Quarantine all ebooks

Michael Kozlowski had this here reactionary fit:

I think its very important for all major bookstores to have an indie section because small publishers and indie authors are abusing the system.

Others have highlighted the problems with this plan.

The short version of the counter-argument: what’s a self-publisher?

Most of the major ebook retail platforms direct small publishers to use their self-serve platforms not everybody who uses them is a solo author publishing his own work.

But, there’s still an set of obvious problems here that needs to be solved:

  • Most search results in ebook retail are full of crap. You search for an author or a title and get shitloads irrelevant titles. Amazon isn’t as bad as the rest at this but they all suffer from it to some degree.
  • Dishonest publishers lie in their metadata so that they crop up all over the place, often inappropriately. (This is the cause of the recent PR disaster that caused WH Smith to shutter their website temporarily.)
  • Dishonest publishers choose author names and book titles a little bit too close to popular ones.
  • Well, lets’ just say there is a lot of general purpose gaming of the system by dishonest people.

You can try and solve one thing but then the dishonest will just find a new exploit. It’s like the arms race between Google and black hat SEO folks all over again.

Instead I have a simple suggestion:

Quarantine all new ebook titles, even those from big publishers. Only remove the quarantine when either the ebook or its print counterpart has sold more than 100 copies.

Quarantined titles only appear on Author pages and if you follow a direct link to their page. This means that most publisher online sales and marketing campaigns would still work as normal.

Once a title has sold 100 copies it is reviewed by a human to see if it fulfils the ebook retail platform’s quality requirements. If it does, quarantine would be lifted. If it doesn’t, the publisher gets a notice as to what it is that needs to be fixed.

–But this would destroy the sales for most self-publishers.

Not really. It would smash everybody who doesn’t have the platform, PR, or sales mojo to sell more than a 100 copies down to zero. But it would increase search discoverability and the sales of those who do sell more than 100 copies. Consider it a ‘you must be this tall to ride’ kind of thing. The ebook retail platform would probably increase their overall sales with the added bonus of preventing forever PR disaster like the one that took place last weekend.

Would it piss everybody off? Absolutely, and on that basis alone I think it should be implemented on all major platforms.

Caught between madmen and mercenaries

This is not a comment on the recent court ruling on Apple, agency contracts, and price fixing.

But a cursory glance at the history of ebook retail makes one conclusion crystal clear:

Ebook retail is a horrible horrible business to be in.

On one side you have self-destructive madmen like the big publishers who have done the following lovely things to their ebook retail partners:

  • Abruptly changing all ebook distribution contracts to agency. Which would be fine if delays on their part hadn’t meant that smaller ebook retailers in many cases spent months without any inventory from the big publishers.
  • Complete refusal to even consider tactics that would level the playing field for the retailer, such as going DRM-free or adopting a wholesaling strategy that would let ebook retailers implement in-app purchases on iOS devices.
  • Near nonexistent quality control of ebook formatting, shipping titles with errors ranging from extensive spelling errors not in any other format, to garish formatting errors, even to the point of text being missing from the ebook edition.
  • Next to zero participation in developing ebook format and ebook-related standards, mostly letting tech-oriented companies run rampant with no consideration to production or distribution costs.

This is without even considering the things publishers could be doing to specifically help ebook sales such as creating ebook-optimised covers.

On the other side you have the cutthroat mercenaries. Amazon seems willing to run its entire Kindle business at break-even, which would be fine if it didn’t also make massive development investments in hardware and software. Investments that it seems content with never recouping. Apple seems willing to butcher lucrative product categories because of its inability to let any buck pass by an iOS device without demanding a thirty cent cut.

Anybody planning to start a new ebook retail store would be stabbed in the back by publishers or cut to ribbons by ruthless competitors before the first year is out.

Your suppliers have no concern for the viability of your business and are quite willing to ruin it for little to no personal gain. Your competitors have corporate parents who are willing to run the ebook retail unit either at a loss or break-even (and that’s without taking their substantial R&D investments into account, most of which are focused on developing or protecting vertically integrated silos, not innovations that actually benefit the customer).

In short, it’s a sector that desperately needs new, competent, and innovative entrants but is too irrational to sustain any sane business development or investment.