It's the Reader, Stupid

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I’ve got a 3,000 word essay sitting here that I’ve been fiddling with for a week. It starts off with a history of the 1992 presidential election and the formation of a meme by James Carville (The economy, stupid) and how it can be useful to condense a complicated situation down to its bare essence and insult the listener at the same time to make sure they pay attention.

It’s a great essay, but then I saw this speech by Kevin Spacey this morning and realized it would be redundant.

The essay is a call to arms for everyone in publishing to focus on the reader. Because right now, you have this mess:

Publishers treat bookstores as their customers, not the reader. That means high e-book prices to protect print; releasing hardbacks and withholding paperbacks; needlessly high audiobook prices; and not working with libraries on e-book prices and lending practices. They also treat bestseller lists and review outlets as their customers, which means holding finished books back from the reader in order to have blockbuster launches.

Large bookstore chains treat publishers as customers by charging for merchandising rather than stocking and shelving what the reader wants. I watched my publisher here in the US get entangled in this mess. A large chain was leveraging the publisher for money rather than make it by, you know, selling books.

Traditional authors treat publishers as their customers, because that’s who pays them for manuscripts, rather than focusing on the reader, who wants to pay for the book. That means agreeing to higher prices for their products, signing egregious contracts that limit output, agreeing to write works of set length, in limited genres and styles, and also keeping the finished work unavailable for months. Authors also treat agents as their customers.

For so many people in the publishing biz, the reader is the last link in a long chain. The exceptions are independent bookstores, which do much to cater to readers. The two places they fall short is in not carrying more self-published works that are in high demand or of high quality, fostering the discoverability of new talent, and in refusing to carry Amazon Publishing works that readers want. But still, the indie shops are seeing growth because they largely concentrate on the reader.

Indie authors are maniacally focused on the reader, almost to the exclusion of anything else. Low prices, fun and interesting genres and styles, a direct relationship, frequent output, you name it. Indie authors are doing well because they know it’s all about the reader.

And Amazon. Amazon continues to blow me away with how many areas they are revolutionizing all at once. Just this year, they figured out how to monetize fan fiction, which allows readers to become writers (paid writers, at that!). And today, they announce a program that I’ve been screaming for as a bookseller, a reader, and a writer. It’s called Matchbook, and it allows authors and publishers to agree to give e-books away at a huge discount to anyone who bought the physical book. As soon as the program goes live, my e-books will be either 99 cents or free to anyone who bought the paperback through Amazon. You could buy the physical book for a gift and get the e-book for a buck!

It shouldn’t surprise me that Amazon is pulling this off. Anything that makes sense for the reader, they’re working on it. Yes, these programs hurt bookstores and they sometimes hurt publishers, and they can leave agents in the lurch. But it’s the reader, stupid. How many people on my flight yesterday used a travel agent to book their tickets? My guess is zero. Does that suck for travel agents? I suppose it does. Just as we can feel bad about one-hour film processors and music store employees being out of jobs. But none of these professions engender the outrage and sympathy that we feel for those who work in bookstores, because we have a romantic attachment to books and bookshops. Well, don’t worry. The kind of bookshops worth loving are doing okay. The kind that sell more board games and coffee than actual books … they aren’t going to be around forever.

My attitude, even as a bookseller, was that we should celebrate what’s good for the authors and the readers. Self-published authors seem to get this. Indie bookshops are right there, with room for improvement. And no one understands this quite like Amazon. Good on them for revolutionizing the way we buy books. For what, the seventh or eighth time?

For Writers by Hugh HoweyWhere stories live. Discover now