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So, there are people who read this blog who understand business and publishing and the business of publishing much better than I do, but… does this note by Evan Schnittman on Why Ebooks Must Fail really make the claim that print publishing is utterly unsustainable and that therefore electronic publishing will destroy it, and that that would be a bad thing?

I know Mr. Schnittman is the head of Global Business Development for OUP, and so he clearly knows much more about the business of publishing than I do—I know so very little, after all—but his argument makes no sense to me at all. Essentially, he's saying that the combination of uncontrolled author advances and an utterly ludicrous norm for advance sales and returns is sustainable only where there is a source for short-term cash flow, and that Ebooks (vaddevah dat means) do not provide such a source.

Again, if I understand correctly, the short-term cash includes a chunk of money that is going to disappear (because of returns); it exists more than nominally, and isn't quite borrowing, but it does come with an obligation to pay back a large but undetermined chunk of it. So I am perplexed by the idea that there is no way to restructure publishing to do without it. I am also perplexed by his insistence that it is more expensive to make Ebooks than paper books; he asserts that the added cost of editing digital stuff, and the necessity of maintaining and servicing interactive digital books, would be greater than the cost of printing and shipping. On the other hand, I have no idea how to estimate those costs (on either side). And my assertion that the bulk of Ebooks will not require extensive maintenance and interaction but will just be books on bytes is not based on any knowledge whatsoever. So I'm willing to accept that he is correct about his estimation of the comparative costs.

Still. He compares advances on trade publishing to professional sports free agency; this means he either (a) doesn't understand sports business at all, (2) doesn't understand the publishing business at all, or (iii) is deliberately misrepresenting the publishing business. And then, having described a business plan that is crazily unsustainable—that even he describes as a Ponzi scheme—he is worried that Ebooks will destroy it. You know what? Even if (implausibly) your Ponzi scheme is sustainable in the absence of Ebooks (but with rising manufacturing and shipping costs and the consolidation of retailers), I fail to see why Ebooks being the straw that breaks that proverbial should concern either us or the big publishers themselves. I mean, if Ebooks breaks the system and everything goes bust, then we start again with a model that doesn't have either crippling advances or fraudulent pre-shipping. Right?

And further: it could be that given the specific factors in the upcoming discontinuity (and there is always an upcoming discontinuity) it will simply not be possible for trade publishing to make available edited books, either on paper or on bits, at a price point that people will be willing to pay. Things change. It used to be that a household in the second quintile of income in this country could afford a domestic servant but could not afford to eat grapes year-round. That has changed; labor got more expensive (well, domestic labor), and shipping and distribution and refrigeration got much, much cheaper. And it's possible that the rising popularity of Ebooks will set off the chain that ends with books being five grand a whack. If so, I have to tell you that based on this note, Mr. Schnittman will not be one of the people I have a lot of sympathy for.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


(a slight tangent: Is the second quintile counted from the top or the bottom?)

From the top, I meant. Richer than the middle, but not super-rich. The super-rich could always afford grapes, I think.


That's my real reason for joining the SCA. When the publishing industry implodes into a.. you know. What Schnittman says. Anyway, I know most of the calligraphers, illuminators, and hand-book-binding experts on the East Coast.

I gots connections, yo.


and what's worse is, the movie industry is forced to make a lot of its money on home video.

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