a beneficiary of the legacy publishing system. Legacy publishers are in the position they are in because they were successful in an age that valued their corporate skills and in which scale was important and profitable. Agency was about protecting that model, that profit. It was couched in language that suggested it was about protecting the value of writing and the incomes of authors (and to be fair, many of those offering those lines do honestly believe them), but really it was about protecting company revenues and shareholders profits. I’m fine with those goals, I’m not fine with pretending or convincing myself I’m being noble when I’m not and I’m also not fine with the reader paying the price for that protection.
Readers were by far the biggest losers in the Agency world. Thus the actions of the big six ran directly counter to their most important stakeholders. The big six hadn’t yet realised that readers had become their biggest stakeholders. They still answered to other management.
The problem is that the publishing system as it stands is being ripped to shreds by digital change. We do need a publishing industry, we don’t necessarily need THIS publishing industry, the legacy one. There is no reason why any individual publisher MUST survive or that quality publishing won’t happen if the legacy publishers do fail.
The Agency battle was and is not really one over the creation or publishing of quality works nor even one over the price we might charge for those quality works or who sets that price, it is over the allocation of profit/revenue within the system that allows for the creation and publishing of quality works.
Authors will get paid if the big six fail, books will get published if the big six fall, books will get written, published and read if everyone currently in the industry somehow stopped being in the industry tomorrow. Sometimes publishers forget that.
The shame of it all is that if the big six publishers accepted the inevitability of change and directed their efforts towards the new opportunities and the radical restructuring that’s required rather than trying to fight, what I believe is a hopeless and misplaced rearguard action, they would have achieved more AND kept the audience with them.
That’s the key, because resisting puts them on the wrong side of the fight. Resisting the shift towards digital distribution and the attendant earthquake in industry structure makes publishers the bad guys. After Agency, suddenly publishers are not the nurturers of talent but the maintainers of high prices, not the finders of new voices but the conniving capitalists, the slick backroom dealers, not the men and women who live for the written word. Their companies are known worldwide for being sued by the US Government and for alleged collusion rather than for being companies with iconic brands and valuable legacies.
There IS a danger that an non-agency world might (though I think the possibility unlikely) have resulted in an Amazon monopoly, but even if it had and even if the changes being imposed DO lead to some form of monopoly, then at least publishers would have been on the RIGHT side of that monopoly, calling for action, on the side of the readers, the writers and the general wave of opinion rather than falling, as the record labels did before them, into the arms of fear and foolish resistance to change that they cannot control.
So the legacy system made a calculation that Agency could be gotten away with, and they were wrong. It might have boosted their revenues, given them a huge sense of control and power (attractive in a publishing world that has been so buffeted by change recently) but now, as the tide of blood rushes back out of the head and calmer times (populated by longer more reflective periods of courtroom drama and negative headlines) lie ahead perhaps the big six and those who favoured Agency might reflect not on the loss of Agency and it’s ‘possible’ negative consequences for their business models but on the loss of the moral ground, the real loss of the audience’s goodwill and the battle, not to maintain not just profitability, but, more importantly, legitimacy and to rebuild their image among readers the world over.
It has been a long week!