walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

A Few More Remarks About Monopsony

Recently, Nate Hoffelder over at the excellent The Digital Reader posted about a piece in Salon by Laura Miller. It's another example of a Hachette author coming out for the Hachette team, and it's on Salon, so it's click-baity and I won't link to it. But I will link to Nate's piece.


Nate's analysis is straightforward:

"Miller’s piece is not constructive; it is an example of how not to convince your subject to agree with you. ... Far from winning self-pub authors over to her side, this piece works to widen the divide between the subject of her piece and the people who agree with her."

And he's right.

Alone the way, he quotes part of Laura Miller's piece, and PG quotes the piece as well, here:


PG adds this observation, after dryly observing Miller's relationship to Hachette:

"The bigger story that PG hasn’t seen discussed anywhere is that if the Amazon negotiations result in lower net revenues on ebooks flowing to publishers, bigpub authors, who receive 25% of net on ebook sales, will receive lower royalties (and lower advances). This will inevitably accelerate the brain-drain of talented authors forsaking legacy publishing for indieworld."

So that's interesting, and may go a long way to explain why certain big name Hachette authors have conspicuously come out swinging in this dispute. It also supports Nate's suspicion that these Hachette author support pieces are in no way about changing the minds of anyone -- they are designed to keep Hachette and other TradPub authors from jumping ship. They are designed to _stop_ people from changing their mind.

While discussion has inevitably turned to the newly announced, long-awaited, and sure to annoy Amazon smartphone and its FireFly feature, I wanted to add my nickel to the discussion.

I think it is helpful to think in terms of Who Is the Buyer and Who Is the Seller, and to remember that for the most part, the reader-customer is not a participant in the transactions that matter to TradPub. Laura Miller is correct in concluding that most readers aren't going to slog through the Universal Slush Pile that is the result of digital self publishing, distributed through Amazon (and other sites). She is incorrect in concluding that very many readers need to slog through the Universal Slush Pile in order to make a difference. TradPub _had_ a (near) monopsony on authorial output: if you wanted access to US distribution, you more or less had to go through a traditional publisher and they set roughly comparable terms for purchasing your work (and authors as a class tended not to like those terms, so that right there tells you something, altho not unambiguously). We've been disintermediating them for a while, with print on demand, self pub on paper and now digital self pub. Traditional publishers are now complaining that Amazon is the Most Important Buyer of their product, putting them in the uncomfortable and often unprofitable position of selling to a powerful buyer or small group of buyers (suffering from a monopsony). Full disintermediation, as many in the self-pub camp are fond of pointing out, would involve the authors selling directly to the readers, without any of these pesky capitalists in the way (they don't use these words, typically).

Words like "monopoly" are entirely useless in this conversation, because monopolies are when there is only one place to buy something that many people want. The current debate is within a disintermediating supply chain, and the power lies with the few _buyers_. Amazon keeps pointing out (in that really annoying way that is so Uniquely Jeff) that you can buy this shit in lots of places. There is no monopoly here. There may or may not be (probably is) a monopsony, which is why commenters who say, hey, just delist your books from Amazon, are basically twisting the knife, pouring salt in the wound, kicking the publisher while down, add insult to injury metaphor here. In a monopsony situation, there isn't, really, an alternative buyer of the product you are trying to move. But here's the thing: first of all, screaming "Monopsony!" does not get people on your team, and, second of all, it's kind of not against the law. Sure, there are some edge cases, but this isn't one of them. The anti-Amazon arguments that do not amount to, hey, give me my cushy job back! all involve assuming that at some unknown future date, Amazon will behave as a monopolist to its end customers -- and get away with it. No one really believes those arguments and they are transparently self-serving ("Hey! Don't hang out with that nice person. That nice person might turn out to be abusive! Like me! You should hang out with me instead! Come back!").

If publishers had ever cared about developing their brand to the end reader vs. the bookstore/book distributor/book chain buyer, they would not be in this pickle. But they took great care _NOT_ to relate to their end reader, for fear of annoying the intermediaries who were their _actual_ buyers/customers. And then Amazon had to spoil the party by showing up and asking to move all that margin down to the end customer in the form of lower prices. Bad Amazon, disintermediating like mad, pushing down margins and ending the decades of Manhattan offices! Pouty face! I am particularly confused by commentary that suggests the Jeffism, "Your margin is my opportunity", is somehow evil.

There are no "friends" here, anywhere, as, again, many people have pointed out. There may be people you go to collect gossip from, or drink with, or meet at parties, but that is not the same as a "friend". There are buyers and sellers, and it pays to keep track of which one you are, from one transaction to the next.

I'm still waiting for antidisintermediationist to become a Term. Because there sure are a fuck ton of them in this discussion. And wouldn't _that_ be a cool thing to inflict on future school children? If you are wondering what I am talking about, I'm joking about antidisestablishmentarianism, people who wanted the CofE to remain the state church vs. disestablishmentarians. The outcome was divided (har de har har) with the CofE losing most of what it meant to be an established church (i.e. you could be nonconformist with essentially no life impact, beyond the usual and inevitable family/social disagreements) but hanging on in England, but disestablished nearly everywhere else over time. The analogy I am making implies that Amazon and its enthusiastic self-pub suppliers and some fraction of its customers are doing the publishing/retailing version of separating church and state. Obvs, in the US anyway, the book business is not "established" in the sense of state licensure/support (this isn't the case everywhere, and it'll be very interesting to see how things go in Germany and France over time). The analogy would be more along the lines of "cultural elites/general opinion" supporting traditional publishing vs. "vanity" presses (commonly and increasingly inappropriately associated with self publishing). As self publishing quits being a bunch of wackadoodles that we prevent from holding office, getting married, etc., er, having access to the book buying public as a whole ...

Look, no point in belaboring it. It's a little weak. But I still want the term antidisintermediationist out there. Because, fun!
Tags: our future economy today

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