Amazon, BookSurge, and What Does it All Mean?
Here’s an article about how Amazon just bought BookSurge, an actual honest-to-god press. Now, I’ll admit that I thought that Amazon already HAD it’s own press, and that was what they were doing Createspace with, but it turns out no — they were doing all of their printing with a third party.
[EDIT: Duh, this article is a reprint from 2008. On the one hand, I am an idiot for not checking more closely; on the other hand, who fucking reprints the news? It's not exactly "new" anymore then, is it? Anyway, basically everything I say after this remains true, despite all that.]
On the one hand, vertical integration is always scary. Lateral integration — buying up all of the grocery stores in a town, for instance, or all of the movie theaters everywhere — that’s pretty obviously dangerous to a competitive market. Everyone can see that, but the dangers of vertical integration are a little more subtle.
In the short run, it’s just going to give Amazon more weight to throw around with publishers; in the long run, it’s going to saddle those publishers with a whole bunch of infrastructure (namely, the “book-making” part of their business) that they no longer need, driving many of them either out of business or into a radical restructuring drive.
Which…isn’t necessarily bad.
I know, I know; it’s easy for me to not care about the demise of the Publishing Industry As We Know It; I don’t have a book contract. The publishing industry hasn’t let me in, so obviously I have nothing to lose if it falls apart. But let me make a case here that this is actually better — or, at least, largely inconsequential — for authors in general.
A publisher does, basically, three things:
1) Find and polish new books.
2) Markets those books.
3) Makes those books.
Now, as I said before, in a world in which there is an abundance of books — in which there is literally no barrier between author and publication — finding, polishing, and marketing books actually becomes more important, as people need to figure out what the hell they want to read. It’s what led me to my “Publishers as Indie Music Labels” theory. That part of the publishing business is still going to remain vital.
But right now, publishers also have to MAKE books (or, contract with someone who makes books) and, honestly, that was always going to get streamlined out of existence. Really, how many publishers compete with each other via the quality of the books themselves? Oh, sure, there’s competition for writing and authors, there’s competition for marketable ideas. Publishers compete in terms of content and marketing (propositions (1) and (2) ), but it’s not like there’s a substantial market for the rare circumstance in which two publishers publish the same book and then the consumer has to decide which edition is of a better quality.
So, ultimately, there isn’t really any reason that all book production shouldn’t be centralized, anyway — except, obviously, for the power that it gives whoever controls the production end. It’s problematic that it’s in Amazon’s hands, but it’s honestly not as much of a problem as it would be if it were in the hands of any of the individual publishers. It’s in Amazon’s best interests to just have ALL THE BOOKS on their website, and it’s equally in their interests to ensure that the cost of actually making the book is as low as possible. This will push prices down, and that’s going to hurt the major publishers (who have a lot of infrastructure to pay for, and who want to cut costs WITHOUT dropping prices — remember when the Music Industry realized that it could sell CDs at a higher cost than cassettes, despite the fact that the former were actually cheaper to make?), but for independent publishers it’s actually going to make the whole process easier.
Of course, none of this necessarily makes “self publishing”…ugh. It doesn’t make “micro-imprints” viable, per se, but it does begin to drastically reduce the gap between what a publisher is able to do for an author, and what an author is able to do for themselves.
So, what this boils down to is this:
Dear The Publishing Industry:
YOU CANNOT STOP THE FUTURE.
It is going to happen no matter what. Your only option, if you want to survive, is to figure out where it’s going and get there first.