08 November 2019

No Time for Sargent

It's not often that one can legitimately call an "official" major corporation CEO communication "inherently deceptive and based on fantasy or science fiction only." OK, it's not routine that one can do so — not even in the entertainment industry — thanks to SEC disclosure rules. But there's a recent opportunity; and I have both personal knowledge and verifiable data to do it.

In this instance, for public consumption I'm relying upon (hack! phhhhht!) PW's account of Macmillan "CEO" John Sargent's presentation to state librarians on discriminatory e-book distribution.1 So, why do I think Sargent was being deceptive? In no particular order:

  • Anecdotally (apparently according to Sargent himself!), eight percent of science fiction and fantasy fans who couldn't get an e-book promptly from the library would instead go out and buy it. So it really is based on fantasy and science fiction! One wonders what kind of anecdotal "evidence" this is — whether it's based on a random sample of fannish statements of intent, actual general sales figures (but see below), comparative library purchase figures and circulation statistics (but see below), or as is most likely self-selected fannish responses based on a self-selected subset of fen.
  • Well, how about reproducibility?2 A nonscientific, nonreplicable sampling indicates an increase of between 12 and 15% in publicly stated "user views" of library-embargoed Tor titles over the past year at relatively safe pirate venues… and a disproportionate (compared to other similar imprints, and even generally) increase in the number of pirate handles associated with library-embargoed Tor titles over the past year. This has been a distinctly, but due to the poor quality of the dataset not statistically validatable, greater increase for library-embargoed Tor books than for other similar and dissimilar imprints. The conclusion one can draw is that an unknown but probably substantial proportion of the vaunted 8% were interested in acquiring the Tor titles, not necessarily buying them. And demonstrated with their actions (not unverifiable, anecdotal statements of intent) that that is precisely what they would do.
  • All of Sargent's bloviation assumes that experiences with Tor are relevant to other imprints. Leaving aside the self-selected hoitytoityness of FS&G, one must question the differences in "library dependence" across imprints. And not just the early-modern ideal of the American public lending library, either; consider school libraries. And consider that Holt — another major Macmillan imprint — depends much more on library sales than does Tor… and isn't even in the same industry as Tor.3 For one thing, sales at Holt (and Picador and even FS&G) are not nearly so tied to longrunning series and, well, fannishness. That's not a criticism of fannishness and fan culture — it's an acknowledgement that the sales imperatives and readership acquisition desires for book seven of a series are different from those of an otherwise-equal author within that category who is not writing in series, or even closely relatedly (think David McCullough). Neither is inherently better than the other, or more profitable than the other; one is a 7874 and the other is a B-52G, and despite both being multiengined jet aircraft manufactured by the same corporate parent there's not much in common.
  • As a follow-on to the preceding point, carefully consider the assertion (quoting the PW piece's summary of another summary) that

    [Sargent] likened the e-book marketplace to that for major motion pictures in that new releases have the greatest value in their first few weeks and their initial release should allow for the greatest return on both creative and business investment. The availability of e-books through libraries, which may be perceived as being free, is, in Macmillan’s opinion, the major driver in the consumer decline.

    which rather self-refutes the argument. Bluntly, if this were actually a valid consideration, the combination of revenues from DVD sales and post-release streaming/broadcast/etc. would not frequently exceed the initial release revenue… when one allows for the avoided costs in that back end (such as "distribution fees"). It also implicitly assumes that every Macmillan title is a superhero blockbuster. It ignores cult films. Or "indie productions" over at, say, Picador ("Fox Searchlight").

    More subtly, it ignores the more-valid comparison. Library sales — thanks to the discriminatory terms offered to libraries — are a helluva lot closer to "iMax 3D" with a $25 ticket than to no sale at all, as implied both in the PW piece's summary and the continuing rhetoric coming out of Macmillan. There is one, and only one, market segment in which "discounting" of library sales as "insignificant" has any validity at all, and it's not category trade fiction: It's textbooks (at least in the 1990s version of the market, and those who came up selling textbooks in the 1990s are now in charge of overall sales and marketing at more than one Big Five publisher).

  • Then, too, there's the implicit assumption that there is not a significant proportion of library sales made that are to the converse of the trumpeted 8%: Library or nothing. Those who are in longterm care facilities and can't store, and possibly can't even manipulate, casebound first-printing books (especially long ones). Those who don't have money for direct purchases, like early teens who don't have jobs (or late teens whose after-school jobs go to family support) or those on other fixed incomes. The irony that these people are probably more concentrated among Tor readers than for, say, Picador, has escaped Sargent's notice.
  • Last for now, but far from least, is the unquantified rejoinder to that purported "8% increase" buried in the middle of the article (whose organization, one might add, reflects PW's own biases and agendas much more than one might wish). It's very simple: "Library availability builds readership." But for library availability, I wouldn't be reading FS&G author Scott Turow's underrated alternate-history legal thrillers. More to the point, libraries made Tolkein (gee, who was the original US publisher…? Ok, there have been corporate-control shenanigans since, but still…).

    By completely failing to acknowledge even the possibility that library availability drives some unknown and unknowable nonzero proportion of sales, Sargent is engaging in a pollution-control analysis that includes only the cost to the factories of installing new sulfur-dioxide scrubbers on their stacks without even trying to consider the public-health benefits (and costs avoided, monetary and otherwise). This isn't just intellectually dishonest; it's a system-inefficient imposition of an externality on another party (ponder the second paragraph of note 1 above).

Bluntly, this is so delusional that I can't really say it's a "lie." Lying requires actual knowledge that what one is saying is untruthful and deceptive. I'm not certain that mere ignorance and/or self-deception, even when willful, qualifies, so I'm explicitly not calling Mr Sargent a liar. Fraud goes just a bit farther, in that it also requires intent that the listener reasonably rely on those statements, so I'm explicitly not calling Mr Sargent a con artist, either. I am, however, explicitly calling him out for putting forth bullshit. Admittedly, that would qualify him for high office in the current environment, but I (and at least two of my three readers) have higher aspirations than that. And he doesn't even have the excuse of making a presentation to pump up the stock price before an IPO…

  1. Ordinarily, I wouldn't do so, especially since this particular account omits a lot more than it discusses. What is says, however, is consistent with what I'm hearing in back channels on this particular subtopic.

    Speaking of deception, though, it's just a little bit deceptive to call Sargent a "CEO," since that implies that Macmillan is an independent company. Macmillan is anything but an independent company; it is a mere operating division of a multinational multimedia conglomerate based in Germany — and therefore not subject to SEC disclosure rules. And, to make it even more interesting, Holtzbrinck isn't precisely analogous to any contemporary US structure; probably the closest is Koch Industries. but even closer would have been Standard Oil in 1906. Neither of which is a vote of confidence in truthfulness, transparency, or even acknowledgement of "public interest" as a factor in "enlightened self-interest."

  2. First, a disclaimer: The following analysis in this point is based on a nonscientific, almost-certainly nonreproducible sample of relatively-safe-to-visit e-book pirate sites. This is something I do on behalf of clients: Watching for the low-hanging, actually-DMCA-noticeable poisoned apples in the e-book pirate community. This includes several Tor authors for a variety of reasons, including historical nonresponsiveness by the publisher.
  3. The profit-loss aka cost-sales documents used at title acquisition demonstrate this pretty unmistakeably.
  4. I'm carefully neglecting the 737MAX in Tor's lineup — a longrunning series that if one sawed all the spines off and laid the pages end to end would never reach a conclusion, and is even less intellectually honest than that. If one changes the slur "gooks" to "orcs" in this song it still makes sense (and maintains prosody), but explaining why requires literary theory and not marketing analysis.