Inside ball and corporate cultures

On the Sisters in Crime discussion list, there's been some chatter about a spreadsheet that Publishers Weekly made available on its website.  This spreadsheet appears to describe details of Amazon's levels of service for publishers.  You can find this spreadsheet on the PW website using this link -- then look for "Click here to download a spreadsheet detailing's new levels of service."  What follows are slightly edited versions of two messages that I posted on this subject to the SinC list, messages that I wrote while I was on the West Coast on SinC's 2010 summit visits to Amazon, Google, Apple and Smashwords.

I started by recalling something I learned during SinC's 2009 summit: writers write, publishers publish, distributors distribute, booksellers sell -- you have to let folks do their jobs.  One writer replied:

"Ah, Jim, you make me think of an old-fashioned husband, patting little wifey's hand and say, 'Now, dear, you don't need to understand all these complicated money matters. Be a good girl and go cook dinner.' Writers want -- need -- to understand these things because we're affected by them."

In another context on the list, the same writer wrote:

"Selling screen rights to your book is like selling a car. When the new owner drives off in the car, all you can do is wave; you have no control over what happens to it after that. When you sell screen rights to your book, the movie is
out of your control. Take the check, wave, and let it go."

There are part of the business that writer must take charge of, where you need to roll up your sleeves and get involved.  There are other parts of the business that writers just don't participate in, that are a lot more like waving and letting it go.  I think it's really important to make some distinctions, and focus energies where authors can make a difference, otherwise you'll go crazy.

What we see on the Amazon spreadsheet that so many are finding so objectionable and mysterious is all about the agreements between a publisher and a retailer, agreements that cover the publisher's body of work.  Is it a surprise that some publishers are going to be treated differently from others? In broad strokes, a writer should certainly understand a few things about her or his publisher's arrangement with retailers -- esp. whether a publisher conforms generally to standard retail marketplace practices -- and know what kind of clout a publisher has with retailers.   But beyond these broad strokes, I think writers need to let publishers and retailers do their jobs.

I don't disagree that knowledge is self-defense, but it's a matter of knowing what you need to know, understanding exactly how you can be helpful to your publisher and to retailers, and knowing when to back off.  I don't need to understand the chemistry of gasoline and oxygen and combustion to drive my car, but I know that I need to maintain proper tire pressure.

Yes, there are some inner workings of the business that every writer should understand.  (Right now, belatedly, I've become more interested in the issue of copyright, and the meaning of Google's scanning project.)  But "author pages foil banner"?  As an author, I'm not worried.  I'm not even worried as a publisher.

One aside: Amazon takes money from publishers for this stuff.  Apple does not take money for this stuff.  We'll report more on this in the 2010 Summit Report.  But I will mention this now, because the era that we're living in right now is, most of all, an opportunity to think about what you'd like this business to look like.  Co-op or no co-op?  Both models have merits, but I know which I prefer.  And I'll tip my hand by saying again that Amazon is not a monopoly -- they only have power because you all are enabling them.  There are alternatives, and not just my beloved brick and mortar independent bookstores (that many seem so eager to abandon), but online alternatives too.

What we're learning out here on these summit visits is, truly, eye-opening, and will offer writers lots of actionable ideas, ways that writers at all stages of careers can get involved.  Almost all of these ideas are free, even on Amazon.  Stay tuned for our report.

On Jul 17, 2010, at 7:13 AM, wrote:

Are Amazon's practices significantly different from those of other retailers?

The short answer is no, Amazon's practices are no different than those of any other big retailer dealing with any other big publisher.  Small independent stores and small independent publishers generally work differently.  Normally, none of this stuff is made public by either side, big or small.

The summit team asked Amazon about the spreadsheet.  The folks we met with said they were not familiar with this document -- which you may or may not choose to believe.  But they did say immediately that Amazon accepts co-op, just like others do.

As I mentioned on this list a couple of days ago, we learned that Apple does not take co-op for placement in iBookstore.  And I'll repeat this point too: the era that we're living in right now is, most of all, an opportunity to think about what you'd like this business to look like.

On my way back home, I stopped on Friday in the Chicago area, where I had a meeting with a vendor who supplies technology (among other things) to the bookstore that I manage.  The guy I met with was obviously earnest, smart, committed to his work and to his customers.  He's the kind of trading partner whom I'd be inclined to trust.  The problem is that he's working for a company that was founded in 1873, and the company is acting its age.  At Google, we were told, time is measured in milliseconds.  At this company,  the problems that I was there to talk with him about have plagued this system for 10 years, and the solution is not likely to be ready until next year.

During our travels, the four of us representing SinC talked a lot among ourselves about corporate cultures, the differences among the companies we visited, and the differences between these firms and all of the New York publishing industry.  We're going to be reporting to the Sisters in Crime membership on lots of specific details, details that matter and that you as authors will be able to act on right away.

But to me the larger questions are about corporate culture, and about who's steering the word business and their methods and motivations.  New York publishers aren't so incompetent because the individuals involved are stupid -- most everyone you meet from the NY companies is smart and serious about the work.  But there's no question that they're hamstrung by legacy practices -- a point that was made to us over and over by the new economy firms we visited.

To me, the most interesting thing about Amazon is that it's a new economy firm, but it's still trying to use old economy business practices -- such as co-op.  What does that mean?  Are they right?  It's not just the 64 billion dollar question.  It's the question about the future of words themselves.

p.s.  If you're not already a member of Sisters in Crime, I hope you'll consider joining, not just so you can see our report but for all the benefits of SinC membership. Visit for details.