It’s not for the reason you think.
(I know it’s social-media boilerplate, but these REALLY are my thoughts and don’t represent my colleagues at the Met Museum or the institution itself. Or any sentient being for that matter.)
I won’t get into an entire retelling of the battle between Amazon and Hachette other than to say it boils down to ebook prices: Amazon wants ebook prices to be low, for various reasons we have to take their word on (i.e., that they’re not doing it to create more loss leaders to eliminate competition). Hachette and other major publishers want ebook prices to be high, closer to the price of the print book, for various reasons we have to take their word on (i.e., that they’re not doing it to claw back margins and profits from authors when Amazon has already eaten away at print book margins).
Got your hands ready? Good.
- On the one hand, we hear from Amazon that lower ebook prices make for more readers.
- On the other hand, we hear from the traditional publishers that higher ebook prices places a real value on books as opposed to, say, widgets. And shouldn’t producers of cheap ebooks like that some publishers are keeping their prices high?
- On the other hand, books are competing with all forms of entertainment, so ebooks need to be cheaper to win the device-screen war against Angry Birds. So lower ebook prices.
- On the other hand, cheap ebooks are often of such lousy quality that it actually degrades the entire practice of reading, and readers have taken to viewing cheap prices as a sign to stay away.
- On the other hand, many expensive ebooks (and print books) even from large publishers seem to be of lower quality as publishers have cut back on or freelanced out editing, proofreading, development, publicity and marketing. And while ebooks still reflect editorial development costs, and production isn’t free, certain costs are lower and publishers are keeping those profits, not passing them along to authors. So lower ebook prices!
On the other hand, and so on and so on, until ∞ …
The debate over lowering ebook prices has gone from an amusing tussle to something nasty, with increasingly alarming rhetoric from both sides. Readers of the New York Times are likely to have seen the pro-Hachette/anti-Amazon argument; those who’ve attended tech and content conferences like Tools of Change know that indie- and self-publishing is seen as a way to take on the so-called gatekeepers, especially because Amazon offers various routes for self-publishing without agents or New York publishers.
A few noteworthy takes on the battle have been contributed by Digital Book World’s Jeremy Greenfield, self-publishing deity Hugh Howey, mainstream publishing columnist Mike Shatzkin, and indie-pusher Barry Eisler (also here).
So why should we in the art-book realm care? After all, we were fighting these kinds of battles when giant Barnes and Noble superstores began landing on streets and in malls like alien motherships obliterating Terran cities. And we know all too well the challenge that cultural institutions, never mind their publishing arms, have in reaching increasingly-attention-starved audiences. What does the fight over the prices of digital novels have to do with us?
I think there are two issues here that go beyond price. If you view the proponents of traditional big publishing (and their right to price ebooks high) as being in the right, then you might be more likely to believe that extensive (and expensive) editorial development is important and that prices deserve to reflect that. You might be more likely to view large museums and their attendant bureaucracies as a necessary part of protecting our art and the authority of our curators and conservators from the leveling of the marketplace of ideas and attention. (Or perhaps, viewing Amazon as the big corporate kahuna here, you might feel that large museums can afford to be loss leaders on content if it gets visitors into the museum’s building or website. Quick, order more hands!)
Pro-Amazonians, on the other hand, may be more comfortable with the view that in this day and age we’re all businesspeople—any content creator has to expect to be an independent agent, ready to write, illustrate, code, market, social-media-ize, and so on, by themselves or with a small, tightly-held, often freelance team. They’re the people who see publishing on Twitter as an opportunity, not a sign of the apocalypse. The more nimble art-book publishers can thrive, if they’re not too busy worrying about starving.
Seem like a familiar debate? Seen it in your organization?
Some parties are missing from the fight. I’ve read opinions from mainstream authors who hate Amazon’s tactics, and indie authors who hate Hachette’s tactics (and those who hate Amazon for prompting said hate.). I’ve read about plenty of self-published authors who’ve gone back to traditional to get done all those pesky business things which publishers supposedly suck at (even at the potential loss of the independence to set one’s own prices, etc.). I haven’t read many satisfied mid-level traditionally published authors weigh in. Authors who’ve criticized Amazon have been tarred as counter-revolutionaries, which as we know from history is a really, really bad thing to get called by self-professed revolutionaries.
It’s the tone that has me worried. To quote Helen Mirren in The Queen, “Something’s changed.”
Any time digital and print get mixed up, there are jobs on the line. This chart-a-palooza article in the Times said it well:
Bookstores, printers and publishers of newspapers and magazines have lost a combined 400,000 jobs since the recession began. Internet publishers — including web-search firms — offset only a fraction of the losses, adding 76,000 jobs. Electronic shopping and auctions made up the fastest-growing industry, tripling in employment in 10 years.
The new economy may be democratizing culture and content but it isn’t creating new full-time jobs doing so (though there are a zillion opinions about what might happen in the future).
Of course we should be moving into digital. But we should see what the rest of the world is doing as well. As the creation of content becomes potentially decentralized in our museums, we need to pay attention to what’s going on in the mainstream content marketplace. At least we can borrow extra hands from our statues.