Thursday, February 4th, 2010

Why You (Still) Can’t Get CSWS On Amazon

First thing to say is that work on these two books has been kicking my ass. I’ll admit it has been easier to tweet than blog. I’ll also want to say that it sucks that this is the topic to get me back up on the blog, since I still have some much better posts I’ve been trying to get up in a while.

But since I know many of you have been trying to get a copy of CSWS this week in paperback or for the Kindle, especially since semesters have been starting back up, I thought I should try to give a brief backgrounder on what’s going on.

In essence, the publishing industry is now publicly through what the music industry went through about a decade ago when technology began catching up with it. Distribution has changed drastically, a development accelerated by the Amazon Kindle and these past two weeks by Apple’s iPad. There’s so much more that needs to be said about this but I need to beg off for now. I think the right time will come soon.

Specifically, here’s what’s up. My publisher St. Martin’s Press is part of one of publishing’s Big Six Companies. (Yes, Chinatown scholars, the Six Companies…) It’s an imprint of Macmillan. On the other side is Amazon. What Amazon has done is to reduce the distribution chain to…pretty much Amazon. And it has begun to act as a publisher in recent months, trying to strike deals with authors directly.

Publishers have been up in arms–over a range of issues, not least of which is Amazon’s threat of poaching, but the one important frontline to this is the fight over pricing. Amazon has priced e-books at $9.99 and publishers want more. For years, publishers have received an average of $25 for hardcover titles. (Hardcovers are released at least a year or so before the titles move to paperback.)

E-books eliminate paper costs and distribution costs, so prices should be lower. (Royalties are another frontline, and an important question…for another post.) But many also believe that Amazon has been taking an L on each e-book sold in order to advance market share for the Kindle. Publishers can’t abide that for long. (Check how they reacted last year to the price wars involving Amazon, Wal-Mart and Target…)

And after the introduction of the iPad two weeks back, discussions intensified over pricing. Apple offered the Six Companies a range between $12.99 and $14.99. Macmillan went to Amazon and demanded the e-book prices be raised to the equivalent. Amazon balked.

Macmillan then told Amazon it would treat its e-books similar to the way it treats paperbacks–it would offer them at a much later date than the hardcover releases.

Amazon went nuclear. Last Friday afternoon they retaliated by pulling all of Macmillan’s titles in all editions from their website.

On Monday, Amazon announced it would capitulate to Macmillan and offer a range of prices–called “agency pricing”–on its e-books. (One historical irony in all this is that Apple and Amazon have now completely reversed the roles they played around music pricing…but again that’s another post for another day.)

At this point, many considered the issue done. But as of today, almost all of Macmillan’s catalog STILL cannot be bought directly from Amazon either in print or e-book editions. Only a few of the current best-sellers are available. In Kindle editions some are priced at more than $9.99, just as Macmillan had wanted.

Now sure, you can get my book used through a third party–but then I as an author get nothing. Now don’t get me wrong. As a broke student for many years I got by on used books and of course I still do now that I’m less broke. But what we’re talking about here is the sustainability of publishing–it does matter if distribution threatens to overwhelm production.

BTW if you want a good summary of events, follow the coverage at The Guardian, beginning here. This blog post by Charlie Stross gives a concise economic analysis of what’s going down and is also highly recommended.

Many speculate that Amazon is getting cold-feet on its agreement to agency pricing. Perhaps it realizes it must now revisit its e-book pricing with the other 5 companies. They say they “are talking”, even as authors (and our agents) flood both with phone calls. And yes, some of us are beginning to get pissed.

In any case, what this means is that if you’re looking for CSWS or some of my favorite books by some of my favorite writers–including Naomi Klein, Raquel Rivera, Raquel Cepeda, Raj Patel, M.K. Asante, Jon Savage, Mike Davis, Michael Chabon, and so many others–your best bet is actually to go with what we should have been pushing harder all along.


I’ve relinked all the CSWS links to Indiebound where you can run a map to find your closest indie bookstore. Of course, many of the biggest also do mail service, and I’d recommend these services as well.

(BTW the Total Chaos links to Amazon are still up because that book was published by Basic Civitas, but I’m reconsidering that as well…)

I’ll be back soon enough with posts on the similarities to the music industry’s battles with digital distribution a decade ago, the shifting politics of publishing, and what the emerging e-book hardware and software might mean for the future of books, writing, and authors.

In the meantime, the elephants fight. And we ants will find our own ways.

+ UPDATE (2/4)

John Sargent of Macmillan has posted a new letter to Macmillan authors and illustrators. Sargent writes, “I cannot tell you when we will resume business as usual with Amazon, and needless to say I can promise nothing on the buy buttons. You can tell by the tone of this letter though that I feel the time is getting near to hand.” He also takes on the topic of royalties. More on that in the future…

+ UPDATE (2/6) The book is now back on sale on Amazon this morning. Still no Kindle edition however.

posted by @ 11:22 am | 3 Comments

3 Responses to “Why You (Still) Can’t Get CSWS On Amazon”

  1. Dan Charnas says:

    Thanks for this, Jeff. Great site. My own thoughts turning to this stuff right abouuuuttt… now.

  2. golden child says:

    Goblins are never free, but many of these words are enlightening

  3. Max says:

    Howdy all,

    I just happen to hear the DJ D Sharp mix but can’t find anything as to where i can purchase this way too hip mix CD. Can anyone point me the right direction? Oh and of course the book is beautiful, much thanks for the education and enlightenment.

    Peace & Beats

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