20 April 2012

Aftermath – notes on the Amazon post

A few random thoughts on Amazon, London Book Fair, comics, and Tolstoy.

Judging by some of the emails and responses I get to my blog posts, I’m a pro-Apple fanatic, anti-Apple shill, pro-Amazon hack, anti-Amazon stooge, anti-publishing nitwit, and a pro-publishing establishmentarian, all at once.

I didn’t intend my today is not tomorrow post to be an anti-Amazon screed, although many seem to have read it to be one.

I’ve been a huge Amazon fan throughout the years and, to this day, am more likely to buy an ebook from them than any other.

(Mainly because the Kobo iOS client is unusable, I don’t trust Adobe’s DRM, and I find the iBookstore awkward to navigate.)

My point was this: Amazon is taking a number of risks that, even though they may pay off over the next couple of years, will prove dangerous to both the ebook publishing industry and to Amazon over the next three after that.

Amazon is facing margin pressures, not because of investment.

It’s because the price of electronics is falling while at the same time remaining expensive enough to get free shipping. (Amazon, according to their earnings reports, is an largely an electronics retailer.)

It’s because they’ve committed to giving every U.S. Prime customer free videos, thereby putting themselves on the hook to pay license fees to movie studios who, unlike publishers, have no qualms about squeezing Amazon for all they’re worth. So far, Prime membership hasn’t increased nearly enough to make those added costs worthwhile, especially since movie studios aren’t intimidated by Amazon like publishers.

It’s because AWS is, for the most part, a commodity play in the hosting business, a sector known for fungibility and low margins.

And, finally, it’s because they are committed to an ebook distribution strategy that involves selling and shipping millions of devices at cost.

These margin pressures means they haven’t gathered anything like a war chest, like they should have, during the period where agency agreements kept ebook prices artificially inflated. Almost all of the cash Amazon has on its books is other people’s money.

(They probably have a slim margin on Kindle hardware if you just consider the component costs, but if you add R&D, software development, and shipping, then that little sliver disappears.)

Low margins to build business would be a risk in and of itself and, if it were the only risk, it might be worth taking.

But Amazon is taking risks everywhere. They are treating their suppliers, publishers, badly, essentially behaving like monopolists before they have an actual monopoly. Their share price is massively overvalued by any measure. The more they rely on their private ebook format for some sort of lock-in, the more they cut themselves off a growing ecosystem of ebook production and development tools, which requires them to make their own development tools, which further drives down their margins.

Then they need to consider that the device upgrade cycle never ends (there’ll always be a next generation of hardware), most books will always be published by others, and the downward trend of electronics prices isn’t something they can stop. It’s difficult to see how Amazon could expand their margins even if they wanted.

Amazon is putting itself in a precarious position and it’s not anti-Amazon to point that out and hope they will change.


None of the places to eat at Earls Court looked appealing. The food looked awful. The crowd hummed at a volume that rivalled industrial machinery. It’s probably not that surprising, but the only place that was pleasant and quiet enough to eat was a pub, five minutes away from the London Book Fair.

I clearly wasn’t the only one who had that idea as the man on the next table reading a paperback also had a LBF badge.

At the other table were two Londoners who, when I sat down, were talking about the EU.

Their complaints were right out of the Daily Mail, filled with all of the usual shallow clichés the UK right wing press parades on the EU.

There’s a lot to criticise in the EU, of course, but the shallowness and naïvety of their opinion was a bit striking.

It wasn’t as if they particularly cared. Their points were rattled off to each other almost in the passionless monotone of a memorised catechism.

By the time I got my hamburger, they were onto a subject that they did care about: football (soccer for some of you).

This was a subject they covered in detail, with nuance, an acute awareness of plays, compromises, pros and cons of various tactics, choices, and the overall structure of the game.

The depth of knowledge possible about a game that, frankly, I don’t care for, would be surprising were it not for the fact that I’ve been subjected to it on a regular basis from my dad.

(He’s a fan of the sport.)

Those two pub-goers weren’t stupid. They clearly had enough intelligence to comprehend complex strategies and nuance.

They just cared more about one thing than another.

‘You’re dumb’ is often just short for ‘you don’t care about the same things as I do’.


Ebooks haven’t crossed the chasm yet.

The readers that have converted to ebooks are very lucrative. They are expert readers, book lovers, go through many books, buy many, and tend to have higher incomes. They are responsible for a disproportionate part of the publishing industry’s revenue.

The market so far has entirely been structured around expert readers and their needs.

But different rules apply for expert readers and casual readers, different lock-in, different UIs, different sales.

Somebody who reads three to four books a year, most of them disposable, isn’t going to care if his ebook library can’t be moved from app to app on their phone or iPad.

These are people who don’t have any particular commitment to books as a medium. If books don’t seem interesting, they’ll spend their money on a game, the movies, music, apps, or just beer.

Assuming that all of the same features and tactics that appeal to expert readers will pull in the early majority (to use Moore’s terms), or even the late majority, is risky. There’s a good chance that they might even drive them away.

A lot of what is now done in book form is likely to better served as apps or websites. If the publishing industry plays this the wrong way, ebook growth could easily stall.


Back in 1999, I produced a documentary for the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service on comics. One of the interviews I did was with Steve Leiber.

He’s a charming man who had the presence of a quiet person even though he proved talkative and eloquent enough when prompted.

One of his points was that comics were, at the time, the only medium where a single person could do everything.

Unlike books, it was easy for a self-published cartoonist to publish and distribute their work and reach an audience big enough to make the effort worthwhile.

Diamond’s monopoly meant that you only had to deal with one distributor to reach all english language comics shops worldwide.

This is before the web matured and at a time when Scott McCloud was considered a borderline crank for his focus on digital in Reinventing Comics.

Of course, today, most self-published comics are dropped by Diamond by their third issue, because they fail to reach the minimum order level. That’s if they are accepted in the first place.

To survive, some of them have switched to creating graphic novels and distribute to bookstores, which requires much more up-front investment and distribution and sales work, driving them right back into the arms of publishers.

The rest have gone to the web.


Tolstoy:

As happens with everything, the more vague and confused the concept conveyed by a word, the greater is the aplomb and assurance with which people use the word, pretending that what is understood by this word is so simple and clear that it is not even worth talking about what it actually means. (What is Art? – Leo Tolstoy)


You could argue that, beyond the occasional collector mania, the direct market lead to a golden age in english-language comics.

The combination of easy and economical distribution and a dwindling, but enthusiastic, base of expert readers resulted in an unprecedented variety of stories.

Of course, most of the titles that weren’t superheroes sold in numbers that would be embarrassing in any other medium, but the discounts and non-returnable sales meant that they remained profitable enough to survive.

Superheroes dominate because the direct market is comics for and by superhero fans. Everything else that has a readership to speak of is an exception that succeeded despite the structures of the direct market, often relying on getting most of their sales from bookstores or online.


Another one of the people I interviewed for my comics documentary was Gary Groth:

At one point the fans essentially took over the industry. The comics industry from the thirties through the sixties were essentially run by professionals and these were professional writers and artists that saw comics as a profession. They did their job. They became competent at it. And that period saw some of the most accomplished technicians that the comics industry has ever seen. You know, people like John Severin, Alex Toth, and Gil Kane and so on. Just masterful technicians.

Then at some point, and I would place this somewhere around 1970, the fans who comprised fandom started entering the field and they brought with them a genuine enthusiasm for comics, for superheroes, and for the characters they grew up reading, that the old professionals doing comics didn’t have. Gardner Fox didn’t salivate over Green Lantern or Adam Strange or whatever the hell he was writing. It was a job and he did a good, professional, workmanlike, job of it. And these fans loved these comics and treated these guys like heroes, and just wanted to duplicate what they read as kids. That really changed the whole complexion of mainstream comics.

It made comics become more insular, more inbred. They just kept recycling the same cliches that they read as a kid.

More:

The fans and professionals in mainstream comics are virtually indistinguishable. And that probably counts for their success. The professionals are writing to themselves. And mostly people they’re writing for want to be professionals. It’s like southern inbreeding. They’re so busy fucking their uncles and cousins and nephews and that’s what the comics industry has become.

Even more:

Unfortunately the comics readership has dwindled. Even mainstream comics are still essentially kind of a cultish readership and the audience for alternative comics are even more specialised.

And:

I think comics might go the way of poetry. Y’know, it’ll be a small, select, audience who loves the medium and follows it like people follow poetry.

(I’ve also uploaded the full interview with Gary Groth.)

This was back in 1999. English language comics sales, in aggregate, haven’t increased since then.


Back in the nineties, like today, Iceland only had one comics store, run by the same group of stubborn people that now run Nexus.

In 1994, Marvel bought Heroes World, a direct market distributor, and decided to self-distribute all of their titles, dropping all other distributors.

DC responded by becoming exclusive to Diamond and Iceland was suddenly left with a comics store that couldn’t sell either Marvel or DC comics because their distributor was one of the unlucky smaller ones.

Dark Horse was publishing a lot of good stuff at the time but that move almost killed off comics in Iceland.


Amazon has bought exclusive rights to the James Bond books for the next ten years.

A lot of self-publishers are signing up for exclusivity through KDP Select.

I expect that many of the big publishers would see limited exclusivity to either B&N or the iBookstore as the logical response. Perhaps giving them exclusive ebook sales rights to a series or a single title, in exchange for a bigger revenue share and better promotion.

Exclusivity doesn’t threaten the big players. Marvel and DC both survived the distributor wars. The companies that went bust were the smaller ones: stores, smaller distributors, smaller publishers.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see an ebook exclusivity war escalate, but that war wouldn’t harm Amazon. People are always going to download the Kindle app. The victims would be the ebook market’s smaller players and startups, exactly the entities that have the greatest chance to disrupt Amazon in the long run.

It’d be a good way to impoverish the industry, though.


It’s easy to see the short term advantages of a proprietary ebook format for a dominant vendor, but in the long term publishers and ebook developers need full compatibility across all vendors in the market. And epub is the only way forward for that.


I was a bit too harsh on Readium in my earlier post. If they even just come close to achieving their goals, or even just a complete reference implementation, that would be amazing enough.


I really like the IDPF fixed layout format specification. With full support of EPUB3, the FXL spec, and font obfuscation (for the typefaces, some licenses require them) I would pretty much have everything I want for ebook development and design.

The ability to mix paginated chapters with fixed layout and web-style chapters is key. I can’t express how useful that ability is.

Any reader with full support would have to give up on the pretence that ebooks have anything to do with the book as a form. Pagination, book elements and traditions, are treated as author-controlled metadata, and not assumed from the start. There as a choice to use book-like elements, to be chosen deliberately, and with a purpose.

Letting us mix and match web-style chapters (fixed layout with overflow:scroll) with paginated chapters opens ebooks up to a range of design possibilities that allow them to compete with apps and websites.


It seemed to the author that this was all very poetic. Everything would have been very well, however, if the hero had not needed to speak: but as soon as the gentleman in the hat à la Guillaume Tell started talking with the girl in the white dress, it became obvious that the author had nothing to say, that she was moved by poetic memories of earlier works and the thought that by rummaging through these memories she could produce an artistic impression. (What is Art? – Leo Tolstoy)

Fanfic has been with us for a very long time. Any piece of fiction that is driven by the memory and experience of another work, instead of the emotions experienced by the author, is fan-fiction.

The comics industry, regurgitating endless variations of superhero stories, is a fanfic industry.

When given the chance to write their hearts out, most people’s souls are so blank, lives so empty, that their fondest, most personal, expression is that of a memory of another story.


Another thing that IDPF fixed layout lets you do is to add a couple of designed sections to an otherwise paginated/reflowable ebook. A nice fixed layout title page. Maybe some of the back matter too.

This is easy to do. Designing the templates for three web pages that will be reused across a line of books won’t require investment in an expensive design tool. It’d be easy to do because fixed layout and scrolling pages behave exactly the same as normal web pages, allowing you to use any of the multitudes of web design tools that have been released.

Most of the people in the industry I met at the London Book Fair didn’t seem to get that supporting the IDPF fixed layout format would lower ebook design and development costs, not increase them.


A work based on borrowing – Goethe’s Faust, for example – may be very well executed, full of intelligence and every beauty, but it cannot produce a true artistic impression, because it lacks the chief property of a work of art – wholeness, organicness, in which form and content constitute an inseparable whole expressing the feeling experienced by the artist. In borrowing, the artist conveys only the feeling that was conveyed to him by an earlier form of art, and therefore any borrowing of entire themes or various scenes, situations, descriptions, is only a reflection of art, its simulacrum, and not art itself. (What is Art? – Leo Tolstoy)


The publishing industry’s latest ebook breakout success is the Fifty Shades Trilogy, a Twilight fanfic series that relies on roman-à-clef conventions to pull itself into the mainstream.

I have no doubt that all major publishers are hard at work looking for more fan-fiction that can converted, tweaked, and hoisted into respectability in the same way.

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