What Does It Mean to Protect Authors’ Interests? [Smart Set]

Smart Set

Welcome to the weekly The Smart Set, where I share three smart pieces worth reading about the publishing and media industry. I also point to issues and questions raised, and welcome you to respond or ask your own questions in the comments.

“To seek: to embrace the questions, be wary of answers.”

—Terry Tempest Williams


More Fights About Terms by Brian O’Leary

Publishing consultant and analyst Brian O’Leary discusses the decisions that publishers, physical bookstores, and online retailers make—every single day—about acquiring, shelving, displaying, or marketing books. His post is obliquely about the Amazon-Hachette dispute that continues to rage, but he’s making a much larger point:

Parties are not required to take deals they feel are not in their best interests. Otherwise, book publishers should be explaining the titles they rejected, bricks-and-mortar stores should be talking about the books they don’t stock and Amazon should be regulated as a utility. …

While the jury is still out on whether [Amazon’s] dominance can be challenged, the verdict is in on what happens to publishers, wholesalers and retailers who argue about terms to solve a business model problem. Check out this year’s collapse of single-copy sales of magazines when Time Inc. and Source Interlink reached an impasse and Source Interlink closed up shop.

That’s the absurdity of “protecting authors interests.” We act as if reading were a preferred activity in this country. Look again. There’s an oversupply of content and a relatively small base of demand. 

Read the full post.

Thoughts & questions:

  • Envision a big-picture strategy for a smart, forward-thinking author who observes these struggles, and wants a viable writing career over the next 20 years. What does it look like? What does it consist of?
  • What exactly ARE authors’ interests? I think that’s a very difficult (impossible?) question to answer. (No two authors are alike, for starters.)

Making Sense of Amazon-Hachette by Jake Kerr

This is the most original thing I’ve read on the dispute since it started, from someone in the tech industry with an outsider perspective. (I’m finding it increasingly impossible to read anything from inside the publishing industry at this point—it’s become a huge, nonsensical echo chamber that’s highly divisive and emotional.)

I’ll make no friends here by simply saying there is no bad guy. Amazon just wants to make a bit more money while not putting their current market share at risk. Hachette is looking at an existing marketplace that is about as good as it gets for them. Expecting for them to be generous and give some of their money to Amazon is unrealistic. This is business, not a charity.

Read the insightful post.

Thoughts & questions:

  • I’m tired of discussing.

How Technology Is Changing the World by Ben Thompson

Over at the Stratechery blog—always reliable for insights into the tech, business, and media industries—Thompson comments on the significance of Procter & Gamble’s strategy of greatly paring down the number of its brands. It’s well worth reading the entire post, even if you think it doesn’t apply to your world.

Thoughts & questions:

  • This post sparked all kinds of questions for me about the significance (or lack thereof) of traditional book publisher brands (what is the value of the brand “Penguin Random House”?), and the difficulty of any publisher trying to market 200 new book titles a year, of which each could be said to constitute a mini-brand.
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Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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