I Think Publishers Have Lost The Battle & The War

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!
Weekend Abú!

Eoin

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13 comments

  1. >>>For the record, the legacy establishment is almost duty bound to protect its position and I don’t resent the position it held.

    Where do you get this bizarre idea? How many times has Apple introduced a product that would kill one of its own products? I notice the “almost” in that sentence, but still. Remember this is an industry that railed against “cheap books” in the form of MMPBs! Yet like Hollywood railing against the VCR, they made a mint from MMPBs. I have zero sympathy for any of them. And you’re exactly correct in saying that if they were to instantly cease to exist, writers would still write and books would still be published. Until they wrap their heads around their increasing insignificance, they will get nowhere and continue to be hollowed out.

    1. I mean from a company stand point, it seems like a sensible move. I’m not saying it is the choice I would make or that it is the correct choice (in fact I’m clearly saying it was wrong), but I can understand why some people see their mission as one of resisting!

  2. “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.”
    This paragraph sums it all up for me! Another great post, Eoin Thanks & have a fantabulous weekend! :)

  3. My final year project was written to the same tune as this post. However, as always, you have written it much more eloquently. I still remain intrigued as to how this will all end, expecting one company at least to surprise us – stranger things have happened.

  4. This is – and has always been – about the publishing industry peering in the rear-view mirror (insert rear-guard) and believing they see authors and readers chasing their bumper. Sure, the reality is that most authors start out as readers, and a few readers become great authors, but both entities are like siamese twins – intrinsically linked, and they have been as present as cats eyes in the road at night ahead of publishers since Gutenberg pulled the level on the first print press.

  5. It strikes me that we should note here how the publishing industry actually created the most astonishing image for themselves through the course of the 20th century. They managed to build a world wide distribution network, sell billions of books and make very substantial profits, while at the same time creating an image of themselves as precious curators and nurturers of quality writing and writers, making profits almost accidentally. That was quite an achievement.

    One thing is for sure, this whole saga over the last few years has been a complete fiasco for that long nurtured image. It is amazing what you can destroy in such a short time.

    A few things I want to pick up on in Eoin’s article:

    “For the record, the legacy establishment is almost duty bound to protect its position and I don’t resent the position it held …. but really it was about protecting company revenues and shareholders profits”

    The fundamental weakness of the Agency 6 group management and strategy has been that they have been focussed exclusively on ‘protecting their position’ for SHORT term profit, rather than aiming at success in the medium/long term and therefore greater earning for their shareholders. And so they have actually managed to betrayed those very shareholders as well as the readers. At the same time they have managed to push readers, en masse, into discovering a whole new world of indie publishers and self published authors. Quite an achievement.

    Personally I don’t place much importance on the ‘image’ thing with the public. It is the other ‘achievements’ that really matter. The vast majority of readers, imho, neither know nor care much about publishers, who or what they are. The real damage is to their market presence and solidity and strength, and to their investors confidence.

    All the while they have sat back and allowed Amazon to trundle on gaining market share.

    These publishers, some of who are multi billion dollar multinationals, have totally failed to tackle Amazon head on with any meaningful online presence. Where are the partnerships ? the joint ventures ? to enter this market and the device and app market ? Where is the actual competition ? They are no where to be seen! Another damming indictment of the management and strategy of these companies who spend so much of their time whining about Amazon’s monopoly in a market they have failed to enter.

  6. Hi Eion,

    Interesting article. What’s strange about the current set up is that publishers have lavished so much attention on retailers that they’ve slightly forgotten to keep touch with either readers or authors – the only two indispensible part of the whole chain.

    Wanting to know how authors felt about their publishers, I created a survey, aimed at pro authors, asking Do You Love Your Publisher? (You can find the more info about the survey and the link to the survey itself here: http://www.writersworkshop.co.uk/blog/do-you-love-your-publisher/ —- Please feel free to fill it in and invite other authors to do the same.)

    I’m being coy about results so far, because I don’t want to bias new respondents, but we have nigh on 200 answers so far … and, to put it kindly, there are some HUGE holes in the service authors are getting from publishers. It’s not that Amazon necessarily does well on these fronts either – but, gosh, they’re clear about what they do and don’t do. And, blimey, but it does now give authors a choice for the first time in 500 years. Hooray for that

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