Sunday, June 01, 2014

The Kris Kringle Formula

One of my favorite holiday movies is Miracle on 34th Street and one of my favorite scenes is where Kris Kringle in his lovely Santa Claus suit tells a mother that she can buy what her son wants to find under the tree Christmas morning by going to another store. The mother, played by Thelma Ritter (one of my favorite character actresses), is dumbfounded and says that from now on Macy's will get her business though she has avoided them in the past. Kris's actions are in the true spirit of Christmas and if Macy's will send people to other stores, like Gimbels, then Macy's just won a new customer.

That is a long way of getting into the point of this post, which is about Amazon. Amazon has built their business on giving customers what they want, even when it means offering third party sellers and telling them to go to Barnes & Noble or wherever customers can find what they want and need. The Big-5 publishers don't have the smarts of the Macy's owner who adopts Kris's policy and puts out a big book to show where products Macy's doesn't carry can be found elsewhere. The Big-5 publishers want to keep the lock on sales and distribution and pricing and keep authors from breaking out and going it on their own.

With the rise of boutique and small publishers, the Big-5 publishers began to lose their grip, but when Amazon came out with the Kindle and sales of eBooks went through the roof, the Big-5 claimed that would be the end of paper book sales in hardback and paperback. Except none of that happened. Yes, sales are down from previous years when all the books available were in paper form, but books are still getting out and books are still being read. Business has never been better for small publishers and readers alike. What's not to like about people buying and reading more books even if it is in digital form?

What's not to like is that paper and ink and paperback books with about a 5-year shelf life is not to like when Big-5 publishers have had the monopoly for so many decades -- and centuries. Authors going independent is nothing new nor are vanity publishers, but the likelihood of such authors getting any real fame and fortune out of the process, outside of Mark Twain or Jane Austen and the like, is like playing Roulette. The house always wins, and the Big-5 in their various earlier guises as smaller publishers before being gobbled up by conglomerates and media factories, held house odds. They were the House.

David Gaughran of Let's Get Visible had a lot to say about the Big-5 publishers' PR machine and what isn't being told by the media (owned by Big-5 publishing media services) about Amazon. Hatchette certainly is not going to pat Amazon on the back, offer a cigar to Jeff Bezos, and sign the current contract on the table. That would be their death knell. People would be able to buy Hatchette's books from Amazon at discounts that would cut into unlimited expense accounts and 3-martini lunches. You would think that the point is to get people buying books and reading more, which is what is happening, and not about the profitability of a $10 billion media conglomerate like Hatchette sending out PR bulletins that demonize Amazon.

David Gaughran writes, "The funny thing is readers don’t seem to have any problem finding books they love. Any readers I talk to have a time problem – reading lists a mile long and never enough hours in the day to read all the great books they are discovering.

The real discoverability problem in publishing is that readers are discovering (and enjoying) books that don’t come from the large publishers. What these publishers have is a competition problem not a discoverability problem." (The bolding is mine.) 

More writers are making the leap into self-publishing, but not at the diamond-studded rates of vanity publishers. Like the song says, "Sisters [and writers] are doing it for themselves," and they are doing it in increasing numbers.

Yes, there are some bad independently published books, but there are also some real dogs put out by the Big-5 too. I thought Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror was just such a bomb -- and so did the critics in spite of a media blitz worthy of Stephen King or David Baldacci and a PR budget that beggars the imagination of even the most well-heeled independent author. The Big-5 can afford it; they've been living off the backs of their solid and hard-working midlist writers for decades and exploiting those same authors' back-list shamelessly while giving very little to the authors, pleading poverty and low numbers. Well, if the Big-5 would put as much effort in midlist writers with a wide fan base even on the lukewarm advertising and promotion offered, they would make even more money, but those CEOs and fat cat Big-5 publishers with their golden parachutes and 7-figure incomes with bottomless expense accounts don't have the sense of R. H. Macy faced with Kris Kringle's manner of doing business so that kids get what they want under the tree Christmas morning. Those CEOs and fat cats are all about the bottom line and the black ink on their side of the balance sheet and to hell with authors, without whom they would cease to exist.

The thing is that the big publishers have sold the idea that it is their know-how, lakes of ink, forests of pulp paper, distribution, and marketing know-how that sells books and authors would be lost without them -- except authors are proving they don't need the Big-5 to make it big in publishing. Not everyone makes the kinds of money that J. A. Konrath or Amanda Hocking have made, but the field is opening up more and more as Amazon helps 99-cent book authors to rise above the pack and make their books worth reading and buying. It's the same idea that has always been true, it is more profitable to sell your product to 1000 buyers at $1 a pop than to sell 1 product for $1000 a pop, especially in this economy as we stand on the brink of a worldwide economic reset where countries are going bankrupt.

There are still reporters like Jeremy Greenfield who buy into the demonization of Amazon and dire predictions for the future of books, but the truth will out. The proof, as my Gram used to say, is in the pudding. And I know she wasn't the first or the last to repeat that phrase. Jeff Bezos and Amazon continue to prove that if you give the customers what they want, they will buy, and they will come back to buy more. Amazon offers everything under the sun from their own warehouses and from third party sellers right on their website and they don't play favorites with marketing algorithms so that their products get a bigger share of the space, no matter what you've been told or what the PR machine of Hatchette and the other Big-5 publishers and their media conglomerate owners pays millions to say. Judge for yourself and buy where you will. Amazon isn't the only game in town, but at least they play fairly with their customers. They also do not hold authors hostage. Can you say that of Hatchette or the other members of the Big-5?

Maybe it's time to follow Kris Kringle's formula and make sure the customers (the readers)-- and the authors -- get a fair shake.

No comments: