The blame game

Three years ago, I wrote a blog with this headline about how the phrase “a Waterstones book” had become, for many publishers, shorthand for unpublishable, and how incalculable damage had been done to the industry by the way that books, like cheap sofas, are on a 365-day sale. As the guns of the Hachette/Amazon dispute are turned on these shores, it is time to revisit this question, because in the past three years nothing has improved.

There’s something particularly grating about the spectacle. Many of the same publishing executives who campaigned so hard to end the Net Book Agreement, in the name of the free market, are now squealing about Amazon’s bully-boy tactics. Those same publishers, in their eagerness to jump into bed with the supermarkets on a futile quest for market share, offered ever deeper discounts, luring Waterstones into a price war it was never going to win. Publishers undermined the value of their own product. Now they are reaping the whirlwind.

Ten years ago senior publishing executives were filled with gleeful contempt at the way Amazon was spending so much money while they were, like hapless gulls, signing up to abysmal terms, clearly demonstrating their inability to understand the digital revolution. For example, publishers get functionally no data from Amazon—they moan about it endlessly—but when Amazon really needed their business, they didn’t press hard enough for it. They were locked into an antiquated business model and negotiated for the wrong things.

Publishers’ difficulties have direct roots in the failed negotiations of the past, which have cost the industry tens of millions and for which, to my knowledge, no one has ever been blamed. One only needs to think of the (further) millions of pounds wasted on endless website launches and redesigns—to essentially zero commercial benefit—to realise how badly publishers understood the world they were living in. Or the ridiculous obsession with piracy . . .

Compare that waste of money to the derisory amounts those publishers invested in new business models. Or to the creation of an overwhelming culture of aversion to risk that hamstrings the industry. Amazon may now have publishers strapped so tightly over a barrel that people have begun to feel sorry for them, but there still isn’t any genuine attempt to change conditions on the ground.

For instance, most publishers now sell books on their own websites—a mere decade late. But they offer them full price, so the product you can buy for £9 on Amazon is £20 when you buy it direct. This isn’t merely stupid, it is an insult to the consumer. It’s putting your foot in your mouth before shooting it.

The reality is that publishers no longer know how to publish whole categories of books. The midlist, for instance, is pretty much dead. Some of the numbers coming from big commercial lists are terrifying. The background noise is of consolidation and redundancies, yet many figures at the top of the businesses—who bear ultimate responsibility for the situation we are in—are still in their jobs, unscathed by 15 years of bad decisions. Meanwhile junior staff, who have wasted fractions of the sums that senior executives have, face endless rounds of  “consultation”, office musical chairs, shocking pay and pensions and, above all, jobs that are literally impossible to do in the time allotted.

It’s all very well banging on about the “passion” for books that people in publishing have, but if that isn’t backed up by courageous and clear-sighted leadership, talk of passion increasingly seems like code for stupidity—or the sort of thing you tell the children.

It is easy to point the finger at the big, bad wolf. Publishing needs to take a longer, harder look at its own complicity in its troubles and direct some of that blame inwards as well as outwards.

Agent Orange is a UK-based agent, who can be contacted at