February 5th, 2010

Not Buying It

Yesterday I was watching Wednesday's Daily Show. Atul Gawande was out pushing his latest book, _The Checklist Manifesto_. While I loved _Complications_, I was not alone in thinking that _Better_ was tragically misnamed because in so many ways it was the opposite of its title.

_Checklist_, in case you, like some reviewers on Amazon, are looking for a way to Get Organized and write better ToDo lists or whatever, is specifically about health care. In the last few years, there have been some efforts to standardize best practice, usually in the form of evidence based "packages" (or checklists) designed to reduce hospital-acquired infections and similar things. My understanding is that Gawande describes these efforts in an anecdotal way. It is very likely that I would find the book an entertaining read that wouldn't necessarily teach me a lot, but it's nice to read something relaxing that confirms one's biases and I'm as susceptible to that as many other people.

Off I went to Amazon, where I was disappointed to see it wasn't available on the kindle. I briefly contemplated ordering a copy to pass along immediately to BPL (altho that's a real risk, since it's the kind of book the librarian there might have already ordered, or someone else might have already donated), and ultimately pushed the tell-the-publisher-I-want-it-on-the-kindle button. I checked the publisher (Metropolitan) but didn't pursue it, tho the imprint sounded ever-so-slightly familiar.

I did not notice (consciously) the absence of a buy button.

Later on that day, R. told me that Macmillan's books still aren't for sale by Amazon (altho you can order them for 3rd party fulfillment). I was skeptical. Really? And off I went to check, and eventually realized that my little experience with _Checklist_ was me failing to buy a Macmillan book because it didn't have a buy button (maybe -- maybe it's because it wasn't available on the kindle). Macmillan took out a full page ad in the NYT pushing _Checklist_ and saying you can buy it anywhere except Amazon.

We know that a lot of American consumers make less-than-optimal decisions based on convenience. We eat fast food. We shop at big boxes rather than fight parking and support local independents. We generate an enormous volume of waste from single use containers for beverages and meals. And I say _we_ because I do it, too. I go through bouts of fighting it, but I had an Amy's frozen pizza for lunch, and there is a plastic package in my fridge containing seaweed salad, many cases of single-serving-milk or juice-boxes in the pantry, and on and on and on. About the only front we're winning on is avoiding bottled water, and I'm reasonably certain there's still some Pellegrino in the basement, so we aren't doing that great there, either.

If I Believe in supporting independents and doing the less-than-convenient because it's the right or optimal thing to do, and I can be deterred that readily from buying a book I will almost certainly like by an author I more or less like -- deterred long enough that by the time I _do_ buy it, it'll probably be cheaper, and that's assuming I don't check it out from the library since it might be available the next time I think of it -- I feel a little bit sorry for Macmillan, Gawande, Tor, and all the other people caught in this meat grinder of a failed negotiation.

Oh, and if you're thinking that buying it over at bn.com would be an improvement for anybody, they're charging $9.99 for the ebook, too.

Does Publisher Group Matter?

ETA: Hey, I'm an idiot! I didn't realize that Penguin was now part of Pearson. My bad! The numbers were otherwise correct, as it turns out.

It's trivially obvious that Imprint matters -- a lot of us know we pay attention to imprint, and probably more people buy by imprint than realize they are when branding people execute well. But the big 6 are trying to be a lot of things to a lot of people, and frankly, once I realized they swapped imprints around in a manner that in human relationships would be looked at askance, I quit paying attention to group. At least, that's what I _thought_ I was doing.

Who are the big 6? Simon & Schuster (owned by CBS), Hachette (owned by Hachette Livre, which is French, ETA: used to be known as Time Warner), Macmillan (owned by Holtzbrinck) , HarperCollins (owned by News Corp, yes, Teh Evil), Penguin (owned by Pearson) and Random House (owned by Bertelsmann).

My first block of analysis was the most recent 6 months worth of non-kindle books bought at Amazon: 46 titles. A lot of these were gift books. 15 of the 46 titles (or just about exactly one third) were "big 6" publishers. The rest were academic (university presses), educational (Scholastic, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), music (Hal Leonard, Alfred), nontraditional publishers (Intrepid Traveler, AMACOM, Workman), or otherwise independent presses (from large like Wiley or WW Norton to quite tiny, like Commonwealth Editions or Puma Press). All 6 of the big 6 show up in my 6 month lineup:

Random House (4)
Penguin (4, but several copies each of three titles, plus one other title)
Harper (3)
Macmillan (2)
Hachette (1)
Simon & Schuster (1, but it was a box of several children's lift the flap books)

Here's the previous 6 months non-kindle, 21 more books

Of those 21, 3 were big 6 books, all of them bought used: (2) Random House and (1) from Alpha which is now Penguin but was probably Macmillan or someone else when it was actually published.

The rest were split between indies (12) and academics (6), many of which were bought used.

I thought it would be interesting to see how the distribution shifted for kindle purchases. I expected a much smaller proportion of academic press, and for a vast chunk to shift to Harlequin (owned by Torstar, which also owns the Toronto Star) for the trashy romances in one form or another.

6 months worth of kindle books: 29 titles bought at Amazon (there was at least one off Amazon purchase at Baen Books). There's a lot more uniformity here, and, as expected, fewer academic presses (2: Oxford University and Johns Hopkins). Only two Harlequin; apparently my trashy novels are published by people like Random House through imprints like Ballantine.

The big 6 breakdown:

Random House (7)
Penguin (6)
Harper Collins (3)
Hachette (3)
Simon & Schuster (1)
Macmillan (1)

Weirdly, just about exactly two-thirds, the reverse of what happened in paper. If I do a year, I expect this to even out, because the gift phenomenon should dominate less. But I could be wrong, and the publisher doesn't give a good goddamn what I'm doing with these things -- only that I bought them.

The remaining 6 books: 2 Harlequin, 1 Ellora's Cave (an epublisher), 1 Chelsea Green, 1 Basic Books, and 1 Traveler's Tales. TT is interesting -- I've bought from them before and liked them, but never realized that O'Reilly of the tech books with the animals on the cover is the brother of the travel writer and they founded the press together. Neat story. I've bought from Chelsea Green before also, altho right at the moment I cannot remember what. Basic has been around forever and is current part of Perseus, who showed up in the paper books as well (they've reassembled a lot of what used to be PGW and/or Avalon).

Macmillan didn't make a great showing here: just 3 books out of about 75 (depending on how you count the stuff I bought several of for presents) -- but Simon & Schuster does worse. Penguin and Random House are the biggest individual components, followed by Hachette and Harper. But I buy a substantial amount of my non-fiction from smaller presses of a variety of types, and I even buy some fiction from non-big-6 publishers.

The previous 6 months of kindles: 40 or 42, depending on whether you count the Elantra bundle as a single book, or three books. Overwhelmingly big 6 at 30 titles:

(8) Penguin
(7) Simon & Schuster (catching up on the Kresley Cole Immortals After Dark series)
(6) Random House
(6) Harper
(2) Hachette
(1) Macmillan

Harlequin gets 5 or 7, depending on how one counts the Elantra bundle. 1 academic and the rest indies.

Total books bought through Amazon, physical and kindle, over a 12 month period going backwards from today: 138. Exactly half (69) of those books were published by the big 6 -- and some of those were purchased used -- some are out of print, and some are imprints that have only spent part of their lifetime as members of the big 6, and possibly when they were actually published, weren't part of the big 6. The overwhelming majority of kindle purchases (51 of 71) were big 6 offerings and with rare exceptions, I was forced to buy academic press books in paper form because they weren't available for the kindle.

The breakdown of the 69 big 6:

Random House (19)
Penguin (19)
Harper (12)
Simon & Schuster (9)
Hachette (6)
Macmillan (4)

Harlequin -- not in the big 6 -- gets either a 7 or a 9 depending on how I count the Elantra bundle.

I have to wonder: am I in any way representative? One of those Macmillan titles was way out of print and bought used. One was bought as a gift. If by some weird chance I'm representative, I know why Macmillan is the one Amazon was willing to removing the Buy Now button on. And I'm getting an inkling about why Hachette was the first to back up Macmillan. We already knew that Random House was the biggest of the big 6 -- here's one more personal anecdote explaining why they were perfectly happy _not_ cutting a deal with Apple. They know they can show up late to the party, drunk off their asses and dressed inappropriately and still get invited back.

The two six month periods were really different in terms of proportion bought as kindle vs. on paper, and looking at the titles, it's really clear why. When I'm firmly in read-trashy-novel mode, with an occasional narrative non-fiction book, I'm almost exclusively reading on the kindle. When I'm buying and trying to read books about transport policy, I'm not reading on the kindle. Books as gifts are obviously physical. Kids books are physical. Travel guidebooks tend to be physical, at least the ones I've been buying. Given how different these periods were, I'd hesitate to generalize too much; I should probably go back another year to see if the ratios stabilize, or if I really just flit from one way of reading to another, maddening the folk who would like to supply me with my fix, if only they could figure out what that was going to be tomorrow.

interesting discoveries

_Dogs and Goddesses_ at Amazon is a really interesting detail page. The kindle version is not currently available for sale, but if you already bought it before the meatgrinder started churning, this Random House group publication can be re-downloaded. You can buy this book _used_, fulfilled by Amazon and thus eligible for Prime shipping, or new, fulfilled by other people. Best of all, audible (which is owned by Amazon) still has it available for download.

Just thought it was worth noting the byzantine twists this things is displaying.

Oh, and while there is almost always a banner at the top of the detail page saying that I bought the thing that I bought (I'm reviewing the last year's orders for analysis by publishing house), for unknown reasons the banner was absent on the Chronicles of Elantra bundle.