Amazon and the Price Fixing Wars

Last week, the Department of Justice brought a civil suit against Apple and the Big Six publishing houses,[1] charging them with price fixing. This has a lot of people in the publishing industry intrigued, to say the least, and even those not in the publishing industry are keeping an eye on the story. The complexities of the matter are pretty, well complex, but Charlie Stross does his usual bang up job of explaining it, and I highly recommend you read his analysis and the ensuing discussion.

(A few hours later…)

Alright, now that you’ve read all that, we can discuss the unremarked upon gorilla in the room, which is: why is everyone blaming Amazon for this?

After all, the DoJ is suing Apple and the Big Six publishing houses. Amazon isn’t even mentioned.

Amazon is regarded in this case as the proverbial slut with the short skirt who was asking for It. It being the collusion to fix prices on eBooks. So the analogy isn’t great. But everyone agrees, it is Amazon’s eBook pricing model and Kindle distribution platform that made them do It. Which is BS.

Amazon may have some shoddy business practices (they are a corporation after all) but their Kindle/eBook market isn’t one of them. It’s textbook capitalism straight out of Adam Smith: they saw a potential profit in a market that was being under-served, came up with a way to serve that market what it wanted, all while turning a profit.[2] And best of all, there was no radioactive sludge hidden in playgrounds, no gigatons of carbon flushed into the atmosphere, no slave labor. For once, a corporation turned a profit and no one got hurt.

Except, the publishing houses are claiming that Amazon has hurt their business. That by undercutting them in eBook pricing and locking the eBook format down to the Kindle, they are creating an unfair advantage. This is a sketchy claim, though it does have some merit, though more of the coulda, woulda, shulda variety.

Amazon didn’t hide their intentions. They announced back in 2007 that they were going to make an eReader platform and offer eBooks on the cheap, and that they would use their Kindle platform also to publish new content as well.

The publishing houses could have taken this as a challenge (which it was) and developed their own alternative. And sure, we would have probably ended up in a format war like we did with VHS/Beta and HD/Blu-Ray but eventually we’re going to have to do that for eBooks anyway. Had the publishers even attempted to compete five years ago, they could have undercut Amazon, defanging the kindle right out of the gate. They could have innovated and carved out for themselves and their clients (authors) a tidy little niche in a n emerging market.

Instead they clung to their old ways, did nothing, and let Amazon colonize the ebook biome. Now they have to fight an invasive predator (the kindle model) and figure out how to stay alive (solvent) during a global economic crisis, all while shrugging off the public perception that they’ve already formed a price fixing cartel. And seeing as how it took a multimillion dollar lawsuit brought by the DoJ to get the publishing houses to even consider competition with Amazon (albeit of the back room cigar smoke and dirty handshake variety) this does not bode well.

The format war for eBooks isn’t over and this lawsuit will probably only be the first of many that will, over the next decade, lead to a transformation of the publishing industry. If we’re lucky, it will be into a modern, streamlined and open access publishing world, where established and independent authors can take advantage of the same services and distribution network to create a thriving, robust literary world that allows all involved to make a comfortable living committing art for the betterment of humanity.

Or we may get an interminable corporate war where a coalition of aging print behemoths try and maintain the status quo and the eBook market is locked into a single proprietary format, with stagnant creation and rent seeking being the norm,unto the end of a new Dark Age.

There are of course other options, all along the spectrum between these extremes. I’d like to get as cose to the first option as possible, but it’s going to take a lot more to get there than just hopes and dreams. And lawsuits. It’s going to take innovation, creativity and good business sense, all of which is in short supply.

This is far from over. Stay tuned…

(And for those looking for more on the story.)

1. Random House, Hatchette, MacMillan, Harper, Penguin and Simon & Schuster. Random House, while not part of the DOJ suit, is still an interested party in the proceedings.

2. Full disclosure: Amazon is technically the publisher/distributor of my first novel and forthcoming novella. More on that later.

The Very First Friday the 13th

The Knights Templar were an unusual order in that they were not merely knights but monks as well. Founded by Hugh de Paynes in 1118 as a charitable order, the Knights took up residence in the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, and dedicated themselves to protecting pilgrims who ventured to the Holy land during the Crusades. They became wealthy, which made them envied, and branched out into the money lending business, which made them powerful, so much so that Pope Innocent II granted them immunity from excommunication. But with power comes politics. When they started to build their own castles in Europe and cart around their treasure in a private fleet of ships, to and from secret ports, they became more than envied by the kings of Europe. They became feared. Especially by King Philip “The Fair” of France.

On Friday the 13th 1307, 123 members of the Knights of the Temple of Solomon, including Grand master Jacque de Molay, were arrested and subjected to torture until they confessed to a number of crimes. These included: blasphemy, black magic, homosexuality, heresy, spitting on the crucifix and idolatry. Specifically, worshipping a severed head.

Some theories suggest that the head was ornamental, either brass or wood, either with two faces or just one, maybe female, maybe male, possibly with four legs. Other stories suggest that the head was none other than that of John the Baptist and, if the stars were right, would speak in an oracular voice, predicting events cosmic and miniscule. Still others suggested that it was not a head at all, that this particular story was merely Inquisitor’s mythologizing, that in fact the Templars had worshipped a small black doll that was an idol of a devil named Baphomet.*

In 1314 Jacque de Molay renounced his confession, declaring that the various charges were erroneous and extracted under duress of torture, especially the charges of Black Magic. For his honesty, he was burned at the stake and the Order of the Knights Templar were disbanded. As the flames licked his boots, Jacque de Molay cursed the Pope and the King of France, inviting them to join him in death within the year. Pope Clement V died one month later and King Philip IV, seven months after that.

Most historians regard the allegations of Satanism and idolatry as trumped up charges by a jealous royalty in order to seize the wealth of the Templars. Very few have anything to say on the happenstance of the predicted deaths of the Pope and king of France, other than vague allusions and nervous jokes.

Baphomet may actually be a name for Sophia, used in the Atbash CipherSophia, in Gnosticism, is the Godess of Wisdom, often seen as the female counterpart to either God or the companion of Christ.

The Last Word

Tom Scocca puts MS Word in it’s place:

What makes Word unbearable is the output. Like the fax machine, Word was designed to put things on paper. It was a tool of the desktop-publishing revolution, allowing ordinary computer users to make professional (or at least approximately professional) document layouts and to print them out. That’s great if you’re making a lot of church bulletins or lost-dog fliers. Keep on using Word. (Maybe keep better track of your dog, though.)

For most people now, though, publishing means putting things on the Web. Desktop publishing has given way to laptop or smartphone publishing. And Microsoft Word is an atrocious tool for Web writing. Its document-formatting mission means that every piece of text it creates is thickly wrapped in metadata, layer on layer of invisible, unnecessary instructions about how the words should look on paper.

[…] Online publishing systems gag on this stuff; gremlins breed in the hidden spaces. Some publishing platforms have a built-in button especially for pasting text from Word, to clear away the worst of it, but they don’t work very well. Beyond the invisible code, there are those annoying typographical flourishes—the ordinal superscripts, the directional quotation marks, the automatic em dashes—that will create their own headaches in translation. Multiple websites exist simply to unmangle Word text and turn it into plain text or readable HTML.

When a standard tool requires this many workarounds, we need to find a new standard. Word wants to show that it knows the world isn’t merely about paper—you can make documents that have real, live hyperlinks in the text! You just can’t necessarily put those hyperlinks up on the Internet for anyone else to click on. Again and again, Word is defeated by the basic job of contemporary writing and editing: smoothly moving text back and forth among different platforms. The fundamental unit of Word is the single, proprietary file, anchored to one computer. Microsoft showed users how it feels about sharing work when it switched its default format from .doc to .docx in Office 2007, locking old and new Word customers out of each other’s files. (There are workarounds, of course. There are always workarounds.)

At my last job, My computer was upgraded and I received a shinny new version of Office 2007, which is the 2nd most user un-friendly piece of software I’ve ever had the misfortune of being saddled with.* Suddenly, all the menus were int he most counter intuitive places, buried three or four layers deep. I’ve tried just about every alternative platform known to man or best, but they are all second rate Word knockoffs. Even Open Office has turned into a buggy Word emulator that for some reason can’t even do a proper word count. I eventually did what Mr. Scocca writes in his article, and abandoned Word for Google Docs and TextEdit for office work and Scrivener for all my long form prose, which saves me the hassle of having to deal with Word at all anymore. Which is a food thing. Attempting to write fiction in Word was making me yearn for the days when writers made their own quills by strangling geese.


* First prize for worthless software is Innovative Millennium,  a bloated POS Enterprise ILS, whose ostensible purpose is to run a library’s on-line catalog. It was originally designed in the 80s and you can tell, because it still uses a command line for the backend, and users need to know boolean operators to perform searches with any level of specificity beyond a subject heading or title. Subsequent upgrades are just new modules of code slapped on top of the old stuff. It works about as well as you’d imagine.

Write Before you Write

A large portion of the work of writing a story, in any medium, is usually done before you even write the first sentence.

I’ve learned the hard way that just having a good idea for a story doesn’t mean it will magically happen. You can’t sit down and start writing that first scene, guided solely by a vague notion of Cool Stuff happening. At least I can’t. Obviously this process varies widely by author but most say they do some amount of pre-writing work before they start a new project.

I have a list of things that I need to have figured out before starting a story. Usually I draw up a cast of characters list, like the kind you see in the front of a playbill. That starts building character relationships, which will inform scenes later on. It allows me to build in a sense of symmetry to the story, so I can balance the characters motivations and let each one become a facet for the story. There is usually some sot of symmetry involved in characters. Not just hero vs villain, but a mirror image of the supporting cast as well. After all, a convincing antagonist has a support staff too. Who are they? Figuring out this before hand lets you find a n organic way to introduce those characters, rather than just have them drop out of the sky.

I also need to have some idea of the themes I want to write about. Themes provide thrust for the story. If I get stuck in a scene, I can go back to that scribbled list of thematic ideas and see which one I’m missing or have put in the wrong place.

I like to have a title, at least a working one, in mind before starting as well. Titles are to stories what naes are to people. Thy identify their boundaries, or at least give yo a sense of what those boundaries are. This isn’t necessary, but experience has proven that I won’t really have a handle on the story until it has a title. Like my list of themes, this can be a beacon when you get lost in the fog that is the day-t-day process of sitting down and banging out words on a keyboard.

I also need to know where the story is going. Not necessarily a plot outline (though I usually build one of those shortly after starting) but some sort of late 4th/ early 5th Act* moment that settles things. This ensures that I have a goal, and can steer scenes, even early ones, towards that destination. The reader may not be able to see it over the horizon but I know that’s where we’re going. And knowing where you’re going is always a good idea, in life and in writing.

* I prefer the 5 Act structure. Al ot fo writers swear by the 3 Act structure. But the 3 Act structure is crap. It forces you to stop the action and dump a bunch of exposition in Act 1, drag out Act 2 far longer than is necessary and race to have everything wrapped up in Act 3. 5 acts gives you elbow room, so that Act 3 becomes a natural climax, rather than a contrived hinge in the middle of your story.

Taking off the Gloves

About fucking time:

President Obama’s fruitless three-year search for compromise with the Republicans ended in a thunderclap of a speech on Tuesday, as he denounced the party and its presidential candidates for cruelty and extremism. He accused his opponents of imposing on the country a “radical vision” that “is antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity.”

Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential front-runner, has embraced a House budget plan that is little more than “thinly veiled social Darwinism,” the president said, a “Trojan horse” disguised as deficit reduction that would hurt middle- and lower-income Americans.

“By gutting the very things we need to grow an economy that’s built to last — education and training, research and development, our infrastructure — it is a prescription for decline,” he said, speaking to a group of Associated Press editors and reporters in Washington.

Mr. Obama has, in recent months, urged Republicans to put aside their destructive agenda. But, in this speech, he finally conceded that the party has demonstrated no interest in the values of compromise and realism. Even Ronald Reagan, who raised taxes in multiple budget deals, “could not get through a Republican primary today,” Mr. Obama said. While Democrats have repeatedly shown a willingness to cut entitlements and have agreed to trillions in domestic spending cuts, he said, Republicans won’t agree to any tax increases and, in fact, want to shower the rich with even more tax cuts.

You can’t negotiate with people who won’t compromise. The GOP has made it clear since at least the days of W’s first term that they viewed compromise as loosing. They browbeat Democrats until they gave in and then called them traitors for their trouble. They lied, cheated and stole (up to and including elections) to get what they want. I only wish President Obama had said this three years sooner, but at least he’s recognized now that the Republicans don’t want to play and is pushing back. Now only if he and the rest of the Democrats will actually push back, then maybe we can finally get some progress.