Amazon, BookSurge, and What Does it All Mean?

Posted: October 27, 2010 in Braak
Tags: , , ,

Good question.

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.]

So.  Hm.

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:


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.

  1. Lolly says:

    I know I keep rabbitting on about Everyman Publishing and its very, very pretty and lovely to hold books, but for a book fetishist like me there CAN be a difference between publishers. I am not a fan of paperbacks and I am obsessed with creating a library. I also love books as physical objects, not just paper-on-which-stories-are-printed. So I tend to buy hardcovers and get irrationally giddy when those hardcovers are, in some way, “special”. So, for example, being a fan of Agatha Christie (her books are like a mind spa for me) I have been slowly building a collection of her facsimile edition hardcovers, going so far as to order them from and paying more in shipping than I did for the books themselves.

    So… This does not in any way invalidate your point, actually. It’s just that I guess I really hope that when the publishers get pushed out of the book-making game, it will not spell the demise of the gorgeous editions.

  2. braak says:

    I don’t think it will. I think that “boutique” or “lux” editions are always going to be around–I just think the reason that they’re going to be around is that they don’t really comprise a substantial portion of the regular publisher’s business, so the big companies aren’t going to be able to sustain themselves on those kinds of books.

  3. Erin says:

    “I think that “boutique” or “lux” editions are always going to be around….”

    Agreed. In fact, you can take it a step further: in a decade, I think that collectors/library copies will be the ONLY things getting printed. Mass-market paperbacks are going to be replaced by e-pubs, but hardcover will endure.

  4. Lindsay says:

    It doesn’t invalidate your theory, but BookSurge IS Createspace. That article was first printed in 2008.

  5. braak says:

    Oh, yeah, I guess it is. (Stupid Nick Harkaway, retweeting it like it was fucking news.)

    Well, that actually just shows that everything I’m saying is right.

    Amazon had more leverage to throw around with publishers, who objected to the fact that they couldn’t heinously overprice their kindle books (and ARE still heinously overpricing their kindle books; apparently, though, some members of the kindle readership consider my $4.99 price too high). Createspace is gradually corroding the “book-making” part of the publishing industry.

    We’re just farther along in the process than I thought. Well, farther than I thought when I wrote this, at which point I had updated my thinking such that we were not quite as far along, so I guess now I’m back where I started.

  6. braak says:

    @Erin: I think that depends on the kind of hardcover. Right now, those thirty-dollar hardcovers of popular books are only a way to recoup overhead on the content production, and they’re rapidly getting priced out by the e-books. The publishers are trying to hold against it (that’s why we keep seeing these kindle books priced higher than the hardcover editions), but I don’t think the market is having it.

    Certain kinds of hardcover editions of certain kinds of books I think will always be around, but the current system of “sell a bunch of books in paperback, and next time your book will get issued in hardcover first” is going to go out of fashion pretty rapidly.

  7. Lolly says:

    I agree re the overpriced hardcover editions of any ole’ bestseller. I mean, I suppose I *could* one day decide to buy a, say, Mary Higgins Clark book, but I’ll be damned if I would pay $30 to have it in hardcover.

    So ok, there will be boutique editions and e-publishing for everything else. But where does that leave literary popular fiction? Because I like to get my Franzens and Amises and whatnot in hardcover because they become permanent additions to my library. Do you think those types of books would still get published in hardcover? Or will I have to stick to Dickens and Austen if I want to fill the wood-paneled library in my fantasy mansion with books I would actually read?

  8. braak says:

    I don’t know. It’s important to remember, though, that the hardcover price is NOT primarily the cost of printing the book, and with a centralized book printing system, it may be that a sort of regular-version hardcover will be cheaper in this new model, since essentially everything would be Print-On-Demand.

  9. Cat Eldridge says:

    Hardcovers are, depending on the specific title, not always intended to actually make a profit when the entire run is done. They can be done for many reasons including promotion needs, authorial requests, and even to complete out a series that was done previously in hardcover.

    Like films, it is the entire life cycle of a book as a title available from the publisher that will determine just how much money it makes for all concerned. Hardcover… Trade paper… Mass market paper… Overseas rights on the title… Digital editions… Film options… Lots of ways for a title to make money for all parties.

  10. braak says:

    Yeah, but the question is, what part of the life cycle of the book does the hardcover primarily represent?

    I mean, filling out a series that didn’t start in hardcover (like the re-issues of Jim Butcher’s book, for instance) is one thing, but if you’ve got to support your own hardcover-printing-press, how substantial a portion for the market of hardcover books does that represent?

    Createspace deals primarily with paperback books, so if publishers want to continue to produce hardcovers, they’re going to have to maintain presses on their own (this is presuming, by the way, that the general trend towards centralization of paperback book production does indeed happen–as has been pointed out to me, Amazon made this move two years ago, and publishers still basically make their own books); so, the question is, what are the viable markets for hardcover books?

  11. Cat Eldridge says:

    A hardcover edition represents a different part of the life cycle for every specific title. And there are often multiple hardcovers depending on how the book sells such as SFBC ( Science Fiction Book Club) selling omnibuses of the Harry Dresden novels or the two hundred dollar edition of Gaiman’s Neverwhere novel published last year. Or movie related editions with extra photos and such.

    No publisher I’ve ever dealt with thinks of a single edition — they’re looking at how much money it can generate across multiple editions over a number of years. Same for the agent representing the writer — he or she often determines who publishes what edition.

    The Big Five Publishing Houses make money faster than they can account for it and will do so for decades to come regardless of how well Barnes and Nobel does, or if there Ae indeed no more Twilight novels.

  12. braak says:

    All right, well. I guess we’ll see.

  13. […] I mentioned in my (hilariously misguided) Booksurge piece, there’s basically three things that publishers provide:  1) editing, 2) marketing, […]

  14. mbourgon says:

    Irony – reading a 3-year-old post because it just showed up in my feed, talking about how the original “news” wasn’t because it was a couple years old. LOL.

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