February 24, 2015

Two for Tuesday: who will publish the ebooks?


Malcolm X's estate will self-publish the ebook edition of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Malcolm X’s estate will self-publish the ebook edition of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Topics discussed: The Oscars, Inherent Vice, team trivia, Traffic, Traffic, ebook production, SAG Awards, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, misguided opinions, adolescence, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, self-publishing triumphalists, Mark Harris, e-books, ebooks, Random House, “You didn’t build that,” Forrest Gump, Stephen King, Michael Schaub, The Independent Spirit Awards, Wizzard

Mark: Hi Alex! Wow, what a Sunday night America had! I know that you’ve been following this awards season closely–why, I didn’t even know what the SAG Awards were until you told me about them in great detail, and I’ve never known someone who cares about the Golden Globes quite as much as you do–so I have to ask: how was your Oscar night?

Alex: Good? I don’t know if I’ve ever watched the Oscars, but I definitely didn’t watch them this year. They turned it on at the bar I was at for 4 minutes and I saw the part where Neil Patrick Harris wore a diaper. Otherwise, I played trivia. Some of the questions were Oscar-related! My team came in third. So my Oscar night was good. How was your Oscar night?

Mark: I don’t want to brag, but . . . I had a pretty great night. A couple of weeks before the ceremony, I put some money down on Inherent Vice, so I was *thrilled* when it won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Score. What a triumph! The convergence between me and Academy voters is very rare, so I’m going to treasure this event forever.

Alex: Your love for Inherent Vice is starting to scare me. It was good. Better than Boyhood. Probably better than Birdman (which I didn’t see). But you have decided that you are going to die on the “Inherent Vice is the greatest film of all time” hill and I don’t know if I can follow you there. Also, what, no love for Joaquin Phoenix?

Mark: Not the greatest film of all time, no. That would be Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. But . . . you know what, I won’t even get into it. I really think I need to write about the movie, so that instead of bothering you and our other colleagues, I can point to a long, florid, wholly unreadable text and say, “world! These are my feelings about Inherent Vice!”

Oh, but one more thing about the Oscars before we move on: the Oscars are dumb, and no one should watch them. (I haven’t watched them since 2001, when Traffic’s rightful crown was stolen by Gladiator, one of the most stupid movies ever made. That taught me a good lesson. (The lesson was: the Oscars are dumb.)) Everyone should, however, read Mark Harris’s remarkable book Pictures at a Revolution, which I read a couple of months ago. Not only is it the best book ever written on the 1968 Academy Awards, but it’s also an amazing piece of cultural history. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Alex: OK, so we are 100% in agreement about Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, which is easily in my top 5. But Traffic? Are you fucking kidding me? That movie is awful. It was literally the first movie I’ve ever walked out of. It should’ve been called “No Refunds.” More importantly, iIt also kickstarted that awful trend of “Movies with 300 storylines that seem like they examine a story from every angle but actually say jack shit about shit.” Babel was worse than Traffic and Syriana was worse than Babel. I might have that backwards, but that was a terrible trend. (Note: This does not mean that I hate The Wire.)

But seriously, fuck Traffic. You can’t say Crash, which was the worst of the post-Traffic movies, was a disaster and Traffic was good. Crash wasn’t just bad because it was racist, it was formally bad. Traffic is also formally bad—and just as interested in massaging the Liberal Superego. You are wrong about Traffic. (The band Traffic is fine and one of two fine things Eric Clapton did.) (I should also note that I saw Traffic when I was 12, so I am probably wrong about it, though I’m not wrong about those other movies. Except maybe Syriana.)

Mark: Syriana is better than Babel, which is better than Crash, which is worse than any movie ever made except Forrest Gump, which is the worst movie ever made. I’m surprised that OPEC didn’t raise oil prices when Forrest Gump was released–in retaliation. The EU should’ve sanctioned us. Honestly, Russia probably should have bombed one of our military installations. (To be clear, Ms. Malkin, I’m not advocating pain or suffering for any members of the American military. I’m speaking hyperbolically, a tendency with which I think you’re familiar.) The release of Forrest Gump was nothing short of a historical calamity.

As for Traffic, I don’t know, you may be right. I don’t think I’ve seen it since I was sixteen or so. I’m sorry to say this, but you and I may have to watch it together.

Okay, before Michael Schaub starts complaining that Two for Tuesday has transformed itself into a fourth-rate movie-themed gabfest (shudder) (at the word “gabfest,” not the general concept of a fourth-rate movie-themed gabfest), let’s talk about the book publishing industry. I’ve noticed that our conversations thus far have tended to be pretty low-tech–we’ve discussed boring, old-fashioned things like quality, critical reception, and marketing. How quaint! So this week, let’s bring Two for Tuesday into the twenty-first century and talk about electronic books, or as I like to call them, n-p-books. (“n-p” stands for “non-print.”)

Alex: One of my biggest pet peeves is when people refer to ebooks as “e-books.” It’s not e-mail; it’s email. You refer to them as “e-books” sometime. That is wrong and low-tech. The publishing industry needs to be more tech savvy.

Last week, Malcolm X’s estate announced that The Autobiography of Malcolm X would be released as an ebook for the first time this summer. That‘s exciting news—the estate had held out for considerably longer than most—and I’m glad that the book will be available in a new format, as it’s an incredibly important book (and an incredibly important book to me). Anything that gets more people to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a good thing.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X is published as a print book by Ballantine, which is a Penguin Random House imprint, but the ebook isn’t going to be published and distributed by a publisher. (The Autobiography of Malcolm X was originally published by Grove.) Here’s part of a statement explaining the decision, per Alexandra Alter at The New York Times:

“Today’s technology allows for innovative means to share content and add to it for educational, cultural and commercial purposes. Malcolm X did not grant all rights to a publisher in perpetuity. The works and rights of Malcolm X belong to his children and the community, not a publisher.”

In other words, the ebook will be self-published. There are a lot of reasons this makes sense, to me at least. For a book like The Autobiography of Malcolm X—a book that has a consistent level of popularity and doesn’t really need to be traditionally publicized or marketed—“traditional publishers” may not have a lot to offer, or at least they don’t have a lot to offer at face value. And anyway, ebook royalties are arguably too low, so why take the risk? Finally–and this seems to be important here–the estate will have considerably more freedom by retaining the rights, which  matters here much more than it would ordinarily: there are tons of educational and cultural possibilities for a book like this. Whether the estate has any intention of experimenting with those is anyone’s guess—there’s an implication that that’s the case here, but the financial incentives are pretty compelling on their own.

In any case, it’s bad news for the book’s publisher, Ballantine, which will lose out on a cut of the revenue. That’s less important in 2015 than it may have seemed in, say, 2012, when ebook sales seemed like they were going to overtake print sales, but it still matters. And, while I’m of the opinion that big houses have neglected their backlist since they were taken over by international conglomerates three decades ago, losing a cut of a book that sells consistently always stings—and it could matter, if this becomes a trend for high-profile authors with high-profile (which is to say profitable) backlists.

Mark: First–and this is very important–while you were writing whatever you were writing above (I never read what you write), I consulted with our managing editor about the issue of hyphens in words like “e-book,” “n-p-book,” and “e-mail.” And she said that I’m absolutely right and that you’re absolutely wrong. She also called your mustache “a national embarrassment.” I don’t really know what that’s about. I think your mustache is fine.

The Malcolm X thing strikes me as a very big deal. I remember that a couple of years ago, when self-publishing’s cheerleaders seemed to be at their most triumphalist, the story went that eventually, a figure of Stephen King or John Grisham’s caliber would leave big publishing behind and switch to self-publishing. And this would be cataclysmic. As far as I know, nothing like that ended up happening–in part, I think, because even writers like King and Grisham depend on a rather robust publishing infrastructure that they’d rather not spend time rebuilding for themselves. Also, they’re already very rich. (Tim Ferris did famously move to Amazon, but that didn’t work out that well for him.)

Still, the Malcolm X e-book seems like exactly the kind of big story the self-publishing advocates have been searching for, right? A literary estate gives up big money and a big house (the world’s biggest house!) and decides to go it alone. Now, I think it’s safe to say that this is not really replicable or scalable–there aren’t many books as successful as The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and of those, there are very few that don’t yet have e-book editions. But none of that will stop the triumphalists from claiming victory. And as you say, in this particular (narrow!) instance, they may not be wrong.

Alex: There are weird arguments out there that King and Grisham did self-publish, but those arguments—and many like them!—are mostly bunk. King has, to his credit, experimented with online distribution with some success but what works for King—like what works for Radiohead—may not work for everyone. In any case, King’s support of Authors United and his continued allegiance to Simon & Schuster suggest he’s happy with being “traditionally” published and distributed, physically and digitally.

As for The Autobiography of Malcolm X, I was expecting more from the triumphalists, but they’ve been fairly quiet. I think you’re right that this is a big deal and that it’s (perhaps) bad news for the backlist: if publishers are unwilling to waver on control/royalties for ebooks of backlist titles like The Autobiography of Malcolm X—that is, books that sell consistently—then you may see more and more stories like this. So far, big publishers, at least, have been (in my opinion) pretty myopic when it comes to ebooks–and also pretty stubborn. The rise of something like Open Road has been entirely dependent on that—we’ll see if that starts to change. (Betting on big houses to change their policies is never a good idea, however.)

But I don’t think this is the “big story the self-publishing advocates have been searching for.” This kind of hybrid deal has become more and more common: self-publishing advocate Hugh Howey has something similar—a big house distributes his print books and he retains electronic rights. That’s not a sustainable model if widely adopted, but it makes sense to me in both instances—it doesn’t make sense to me, however, for most authors or books.

More importantly, there’s nothing triumphalist about it: it essentially acknowledges that there are some things that traditional publishers do better, and that distribution is one of those things. It’s a weird model for publishers to accept—especially widely—because publishers sell books in the abstract—electronic and print editions benefit equally from well-coordinated campaigns (and from strong editing). But The Autobiography of Malcolm X doesn’t need that kind of effort.

There is, of course, a counterargument about how publishers are a cartel (true) and they flex their muscles in the marketplace to get their way (also true), but I think that counterargument is less compelling than many on the other side of the aisle do. Employing people to advocate for books full-time makes a big difference, and it especially makes a big difference when hundreds of thousands of books are published every year. It makes a huge difference when almost all of those books are terrible. (This is something I’m sure we’ll talk more about in the future.)

In any case, I don’t think this story really points to anything definitive. I like to think, as I said earlier, that part of the reason the estate is interested in going this way is that they have a plan that would make this incredible work available to the “community,” as they say that it already belongs to us. But it’s very important to mention that, whatever any statement says, the community doesn’t have the right to anything: the children do. They’re the ones with the most to gain here.

The fact that it’s an estate, and not an author, reaping the potential—and it’s important to emphasize potential, even though this seems, at a glance, to be pretty much a sure thing—rewards. That also may help to explain the lack of triumphalism here—the most vocal members of the self-publishing world tend to stoke the flames of the cult of the author while essentially claiming that no one else in the publishing industry has any stake in or influence over the success of said author. (The publishing industry, to these people—many of who have no experience with the industry itself—is essentially Keystone Kops, if Keystone Kops had the ethos (and, often, intelligence) of a Sarah Palin speech.)

None of this changes one important fact, however: publishers—big publishers, in particular—haven’t made a strong enough case for why they should be the ones to publish and distribute ebooks like The Autobiography of Malcolm X. While I think the publishing industry’s perceived backwardness has been greatly exaggerated, I also think that publishers need to be doing more to make the case for the value of ebooks. Ebooks have value and should be priced as such—i.e. they should cost more than a hamburger—but I think that ebook production has lagged behind and that publishers aren’t investing enough in it.

Mark: I think this is the first time in Two for Tuesday history that you and I have had a substantive disagreement on something! Frustratingly, though, I defer to you, because you know a lot more about self-publishing than I do, though I know a lot more about hyphen usage than you do.

I’m not especially eager to make a pro-industry case on behalf of big publishers and why they should retain e-book rights, but for the sake of fairness and balance, let me take a stab at it. You write that publishers “haven’t made a strong enough case for why they should be the ones to publish and distribute ebooks” like Malcolm X’s autobiography. To that I’d say: they shouldn’t have to! Or rather, they have to make a case rhetorically, in a broad sense, but that’s true when it comes to publishers in just about any context. Publishers, as you and I know, are very bad at speaking up on behalf of their own utility, So in that narrow sense, yes, they should make a case.

But with that said, I think the publishers do have a strong case. After all, it’s the publishers who launched the Autobiography in the first place, and it’s the publishers who have kept it in the public eye: they continue to print it, they distribute it to every bookstore in the country, their academic marketing department continues to pitch it to high schools and colleges, etc. I’m not particularly keen on speaking out on behalf of a big house’s right to control rights that didn’t even exist when the book was first published, but there you have it.

Alex: Right. “You didn’t build that.”

I’m supportive of that argument in general—and I think the general discourse surrounding “You didn’t build that,” as stupid as it was, is useful to publishing in general, where a lot of behind-the-scenes work (or lack thereof) often goes into a book’s success (or failure). The fact that those details often seem inevitable from the outside has, I think, helped propel the cult of the author that’s emerged in some self-publishing circles—though that’s a different beast, as it has combined with the technolibertarian (dystopian) dream in which everyone is an entrepreneur who is selling something (read: themselves) all the time.

Still, I think, in this case at least, “you didn’t build that” goes a bit too far. I don’t know how much Random House did to make The Autobiography of Malcolm X a success, but the book’s success is far more dependent on Malcolm X—who he was, most importantly, but also the exceptional book he wrote with Alex Haley—than on the people who edited, produced, and distributed the book. A lot of people built The Autobiography of Malcolm X, but, obviously, no one was more instrumental to that success than Malcolm X himself. It doesn’t bother me at all that his family has the opportunity to benefit from that fact.

Nevertheless, this calculus—a book’s success (or failure) rarely, if ever, is decided by one, easily determinable factor— is something that I hope we talk about more in the future because it’s something that’s rarely discussed—like many things, we tend to remember that publishers exist when they fuck up and forget them when they succeed. I think peeling back that curtain is one of the uses of this column.

Mark: Right. And we should note again that the book wasn’t even originally published by Random House, even though they publish the paperback now–it was published by Grove! Everything comes back to Grove. Because Grove is awesome.

Well, Alex, was this the Two for Tuesday in which we finally alienated our readers–all of whom, it turns out, love Forrest Gump, hate Inherent Vice, and wish that the paperback of The Autobiography of Malcolm X were also self-published? It’s probable! Dear readers, write to us at [email protected] and let us know. Oh wait, hold up. That’s not a real e-mail (e-mail, not email) address. So you know what, don’t write to us.

Alex, are there songs?

Alex: Don’t email that fake address! Email me at [email protected]. I always want to talk publishing. And yes, of course, there are songs. Here are two killer hits from Wizzard.