Saturday, July 31, 2010

the middleman

There have been some incredibly uninformed, provocative, and rude comments coming from the self-styled digital book visionaries lately.

Two pieces of Amazon news- a cheap new kindle, and agent Andrew Wylie’s announcement that he will sell some of his clients’ digital books exclusively through Amazon- were popular topics of conversation around the bookselling water-cooler this week.

Wylie describes his plan as a way to “eliminate the middleman,” meaning the booksellers and publishers who have patiently and often unprofitably nurtured audiences for his previously unknown authors for years. As if the complicated task of bringing a book to market successfully is just a matter of shuffling it along an assembly line, where greedy and unnecessary booksellers wait to grab the money as it passes by. Why don’t these authors follow their own logic and dump the agent, the ultimate middleman?

Another longtime insider big mouth remarked this week that “What publishers do is get books on the bookstore shelves,” and if bookstores cease to be the main places where texts are sold, publishers will necessarily become superfluous.

Granted, there seem to be a lot of otherwise smart people around the book industry these days who are desperate to sound like forward-thinking futurists. But the arrogant, ignorant dismissal of the value added by booksellers and publishers is insulting and wrong.

Unfortunately, we have done an awful job explaining the publishing process to the public at large. A misconception has been allowed to fester and take root- the idea that the main cost of publishing a book is the printing and delivery of it. Reputable journalists will blithely talk about how cheap e-books are to produce, ignoring two giant aspects of the investment: the editors who coax a good book into existence, sometimes over the course of decades; and the marketing specialists, who work like hell to make sure the author’s works get noticed.

And let’s not forget the role of those other pesky middlemen, the booksellers. I’m anxious to see how authors so enamored of digital books will fare without the heroic efforts of the bookstores and their events staff to promote them. My neighborhood bookstore hosts author events almost every day, and works like crazy to build audiences. I hope authors are thinking clearly about all the implications of the rush to digital. Goodbye bookstore events. Royalties may be the least of it.

The curatorial, gate-keeping function will become even more decisive in the days ahead, and smart marketing will become even more crucial. When any old file can be deemed a “book,” I will cherish my favorite stores and publishers even more for culling through the dross and offering me a discriminating inventory.

It’s easy to get a little unhinged as we transition to the new book reality, but like a lot of aspects of our lovely capitalist system, much is out of our hands. We can fret all we want, and we can and should make noise about principles that seem most worth defending (fairness, access to books for everyone). But ultimately, market, technological and cultural forces bigger than little us will be making the decisions.

Back in the 80’s, I chaired an ABA committee called the “Industry Standardization Committee.” This was a working group charged with getting publishers to do things like print ISBN’s on the backs of books, sort their invoices in some comprehensible order, and use non-lethal packing materials.

We issued manifestos, spoke at meetings, lobbied publishers and in general made a loud fuss for a couple years. But it wasn’t until a mega-chain and a mega-wholesaler decided they needed some of this consistency for their rapidly expanding systems that anything really changed. And then it changed with amazing speed. We got to enjoy the fruits, and can even claim a little credit for getting the issues on the table, but the big boys made the decisions.

In some ways it’s easier to talk about the bigger problems than the little, more immediate ones. It can be harder to figure out how to sell a particular book to a particular customer tomorrow than it is to speculate about a future where half or more of all book sales are digitized.

But I think our best strategy is to keep the focus on that small, daily battle for book sales, and let the future take care of itself.

One thing is certain: the coolest people in the book industry are all of us middlemen, and there won’t be many books worth having in any format without us.


  1. The first comment to this article,, was a patron/aspiring writer who frequented a bookstore in Raleigh/Durham, The Regulator. He damns with faint praise his experience there and goes on to say in all his time he only bought four books. Say what? I wonder if AaronW, who hopes to be published, expects The Regulator to buy his book if that miracle would ever happen. Or ANY bookstore for that matter? Hmmm . . .

  2. I can see the point of e-books. I have probably 200 books and if I frequently traveled, I would invest in a Kindle. But any book that I like I'm going to buy a hardcopy of. I can not picture a world where editors and marketers are cut out of the loop. I agree that they serve an important purpose in the book world.