So Ken Auletta wrote this thing in the New Yorker about ebooks. I’m feeling kind of schizophrenic about it: I want to talk about it, and I want very badly to not talk about it at all. I don’t know much about him, but in the Washington Post, Jack Shafer said, “I dare you to name a more plugged-in media and communications technology reporter than New Yorker staff writer Ken Auletta,” and I can’t decide if he’s being serious or not. A quick look at Auletta’s books tells us that, in long form at least, he’s not a media/tech writer at all, but rather a business writer who happens to write about the the business of media and technology, which is whole other fucking box of frogs, and is a nuance Shafer, as a reporter who specializes in calling out other reporters for lack of rigor (coughmonkeyfishingcough) probably should understand. So bearing that in mind, let’s see how plugged-in Auletta is when it comes to electronic books. Two caveats: first, there are stupid little things that pissed me off about the essay (duh), and I’m probably going to spend too much time on those; second, I’m not going to go through the whole piece with a fine-toothed comb, so don’t expect thoroughness. I’m not one of Shafer’s reporters.
Auletta marks himself as primarily a business writer rather than a tech writer by opening the article with the kind of cliché that would embarrass the lowliest intern at the increasingly stylistically-impaired, bottom-feeding Gizmodo: “[o]n the morning of January 27th—an aeon ago, in tech time.” Slow down there, Hoss. An aeon? In tech time? Now you’re talking crazy. The “short time in the Real Wold equals a long time in Geek Land” construction is not something you find showing up in the work of too many reputable tech writers these days. To insiders, it’s not just a cliché, it’s an insult. It reminds me of the various mainstream news articles that use phrases like “Bam! Pow! Thung!” and “comic books aren’t for kids anymore” in ledes and headlines for articles about comic books and graphic novels. Fans of these media generally consider it demeaning not only that an art form they love is treated so dismissively by the press, but that it’s been going on for twenty-five years. The oldest reference I could find was in the Springfield News-Leader in 1986; it was about Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, and was included in the supplementary material of my leather-bound tenth anniversary edition. The most recent example I found in the four and a half seconds I spent looking, was from May 5th of last year, though I know I’ve seen more recent ones. “Plugged-in” writers don’t use that sort of phrase because they know how it affects the people who are invested in the industry, and they know how out of touch it makes them sound. Likewise, tech writers who know their ass from a hole in the ground don’t use the sort of constructions Auletta did in the opening of this New Yorker piece for exactly the same reasons. Somebody has to maintain some credibility.
Speaking of credibility, in the very next paragraph Auletta makes a reference to the fact that the iPad had been referred as “the Jesus tablet” in the weeks prior to its launch, implying that this is a term derived from the world of publishing that “was desperate for a savior.” That is utter horseshit, and might, might be excusable, if you’re having a good day and therefore feeling generous, as he doesn’t outright say the phrase has its origin in publishing. Because it doesn’t. Back before the iPhone was released in 2007, the hype surrounding it reached extreme proportions, and actually increased once people finally got their hands on the thing. Some tech pundits began to mock the enthusiasts by referring to the phone as “the Jesus phone”, as though it was possessed of magic powers. When the pre-launch iPad hype reached even more outrageous levels, the phrase was transferred to the new product. It didn’t come from some industry’s desperate prayer for survival, it was a term of derision that had its origins in technology blogs. Feeling plugged-in yet?
What comes after this stellar opening? Well, it’s mostly a rehash of other people’s reporting. He talks about estimates of ebook growth from the normally cited five percent of the market to upwards of fifty, without ever once saying where those numbers came from or what methods were used to produce them. He gets into some interesting things about Amazon “training” customers to expect the $9.99 price point for electronic books in order to establish themselves as a monopoly, a concept the media usually won’t touch with somebody else’s ten foot pole. He includes some fuzzy but more or less accurate math concering the cost breakdown for publishing a book (see Charlie Stross for not so fuzzy math). There’s also some estimates of Kindle sales numbers—both readers and ebooks—that are particularly fuzzy, bordering on outright bullshit, since Amazon has never actually released any Kindle sales data, or at least not any hard numbers. Again, marginally excusable, if you squint a little, because Auletta is only really going over other people’s work, even though he doesn’t actually say that anywhere.
At the heart of the article are some, well, speculations on a few things that I’m not going to talk about right now, like the role of publishers in producing electronic books and what’s going on with Google’s scanning program, because I want to talk about those issues separately in some later posts, where I can pick at them without all this other gunk getting in the way. But those things are there, and they’re worth looking at.
Which means the last thing I really want to point out is how Auletta deals with the Amazon/Macmillan spat that happened back in January. The facts are correct as far as I can tell, but I think he underplays the significance of what John Sargent did, and Macmillan comes off as weak, hat-in-hand, and a bit whiny, while Amazon comes off (as Jason Kottke would have it) looking “nimble” rather than, say, like a bully that spent years leveraging unheard of reams of venture capital to artificially manipulate price points and supply chains in a cash-strapped, low-margin industry that wasn’t right then riding on an irrationally inflated stock market bubble like some companies I could name. But, you know, whatever. The New Yorker isn’t exactly a rag, so you’d expect better, but if you want to read some analyses that show a little testicular fortitude, I suggest you take a look at what MobyLives (start with this and work your way back), John Scalzi and Charlie Stross had to say.
It’s not so much that Auletta gets things massively wrong that pisses me off—because he doesn’t get things massively wrong—but rather that he gets things almost right. Think of ideas and information as bullets fired from a rifle: if things are off by just a little, it’s not going to matter much after ten feet, but it’s going to matter a lot after it’s gone a mile. Good information is hard to find right now, and even the best analyses of that information are contentious and controversial. I think getting the big picture a little wrong is okay right now, up to point. But being almost right with the details isn’t going to cut it, because those mistakes are going to be magnified in the long run, and folks in publishing, be it magazines, books, or retailers of those products, cannot afford to let that happen. And that applies to their output as much as their business models.