I can spend hours extolling the virtues of Barney Miller, a ground-breaking sitcom about a group of New York City police officers that was a huge hit in the 1970s and 1980s — and I’m sure its former popularity will help make the book I plan on writing about the show become a huge bestseller.
OK, OK, I’m also a realist. I’m a first-time author who lacks name recognition and wants to write about a show that went off the air during the Reagan administration. (By the way, Abe Vigoda was very much alive when I spoke with him a few months ago).
That doesn’t exactly scream bestseller.
One agent told me that while he thought Barney Miller was a great show, it wasn’t a classic like, say, The Honeymooners. What people want, he said, are Vigoda’s memoirs — a book I have no interest in writing.
But recent events affecting the book publishing industry, such as the Apple (AAPL) price-fixing case, have captured the attention of myself and other authors.
The case, as the government sees it, is a pretty simple one. Apple — along with News Corp’s (NWSA) HarperCollins, CBS’s (CBS) Simon & Schuster, Hachette Book Group and McMillian — tried to create a so-called agency market to push e-book prices over the $9.95 price point. This is known as the agency model, and it replaced a wholesale model, which is how most retail goods are sold.
But as author Scott Turow, who also is an attorney, told me in an interview, the case against Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple is “wrong-headed” given the actions taken by Amazon (AMZN) to bolster sales of its Kindle readers.
“Amazon was selling eBooks at a loss,” he said. “They were doing it to put American book stores out of business.”
AMZN controls about 65% of the e-book market, which basically means that what it says goes — and its power is only going to grow. Forrester expects e-book sales to hit $12 billion in 2017, vs. $6.6 billion currently. Print book sales, much like newspapers, have been on a long, slow decline for years. Between 2010 and 2011, sales of print books plunged about 16%.
Authors — even wannabes like myself — should want a vibrant, competitive marketplace that includes Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble (BKS) and independent booksellers. Traditional bookstores remain critical for marketing lesser-known authors and categories of books such as children’s picture books.
“Marketing studies consistently show that readers are far more open to trying new genres and new authors when in a bookstore than when shopping online,” the Author’s Guild argued in a brief last year.
According to Mark Coker, the head of Smashwords, the largest distributor of self-published books, the agency model puts 70% of the list price in the pockets of the author or publisher vs. 35%-50% that was typical in the wholesale model.
“Agency meant that authors and publishers could earn more income even at lower prices,” he writes. “In a competitive marketplace, authors and publishers compete on price, so agency allows the author/publisher to price lower while still earning a fair return. If any post-agency prices increased, the blame should rest with the publisher who decided to price too high, not Apple.”
Others disagree with this view. Blogger April Hamilton, who edits Indie Author, points out that Amazon doesn’t have any interest in bleeding publishers dry, much like Apple had no desire to drive the music labels out of business when it started iTunes.
“To me, there’s no confusion on this issue whatsoever: Authors should be against Apple’s pricing collusion tactics,” she writes in an email. “The only people who are on the side of BigPub and Apple in this fight either have an (unreasonable) axe to grind against Amazon, or have a vested interest in maintaining the old-school publishing power status quo.”
Although I appreciate Hamilton’s view, it seems a new author like myself has the best chance for success with a vibrant marketplace for books, and that seems far more likely to continue if Apple prevails in federal court. After all, the “pricing collusion” that might have occurred was in response to Amazon’s instance of selling eBooks at a loss.
Authors need a publishing industry that’s willing to take risks on new work such as the one I want to write about Barney Miller.
I haven’t thrown in the towel yet on getting a conventional book deal because I believe there are millions of people who remember Barney Miller, and remember it fondly. The show’s executive producer, Danny Arnold, was ahead of his time and didn’t shy away from tackling hot-button issues such as gay rights in the 1970s at time when many people wouldn’t even discuss the issue in private, let alone public.
It’s possible that I might have to self-publish, which can cost several thousand dollars depending on the level of services such as marketing and editing I purchase. That worries me less since the stigma around self-publishing continues to evaporate. Literary heavyweights such as David Mamet and Jackie Collins have gone down the self-publishing route because it gives them more control over their product and increase their potential profits. Major literary agents have set up self-publishing services.
The downside is, of course, that I will assume all the financial risk and get no advance. I might sell two copies, or I might sell 26,000 — the number of copies David Bianculli sold of his excellent book Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.”
In the end, I think my Barney Miller book will find an audience. But depending on how the Apple case sorts itself out, I might have to uncover those readers one by one.
Jonathan Berr’s favorite Barney Miller episode is the one about the “hash brownies.” As of this writing, he did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities. Follow him on Twitter at @jdberr.