13 November 2014

I Wanted a Mission

Berlin. Ich bin immer noch nur Berlin.

Life has won the past week or more, between fall allergies, laryngitis, and 25th anniversaries that should be a joyous occasion but are tarnished by other things. In any event, several recent events seem to require comment. For some value of "require" that includes me inflicting my opinions on internet passersby.

The "hottest" news is that Hachette and Amazon have "settled" their "differences" on e-books pricing. Leaving aside what Judge Cote might think about this — judges don't tend to like it when litigants who are under their supervision go ahead and do almost the same damned thing anyway, alleging (with straight faces) that this time they did it legally — the key thing to note is that the utterly misnamed "agency model" appears to have won out... at least for e-books. As I've remarked before, it's not an agency model, but a consignment agreement that is slightly different from the existing consignment systems used for trade books. We'll also leave aside any comparison of Mr Pietsch's e-mail to authors and agents (which I saw in the wee dark hours this morning) to either epistomological truth or, given that obvious futility, actual compliance with legacy contracts, many or most of which make reference to and set author compensation based upon "list price." Entire phalanxes of accountants and financial consultants are being imported from H'wood (or, if paying moving expenses seems too much, from derivatives desks on Wall Street) to supervise the impending chicanery over royalty statements... the first of which won't be issued until September 2015 at earliest.

This is closely linked to the latest "greedy artist" controversy: Taylor Swift's decision to pull her music from Sp0tify. The money quote from Sp0tify's leader is this:

Our interests are totally aligned with yours. Even if you don't believe that's our goal, look at our business. Our whole business is to maximize the value of your music.

It's literally the "money quote." Mr Ek might be lying to the rest of us, and to artists in particular, by asking us to trust him that he really means the missing words at the end of the statement ("that we pay to you"). He might also be lying to every investor and shareholder of his company by blatantly refusing to conform to the shareholder-wealth-maximization norm inherent in for-profit corporate law. Or both.

Ultimately, Marx was completely misguided in his analysis of capitalism; control of the means of production is virtually meaningless, and particularly so for anything that requires significant individual skill or creativity to produce. That ranges from bespoke tailoring to complex machines like automobiles to virtually every aspect of the arts. It is actually substantially less expensive to build and staff a factory than it is to build and staff a fulfillment operation for that factory's products — or, indeed, for any factory's products; or for any kind of products of any kind at all. The potential problems are with control of the means of distribution, for the simple reason that "manufacturers" will pop up to meet product needs without much regard for the path from the manufacturer to the customer. In short, just like the last couple thousand years of military history teach, it's logistics that ultimately matters — and the more protracted a campaign, the more the logistics matter. For all of the whingeing from automobile manufacturers, the automobile dealers have been doing just fine (as an increasingly concentrated group, with disturbing structural similarity to booksellers...).