Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

February 1, 2010

Amazon/Macmillan Weekend Slap Fight

In what felt to many like the first flurry of gunfire at Lexington and Concord and to others like the extended pie fight from the movie The Great Race, and Macmillan went at it over the weekend on the matter of pricing e-books, with temporarily dropping new books from the mega-publisher in any form before releasing a statement saying those rights will be returned to the publisher. This included Macmillan's comics offerings. has since thrown in the towel on this particular skirmish, without steeping away from what it sees are the principles involved. Many see this tussle as a sign of things to come.

imageTo my mind, there is so much bad faith exhibited on both sides of the pricing argument that it's hard to dig through and assign blame to one side or the other here, although many people are certainly happy to take a fierce stand in that fashion. The strongest argument the book publishers seem to have is that in the end they should have the right to set their sales point at whatever they'd like, whether or not people end up wanting to buy the material. A secondary argument of distinction would be that it's bad to let people set pricing policies if there's a potential they're doing so while losing money. The strongest argument that and its supporters seem to have is their price point -- $9.95 -- as a general criticism against a broad insistence by book publishers that prices need to be some reasonable percentage of current, suggested publisher pricing for its books in print. That assertion doesn't tend to take into account what most people see as basic realities of that pricing -- that it's initially artificially inflated to allow/encourage chain discounting, for instance -- and fails to justify in thorough fashion an infrastructure that is only one year removed from being profiled in mainstream media as adjusting to lean economic times by downgrading where they take authors for fancy lunches. There are also serious doubts that the publishing infrastructure as it exists right now currently and consistently provides the kind of editing and publicity services by which such entities used to justify their percentage of the bottom lines.

CR contacted First Second Editorial Director Mark Siegel for a response as to his comics-publishing group's view on the matter. He was nice enough to pass along Macmillan CEO John Sargent's take on the tussle as of Saturday as he received it himself. That can be read here and, one assumes, a variety of places by now.

There are any number of additional avenues to look at the story, such as holding up the recording industry as a mirror and seeing the publishers as the music companies that were happy to see Apple develop an on-line store until it decided on pricing, or seeing as scrambling to have a similar influence before they're jostling for such influence with an army of tablet-makers and perhaps the publishers themselves. Take your pick. I think for comics there are a few stories. One is that many comics are handled by big book publishers that are going to be at the forefront of these battles. I wouldn't want to release my big graphic novel during a six-week version of an Amazon freeze-out similar to this one. Another is that this a potential cold splash of water in the face for cartoonists dealing with book publishers who are learning there are some times that isn't always awesome, a general where and how to publish concern up there with one like such publishers letting material go out of print much, much sooner than traditional comics publishers. Still another issue for comics is that it's a sign that company infrastructures in all media are going to be held accountable for what they deliver and what they cost.
posted 4:00 pm PST | Permalink

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