Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Battle for the Pile of Eyeballs

An Introduction

There has been much talk about the relative merits of self-publishing (mostly through Amazon) and major print distribution through one of the big 5.5 publishers.  Rabble-rousers like Scott Turow of the Author's Guild  (representing Establishmentarian Authors of Serious Books published by Serious Companies) and bloggers like J.A. Konrath, Barry Eisler, and David Gaughgran (representing the Nouveau-Riche Wildcat Pioneers of the New Digital Frontier) have taken to the internet to duke it out over who has the lock on the evolution of book culture in the digital age.

Rather than take up camps defending Amazon, or the Publishers, I think folks would do best if they decided to look out for themselves, and in doing so look out for society as a whole.  When Turow warned last year that forcing the publishers to abandon agency pricing "...would be tragic for all of us who value books, and the culture they support," I, for once, didn't think he was being overly dramatic.  Even Konrath can't deny that price deflation in favor of electronic sales and distribution could wreak much havoc on physical publishing in a way that could alter the way people experience book culture irreparably.  

 Some may argue (as Konrath does) that the benefits to the average consumer of the physical bookstore are minimal as compared to the vast digital marketplace, and that the demise of the physical bookstore (and the publishers who rely on these markets) is thus unavoidable.  The problem with that is, not every book buyer is a digital book buyer, and many book buyers may not want to ever become digital book buyers.  Additionally, there are  digital book buyers who would also like to buy physical books on occasion, and of those who will buy physical books there will be a subset who prefer to do so from a physical store.  

The introduction of efficient online shopping does not change the value of bookstores, both as repositories of physical product, and as centers of cultural meaning.  Each individual should have a choice about whether they want to read a book as an e-book, to buy a book from an online distributor (such as Amazon), or to walk into their local bookstore and pluck it from the shelf. Each transaction has corresponding economic and cultural value.  If you subscribe to the sort of economic Darwinism that Konrath espouses, then the only thing to do is let Amazon, being the fiercest competitor, do as it pleases, and walk away with as much of the marketplace as it can claim. Of course if you subscribe to Turow's point-of-view, Amazon is a villain whose predatory pricing structures are a threat to the act of reading itself.  I don't believe that either of these perspectives is really helpful in understanding the paradigmatic shift that's occurring, or how to readers and writers should respond to these changes.

I think its important to put this current debate into a broader societal context, and to focus on the paradigmatic shifts that are taking place not just in publishing, but in media in general.  I don't doubt the sincerity of Mr. Turow, Mr. Konrath, Mr. Eisler and Mr. Gaughgran, but I don't believe they fully grasp how the fundamental changes taking place will affect them as authors and as readers . Deciding whether you're team Amazon or team Publisher is largely irrelevant when it comes to determining the destiny of how information is going to be consumed in the future.  As a subset of all media, publishing is now subject to a multi-platform, worldwide, marketplace of attention.  The entire $25 Billion American publishing industry is just a minor actor caught up in the epic Battle for the Pile of Eyeballs.

The Pile of Eyeballs

Audience, readership, followers, friends, subscribers, players, are all interchangeable terms for consumers of media.  If you're a savvy type like myself, you participate across several platforms, devices, methods of distribution and delivery to consume several forms of media. Like me, you are a person existing in the physical world.  You have to work, you have to eat, and you have to sleep (eventually). That means there is a limit to the amount of media you can consume.  Because you are an individual there is a limit to the amount of devices you can use (and/or afford) at a time .  That means there is a premium on your attention, and where you choose to direct it.  For companies selling media, this means their utmost priority is getting your attention, and engaging it long enough for a transaction (whether it’s paying $2.99 for an e-book, or watching a 30 second advertisement).  For companies selling dedicated devices, the economics is roughly the same, the more attention you pay to the device the better it is for device sales, and offering access to media (and in some circumstances tightly controlling that access) is the main way they achieve this.  For companies that own distribution and delivery systems their goal is to keep you engaged with their system for delivery exclusively. For companies that own both device and delivery components their ultimate prize is the Pile of Eyeballs (the most simultaneous consumers devoting attention to a media product through their distribution and delivery system, and on their device) and the battlefield in this case is textual (book) media.

Doing Battle

If the Pile of Eyeballs is the prize, then who are the players?  In this instance it is not Amazon and the Publishers, but rather Apple and Amazon.  Apple started out primarily as a device manufacturer, and they developed a media delivery and distribution system (iTunes) whereas Amazon was a delivery and distribution company that developed a device (the Kindle) to better deliver their content to consumers.  Apple is by far the bigger company, in terms of raw profits, but Amazon is no punter either.  They both dwarf the entire publishing industry and the biggest of the bookstore chains in terms of money, and they are both at war with each other, primarily over devices, and secondarily over content delivery.  Their war over devices and content delivery, however, has several pitched battles, the most recent being over book territory.  The Publishers are not, in this instance, combatants in the war, but rather the unfortunate locals caught up in the colonial battle for media resources with both Apple and Amazon demanding its allegiance.  

Amazon was squeezing publishers by undercutting the sales from bookstores that the publishers relied on for a huge portion of their revenues in a bid to drive publishers further into Amazon's thrall, and to attract more eyeballs to their Kindle devices through competitive pricing.  Meanwhile, Apple seeing an opportunity to win the allegiance of the publishers offered them a deal using a strategy that proved beneficial to them in the pitched media battle over music: the agency model.  Apple hoped to horn in on Amazon's grip on book media by ending Amazon's pricing advantage, and driving traffic to their competing iPad devices.  Neither Apple nor Amazon have as their primary interest publishing, books, or book culture.

The publishers, for all their inadequacies, are at the very least exclusively interested in producing books.  Not content, mind you, but books.  I think the distinction should be clear. Content can be anything, whether it's a novel, a TV show, or a hypnotic image.  So long as it can capture the Pile of Eyeballs, it will be utilized, and maybe even promoted.  A book is not merely content, and treating it thusly, is I believe, a dangerous proposition.  Especially if it means the elimination of book publishers along with the bookstores, or the transformation of book publishers into "content providers".  It is dangerous because books are important, and I will explain why.

The Importance of The Book as Physical Object

Don't get me wrong, I love my digital devices.  I love my e-reader.  I love the freedom of having stories, novels, articles on demand at my fingertips. I believe, whole-heartedly in transformative power of digital content delivery and display systems.  I think e-readers should be mass produced, granted access to endless libraries, and air-dropped over every continent so every man, woman, and child can have access to endless information.  I do, however, still believe in the utility of the book as a physical object.

Some people like to compare the shock currently being experienced by the book publishing industry with the upset visited upon music publishing industry nearly a decade ago, and to a certain extent there are some tenuous correlations.  However, books are not like CDs.

The first distinction one should note is that the compact disk is a piece of laser inscribed plastic which rose to prominence in the 1990s, it obviated the cassette tapes which rose to prominence in the 1970s and 80s, which obviated the vinyl record which came to prominence in the 1900s, which obviated the wax cylinder of the late 1800s. In this context, it is not entirely shocking to think that the CD might be obviated by some new means of transmitting the audio content it contained. Printed books, on the other hand, have been around since about 1400 A.D., and were predicated on the not entirely dissimilar hand-written volumes dating back to the 3rd century B.C.

The utility of the book as a physical object has been relatively unchanged since it's inception millenia ago. While there have been many upheavals in the design, manufacture, and price of books, a book is still, more or less, a book, in the same way that a wheel is, still more or less, a wheel. The books of today still operate with the same efficiency as the codices of Cicero. The pages turn, and text is indelibly inscribed in lines of script designed to be read in sequence. This technology is not so advanced, but neither is the technology of the wheel.

The second distinction one should note is that the book as physical object, unlike the CD, cassette, vinyl record, wax cylinder, and the e-book,  requires no additional equipment (i.e. phonograph, stereo, e-reader) in order to access.

A book still has value in the marketplace, and the main marketplace (the bookstore) still has a value to consumers.  People who don't want, or can't afford, the technology to access e-books, but who nonetheless would like to read something may find themselves without another alternative to the digital marketplace. If that happens then something essential about the way we consume media will be altered, for some tangibly, for others imperceptibly. For even committed digital readers rely somewhat on the physical bookstore as a means (sometimes indirectly) of discovering some of their prized content.

I think everyone takes bookstores for granted.  You may never set foot in one, but I can assure a bookstore was the genesis of at least one word-of-mouth wave that eventually brought one of your favorite books to your attention.  Certainly recommendation engines online can augment the ways by which a book comes to your attention, but nothing can replace a bookstore as a repository of cultural meaning and discovery.  Amazon, Google and Apple can tell you what you might like based on what you do like, but they can't tell what you should like based on what you feel like. In short, there isn't an App for that.

The problem with digital editions of books becoming the primary or dominant edition is not that a superior product is replacing an inferior one (physical book sales make up nearly 75% of the marketplace) but that an instantaneous online marketing and distribution platform is taking just enough market share to sink the already beleaguered physical distribution boat.

Amazon, Apple and Google are fantastic at what they do, their devices border on the magical, their search and distribution systems are amazing, but for all their wonder they are not capable of replacing human interaction, or transcending the physical experience of browsing.  Additionally, say what you will about the inflated price of hardcovers, but don't forget that the cost of an ebook includes the hefty initial investment in the e-reader itself.

This is where the music industry analogy falls apart entirely.  Buying an e-book may be exactly like buying an MP3, it's true, but buying a book is not like buying a CD. A CD is of little use as an object without a corresponding player.  This is not the case for books, because there's no difference between the book and the content.  The book is the content incarnate. A book doesn't require a device to read, it is already a device for reading.

The best thing about a physical book is that it has presence, whereas an e-book is ephemeral.  A book takes up space; an e-book only takes up space on a server. The presence of a book offers possibilities for discovery and transmission that are unavailable to the e-book. You have to have intent to find an e-book, you can't just happen up on it.  You have to buy a device specifically to access it, you have to search a marketplace to find one you wish to read, or respond to an advertisement directed at you. A physical book draws attention to itself merely by existing. If you can see it, and reach, and pick it up, you can read it.

I like to think of the book as a body, and its text as its spirit.  With its body it can engage with the world, without its body it is just essence.  You can take the essence and feed it through a machine, and make it accessible to everyone simultaneously, but it is still a ghost. If it passes out of collective memory, it may as well have never existed. An unread book on your coffee table is a constant reminder of your failure to have read it, an unread e-book on a server is not just invisible, it's debatable whether it exists at all.

That's why it troubles me to think that the primary edition of a book may become the e-book, with the print book a tertiary, or sometimes non-existent, counterpart.  If you remove accidental discovery from the picture, what kind of book culture do you create?  If most content must be accessed through a device, utilizing software, delivered by a digital distribution platform, to what extent are we yielding a part of the experience of discovery to the proprietary marketing algorithms of giant conglomerates?

To what extent does publishing also become invisible?  What happens when I ride the subway, and instead of seeing riders' faces hidden behind copies of Moby Dick, or the Hunger Games, I can only seek sleek pieces of plastic with logos for Kindle, or Apple, or Google on them?  What about readers and library patrons who can't afford a digital device and are excluded from this new evolution in book culture entirely?

In short, when you relegate the physical book to the backseat, you relegate physical book readers there as well, and not all physical book readers are going to make the jump to digital reading, some of them may make the jump to no reading at all (7% of readers report having read only one book last year).

The Importance of the "Book" as Concept

Because of the intentionally skeuomorphic design of the display of most e-readers, the radical act of divorcing the text from the book is hardly given much thought. A book is a book to most consumers, whether it's a bound volume or a .AZW file. The implications of liberating the text from a book are larger than I think readers and authors realize.

Why can't a book be a million words long?  Why can't a book be two words long?  Does a book have to be read sequentially, or can the reader choose a path through hyperlinks? Can a book include videos, games, and digital applications and still be considered a book?  Can a book change or update its content on the fly?  What makes a book a book?

A book without pages is not a book. It's something else. It's textual media that is plastic, not static. Arguably, what makes a book a book are its limitations.  The book, as concept, serves a distinct (and some might say antiquarian) purpose.  It is about the devotion of attention to a single subject for a substantial amount of time.  It's about building a monument to an idea and putting it down in a bound volume that has breadth and length, and that does not change.  You can't build the same sort of monument from the shifting sands of the digital media landscape.

As a media property, the e-book is a version of a book, but it is not a book in itself. Its intentions (to be static, to be permanent) are subverted by its form (the mutable digital text). Without the physical book as referent, it's like a ringtone mimicking the rattling bells of an old rotary phone.

The relegation of physical books to the dustbin of history will only serve to cleave textual media from its predecessor form.  The physical book, sold in the context of bookstore, is sold as book among other books.  Textual media, is sold in the digital marketplace as one sort of media among many.  Changing the context, informs the process of creation.

Put succinctly, writers who write books, write books for the book market.  Writing a text for the physical book marketplace necessitates that the text fit the criteria for a book as it has been traditionally understood . Writing a book for the digital marketplace requires one to make the choice to write a “book”, and that is one choice among many.

While there is overlap in the marketplace now between physical book readers and e-book readers, consider what happens a generation or two after the collapse of publishing as we know it, and the end of brick and mortar bookstores, when physical books become mere antiques and objets d'art. What happens when there's no longer a context for books and the digital marketplace shifts away from what we might traditionally consider a book to be. 

I imagine we will lose a vital continuity, common history, and understanding, that might otherwise have been preserved. 

Which is not to say we should stop all the clocks and halt progress, but merely that we ought to hold on to some of the old ways while we simultaneously explore the new.  Some of the old ways are still useful, are still important, and can still exist in harmony with and in conversation with the new.

A failure to preserve and build upon the traditions of publishing, I fear, will result in the unmooring of textual media from print media, and grant the Battle for the Pile of Eyeballs total and insuperable influence over book culture. 

In Conclusion

There are a lot of good reasons to wish for the continued success of bookstores, publishers, and physical books.  Not the least of which is that it provides an additional revenue stream for authors.  That's not to say that we should stand in the way of progress, but we shouldn't treat the future as a zero-sum game either.  The growth of e-books doesn't have to mean the death of bookstores.  In fact, were it not for the Battle for the Pile of Eyeballs growth in e-book sales could help spur growth in print sales.  Engaging more people in the act of reading only encourages the act of reading, provided that content is widely available in as many formats as possible in as many venues as possible.  The Battle for the Pile of Eyeballs ensures that content is channeled through proprietary systems of delivery and distribution (i.e. through iTunes on the iPad exclusively, through Amazon in Kindle format only) and that’s a dangerous paradigm which grants companies whose primary interest are not books enormous influence over what is available to readers.  There ought to be room for physical books, bookstores, and even independent e-book publishers and online stores.  A lush and diverse media marketplace benefits everyone, and as consumers we ought to be aware of how we consume media, and to what extent we are feeding systems of proprietary control. Book culture should be determined by people who read books, not by device manufacturers, or online retailing conglomerates, or anyone whose primary interest is separate from the interest of readers.