29 June 2005

This Silly "Industry"

I've been a bit preoccupied for the last couple of days. Over the weekend, getting ready for Grokster; Monday, doing Grokster, for around twelve hours (until the end of the Internet radio program, which if I do say so myself turned out rather nicely and both rather more balanced and rather more provocative than virtually any other "point source" on Grokster in the past two days); yesterday, recovering from Monday, doing some real work, and taking recalcitrant kids to appointments (there's three hours out of the day right there!). Thus, little time for blawgging; and it might appear that I've been letting the publishing industry off easy.

I'll try to make up for that today.

To begin with, Michael Allen—a pleasantly curmudgeonly UK-based observer of publishing—has made a fair number of intelligent observations in the last couple of days. I have a couple of follow-up comments based on his material, though. First, his praise of Cory Doctorow's attitude toward providing "free electronic samples" (in Cory's case, the whole book) needs some caveats… but only as to mechanism. Cory, as the copyright holder, has chosen this. That makes it more than acceptable—it makes it part of his own marketing plan (a part that he cannot count upon his relatively enlightened publisher to do, precisely because he's only one cog in his publisher's machine… about which more anon). It is not for some kid to decide to do "as a favor" to the author; that's what Ellison is all about. Similarly, it is not for the publisher, or distributor, or some online book outlet, to decide to do without explicit approval from the copyright holder (either in the contract or through a later, specific agreement), and definitely not without illustrator approval if there's an illustration. Second, Allen's next few items (on the ":Old Pals' Act", on the effects of purported "economies of scale" on book pricing—and author compensation, on self-dealing for derivative rights, and on manipulating the marketing system to one's own advantage) are all merely aspects of the same problem: longterm failure to enforce antitrust laws—US, UK, and otherwise—in the publishing and entertainment "industries." One of my clients' recent experiences illustrates this all too well. The client's novel was to be auctioned off to one of four publishers that shall remain nameless. There was just one tiny little problem: Three of the four were imprints within the same corporate group, and the fourth was a corporate affiliate (you can probably narrow down the corporation to a certain family-controlled German firm; no, not that one, the other one). Does it surprise anyone that the highest bid was substantially below the agent and client's lowest expectations, given that there was no real competition?

Second, a related set of articles in various print media (fortunately, all available online) both backs up and extends the point underlying Allen's items. The Mirror notes that prepublication orders of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince are over one million copies—in the UK alone. The problem with this is that the article doesn't note whether these are bookstore order or consumer orders, nor the proportion of each… nor, in the end, the proportion that is returnable or the proportion through Tesco et al. (supermarkets, which in the UK act like Costco/Sam's Club in the US concerning book sales). On the other hand, two articles in the Guardian deplore the race toward commodification; one concerns Allen's comments on "corruption" in French literary prizes (and was linked by him)—if this is a surprise to anyone, I have a nice set of stock certificates for ownership of the Louvré's collection of old-master paintings ready to print up for your convenience; the other concerns, more ominously, the every-three-years-or-so alarum over the difficulty getting "world literature" in the UK, which parallels the problem in the US. Coming full circle to author promotion and marketing, there's an interesting personal essay in the Jerusalem Post on author book tours that only reinforces my cynicism concerning S&M dorks at publishers… and makes me wonder even more about whether that really stands for "sales and marketing."

I suppose I could close this off with a long rant about how these problems just clarify exactly why Hollywood has been having such a disappointing year; but that would take more time than I have at the moment, as the teenager gets to go see Dr. Scrivellum to have his braces adjusted in a half hour. In the meantime, a pair of quiz questions point toward my answer:

  1. Name a regularly working contemporary Hollywood scriptwriter who has won a well-recognized literary prize.
  2. Same question in 1955.