12 October 2017

Not in Defense of Buggywhips

Too many mind-altering substances of late (and no, I do not mean ink on paper, even with the biggest fight in the current administration being over whether Cheeto is a "moron" or a "fucking moron")... but that's sort of what surgery does, since the pharmaceutical industry can't be bothered to do the same kind of research into pain control without adverse side effects that it does for erectile dysfunction.

  • Oh dear, yet again the Department of Overstatement is running rampant regarding book sales… yet again involving pseudoactivism by Douglas Preston in the face of facts that don't quite match up, largely because he continues to believe that all of publishing works exactly like he thinks commercial-publisher trade fiction works. (Nope. Not even close.) In an editorial in today's NYT, he raises the tired old "deceptive discounts" argument yet again.

    Without pretending to defend the practices of "wholesale price competition and margin splitting," especially given that those really paying the price for such "competition" are the captive labor forces and those reaping the benefits are not the consumers but the investors, one must wonder what Mr Preston thinks of shopping at Nordstrom Rack, or T.J. Maxx, or any of a variety of other discounters-of-new-clothing-and-fashion-accessories vendors who take advantage of the same thing in an industry with per-item margins significantly lower than in publishing. Without the benefit of the insane "returns" system, which is what is really driving the particular characteristics of publishing.

    This is another example of an argument from assumed authority: That Mr Preston is a bestselling author (not to my taste, but whatever) gives him a platform and presumed authority to pontificate on "the way publishing works," when it at most gives him some insight into part of one of the thirteen publishing industries. Not the largest one, either. It is possible that some of these "overdiscounted new books" are returns being resold on Amazon… but that's the case at Barnes & Noble and Half-Price Books and other brick-and-mortar stores, too. Not all returns are converted to remainders, especially in the textbook-publishing industry (which, by the way, has considerably higher profits at both the store and publisher levels than trade fiction); those copies of the current edition of Tipler's freshman-calculus-physics textbook (publisher's retail price: $229.49) are on sale at the college bookstore were almost certainly not all printed for this fall. His railing against Kirtsaeng (which he never has the good grace to note is a Supreme Court opinion that specifically refutes one of his points), continuing to assert that "Publishers sell books to international wholesalers at large discounts on a non-returnable basis. By contract these books must be sold abroad…" without acknowledging that for several years these contracts — themselves an unfair trade practice — have been unenforceable is, to say the least, intellectually dishonest.

    Another problem is that everything Mr. Preston says is couched in "could" and "may," but aimed at an entire subset of commercial practices. Admittedly, part of this is publishing's own damned fault: It operates on a culture of secrecy that would shame the intelligence community in its effectiveness. For example, the intelligence community (and those around it) know quite well how much intelligence value comes from open-source analysis, and can even quantify it. In publishing, not so much… because even publishing itself doesn't know. And that's the real flaw with Mr. Preston's argument: Only one of the examples of "unfair" sources he cites is actually an unfair source, and he poisons even that by equating "has previously been in a bookstore (even still cased up in the back)" with "shopworn." Further, nobody knows just how much of the lower margins are being absorbed by investors seeking to make up in volume what they don't earn in individual-item profit… which is exactly how wholesaling is supposed to work, regardless of the products at issue. The real "could" that Mr Preston doesn't note, though, is something like "These cut-price retailers using Amazon could be taking advantage of the lower operating costs of the Amazon system and consciously choosing to lower their prices while maintaining per-item margins that are, to them, satisfactory, whether using traditional wholesale acquisition or any of a myriad of other perfectly legal variants that have arisen off the profoundly broken returns system."

    The most-grievous problem, though, is that Mr Preston is fundamentally wrong about the "unfairness" issue. He implies — but never says — that these practices are harming payments to authors. Hogwash: Once the books have been "sold" into the wholesale-and-returns system, authors are wholly compensated under the terms of their own contracts. The retail price paid by Reader D507 does not change the compensation to the author for books in the wholesale-and-returns system except if those books were originally placed there through either returns or so-called "high-discount sales" — and neither of those unfair trade practices has a damned thing to do with Amazon, or third-party sellers using Amazon as a storefront. Not a damned thing. Mr Preston's real target is, and must be, the author-publisher contract: Not just because it's the only thing he remotely has "standing" to concern himself with, but because it's the only thing that he remotely displays enough knowledge to discuss. And, as evidenced by his improper eliding of "when the author's account gets credited for wholesale transactions," not all that much of that.

    Then there's the issue that the concluding paragraph doesn't follow from the rest of it:

    Amazon does what it can to rein in bad actors but it is at the top of a slippery slope in turning over its main buy button for new books to third-party sellers. This policy is bad for books, bad for authors and bad for Amazon’s customers.

    Let's pretend that it's not too early in the bloody morning for yet another bloody slippery-slope argument put forth by someone with a hidden agenda and an investment in things not changing. It's early in the fall term, Mr Preston, but this is a D+ essay. Please improve by the end of the semester or your overall course grade — not to mention general credibility — will suffer.

  • Two interesting views on giants of midcentury British literature caught my eye. One shouldn't surprise anyone — that understanding the Eric Blair/George Orwell transition and biography sheds some light on both his writings and those around him. The other is a bit more salacious, concerning the pretensions and character flaws of John A.B. Wilson and its relationship to his writing and place in the world of British letters. That they caught my eye, though, doesn't mean I entirely agree with the articles, lo these many years after my own research…
  • Here's another misguided attempt to fix something fundamentally flawed: Preventing credit-reporting agencies from using social-security numbers. Which, of course, will have the unintended consequence that those with name or address (or perhaps other) similarities to people with bad credit "instances" (whether or not those "instances" are accurately reported) are going to have even more difficulty in correcting their credit reports. No, the problem here is that the very concepts behind the credit-reporting system are so deeply and fundamentally flawed that the system needs to be blown up and rebuilt from a zero base. But that would cost money… and require use of credit facilities by the credit-reporting agencies… which leaves aside the moral and economic depravity that's fairly uniform among the upper management and boards in the industry (which have never, for example, asked themselves how much of a "credit score" continues to bear statistically significant effects of redlining, let alone overt discrimination based not upon the individuals being reported upon but upon their parents' circumstances)…