The Ebook Wars Get Brutal
Alright, so we've got four different corporations who would be king of the ebook. Is it time to choose?

As a fiction writer, you need to give serious thought to your philosophy on this subject, because this competition won't last long, and the winner will be able to dictate how all books are published, how much you can make from them, and who your audience will be. Basically, four different corporations have taken a look at your favorite fundamental human art form -- printed storytelling -- sneered at it, and decided that they should own it (us).

As soon as one of these corporations figures it all out, publishers will cease to be publishers and will instead become:

1). Nothing.
2). Editors paid by writers.
3). A marketing apparatus hired by writers.
4). Quaint, archaic paperbinders who perform a symbolic act of dead culture.

Fiction writers may not disappear. But it will be goddamn tough not being a fiction writer who writes for a corporation. All the publishers in New York are already dealing with these four corporations as if they are bookstores who are interested in the "products that they make." But none of these companies are actually interested in the products that publishers make. Instead, they think they can do a better job.

Now that these corporations have figured out all there is to know about the broken, doomed world of publishing, and now that publishing is staggering around like a drunk college professor, shedding jobs like layers of cardigans, the big companies are looking over one another's shoulders and are now eating from one another's lunch pails. This means that soon one will beat out all the others and emerge triumphant, like the soldier who eats the rest of his platoon for Christmas dinner after all the rest die of dysentery in the trenches.


Amazon, Google, Apple, Sony

1. Amazon

Amazon started by selling books online, delivering them right to your door. Then they realized that people like to buy hundreds more books than they like to read. They decided to capitalize on this and stop doing the "delivering right to your door" part.

By creating the Kindle, they created a device which lets people buy books in seconds, letting them instantaneously fill up a small portable device with hundreds of books they will instantaneously ignore.

On Monday, Amazon even came out with a new version of the Kindle which is smaller and has even more storage space. Not as much storage space as -- say -- a COMPUTER, but more than an alarm clock, a cracker box, or a hound dog.

The new Kindle also contains a possibly illegal audio function that lets you hear any bit of text that the Kindle displays, delivered by a cold, inhuman computer voice. Innovation!

Additionally, Amazon has now implemented their BookSurge and CreateSpace programs, which allow writers to upload and then demand money for their books in a print-on-demand capacity, while also making their books Kindle-ready.

Authors receive royalties on these books and -- of course -- Amazon gets a percentage. This gives writers the illusion that Amazon is interested in marketing their wares, and is not -- instead -- relying on the sheer volume of submissions to generate constant revenue, profiting just enough from broken dreams and all those misguided, unedited, unlovable manuscripts of which they can sell a hundred copies each to people buying their own books.

Amazon seems to be strong, but they are actually in the weakest position. They are charging the most for their ebooks (the same as regular books, which is mesmerizingly stupid), and the Kindle still costs 400 dollars or so. They can only generate revenue from new books, and since people don't even read enough books to care about pirating them, eventually they will run out of suckers.

You can already see Amazon starting to crack. They have already announced that they are going to start making Kindle books available for the iPhone and for other portable devices, showing that they recognize that they have to pick one or the other: proprietary software or proprietary hardware. Google will kill them on software. Apple will kill them on hardware. However, by fighting this two-sided war, they hope to convince publishers that they are the most sympathetic to the traditional ways of doing business, hopefully resulting in exclusive deals and favorable trade practices.

Amazon has tried to build goodwill by going directly to Oprah to plead their case before the American people, getting her to endorse their product without even having to pay her. Amazon has Bible-belt clout, and they also have the wary support of the befuddled old publishers who don't know what's going on anymore, who take their bifocals off around 4 PM every day, stare out over Manhattan, and pop two Tylenol as they ruminate over the day's plummeting sales figures.

As awful as they are, Amazon is still playing by the old rules and they are at least doing evil things in a predictable, easy-to-roll-with fashion. You look at Amazon and you see drug dealers. You don't see the stony face of the hitman or the despot.

For that, you must turn to Apple and Google.

2. Google

Google is doing the smartest shit by far, but then they always do. Google has taken a look at ebook readers and said: "These are merely bad laptops. These ebook readers are the equivalent of Tiger handheld electronic games in an age of the GameGear and the Game Boy."

Recently, Google did one of the most stunning criminal things of the twenty-first century, and it still hasn't sunk in yet for most publishers and writers. Google went ahead and digitized millions of out-of-print books by authors both living and dead and made them available online as part of their Google Book Search program. They did not ask the writers if they could do this, and they made sure that no cash changed hands and that they got the books they stole free from libraries.

When authors woke up one morning and found out that their works were being given away for free on the internet by one of the world's largest and most lucrative corporations, they did not know what to do. So they googled "lawyer." The "Author's Guild" filed a lawsuit, and Google settled with them, because the Guild understandably wanted some money and their publishers certainly weren't giving it to them. Hell, their books were OUT-OF-PRINT.

So Google is now doing a percentage deal with living writers whose books they have mugged. And -- while you are sleeping -- they are steadily acquiring every book that has ever been printed and turning it into information that they own, or at least that they manage.

Google is also working on creating a standard, powerful, searchable viewing format because they know that someday soon people will create computers that also function as eReaders and then they will have already built the infrastructure that crushes all of the competition.

Google does not even care about publishers. Why should they? They have gone directly to writers and done a quiet deal with the very few symbolic representatives who make up whatever the "Author's Guild" is. Two fuckers sleeping on some other fucker's couch.

You were neither consulted nor informed.

Google's deal is a bad deal for writers (writers should get 100% of their stolen profits), but it is better than nothing.

Google is doing the most intelligent thing, even if it is the most unsettling. They are taking a hard look at the future, and preparing for the day when no one in their right mind would ever pay money for a book to read. They are right: that day will come, the same day we will be able to fit every movie ever made on a disk the size of a credit card, or even nowhere at all.

The good news: Google is a clear enemy. This is important for publishers. Do not be baffled by the eReader medicine show. The real question is how to fight Google on their ebook formats. How can you create ebooks online that are more interesting, powerful, and useful than the ones that Google is scanning?

You have to beat Google using their own sharp tactics. Now that the complete Dickens is available to read, for free, and to copy and paste, for free, anywhere you like, how can you ensure that YOUR version of Dickens is the most fun, the most colorful, and the most lurid?

How can you capture attention and hearts?

Wallets will follow respect.

3. Apple

You are a fool if you don't think Apple is busy building the sleekest, sexiest ebook reader / internet browser / phone / mp3 player that can be fashioned out of injection molded plastic and the color "shiny blue."

Apple waits. Apple is run by opportunistic snakes. The Kindle is an ugly, dysfunctional piece of post-pop junk compared to the yoga-inspired dream machine that Apple will soon unleash on the leisure-reading world, most of whom already own other fine, branded pieces of fruity, sensuous Apple machinery.

Apple is only in this war out of nervous spite, granted, but they will accidentally destroy Amazon's Kindle while they are at it, much like they accidentally destroyed a million other companies who went BLACK instead of WHITE.

There will be a transitional phase where you will be able to buy Apple-formatted books from some website called iPages, but the future is that most people will soon be reading Google's books on Apple's machines, until Google and Apple merge into some company with an even more infantile name. Like Gooboo, or Mama or something.

Apple running the show is the scariest scenario of all. They have already proved that they are not afraid to censor material for content, and seem to think that they ought to have complete control over any software that runs on their machines, recently banning a book from the Apple store for simply containing the delightful word "fuck."

However, Apple's technological ascendancy is certain, unless SHIT GETS FUCKED UP BY THOSE MERCENARY, CRASS, CRAVEN SONS OF BITCHES called...

4. Sony

Sony basically exists to keep Apple from dominating the entire electronics world. Sony sells things for a little bit cheaper, and Sony doesn't mind so much if little companies steal their ideas. When you buy Sony, you are not buying an identity, you are buying a product, and therefore, their products tend to run better and rely less on a cult mentality that stymies progress and innovation.

What does this mean for books?

It means that publishers can probably get away with telling Sony what to do, instead of having to bow and scrape before Apple (and changing their formats every two years), or trying to play ball with Amazon, a company that wants to replace them.

Sony has no illusions. They do not secretly want to run the editing and marketing side of publishing. There is a natural alliance between publishers and Sony against Google and Apple. Sony is the mercenary you hire, not the manic ideologue who wants to change the world.

Publishers and Sony have similar mindsets: they are realistic and do not dream. Instead, they make ways for the dreams of the gifted to reach other people. Sony has already shown that they don't mind the nature of the material that runs on their machines and have already helped to fill the world with problematic video games where you get to play a serial killer, rapist, car thief, and rock star. If you want to write and publish a book about seducing pre-teens in 1950's motor-lodge America, then you are going to have to deal with Sony.

The smart move for publishers is to ally with this weak company that can be managed. Otherwise, publishers may profit in the small term, but soon will not be publishers at all. Don't get me wrong: I would gladly gutlaugh with both fists in the air if the entire Sony corporation was hit by a flaming meteor from God and busted into a hundred billion twinkling diodes and flecks of skin. But I think publishers can use Sony until they figure out how to code for themselves.


Come on, honestly: you don't want to sell your publishing company to Apple or Amazon, do you? So then why would you let them tell you what to do or who to publish? Why would you teach them to do your job, when you would be better off learning how to take on Google with the time you have left? Google won't ask how you feel about the future of books. Google will just take what you've got and toss some pennies in your face.

Are you just lazy?


There are some other players out there that could be interesting wild cards for this whole war. The "One Laptop Per Child" charity has created a cheap, efficient, open-source computer for children, and is now trying to turn their machine into the ultimate eReader for the third-world, which is who will be reading all of those digitized books that Google is scanning.

Additionally, Nintendo is experimenting with turning their DS into an ebook reader, which is my favorite gambit so far. I'd love to have a DS version of my next novel. I'd love to see what happens when the production design and attention to detail that video games receive is given to books.

At any rate, all this shit is scary and tragic, and there is always the moody bastard in the back who shouts out that "PAPER BOOKS WILL NEVER DISAPPEAR AND WILL ALWAYS BE THE BEST." Maybe so, maybe so. I mean, I agree.

But that's no way to think if you want to shape the way all these ignorant fuckers will approach the thing you love and the craft to which you have devoted your life.

You have to fight.


Posted by miracle on Wed, 11 Feb 2009 03:18:17 -0500 -- permanent link

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