Tuesday, May 08, 2012

A Taxing Problem

The knives are out for Amazon. Following a recent report that revealed that they are allegedly guilty of tax avoidance*, the great and the good of the UK book industry have lined up to condemn the online retailer. My old boss James Heneage recently described Amazon as "dangerous", whilst Tim Waterstone condemned them as "rude, contemptuous, arrogant and subversive".

Strong words, but relatively mild compared to Waterstones' (the apostrophe was officially moved in January) current managing director, who branded Amazon a "ruthless, moneymaking devil". Devil? That sort of hyperbole is usually associated with some of the more outspoken members of the Iranian parliament, not retail executives.

Amazon have clearly got under a few people's skin.

James Heneage, somewhere in Wiltshire

According to James Heneage, Amazon are "damaging the high street book trade and threaten to undermine publishers' ability to nurture new talent. If you are concerned about the sort of books that get published you have to look to the future and the amount of value that businesses like Amazon can remove from the publishing business model".

Heneage goes on to argue that "great writers such as Patrick O'Brian and Joanna Trollope...did not start out as uniquely brilliant. (They) built gradually because publishers worked with them and had the money to invest, and pay for the expertise that spotted the books in the first place."

There is a lot to be said for this argument. I remember how it took around ten years for Ian Rankin to become a bestselling author, by which time he had written over a dozen books. When I worked at Waterstone's in the early 90s, the only Rankin we'd heard of was Robert, the author of humorous fantasy novels.

(On the subject of Robert Rankin, I once had an embarrassing exchange with a middle-aged woman who'd asked what I'd recommend for her 17-year-old son. When I said "Has he tried Rankin?" she misheard me, but to her credit didn't bat an eyelid and replied "Well, I suppose that would keep him quiet")

Ian Rankin could have continued to languish in the midlist, but he had a publisher that believed in him (probably encouraged by a recent Gold Dagger award) and they relaunched the Rebus novels with new jackets and a nationwide marketing campaign. It worked and the rest is history.

I wonder how Ian Rankin would fare today if he'd just written his first Inspector Rebus novel? Would he find a publisher for 'Knots and Crosses' as easily as he did in 1987 and if he had, would they publish a further six books before Rankin really hit his stride with 'Black and Blue'?

It's possible that a writer of Ian Rankin's talent could still succeed today by circumventing the normal publishing process. Several lesser writers have gained publishing deals by making their work available for nothing (or a nominal fee) to Kindle readers, allowing viral marketing to do the rest. But could Ian Rankin have afforded to do this without the financial support of a publisher?

As far as I was concerned, James Heneage had hit the nail on the head, but then I read this (and please forgive me for quoting it at length):

"I don't like it when someone like James Heneage steps forward to give the media a quote and blows it by mumbling about irrelevancies. Perhaps he is being misquoted or the paper is focussing on what were intended to be peripheral remarks, but this article makes it seem like his main objection to Amazon is that they're not really members of the club.

Firstly (sic) he seems to believe that great authors need to be nurtured by publishers: eliminating publishers imperils literature. I personally am quite sure that great authors will continue to emerge if 'publisher' goes the way of 'lamplighter' or 'footman'. He also seems to believe that publishers have an important role spotting those great writers: without publishers we wouldn't notice the diamonds in the rough. I agree that's a role publishers fill... for now. But if what replaces the current model is readers reading any old thing, including lots of self-published novels, and then blogging and tweeting about them, I think we'll see books with lasting appeal being taken up more not less quickly. I won't lament the loss of the 'kingmaker' role in publishing. And there will still be prominent figures who can champion new writing.

Heneage also thinks that Amazon is not 'investing' enough in the industry, in (implied) contrast to the way that publishers do. He doesn't elaborate, but single-handedly developing and popularising a global e-book platform sounds like investing to me. As does allowing any solvent reader with an internet connection to get any book through the mail in a day or two - including titles that 99% of bricks-and-mortar stores never carried. And it may not be the sort of investment Heneage likes, but Amazon have also made books cheaper. In fact I would say that the problem is that Amazon is investing too much rather than too little.

Heneage concludes by saying that if you have the long-term success of the industry at heart you don't undermine the competition too much. This is a terribly woolly remark. Is he suggesting that the only thing that's stopped Macmillan or Random House from grabbing 99% of the book market is a sportsmanlike restraint and a custodial mindset? The directors of publicly-traded firms would be fired if they announced they'd called a halt to growth because they were worried about the competition."

The author of this extract is Rob Jones, co-owner of the small publisher Snowbooks (you can find the full article on their blog, here) and he argues his case very persuasively. He could have added that what's happening now is the logical outcome of a process that allowed Ottakar's to expand so quickly during the ten years following the collapse of the NBA.

However, the advent of self-published ebooks is my idea of hell. Yes, there are some very good novels that have failed to gain the attentions of agents and publishers, but how can we identify them amongst the thousands that are available? It's equally woolly to suggest that the glut of self-published books can be successfully curated by a loose coalition of bloggers and tweeters.

I regularly receive emails inviting me to read and review a 'remarkable' new novel by an author I've never heard of. If I had more time on my hands and wasn't such a slow reader, perhaps I'd occasionally take some of these offers up out of curiosity. But life's too short. I'd rather spend my spare time reading unread masterpieces like 'Catch-22' or 'Mansfield Park'.

Even if I did review the new thriller that claims to "revive the genre with a splendid mixture of innovation and cutting edge timeliness" (I'm quoting from the publicist's email), what are my credentials? What's my relationship to the author? I'm not against amateur criticism and trust the integrity of bloggers like John Self far more than some of the 'You scratch my back...' reviews that appear in the broadsheets. But with the exception of John Self, Caustic Cover Critic, Gaskella and a few other notable book bloggers, I still prefer to leave it to the professionals rather than wade through the blogosphere.

As far as Amazon are concerned, I think it's naive to expect them to do anything other than avoid paying taxes. Unless they suffer a drop in sales from outraged UK customers (and let's face it, they won't), Amazon can't be expected to unilaterally sacrifice a sizeable chunk of their net profit. That's why governments need to force the issue rather than simply trust 'the market'.

What's the point of this article? I did have one an hour ago, but that was before a succession of "Daaa-aaad, Daaa-aaad"s from upstairs completely broke my concentration...Naughty Amazon, yes, but they're very good at what they do and unlike some people, I love ebooks, seeing a wonderful opportunity to bring thousands of obscure titles back into print.

As for James Heneage, I'm not sure if he's in a position to complain when, 15 years ago, he was charging across the high street bookselling landscape like Attila the Hun, driving many independent bookshops out of business (I know, because I was one of his henchmen). Admittedly Ottakar's paid its taxes and James was a wonderful man to work for, but like Amazon, we used our buying power to drive the competition out of business.

Nobody knows quite how the book industry is going to change during the next decade, but there are two certainties: bookshops will continue to close and ebook sales will probably overtake those of paperbacks. The worst case scenario is a virtual Amazon monopoly, with Kindle charts dominated by thousands of self-published titles of questionable quality. But in the same way that the best independent bookshops are thriving (think Topping's or Much Ado), I believe that imaginative publishers and booksellers will ride the storm successfully.

I'm sorry if this post has rambled. There was a cogent argument here somewhere, but it disappeared into the ether, aided by screaming children and an exploding lightbulb (or was it my Kindle?).

* Thank you to the kind person who advised me to change the original word to 'avoidance'.


Art said...

Well I don't know anything about the tax situation in the UK, but in America the big 6 publishers have been up in arms, for, oh, years...and its sort of coming to a head now. It's the same battle cry about competition and fostering authors. Amazon's recent foray into publishing mainstream commercial books independently of the traditional publishers seems to have really struck a nerve.

But it does throw the traditional publishers in a rather sacrosanct light, or rather they put themselves there, and so I like what Rob Jones said.

magiciansgirl said...

I enjoyed this post & I think you raised many good points. I see the ' book industry' much the same as the music industry or the film industry, etc. everything evolves & while you don't have to love all aspects of 'progress' you can choose to go with the flow & appreciate the good parts while trying ( perhaps futilely) to amend the bad. I have a friend who's long worked in the records industry(& by record industry I mean he sells vinyl records) and he loathes iTunes, MP3s, etc., & rails against the soulless ness of new technology ( he bemoans a lot, too). He also hates what Amazon is doing to independent bookstores. I can't entirely disagree, but I have to admit I love the immediacy of iTunes & ereaders. Perhaps we're just spoiled, and we now have the attention spans of fleas (never really understood that expression) but I find myself hating to wait for something to arrive in the post or postponing a purchase til,the weekend when I have time to shop. Hilary Mantle's new book came out today & now I have it to read before I go to sleep tonight, instead of waiting & running out to the store to buy it on Saturday. I could just be lazy. And if I don't want to buy an entire album to get the one or two songs I really like, hey, great. Ditto for movies- iTunes & Netflx means I can download what I'm in the mood to watch instantly, instead of going out to get a DVD. Yes, I've come to the conclusion that I am definitely lazy. And perhaps this does have dire repercussions for me and the rest of the world, but then they were saying that when the telephone was invented & TV came along. Technology changes & we change with it, sometimes for good, sometimes not. And if my typing is wonky, please forgive me - I'm still getting used to typing on a touchscreen rather than a regular keyboard......

Richmonde said...

@magiciansgirl - typing on a touchscreen is an improvement that isn't!

Martin said...

An interesting post. We are, indeed, living through a publishing revolution, at the end of which, people will still exercise their judgement as to what constitutes a 'good read', Amazon or no Amazon.

Tim Footman said...

"Cutting edge timeliness"? Yuck.

Steerforth said...

Art - I half agree with Rob Jones. Publishers and retailers were quite happy to break up the old model when it suited them. But the prospect of losing the expertise of professional publishers sends shivers down my spine.

Kim - You're absolutely right. I don't like what I read about Amazon these days, but I wouldn't want to live in an Amazon-free world. I've been buying from them for 16 years and never cease to be impressed by their ever-improving offer. Like you, I love the convenience of MP3 downloads, ebooks and next-day delivery. I don't want to live in a house groaning under the weight of things, so I'm all in favour of the recent developments. Ebooks, MP3s and streaming video also have a lower carbon footprint.

I remember reading some publishers holding their hands up in horror when public libraries appeared on the scene, but the industry merely evolved.

James Heneage's point does raise a genuine cause for concern, but publishers have been less indulgent towards midlist authors for quite a while now, before ebooks appeared.

Richmonde - Yes, that's the one thing that would stop me buying an iPad.

Martin - I agree. Whatever happens, people will still read and use their judgement. I'm just slightly put off by the prospect of wading through long lists of ebooks by people I've never heard of. I've downloaded samples of some of the free self-published ebooks on Amazon and none of them have taken my fancy yet.

Steerforth said...

Tim - That's what I thought too. Whoever wrote that is in the wrong job.

zmkc said...

I got stuck at the concept that Joanna Trollope is a great writer - entertaining but absolutely dreadful stylist in my unspeakably snobbish view. But I will read to the end when I've got over that hurdle.


I agree with magiansgirl.

Part of the 'problem' is that everyone is an artist these days. I have received a few requests to review a self-published book, and like you, I baulk.

Music is more my thing than books (sorry folks) and I wouldn't know about 98% of my favourite artists without the internet.

I find an artist I like, download their tracks, and if I like what I hear, I'll support them by buying their CD/going to see their show.

Buying novels seems pointless. You read it once, maybe twice. Pass it to a friend, never see it again, or leave it to languish on the shelf gathering dust. That's not to say I don't understand people's pleasure in buying books.

The possessiveness of 'owning' something tangible will always appeal to some. We have hundreds of CD's which never see the light of day.

Somebody will be ripping you off, and somebody will be losing out - it doesn't matter where you purchase your reading material from, or in what form.

True 'artists' die poor anyway. That's why we all have so little time for people like Hirst and Jackie Collins.

Real talent shines through eventually, the path isn't always paved with gold, though.

Jim Murdoch said...

There is tax evasion and tax avoidance; the first is illegal, the second is not. What governments need to do is plug up those loopholes that enable people to avoid paying tax by simply shuffling around money. And who wouldn’t avoid paying tax if they could legally get away with it? The question is whether or not Amazon have been evading or avoiding; probably a bit of both. Whatever happens they are here to stay. Yes, there will always be other places to buy books just as there will always be other search engines that aren’t Google but who use them?

As far as the mushrooming self-publishing industry goes, well, as a self-published author in all but name (my wife actually handles all the publishing side of things) I have some concerns like you. The fact is it doesn’t matter if Amazon has 1.8 million titles available or 1.8 billion; it’s too many and no one is going to find my books there unless they are looking for them by name. Which means they’ve learned about them elsewhere. And even the most dedicated self-published author only has so much time to devote to promotion if he ever expects to write another book.

The biggest problem is that, because of these ease with which one can get a book into print these days (or, increasingly, into some electronic format), there will be authors who have written perfectly good books that could well get book deals—like me—who simply can’t be arsed playing the publishing game. I’m not being overconfident when I say that and, as you know, it’s rare for me to bum myself up but I’m well aware of how good I am. What bothers me is that I have to clamour for attention in a marketplace full of … let’s just say not so good books. So the odds of anyone hearing my voice crying in the wilderness is next to zero because the wilderness has now got a multitude wandering through it and every one of them and their dog is touting a book and willing to accept 99¢ for it if they’re not giving it away for free. Well, sod that for a game of soldiers.

It will be interesting to see where we are in ten years with all this. I don’t think things will be all that different. The Xmas charts will all be full of ghost-written celebrity confessions and populist writers. Their books will even probably be still available in paperback form too. For all progress is heading in the right direction we’re still waiting on the flying cars and tinfoil suits we were promised back in the seventies.

Steerforth said...

zmkc - I must confess that I've never looked beyond the covers of a Joanna Trollope novel. She seems like a guilty pleasure which, thanks to the Kindle, we can now read in public without being found out!

Lucy - Yes, the internet has revolutionised the music industry. I don't miss the days when I trudged from one record shop to another on a futile quest for a rare album, or playing a new purchase only to discover that it was crap. Like you, if I discover something I like, I'll support the artist by buying the CD.

I like having physical copies of my favourite novels, as they're like rings on a tree, reminding me of what I was doing or feeling at a particular time in my life. But so far, I have never reread a single book. Perhaps I will when I'm older.

Jim - You've highlighted what I think is a growing problem. Writing is a solitary occupation and I suspect that most authors are introverts, but to get their work noticed, they increasingly have to be 'out there', tweeting, blogging and hassling bookshop managers and local papers. How you get your books noticed on Amazon I don't know.

As far as Amazon are concerned, I "love the sinner but hate the sin".

The Poet Laura-eate said...

The biggest cause of concern to me is the disappearance of our High Streets. As you say, it used to be the chains driving the independents out. Now the chains themselves are being driven out by the internet (sic Clinton's Cards today) and by too many supermarkets diversifying to a ridiculous degree so that they do nothing well any more.
I'd really like to see a law where supermarkets are only allowed to sell food!!!

Annie said...

I read this interesting post from the point of view of an author defending Amazon after having poor experiences with old school publishers - can't remember where I came across it, apologies if it was already on your blog.

I have a lovehate relationship with Amazon, they are also dodgy to their employees - poor working conditions and won't let them unionise.

The thought of paperbacks dying out makes me cry.

Annie said...

I think I forgot to link - here it is


Steerforth said...

Laura - I think Tesco have actually got worse during the last ten years. I'm sure their food range used to be better. Perhaps this is why their profits are down.

Anna - Thanks for the link - fascinating stuff! I had no idea that a respectable publisher could be so cut-throat. But then they all cut deals with Amazon and the supermarkets when it suited them, so their words of support for the high street bookseller do sound rather hollow.

magiciansgirl said...

@ Richmonde - truer words were never spoken - one reason I haven't given up the Blackberry for an iPhone. I should add, after my post, that I do love books - owning books, holding books, re-reading books (I do quite a lot of this) and collecting books. I would never want actual books to "go away." And I understand that I may be contributing to their demise by reading Ebooks, which is sad. So I continue to buy both Ebooks and 'real' books (I never thought I would actually come around to Ebooks, actually)for the foreseeable future. And I do still love poking around in old book shops, an experience that neither Amazon nor any other ESeller or chain store can ever hope to equal. Steerforth, you can do so much more on the iPad than type, so I wouldn't let the touchscreen hold you back! I don't have a Kindle, but I use the Kindle download to download books and there are other book apps that offer some really good, free books especially the aptly named 'Free Books', that offers everything from F Scott Fitzgerald & Edith Wharton to Jung and Freud,to my favorites, out of print classic ghost tales by Blackwood, Lovecraft, etc. There are also some great photography apps.

PearlFog said...

Steerforth, have you really never re-read a book?! That's fascinating; I'm a fairly frequent re-reader myself, maybe that's weirder than I thought. I have several novels that I've probably read five or six times each and I'll probably read again many more times. I'm like that with films and music too, maybe I just don't like surprises!

Having said that, I own plenty of books and there's only a handful of them to which I'm attached to the particular personal copy on my shelf (got grammatically lost after 'handful' in that sentence and can't get it to come out right, oh dear). Generally I'm happy with library books and will only buy a favourite now for convenience of re-reading and just because I like to have them around to look at, like old friends.


Steerforth said...

Apart from childhood favourites, no.
I don't know why. Perhaps I feel it's a waste of time to reread a book when I could spend that time discovering a new one, and yet my gut feeling is that I'm only scratching the surface on the first reading and it would be better to be intmately acquainted with 100 books rather than have a vague memory of 500.

I revisit pieces of music many times. I've probably listened to Sibelius's 6th symphony at least 200 times and never tire of returning to it; but at 24 minutes long, it's less of a commitment than a whole novel.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. Can't stand Amazon, but then I do work for Waterstones....

James Russell said...

You haven't read Catch-22? Stop what you're doing and read it now! Who cares whether it's a ratty old secondhand paperback, an overpriced new paperback or an ebook. Just read it!

MTFF said...

Steerforth, this was a great post full of really interesting things but you SHOULD NOT HAVE PUT IN the aside with your embarrassing exchange re Rankin because I've been unable to do anything except giggle uncontrollably (yes, apparently I'm 12) all the way through the rest of it. I'll have to come back and read the rest of your salient points when I'm older.

Steerforth said...

The strangest thing about that incident was the woman's deadpan response - she didn't register a flicker of shock at the word she thought I'd said!