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What Happened to Amazon’s Bookstore?

A 2011 thriller was supposed to cost $15. One merchant listed it at $987, with a 17th-century publication date. That’s what happens in a marketplace where third-party sellers run wild.

John C. Boland was poking around the Amazon bookstore when he saw the science thriller “Hominid” for sale at dizzying prices. It was $907 from Sandy Dunes Surplus, $930 from Rocky Mountain Books and $987 from Open Range Media.

He didn’t need a copy. He wrote the novel and published it himself. List price is $15.

Mr. Boland has been selling books on Amazon since 2009. He lets the bookseller handle everything for his imprint, called Perfect Crime, including printing, billing and shipping.

“Best retailer on the planet,” he calls it. “They eat the competition’s lunch.”

Despite that endorsement, Mr. Boland sued Amazon at the end of August, accusing the all-devouring retailer of, in essence, eating Perfect Crime’s lunch. His suit says Amazon let Sandy Dunes and other vendors on its platform run wild with Perfect Crime titles, offering copies for ridiculous amounts. The sellers also bizarrely asserted that “Hominid” was published in 1602, a mere 409 years before it was actually issued, which further irked the writer.

The suit, in federal court in Maryland, offers a glimpse into Amazon’s dominance and perhaps its vulnerability. Amazon’s online store has surpassed Walmart, making it the largest retailer outside China. By delivering essentials and luxuries to those stuck at home during the pandemic, it helped many people navigate a bleak moment. Shipping times that used to be measured in days are now counted in hours. It is one of the few companies valued at more than a trillion dollars.

For all that success, however, Amazon is under pressure from many directions.

There are sellers like Mr. Boland, who say they are suffering from the Wild West atmosphere on the site; regulators, who are taking a closer look at Amazon’s power; unhappy warehouse employees, who would like a better deal; and lawmakers, who want Amazon to disclose more about its third-party sellers. There are also the devious sellers themselves, whom Amazon says it is having a hard time eradicating.

All of these critical groups could perhaps be dealt with. But there is one more that presents a much bigger risk: customers. As Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, once noted, customers are “divinely discontent.” Last quarter they got fickle about Amazon. After years of meteoric growth, its e-commerce revenue barely budged.

Maybe it was a blip. Or maybe shoppers are shutting their wallets in frustration.

“Amazon started as a bookstore, but it’s now a marketplace — an e-commerce bucket that any seller can put their stuff into,” said Jane Friedman, a publishing industry consultant. “The result is that the shopping experience has really gotten worse over time.”

The bookstore is the oldest part of Amazon, still central to its identity but no longer to its bottom line. It feels like where every Amazon shopping experience could be heading — immense, full of ads and unvetted reviews, ruled by algorithms and third-party sellers whose identities can be elusive.

Amazon denied all of Mr. Boland’s allegations in court, though it says it is striving to understand what happened. It rejected the idea that the consumer experience has gotten worse. But the bookstore’s less traveled aisles seem mysterious even to Amazon, like a neighborhood left by the authorities to fend for itself.

The overwhelming complexity and sheer size of Amazon is increasingly a political issue. Last month, the Department of Justice sued to stop Penguin Random House from acquiring Simon & Schuster. The combined firm would have an estimated 27 percent of the market for new books. But Amazon has much greater control over their sale. By some estimates, it has as much as two-thirds of the market for new and used books through its own platform and such subsidiaries as

“Should we care as a society that a single firm controls half of our most precious cultural commodity and its automation isn’t working right?” asked Christopher Sagers, the author of “Antitrust: Examples & Explanations.”

Earlier this week, Amazon ranked his book the No. 1 seller in the category of “Antitrust Law.” The second-ranked seller was “Mental Health Workbook,” which deals with depression and attachment theory. No. 5 was a book on the origins of Christmas. No. 15 was a true-crime tale about child murders. Eight of the top 20 books on the list had no discernible connection to antitrust.

“People think Amazon’s algorithms are better than they actually are,” Mr. Sagers explained.

Amazon declined to say what percentage of its book sales are done through third parties. (For the entire marketplace it is over half.) The overwhelming majority of these are legitimate vendors. Some are not. Mr. Boland’s lawsuit implies that Amazon does not make much effort to distinguish between the two. That, it seems, is the customer’s job.

“In some ways Amazon doesn’t really want to be a retailer,” said Juozas Kaziukenas of Marketplace Pulse, an e-commerce consultant. “It doesn’t want to do curation or offer human interaction,” two of the essential qualities of retail for centuries.

Offering tens of millions of items to hundreds of millions of customers prevents any human touch — but opens up a lot of space for advertising, and for confusion and duplicity. This might be good for Amazon’s competitors in physical bookstores, which have a much smaller and more tightly controlled stock. But it does not bode well for e-commerce.

It’s the paradox of plenty: The more things there are to buy, the more difficult it is to find the right thing among the plethora of ads and competition, new material and secondhand, quality and garbage.

“Amazon knows what I buy, how often I buy, what I search for,” Mr. Kaziukenas said. “But decades after it launched, it can’t answer a simple question — what would Juozas like to buy? Instead it shows me thousands of deals, with some basic filters like category and price, and hopes I will find what I like. Amazon is so much work.”

Once upon a time, when the dot-coms roamed the earth, the Amazon bookstore was a simple place. It had knowledgeable human editors, bountiful discounts and delivery that was speedy for the era. For the book-obsessed, it offered every publisher’s backlist, obscure but irresistible titles that had previously been difficult to discover and acquire.

The combination of all those things in one place was a sensation. Amazon quickly took market share from independent stores and chains.

Online shopping promised so much. When Time magazine made Mr. Bezos its Person of the Year in 1999, it marveled that the site was “alive with uncounted species of insight, innovation and intellect.”

Third-party sellers were an Amazon innovation in the late 1990s. Before that, stores either entirely controlled the shopping experience or, if they had a lot of sellers under one roof, were called flea markets and were not quite reputable.

Amazon in theory offered the brisk competition of the latter while exercising the oversight of the former. Bringing in third-party sellers was also a way for Amazon to champion how it was helping small businesses, which helped defuse controversies about its size and behavior.

A new report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a research and advocacy group often critical of Amazon, details the most direct benefit of third-party sellers to the retailer: profits. A third-party seller pays Amazon $34 out of every $100 in sales, the nonprofit institute calculates, up from $19 in 2014.

The money comes from fees, ads and premium logistics that make the merchandise more visible to potential buyers. Amazon called the report “intentionally misleading” because the site does not force sellers to advertise or use its logistics system.

Bookselling at Amazon is a two-tier system, said Stacy Mitchell, a co-director of the institute and the author of the report, “Amazon’s Toll Road: How the Tech Giant Funds Its Monopoly Empire by Exploiting Small Businesses.”

“Best sellers and other books that you might find at a local bookstore are almost all sold by Amazon itself at prices that keep those competitors at bay,” Ms. Mitchell said. “Then Amazon lets third-party sellers do the rest of the books, taking a huge cut of their sales.”

Amazon “doesn’t care if this third-party stuff is a chaotic free-for-all,” she added. “In fact, it’s better for Amazon if legitimate businesses don’t stand a chance. In the same way Amazon wants to turn all work into gig jobs, it wants to turn running a business into a gig job. That way it can walk off with all the spoils.”

Mr. Boland, a retired journalist who lives near Baltimore, found the chaos infuriating. A whole shelf of things he wrote and published were dated to ridiculous years like 1876, 1842, 1774.

“It’s deceptive advertising,” he said. “Why is Amazon, the champion of consumers, allowing this?”

Extraordinary prices for ordinary books have been an Amazon mystery for years, but the backdating of titles to gain a commercial edge appears to be a new phenomenon. A listing with a fake date gets a different Amazon page from a listing with the correct date. In essence, those Boland books were in another virtual aisle of the bookstore. That could power sales.

Last month, a search on the site for paperbacks published before 1800 yielded over 100,000 results. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign tract, “Change We Can Believe In,” was published in 1725, according to a seller charging $45 for it. Elsewhere in the bookstore it sells for as low as 25 cents.

“We do not allow the activity Mr. Boland observed and are working to correct” it, Amazon said in a statement. “It appears only a small number of these books were sold by third-party sellers in our store, and we have no evidence that any were counterfeit. We are investigating how this occurred.”

Mr. Boland takes the misuse of his name personally. “When a seller claims to have a 1602 edition that it’s charging nearly $1,000 for, it’s defaming me by implying that the book existed before I wrote it — i.e., that I’m a plagiarist,” he said.

Amazon argues in court papers that the same shield that protects Facebook and Twitter from being sued over posts by their users — Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — protects it as well, even if the product is a physical item.

Mark Lemley, the director of the Stanford Program in Law, Science and Technology, said the company was probably right. “I don’t think Amazon will be liable for misstatements posted by others, and certainly not if it wasn’t aware of them,” he said.

Mr. Boland, who is acting as his own lawyer, said he made Amazon aware of the problem last spring but got nowhere. Only after his suit was filed did Amazon begin pulling the erroneous listings down. Perfect Crime’s damages, Amazon said in a filing, “if any,” were not caused by Amazon and “are vague, uncertain, imaginary and speculative.”

Some of the backdating sellers named in the suit are based in Dallas, leading Mr. Boland to suspect they are connected. Sandy Dunes, Open Range and Rocky Mountain all seem to have disappeared, or perhaps changed their name.

In 2019, Mr. Bezos celebrated the fact that Amazon’s two million independent sellers were doing so well. “To put it bluntly: Third-party sellers are kicking our first party butt,” he wrote. They were pulling in $90,000 a year on average, the company said.

With a little fraud it’s possible for a third party to make much more, at least for a while.

The U.S. attorney’s office in the Western District of Michigan recently announced arrests in a case involving Amazon’s textbook rental program. Geoffrey Mark Hays Talsma was charged with selling his rentals of “Using Econometrics: A Practical Guide,” “Chemistry: Atoms First” and other volumes instead of returning them.

At Amazon, the customer is king. According to the indictment, Mr. Talsma profited by repeatedly saying he had received the wrong products. He said, for instance, he had mistakenly been shipped flammable products that could not be returned, like a bottle of Tiki Torch Fuel that was leaking. Amazon would then credit his account.

What’s remarkable is the scale, length and profitability of this alleged activity. Amazon allows customers to rent up to 15 textbooks at a time. With the help of three confederates, Mr. Talsma rented more than 14,000 textbooks from Amazon over five years, making $3.4 million, prosecutors say. His lawyer declined to comment.

It’s the same story over and over again, Mr. Boland said: “Amazon has done a great job of expanding the marketplace for books. It’s too bad they’ve decided not to police their own platform, because it’s leading to all sorts of trouble.”

Amazon acknowledges that some third-party sellers bring problems, including fraud, counterfeiting and abuse. The retailer says it has invested $700 million and dedicated 10,000 employees to combating these issues.

Those resources are not enough. In a policy paper published Oct. 18, Amazon said law enforcement, border control and other authorities needed to make “bold changes” to protect the integrity of e-commerce.

But Amazon has resisted requiring its sellers to share more information about themselves. It has opposed lawmakers’ efforts to demand more transparency, saying it would violate sellers’ privacy. Recently it signaled guarded approval of a weaker bill but noted that there were a few parts of it “that could be refined.”

Amazon gives writers and publishers broad latitude to sell anything, including the mediocre and the misleading. The store’s logic has always been that the good work will rise and the bad will fall. In the meantime, however, some readers get suckered.

Dave Grohl, the Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters frontman, has just published his autobiography, “The Storyteller.” An outfit called “University Press” that is not a university press seized the opportunity to publish “Dave Grohl: The Biography,” which it paid Amazon to promote alongside Mr. Grohl’s book.

Like many of these types of books on Amazon, “The Biography” is written in what might be called “Almost English.” “It is undeniable that he has been instrumental in his own success,” a typical sentence reads.

Nevertheless, it sold. “The Biography,” which does not list an author, is now promoted with the tag “best seller,” just like Mr. Grohl’s own book. “The Biography” is No. 1 in New Age Music, Amazon says, right ahead of “Harmonica for Kids.”

Amazon featured as the “top critical review” of “The Biography” a comment by someone who is under the impression the musician himself wrote it. “Grohl should stick to songwriting,” the reviewer wrote. Other buyers, realizing the truth, were infuriated that they had been tricked into buying a pamphlet. Adding another note of confusion, Mr. Grohl’s book was mysteriously described as “Holiday Toy List.”

Other newly published pamphlets purport to summarize and explain Mr. Grohl’s own writing, although they, too, are written in Almost English. One pamphlet said it offered “an explanation of the indirect and figurative statements made by the writer to ensure an unadulterated Understanding.”

All of this is a long way from Time magazine’s swell future of insight and intellect.

“It doesn’t seem like anyone at Amazon is saying: ‘We’re junking the store up. We have to decide what’s best for the customer,’” said Ms. Friedman, the publishing consultant.

When the algorithms act, they do so boldly and bluntly.

After the Washington Redskins changed their name to the Washington Football Team, Amazon began dropping books with the name “Redskins” in them. “Fight for Old DC: George Preston Marshall, the Integration of the Washington Redskins, and the Rise of a New NFL” disappeared. So did George MacDonald Fraser’s historical caper “Flashman and the Redskins.”

Amazon did not intend to ban these books. In fact, it did not realize it had done so until a reporter told the retailer. It called the deletions a “mistake” and restored the titles.

Small presses say it’s hard to get Amazon to acknowledge a mistake, because it’s hard to get hold of a human being who could fix it. Valancourt Books, a publisher in Richmond, Va., that has won acclaim for its reissues of horror and gay interest titles, frequently runs afoul of the site.

“They will remove something but not tell you why they removed it,” said James D. Jenkins, Valancourt’s publisher. A recent case involved a new edition of “Devil Daddy,” a novel of demonic possession by the midcentury English horror novelist John Blackburn. When it originally appeared in 1972, The Sunday Times of London called it a “splendid ghoulish read.”

Amazon thought rather less of it.

“The subject matter of your book is in violation of our content guidelines,” the bookseller wrote Valancourt. “As a result, we cannot offer this book for sale.”

“We have to guess what might have offended a computer,” Mr. Jenkins said. “When it’s one book, how hard do you want to fight? But 90 percent of e-books come from Amazon. If they block a title, that’s a lot of sales you don’t have.”

An Amazon spokeswoman, Julia Lee, said, “Our review process is a combination of machine learning, automation and a large dedicated team of human reviewers, and sometimes, as in this case, we see human error.” She declined to say what the error was.

The real effect that Amazon is having on Valancourt is to diminish its ambitions. The publisher brought out an edition of “Carmilla,” a Victorian story by Sheridan Le Fanu that has become important in queer studies, with professional annotations and footnotes. But there are many less ambitious versions that slap a cover on an old text mined from the web.

“Customers complain to us that they can’t find our edition, or that they thought they were ordering ours but got some junk edition instead,” Mr. Jenkins said.

At least 20 editions of “Carmilla” are on Amazon. The Valancourt edition, which is indeed difficult to find on the site, features 1,206 reviews, some of which are clearly talking about inferior editions. “It didn’t include a forward,” one reviewer complained in Almost English, showing a picture of a different book. The Valancourt book has an introduction.

And so the story comes full circle. Amazon’s great gift to devoted readers in 1999 was to make every book in print available within a few days, and do it with a certain panache. Now the site is a maze of debris. Valancourt has given up.

“We’ve largely stopped producing scholarly editions of 18th- and 19th-century texts,” Mr. Jenkins said.

The bad is driving out the good, but Amazon pushes ahead with the automation.

Danny Caine, the proprietor of a bookstore in Lawrence, Kan., drew national attention when he wrote a letter to Mr. Bezos in 2019 saying that “your book business has devalued the book itself.” Mr. Caine is now writing a book, which he summed up on Twitter the other day: “Amazon is bad.”

A software program saw the confluence of “Amazon” and “bad” and sprang into action.

“We’re sorry for the experience,” Amazon said in an automatic tweet to Mr. Caine that rather missed the point. “Without providing any account or personal details, can you give us more insight on the issue you’ve encountered? Let us know. We’re here to help however we can.”Correction: Dec. 3, 2021

A photograph with an earlier version of this article was published in error. The image showed a man named John Boland who was not the subject of the article. The image has been replaced.

David Streitfeld has written about technology and its effects for twenty years. In 2013, he was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting.   

Mike Pence’s publisher refuses to cancel memoir after staff protest

Simon & Schuster has said it will not pull out of a seven-figure book deal with Mike Pence after some of its employees called for the contract to be scrapped, stating that “we come to work each day to publish, not cancel”.

An open letter circulated by staff at S&S said that the publisher had “chosen complicity in perpetuating white supremacy by publishing Pence”, in a two-book deal struck earlier this month and reported to be worth $3-4m (£2.1-2.8m). The letter, which did not reveal how many members of staff had signed, said that the former vice-president had “made a career out of discriminating against marginalised groups and denying resources to BIPOC and LGBTQA+ communities”, and demanded his book deal be cancelled.

“By choosing to publish Mike Pence, Simon & Schuster is generating wealth for a central figure of a presidency that unequivocally advocated for racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Blackness, xenophobia, misogyny, ableism, islamophobia, antisemitism, and violence,” says the letter. “This is not a difference of opinions; this is legitimising bigotry.”

Though in January S&S pulled out of publishing Republican senator Josh Hawley’s book over his part in the Capitol riot, S&S president Jonathan Karp told staff on Tuesday that the publisher would not cancel Pence’s deal.

“As a publisher in this polarised era, we have experienced outrage from both sides of the political divide and from different constituencies and groups. But we come to work each day to publish, not cancel, which is the most extreme decision a publisher can make, and one that runs counter to the very core of our mission to publish a diversity of voices and perspectives,” wrote Karp. “We will, therefore, proceed in our publishing agreement with vice-president Mike Pence.”

The employees also called for the publishing house to refrain from signing any more book deals with former members of the Trump administration, and demanded S&S stop distributing books for Post Hill Press. An independent publisher which focuses on “conservative politics” and Christian titles, Post Hill hit the headlines last week when it announced it would be publishing a book by by one of the police officers who shot Breonna Taylor, officer Jonathan Mattingly. While S&S subsequently announced it would not distribute Mattingly’s book, staff at S&S pointed to Post Hill titles which S&S still distributes, including embattled Republican congressman Matt Gaetz’s Firebrand.

“We impart to you the sad and unfortunate truth that we are actively making history right now,” says the open letter. “People will look back on this one day, and see that through our complicity, we chose to be on what is clearly the wrong side of justice.”

Karp said the decision not to distribute Mattingly’s book was “immediate, unprecedented, and responsive to the concerns we heard from you and our authors”. But he added that S&S has “contractual obligations and must continue to respect the terms of our agreements with our client publishers”.

Post Hill confirmed last week that it would go ahead with publishing Mattingly’s book without S&S, and declined to comment further.

Karp described the publisher’s role as “to find those authors and works that can shed light on our world — from first-time novelists to journalists, thought leaders, scientists, memoirists, personalities, and, yes, those who walk the halls of power”.

“Regardless of where those authors sit on the ideological spectrum, or if they hold views that run counter to the belief systems held by some of us, we apply a rigorous standard to assure that in acquiring books, we will be bringing into the world works that provide new information or perspectives on events to which we otherwise might not have access,” he wrote.

“When we allow our judgment to dwell on the books we dislike,” he added, “we distract ourselves from our primary purpose as a publisher – to champion the books we believe in and love.”

Pence’s currently untitled autobiography is set to be released in 2023.

Original Article – The Guardian

The Monster Publishing Merger Is About Amazon

Penguin Random House purchasing Simon & Schuster is not the gravest danger to the publishing business. The deal is transpiring in a larger context—and that context is Amazon.

In 1960, Dwight Eisenhower’s attorney general, William Rogers, read the paper with alarm. He learned that Random House intended to purchase the venerable publisher Alfred A. Knopf. Rogers began making calls to prod his antitrust division into blocking the sale. In those days, monopoly loomed as a central concern of government—and a competitive book business was widely seen as essential to preserving both intellectual life and democracy. After checking with his sources, Rogers discovered that the merger would yield a company that controlled a mere 1 percent of the book market, and he let the matter drop.

Not so long ago, Democratic and Republican administrations alike wouldn’t hesitate to block a merger like the one proposed today, which intends to fold the giant publisher Simon & Schuster into the even more gigantic Penguin Random House. How big would the combined company be? By one estimate, it might publish a third of all books in the U.S. This deal is so expansive that it’s hard to find an author to write about it who isn’t somehow implicated. Based on the odds, I suppose, it’s not terribly surprising to reveal that I’m published by Penguin Random House.

On paper, this merger is deplorable and should be blocked. As book publishing consolidates, the author tends to lose—and, therefore, so does the life of the mind. With diminished competition to sign writers, the size of advances is likely to shrink, making it harder for authors to justify the time required to produce a lengthy work. In becoming a leviathan, the business becomes ever more corporate. Publishing may lose its sense of higher purpose. The bean counters who rule over sprawling businesses will tend to treat books as just another commodity. Publishers will grow hesitant to take risks on new authors and new ideas. Like the movie industry, they will prefer sequels and established stars. What’s worse, a giant corporation starts to worry about the prospect of regulators messing with its well-being, a condition that tends to induce political caution in deciding which writers to publish.

But this merger is not the gravest danger to the publishing business. The deal is transpiring in a larger context—and that context is Amazon. The rise of Amazon accelerated the demise of Borders and the diminishment of Barnes & Noble. If it’s correct to worry about a merged company that publishes perhaps 33 percent of new books, then surely it’s correct to worry more about the fact that Amazon now sells 49 percent of them.

In the face of Amazon’s dominance, book publishers have huddled together in search of safety. Amazon’s size gives it terrifying leverage over the industry. Amazon, with its heavily visited home page, its emails to consumers, and its control of the search box on its site, has the power to make or break a title. To counter Amazon, publishers have sought to increase their bargaining power. They believe that they can match Amazon’s size only by growing their own.

When the government intervenes in a market, its actions are never neutral. One of the greatest mistakes of the Obama administration was the 2012 suit it brought against book publishers for working in concert to cut an e-book deal with Apple. The issue is not that the publishers were acting virtuously: They behaved like a cartel, which is illegal. It’s that the publishers were hardly the worst offenders. The government flogged the publishers for a technical violation of antitrust laws rather than constraining the most egregious monopolist, in spirit if not in letter.

It must not repeat the same mistake. The arrival of a new administration represents a moment to finally address Amazon’s lock on the book business; it’s a moment to focus on the core of the problem. Yes, publishers are oligopolistic and hardly sympathetic, but their continued health is essential to the survival of the book business, and thus the intellectual life of this country. If the government constrains publishers without constraining Amazon, then the government will merely accelerate the accumulation of untenable power in one single company.

Amazon has used the crisis of 2020, and the collapse of retail, to further consolidate itself, to create a business that owns the future of nearly every industry. Books were Amazon’s initial enterprise; they were the seemingly innocuous starting point for its plan to secure the economy’s commanding heights. The government’s treatment of the publishing industry is, therefore, a signal that it sends to every other sector of the economy. Nothing less than the survival of competitive capitalism is at stake.

Original Article – The Atlantic

‘Publishing is still a business that is owned by white men’: Three women on race and genre

Martine Powers talks with N.K. Jemisin, Jasmine Guillory and Lauren Wilkinson about challenging narrow perceptions of race in literary genres. And Marian Liu on the segregation of American music awards.

The book publishing industry still has a long way to go
“Publishing is still a business that is owned by white men,” romance writer Jasmine Guillory says. “And you know the people at the top are all white men.” She’s not alone in her sentiment. Lauren Wilkinson debuted her novel “American Spy” with a black woman as the protagonist. Wilkinson grew up reading John le Carré and James Bond novels. She says she always noticed a similarity between all of the spy novels she’d read as a kid.
“They looked very very white and male,” Wilkinson says. So she decided to do something about it by writing Marie Mitchell as the main character of “American Spy.”
“I mean, for me this is a spy book, but it’s secretly just an opportunity to talk about a black woman’s feelings for 300 pages,” Wilkinson says.
Science fiction also faces the problem of inequality in the publishing industry. That’s why N.K. Jemisin chose to put black experiences of oppression in a distant, imagined future. She says, “In a lot of science-fiction stories, you know, the way that they choose to engage with [oppression] is by having aliens be oppressed.” Instead, Jemisin chooses to show how the black experience fares in the future with the “Broken Earth” series.
These women tell Powers about why the industry remains so homogenous and what challenges remain.
Original Link:

Behind Elizabeth Gabler’s New Deal With Sony, HarperCollins

The former Fox 2000 exec will be bringing her entire development team to the as-yet unnamed company.
For the next phase in her career, former Fox 2000 president Elizabeth Gabler had to choose between her onetime bosses at the Century City studio: Tom Rothman (now running Sony Pictures) and Jim Gianopulos (Paramount). The book-savvy exec opted for a multiplatform production deal with the former.

Insiders say the decision came down to the wire, given Gabler’s close relationship with both men. A deciding factor was the involvement of HarperCollins, which agreed to co-fund Sony’s partnership. Paramount couldn’t match the flush offering on its own and couldn’t partner with HarperCollins, either, given that its parent Viacom is expected to merge in the near future with CBS, which owns rival publisher Simon & Schuster.

HarperCollins, which sinks $300 million a year into new literary works, has published some of Gabler’s biggest adaptations, including The Devil Wears Prada, Life of Pi and Hidden Figures. “No one in Hollywood has done a better job of bringing books to film than Elizabeth and her team,” said president and CEO Brian Murray in a statement.

Gabler, who found herself with no role at Disney following its $71 billion acquisition of Fox assets, is expected to bring a number of Fox 2000 projects with her and also hopes to take the Reese Witherspoon-produced Where the Crawdads Sing, based on the best-selling book from another HarperCollins rival, Penguin Random House.

Gabler also will bring her entire development team to the as-yet unnamed company (insiders say she wants to keep “2000” in the new name, but is expected to receive pushback from Disney, which owns the Fox 2000 label). She will serve as a consultant on her final Fox 2000 release, Amy Adams’ recently pushed The Woman in the Window.

Sources say Gabler’s pact allows her to work on Sony’s Culver City lot two days a week and at her Santa Barbara ranch three days — mimicking her Fox setup, long the envy of Hollywood execs. And while the HarperCollins deal gives Sony key access at a time when film studios are vying with streamers for literary rights, Gabler won’t be restricted to only adapting from the publisher’s works, according to another source.


Does It Pay to Be a Writer?

Writing has never been a lucrative career choice, but a recent study by the Authors Guild, a professional organization for book writers, shows that it may not even be a livable one anymore.

According to the survey results, the median pay for full-time writers was $20,300 in 2017, and that number decreased to $6,080 when part-time writers were considered. The latter figure reflects a 42 percent drop since 2009, when the median was $10,500. These findings are the result of an expansive 2018 study of more than 5,000 published book authors, across genres and including both traditional and self-published writers.

“In the 20th century, a good literary writer could earn a middle-class living just writing,” said Mary Rasenberger, executive director of the Authors Guild, citing William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and John Cheever. Now, most writers need to supplement their income with speaking engagements or teaching. Strictly book-related income — which is to say royalties and advances — are also down, almost 30 percent for full-time writers since 2009.

Writing for magazines and newspapers was once a solid source of additional income for professional writers, but the decline in freelance journalism and pay has meant less opportunity for authors to write for pay. Many print publications, which offered the highest rate, have been shuttered altogether.

The decline in earnings is also largely because of Amazon’s lion’s share of the self-publishing, e-book and resale market, Ms. Rasenberger said. The conglomerate charges commission and marketing fees to publishers that Ms. Rasenberger said essentially prevent their books from being buried on the site. Small and independent publishers, which have fewer resources and bargaining power, have been particularly hard hit. Book publishing companies are passing these losses along to writers in the form of lower royalties and advances, and authors also lose out on income from books resold on the platform.

In some ways, these changes are in line with a general shift toward a gig economy or “hustling,” in which people juggle an assortment of jobs to make up for the lack of a stable income. But the writing industry as a whole has always eluded standardization in pay. In a conversation with Manjula Martin in the book “Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living,” edited by Ms. Martin, Cheryl Strayed said, “There’s no other job in the world where you get your master’s degree in that field and you’re like, ‘Well, I might make zero or I might make $5 million!’”

In a recent call, Ms. Martin said that “the people who are able to practice the trade of authoring are people who have other sources of income,” adding that this creates barriers of entry and limits the types of stories that reach a wide audience. There is also, she added, a devaluation of writing in which it is often viewed as a hobby as opposed to a valuable vocation.

“Everyone thinks they can write, because everybody writes,” Ms. Rasenberger said, referring to the proliferation of casual texting, emailing and tweeting. But she distinguishes these from professional writers “who have been working on their craft and art of writing for years.”

“What a professional writer can convey in written word is far superior to what the rest of us can do,” Ms. Rasenberger said. “As a society we need that, because it’s a way to crystallize ideas, make us see things in a new way and create understanding of who we are as a people, where we are today and where we’re going.”

Original Article:

Younger Made Up a Book Pitch Good Enough to Get Published in Real Life

Younger’s fun-house mirror version of the publishing industry is bleeding over into our world — which means soon we’ll all start believing Sutton Foster is in her 20s, too. Per EW, Simon & Schuster is publishing actual copies of the show’s fictional novel Marriage Vacation, a dishy, thinly veiled tell-all written by Jennifer Westfeldt’s character Pauline about her ex-husband Charles (Peter Hermann). The real-life version of the book, out in June, is supposed to “serve as a standalone novel as it tells the story of a woman who leaves her marriage to go on a journey of self-discovery” — though of course it will also include the steamy sex scene on page 58 all the characters on the show keep talking about. Someone please publish the show’s Crown of Kings books next.

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From Napkin to Notoriety: The Meteoric Rise of That Writer You Can’t Stand

He wrote it on a napkin: a thought. A word. A phrase.

And from such humble beginnings, a six-figure book deal. And from that six-figure book deal, a seven-figure movie deal. And from that seven-figure movie deal, well, only he can write his future.

And write it he will. Because he’s that writer you can’t stand.

The napkin now hangs framed in the home office of his Boerum Hill brownstone, around the corner from his “second office,” the specialty coffee shop where we meet up. “It’s technically my dad’s brownstone,” he whispers, a glimmer of torment in his eye. “But the napkin’s all mine.”

He likes to take up two chairs at the shop when he writes, because creative freedom, he asserts, requires space. He knows his artistic process like the back of his hand, and doesn’t seem to mind that I have no place to sit. But I shouldn’t mind, either, because he’s an artist, and he needs what he needs.

With his hair crisply cut back from the man-bun that was once his signature look, he drops his head in his hands and says, “It’s tough, you know? Because I finally made it. And I was starting to think that I never would.”

After spending two and a half arduous years writing occasionally in his tiny black Moleskine, [that writer you can’t stand], twenty-six, almost gave up. He relentlessly foisted his half-baked poems on any publishing-world gatekeeper, and spent the rest of his time thinking many deep thoughts. He never even considered getting a job—partially because he didn’t need to, but mostly because he knew in his heart that he was going to be a success.

But that ardent knowledge didn’t stop him from feeling oppressed, or from expressing that feeling to everyone around him. “It was like no one saw the me that was inside of me,” he tells me. “The rejection was hard. Really hard. I even cried about it once. You’d think that it would get easier over time, but it doesn’t. I mean, two and a half years, and more than twenty poems submitted—and nothing.”

Until nothing became something.

“A buddy of mine from college rose through the ranks really quickly at a big publishing house, and I was, like, ‘Can you help me get a book deal?’ And he was, like, ‘Yeah.’ And then he did.” All those months toiling away had finally led him to his destiny. He goes on, “I had never written a book before, but I knew I could do it. I didn’t have a doubt in my mind.”

In the two published poems I have to go off of, [that writer you can’t stand]’s work weaves together the personal and the universal. “I love stories,” he says. “All of my poems are really stories. Didn’t cavemen tell stories? I think so. I’m just like the cavemen. We all are.”

His poem “Pater Paternal Pat” is only three words long, but he wouldn’t let us reprint them. “Dad/Bad,” which is the work he’s most famous for, and also the only other poem he’s ever published, illuminates the relationship between all fathers and sons throughout time, especially the fathers who are top executives at multinational corporations.

When his book is released, in 2019, it will likely be reviewed kindly, and with great enthusiasm. Then he will, doubtlessly, go on to achieve great success in this and other fields. “I’m pretty sure I can do some pretty big things,” he says to me, while winking.

Before I leave the coffee shop, I ask him what was on that original napkin. He replies with a Grinch-like smirk: “Magicians never reveal their secrets, and neither do I.”

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How Independent Bookstores Have Thrived in Spite of

Ryan Raffaelli set out to discover how independent bookstores managed to survive and even thrive in spite of competition from Amazon and other online retailers. His initial findings reveal how much consumers still value community and personal contact.

When burst onto the nascent online retail scene in 1995, the future seemed bleak for brick-and-mortar independent bookstores—which already faced competition from superstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders. Indeed, between 1995 and 2000, the number of independent bookstores in the United States plummeted 43 percent, according to the American Booksellers Association (ABA), a nonprofit trade association dedicated to the promotion of independent bookstores.

But then a funny thing happened. While pressure from Amazon forced Borders out of business in 2011, indie bookstores staged an unexpected comeback. Between 2009 and 2015, the ABA reported a 35 percent growth in the number of independent booksellers, from 1,651 stores to 2,227.

This surprising resurgence piqued the interest of Ryan Raffaelli, an assistant professor in the Organizational Behavior unit at Harvard Business School, who studies how mature organizations and industries faced with technological change reinvent themselves. Raffaelli has termed this line of research “technology reemergence.” It began with his study of the Swiss watch industry, which collectively reinvented itself (and thus survived) in the wake of digital watches. Five years ago, he set out to discover how independent bookstores managed to survive and even thrive in spite of Amazon and other online retailers.

Raffaelli is a field researcher by training. His study on independent bookselling includes more than 200 interviews and focus groups with bookstore owners, publishers, and prominent authors; field visits to dozens of bookstores in 13 states; 91 hours of observing bookstore activity and industry conferences; and an analysis of 915 newspaper and trade publication articles that mentioned independent bookselling in some fashion. He even attended a training course on how to open an independent bookstore.

Here are some of Raffaelli’s key findings so far, based on what he has found to be the “3 C’s” of independent bookselling’s resurgence: community, curation, and convening.

  • Community: Independent booksellers were some of the first to champion the idea of localism; bookstore owners across the nation promoted the idea of consumers supporting their local communities by shopping at neighborhood businesses. Indie bookstores won customers back from Amazon, Borders, and other big players by stressing a strong connection to local community values.
  • Curation: Independent booksellers began to focus on curating inventory that allowed them to provide a more personal and specialized customer experience. Rather than only recommending bestsellers, they developed personal relationships with customers by helping them discover up-and-coming authors and unexpected titles.
  • Convening: Independent booksellers also started to promote their stores as intellectual centers for convening customers with likeminded interests—offering lectures, book signings, game nights, children’s story times, young adult reading groups, even birthday parties. “In fact, some bookstores now host over 500 events a year that bring people together,” Raffaelli says.
  • While all this was happening on a local level, there was important top-down work going on at the American Booksellers Association (ABA), a nonprofit trade association dedicated to the promotion of independent bookstores. The ABA served as a glue to bind likeminded players together—facilitating partnerships between bookstores and other local businesses, for example. The ABA also strengthened the collective identity of indie bookstores by helping its members share best practices, such as how to use social media to promote special events.

Raffaelli plans to release an initial version of the study in 2018; in the meantime, he has published a multi-page abstract with an overview of the initial findings. Its working title: “Reframing Collective Identity in Response to Multiple Technological Discontinuities: The Novel Resurgence of Independent Bookstores.”

“The theoretical and managerial lessons we can learn from independent bookstores have implications for a wide array of traditional brick-and-mortar businesses facing technological change,” Raffaelli says. “But this has been an especially fascinating industry to study because indie booksellers provide us with a story of hope.”

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Book Publishing, Not Fact-Checking

Readers might think nonfiction books are the most reliable media sources there are. But accuracy scandals haven’t reformed an industry that faces no big repercussions for errors.

The false claims in James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces made headlines but didn’t face commercial consequences. Seth Wenig/Reuters
On the cover of her memoir, The Road of Lost Innocence: The True Story of a Cambodian Heroine, Somaly Mam sits in a field, surrounded by laughing children. “I came to know Somaly Mam, who was enslaved herself but managed to escape and then became the Harriet Tubman of Southeast Asia’s brothels, repeatedly rescuing those left behind,” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote in the book’s introduction. “As a local person with firsthand experience in the red-light districts, Somaly has a credibility and understanding that no outsider does.”

That was in 2009. This past spring, Simon Marks’s Newsweek article on Mam charged the anti-sex trafficking activist with fabricating her past as a child prostitute. In the fallout, many readers faulted Kristof for lauding her as a heroine; others pointed fingers directly at Mam. Hardly any called out the publishing houses that distributed her book.

Mam’s story gained a mass following with the release of her best-selling memoir, first published in France in 2005. The book’s success helped the activist launch the Somaly Mam Foundation in 2007. Mam was also featured in Mariane Pearl’s In Search of Hope that same year.

In a Politico post, Kristof cited the fact that Mam’s story had been the subject of two published books as part of what made it so credible. Addressing the issue in the Timeshe wrote, “We journalists often rely to a considerable extent on people to tell the truth, especially when they have written unchallenged autobiographies.”

There’s a basic problem with this line of logic, though: Most books are never fact-checked.

“When I was working on my book, I did an anecdotal survey asking people: Between books, magazines, and newspapers, which do you think has the most fact-checking?” explained Craig Silverman, author of Regret the Error, a book on media accuracy, and founder of a blog by the same name. Almost inevitably, the people Silverman spoke with guessed books.

“A lot of readers have the perception that when something arrives as a book, it’s gone through a more rigorous fact-checking process than a magazine or a newspaper or a website, and that’s simply not that case,” Silverman said. He attributes this in part to the physical nature of a book: Its ink and weight imbue it with a sense of significance unlike that of other mediums.

Fact-checking dates back to the founding of Time in 1923, and has a strong tradition at places like Mother Jones and The New Yorker. (The Atlantic checks every article in print.) But it’s becoming less and less common even in the magazine world. Silverman suggests this is in part due to the Internet and the drive for quick content production. “Fact-checkers don’t increase content production,” he said. “Arguably, they slow it.”

What many readers don’t realize is that fact-checking has never been standard practice in the book-publishing world at all.

And reliance on books creates a weak link in the chain of media accuracy, says Scott Rosenberg, founder of the now defunct “Magazine fact-checkers typically treat reference to a fact in a published book as confirmation of the fact,” Rosenberg said, “yet too often, the books themselves have undergone no such rigorous process.”

Somaly Mam’s case is far from the first of its kind. In 1999, anthropologist David Stoll questioned the accuracy of I, Rigoberta Menchú, a memoir that describes the horrors experienced by Menchú during Guatemala’s civil war. That same year, Binjamin Wilkomirski, author of the Holocaust memoir Fragments, was revealed not to be a Holocaust survivor at all. And we all watched Oprah poke a million little holes into James Frey’s story of addiction and recovery.

These cases vary widely but share that they have many unfortunate effects. Critics of Menchú’s political views were quick to completely discredit a rare survivor testimony. Conservative commentator David Horowitz labeled her a “Marxist terrorist” and “one of the greatest hoaxes of the 20th century” before launching an unsuccessful campaign to revoke her Nobel Peace Prize. Wilkomirski’s downfall fanned the flames of Holocaust denial.

Kristof urged readers not to let Mam’s falsehoods overshadow her cause.

“One risk is that girls fleeing Cambodian brothels will no longer get help,” he wrote in a Times blog post. “… Let’s remember that this is about more than one woman.”

Why then, with the perils so apparent, are so many books still not fact-checked?

The reluctance may stem in part from a sense that it’s unkind to question victims, especially when their pasts portray them unfavorably. Nan Talese, Frey’s editor, sat beside him on the couch at Oprah. “As an editor,” Talese wondered, “do you ask someone, ‘Are you really as bad as you are?’”

“Yes,” Winfrey flatly replied.

Or perhaps people are too in love with resilience narratives—the more harrowing Frey’s original circumstances, the more buoyed we felt by his success.

Publishing houses cite lack of funds for fact-checking operations, but it’s getting harder to accept that argument, particularly with major presses. Even when a line-by-line, magazine-style edit is unrealistic, publishers could work to clear certain key details. In Frey’s case, for example, Doubleday might have verified court records, as The Smoking Gun was able to do, regarding the amount of time he spent in jail (a few hours, instead of months).

And publishers often find funds for an in-depth legal vetting process, during which lawyers carefully review a manuscript and flag any passages that may expose the author or publisher to issues of legal liability. These issues may fall into the categories of copyright and fair use, right of privacy, right of publicity, and defamation, explains Tonya M. Evans, a law professor at Widener University and author of a series of legal reference guides for publishing professionals. “The goal is to raise these issues so that the client can make an informed decision whether it is in their best interest to publish the work as is or make changes, secure permissions, or delete certain material altogether,” Evans says.

When I asked Sally Marvin, publicity director at Random House, whether Mam’s book had been fact-checked, she gave this statement: “Random House does not discuss the pre-publication review process for any particular title. Since Random House publishes in so many different subject areas—biographies, cooking, health and fitness, history, religion, etc.—and on so many topics within each subject area, it is not possible to have or describe any ‘standard’ pre-publication review procedure for non-fiction titles.”

Some authors are taking matters into their own hands. When Mac McClelland, formerly a fact-checker at Mother Jones, wrote her first book, For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question: A Story from Burma’s Never-Ending War, she enlisted the help of former MJ research editor Leigh Ferrara to pore through more than 700 sources. The process took about eight months. 

McClelland recently finished fact-checking her second book, Irritable Hearts, a memoir about her experience of PTSD as a reporter covering conflicts and disasters. Because this work is more personal than her last, much of the checking this time around consisted of questions for McClelland’s family, exes, and friends.

“Everything you remember, somebody else remembers it differently,” McClelland said. “Everything I would ask each of my parents, the other one would say, ‘The complete opposite of that happened.’” She caught statistical and historical inaccuracies before publishing her first book; with her second, she changed some personal stories, too.

McClelland is quick to acknowledge the extreme challenges that fact-checking a book presents—it’s no doubt a test of time, patience, and money. In both cases, she financed the process herself. “For my first book, I actually wound up spending more money on fact-checking than I got for my advance—by a lot,” she said. McClelland would like to see a publishing culture in which fact-checking is written into book contracts, but she’s doubtful that will happen soon.

Scott Rosenberg of MediaBugs agrees. “I just think you’d have to rip up the publishing industry as it exists and start over if you really wanted publishers to fact-check books,” he said. Publishers aren’t motivated to take on this vast responsibility, he believes, without commercial pressure.

“They don’t pay a price when the book is exposed,” Rosenberg pointed out. “No one looks at the publishing house’s name on the book they bought four years ago when Newsweek exposes it as inaccurate and says, ‘I’ll never buy a book published by them again!’ So why should the publisher care?”

Even in the case of A Million Little Pieces, for which Random House was made to offer refunds as part of a federal class-action lawsuit, the financial repercussions were minimal. Of the more than four million readers who purchased the book, fewer than 2,000 sought refunds. Random House set aside $2.35 million for the lawsuit, but even with legal fees, wound up paying far less.

Perhaps in a perfect world, every publishing house would have an army of fact-checkers—but what can we do until then? At the very least, it’s important to read more critically, especially for journalists, who perpetuate untruths when they rely blindly on books for fact.

“Maybe there should be a warning, like on a pack of cigarettes,” said McClelland. “‘This book has not been fact-checked at all.’ Because when I realized that basically everything I had read until that point had not been verified, I felt a little bit lied to.”