Dog-Eared and Dispatched
This has been a whirlwind of a week, literary citizens. In our latest rundown of the wild world of book culture, we delve into George Packer’s 12,000-word editorial, “Cheap Words: Amazon is good for customers. But is it good for books?” Next, we give the details on Open Road’s acquisition of E-Reads, one of the United States’ digital publishing pioneers. Finally, we shift our focus to the north to check in on Canadian copyright and publishing.
In a 13-page editorial for The New Yorker, reporter George Packer tackles the ongoing debate: Is Amazon good for books? According to Amazon’s first employee, Shel Kaphan, the company’s start as an online bookstore was not predicated on a love of literature, but “totally based on the property of books as a product.” Packer elaborated on this thought by stating that books are “easy to ship and hard to break,” and that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos saw the “bookstore as a means to world domination at the beginning of the Internet age.” For those who met him before his infamy began, Bezos’ personality was apparently little obscured: immediately following his conversation with Bezos, Roger Doeren of Rainy Day Books told his business partner, “I just met the world’s biggest snake-oil salesman. It’s going to be really bad for books.” In their review of Packer’s column, Shelf Awareness explained, “Some of the Amazon story has been noted before, from such details as the company’s use of a rather ugly non-word—verbage—to refer to editorial content to the Gazelle program for going after smaller publishers ‘the way a cheetah would after sickly gazelles.’ But much [of Packer’s write-up] is new or provides greater detail, particularly in how Amazon pounds publishers for better terms so that the largest publishers now effectively give Amazon a 55% discount while smaller publishers give even more than that.” The insider information conveyed in Packer’s editorial may be a breath of fresh air for many within the book industry, particularly in light of Amazon’s notorious level of secrecy. “Perhaps a sector that monetizes information is more likely to become obsessed with protecting it than if the product were oil or cars,” Packer remarked. “But even in this atmosphere, Amazon is reflexively, absurdly secretive—only giving the absolute minimum information required by law or P.R. In response to a host of fact-checking questions, many of the company’s answers were along the lines of ‘We don’t break out that number externally,’ ‘We do not share Kindle sales figures,’ and ‘As a general practice, we don’t discuss our business practices with publishers or other suppliers’.” Packer concludes his analysis with a somewhat disconcerting line of thought: “Bezos is right: gatekeepers are inherently élitist, and some of them have been weakened, in no small part, because of their complacency and short-term thinking. But gatekeepers are also barriers against the complete commercialization of ideas, allowing new talent the time to develop and learn to tell difficult truths. When the last gatekeeper but one is gone, will Amazon care whether a book is any good?” [The New Yorker, Shelf Awareness]
E-Reads, one of the oldest digital publishers in the U.S. (founded in 1999 by Richard Curtis), has been acquired by Open Road Integrated Media, one of the fastest growing e-book publishers in the U.S. This merger will add more than 1,200 e-books to Open Road’s backlist, bringing the total number of titles available to around 4,000 e-books. Part of the impetus of this collaboration was E-Read’s desire to increase the marketing support available to its clients, which includes such authors as Dan Simmons, Harlan Ellison, Greg Bear, John Norman, Aaron Elkins, Barbara Parker, Laura Kinsale, and Ray Garton. “We grew into a powerhouse in the areas in which we operated,” Curtis told Publishers Weekly. “I realized that I was going to need more resources to add the marketing I wanted and decided that instead of looking for investors, an affiliation with Open Road was a better fit.” In their press release, Open Road’s co-founder and CEO Jane Friedman added, “E-Reads is one of the publishing industry’s pioneering companies, and it shares Open Road’s passion for the digital future. Richard Curtis has built an incredible catalog filled with beloved and bestselling authors, and we are excited to welcome them to the Open Road family.” The purchase is set for completion at the beginning of April. [Publishers Weekly, GalleyCat, Open Road, Shelf Awareness]
According to the Association of American Publishers, Canada’s intellectual property rights protection for U.S. writers and publishers isn’t up to snuff, with the Canadian government operating under an “excessively broad interpretation” of fair use laws as per the Copyright Modernization Act of 2012. Apparently, the AAP’s biggest beef with the Act centers around the leniency it gives to materials used for educational purposes, with the AAP claiming that the law lacks “specific parameters, thus conflicting with established international norms regarding exceptions.” This, the AAP goes on to state, has led to a misunderstanding about distributing these materials without permission/license to do so, as well as directly impacting the sales of educational materials in Canada. As such, the AAP is asking for Canada to be placed on the United States Trade Representative (USTR) watch list. Meanwhile, Canada’s Competition Bureau has reached an agreement with four out of five of the Big Five publishers—Hachette Book Group Canada, Simon & Schuster Canada, HarperCollins Canada and Macmillan Canada—in association with an 18-month long investigation of these publishers’ e-book pricing practices. According to the Bureau, these large publishers were all “engaged in conduct that resulted in reduced competition for e-books in Canada.” This case mirrors the DOJ’s antitrust investigation in many ways, including the terms of settlement now consented upon, with all four companies agreeing to eliminate any clauses in their contracts with e-book distributors that would “restrict, limit, or impede an e-book retailer’s ability to set, alter, or reduce the retail price of any e-book for sale to consumers in Canada.” In addition to this, these publishers have been prohibited from enacting the most-favored nation (MFN) clause for a period of four-and-a-half years. Penguin Random House Canada was excluded from these settlement terms, with this segment of the investigation ongoing. [Association of American Publishers, Government of Canada, Publishers Weekly, insidecounsel.com]