Saturday, March 2, 2013

How To Kill Your Big Publishing Business In The 21st Century

Pardon the infrequent updates. Life is challenging. Getting the kids into their new life as shiny private-school drones is difficult. There's a lot of to-and-fro to Launceston, which is forty-five minutes either way. I know: that's a pretty average commute, and for us, it's not about traffic, but about winding roads with forests and fields and wildlife, so it's not what you'd call hard. But it does add a lot of travel into a week already crowded.

It doesn't help that the private school tossers are sport-freaks. Nat insisted the whole private-school-thing would give the kids "more opportunities". Languages. Music. Advanced programmes for clever kids.

Actually? Well, it took three weeks before Jake had a single Japanese lesson. And we still haven't succeeded in getting either his 'cello lessons or his sax lessons set up with the school. And despite the fact that he's been reading Hunter Thompson at home, and just wrote a 5000 word gonzo-style report on his school camp for his English class (I sent a note to his teacher, asking for permission), and despite that the teacher liked the piece and handed it to the gifted-and-talented-kid handler... well, this weekend's homework was to make a shoebox diorama of a scene out of Blueback, by Tim Winton.

Yeah. A shoebox diorama. I ought to feel insulted, but I'm just too fucking tired. And in the meantime, during all this, the school's sport master has been pursuing us like one of the Erinyes of old, demanding we sign Jake up to some kind of sport with lots of extracurricular shit. Even though he's already at ju-jitsu and orchestra, yeah. Oh, and no: they're not going to tell us things like training times and rehearsal times, no. We're just expected to sign up and take what we get.

Well, we've sorted that one out. There was no fucking way under the sun we were signing the kid up to a bunch of shit without knowing the hours we were expected to put in. I don't know where these people get their ideas, but there's no feasible way for this family, with two other children, two very busy parents, and a fifty km commute, to just blithely reconstruct our schedule around jai-alai practice, or kayaking, or competitive downhill fellatio, or whatever.

But it's the Blueback thing that's really pissed me off. The boy got his copy of the book late, and there was a school camp, and so now he hasn't read the whole thing, but their hard-charging diorama challenge is due Monday. No worries. We've done it. But I want the boy to read the book. Winton's not bad. The diorama idea is pathetic, kindergarten-finger-painting shit as far as that goes, but at the very least, the boy should read the book.

Unfortunately, they haven't yet given him permission to bring his copy home. So I thought yeah: I'll just get an ebook.

From Penguin.

Well. Fuck me.

One of the more interesting things about doing this Masters degree is the manner in which it has forced me to appraise the nature of the publishing industry in the light of the current wave of technological revolution. The Internet represents the fourth wave of major technoshift to reading. The first was the moveable-type press. The next was the industrialisation of paper, ink, book-binding and book production in general. The third was about distribution: the petrol engine, aeroplanes, roads, cars, trucks -- a whole system to ensure that books and magazines could  go almost anywhere.

Each of these waves of technoshift altered the way we read, both as individuals, as a society, and as a culture. The people who were in those waves doubtless didn't perceive them initially as the paradigm shifts that they were. No doubt the changes appeared incremental, almost trivial, as they began.

Thus it is with the Internet, and the associated paraphernalia of ereading. And just like every previous shift, there are people who have understood what is happening, and those who have not.

Amazon understands. Unfortunately, Amazon are a bunch of evil fucks, and are using their market position and their knowledge of the changing field to achieve a near-as-dammit monopoly on electronic reading. This is good for nobody except Amazon, by the way.

Unfortunately, Amazon are being aided and abetted by big, old-style, stupid, slow publishing firms who really do NOT understand the first thing about what's going on.

One of those companies, apparently, is Penguin.

I needed an e-copy of Winton's Blueback, because I needed a copy in short order. The situation was similar to the time I needed a copy of Gelder on Popular Fiction, for my own study. To read Gelder, I checked Amazon, and found the Kindle edition of the book was available at less than half the cost of the paperback. I downloaded Kindle software for my computer from the Amazon site itself. Then I bought the book, downloaded it in one move, and read it on my screen. Done.

But Blueback and Penguin? Oh dear.

First I had to find the book in e-form. Okay. That wasn't too difficult. Then I had to buy it. Same as anywhere, really. Sure, I had to set up a userID and all that, but no biggie. Except... the paperback price is $15. And the ebook price? Oh. Wait. That would be $15 too.

Why? No: don't waste my time answering that. I've heard all the shit from the big boys on this, and it is bullshit. There is no reason for the ebook to cost the same as the paperback. None.

Nevertheless, I needed the book, so I gritted my teeth, and paid up.

Next, I needed to get my download. But it wasn't visible on my account. And it wasn't emailed to me. So... how do I get my ebook, Penguin? I looked all over their site, found a link to 'ebooks', clicked it... and found more bullshit.

First, I had to download some third party software from Adobe. I don't much like Adobe software. Oh, the software itself works okay, usually, but it tends to be big and bloaty, and they're forever bugging you about updates and reloads and they have real compatibility issues. I try to avoid Adobe's stuff where I can.

This time I couldn't. So I downloaded the installer. Then I activated the installer, and set up the machine. And then I found the download for Blueback, and activated it... ooops. No. Not yet.

First I had to download some sort of authentication/DRM protocols. And I had to 'authorise' the computer. And to do that, I had to give it some kind of special ID, or I wouldn't be allowed to move the ebook to any other formats, or share it anywhere. Which meant I had to set up yet another ID and password system with Adobe. (The Kindle system just used the one I already had with Amazon.)

After all that was done, I finally got to download the text from Penguin. (I note I'm limited to four downloads. Evidently I'm only allowed four devices for reading. Hmm. Okay.)

Jake is now sitting and reading his copy of Blueback. It took me nearly an hour to get it. It cost me as much as the paperback edition. I had to set up two new accounts with two companies online, and install a piece of intrusive third-party software. I got no new content, no extras, no nifty usability bonuses -- nothing.

The technological shift in reading is real. The new model of reading is not a paperback we carry around. It's a file that we can shift from phone to 'pod to 'pad to desktop, as needed. And we're not stupid: we know that creating the file has costs... but we know that there's no paper, no ink, no dead trees, no boxes to load in trucks, no bookstores, etc. We know very clearly that the price of an ebook should not be as high as a paper copy, and we don't appreciate being treated as fools.

I paid my $15 and wound up on two mailing lists so I could get the book immediately. I did that because I needed it, and there are no bookstores here where I am. But I did not stay on Penguin's site to browse. I did not buy more books. I did not linger. I did not click through to Winton's own site.

Nor will I. Penguin have offered me no reason whatsoever to return to this experience. Clearly, for Penguin the e-publishing world is a distant second to its primary task of producing and selling books made of paper, ink and cardboard.

In future, I'll get my Penguin books the way I've always got them: from second-hand bookstores, and at discount sales.

The Internet is real. The world will not go back to the way it was before, unless we have a civilisation-wide collapse. That's entirely possible of course, but if it happens, the old model of Big Slow Publishing Empires is going to die anyhow, along with pretty much everything else. So either way, the Big Slow Publishing Empires are in a lot of trouble: if the world doesn't break down, the Internet will get them.

Some publishers are learning. Birmo has got a useful price-point deal going with his people, and I do believe they've put somebody smart on the job.

Some publishers are *not* learning.

If I had significant money invested in Penguin, I'd be starting to consider my options about now.