Five Things: January 19, 2023

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_ONE

What You Don’t Know About the HarperCollins Strike | Anne Helen Petersen

More employees leave and fewer and fewer are replaced; the lists continue to grow but the pay remains stagnant. Publishers are being run by skeleton crews for cheap while executives and overseas shareholders pocket the profits of our labor. This is true across the industry, but we’re the ones with a union, which means we have the power to say (and do) something about the situation.

Every “Big 5” publisher has at least one terrible “conservative” imprint, and some distribute several others, but HarperCollins’ ownership makes it somewhat unique among its peers. Home to Broadside Books — publisher of literary luminaries like Ben Shapiro, Tomi Lahren, and Jared Kushner — it’s also a division of NewsCorp, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who makes Elon Musk seem like a charming little entrepreneur by comparison. While seeming increasingly unlikely now, they’re considered by many to be the front-runner for acquiring Simon & Schuster, which would get them pretty close to equaling Penguin Random House and creating a legit Big Two in trade publishing that would be almost as bad as PRH becoming the Big One, but without as much federal scrutiny.

While I sincerely hope the HarperCollins Union’s strike is successful, I’m not terribly optimistic as I don’t believe they have much leverage, despite the support (PDF) of a lot of prominent people in the industry. Book publishers rely on a combination of passion and youthful exuberance, and they have notoriously short memories. There’s always someone fresh out of [the right] college ready to pay their dues, even if it means crossing a picket line — a concept that arguably has less meaning to anyone under 30 these days.

Interestingly, there’s a throwaway line in Publishers Weekly’s latest update that suggests plenty of publishers of all sizes are quietly rooting against the strike, which would limit the impact of otherwise supportive authors and agents to words rather than tangible actions: “Indeed, some smaller independent publishers—mostly outside of New York City—are concerned that the public nature of the strike, with wage demands made public, is raising unrealistic financial expectations.”

What author or agent is going to cancel a contract with any HarperCollins imprint when the rest of the Big 5 and a wide range of smaller publishers are either just as bad, or bad in different ways? The only difference is they don’t have a union calling them out.

__TWO

“The downfall of Harper would be a national calamity.” | Anne Trubek

But this story does beg the question: if Harper & Brothers, at the height of their influence and prestige, could not survive without the help of J. P. Morgan, is there something endemic to the publishing industry that makes it impossible to balance the books? Is ‘passion’ simply the cover we use to paper over the reality that this is an industry whose history, seen from the vantage point of accountants instead of gentleman or trust fund kids, seems to be a litany of successive foundings, debts, and takeovers?

As always, Trubek finds an interesting angle on the topic du jour, digging into the fascinating history of the various publishing operations that ultimately became the HarperCollins we know today. It’s a good read, no notes.

___THREE

Wizards of the Coast Announces ‘Transparent’ Feedback Process on D&D’s New Game License | James Whitbrook

The proposed system is a sharp 180 on Wizards’ previously established intent for the new OGL, speaking to the depth of uproar surrounding previous drafts of the documentation. Hopefully this time it seems like the publisher is taking the public and financial drubbing it’s faced in the wake of these plans leaking seriously, and whatever new iteration of the OGL that comes out of this process will be a true collaboration between the company and the community it has fostered for generations—and rekindle a relationship that has lost a significant amount of trust and respect in the past few weeks.

In the future, this Dungeons & Dragons fiasco will be a great Harvard Business School case study for how to grossly misunderstand your market, underestimate your audience, and do unnecessary damage to a brand at its peak. The irony is their proposed fix is 100% what they should have done in the first place since, as they mention themselves, “it’s how we do it for the game itself.” It’s worth noting that their carefully worded mea culpa wasn’t a press release, but instead addressed to fans and posted to the D&D Beyond website where cancelled subscriptions were reportedly the main reason they backed off in the first place.

In addition to broad outrage that even managed to hit my blissfully outrage-light radar on Mastodon, fans targeted the only thing corporations like Hasbro care about: revenue. The beauty of subscription revenue is it’s relatively predictable, and with a product like D&D Beyond, lock-in is pretty strong, which means renewals tend to be pretty steady. A sudden wave of cancelled subscriptions isn’t just a short-term hit, though. It has ripple effects throughout their entire fiscal year, and any projections, ahem, beyond. It’s partly why corporate publishers don’t care too much when one book from one of their many imprints unexpectedly makes them the main character of the day. There’s little concern about any ripple effects, and in many cases, the attention drives temporary sales for the book in question.

If enough fans accept the mea culpa and immediately restart their subscriptions, Wizards of the Coast will probably sand off the roughest edges they were prepared to negotiate anyway and move forward mostly as planned. If fans hold off for a concrete response, though, and see how various partners who were going to be negatively affected by the proposed changes respond to it, Wizards will be forced to negotiate in good faith. The real question is whether or not irreparable damage has already been done as several major competitors are moving forward with interesting alternatives.

____FOUR

Elon Musk Went From Being Like Henry Ford in a Good Way to a Bad Way | David Zipper

Running a car company has to feel a little dull once you’ve become one of the richest people on the planet. But your wealth gives you options. You could buy a media platform, for instance, where you might bully a marginalized group or forge new friendships with fringe characters. Sharing half-baked views on international affairs works, too; when you’re this rich, even your most reprehensible takes get serious attention. But be warned: All of this might be fun for you, but it could spell disaster for the car company that generated your riches in the first place.

I periodically forget what a bad guy Henry Ford was, but I’ve never had a good opinion of Elon Musk, so this comparison is enlightening. It’s an especially good read for anyone still making excuses for Musk, or pretending Tesla is anything more than a greenwashed shell game. No notes.

_____FIVE

The War on Cars | Podcast

The War on Cars is a new podcast about the epic, hundred years’ war between The Car and The City. We deliver news and commentary on the latest developments in the worldwide fight to undo a century’s worth of damage wrought by the automobile.

I consider myself a relatively lowkey car guy. I appreciate the classics; I own a classic that I wish I could work on more myself; and I love having the option to drive it, whether on errands or a local road trip. I’m no hardcore gearhead, though, and I recognize the various downsides to car ownership, both personally and in general. So, I was kind of surprised by one of my first random discoveries on Mastodon: The War on Cars.

I was leery at first because there’s a self-righteous, liberal-militant edge (more bark than bite, but it’s A LOT of bark) to bike extremists that’s always been off-putting despite my general support for a lot of what they stand for. I was intrigued by several of their posts, though, so I gave the podcast a shot, starting with a couple of topics that would be easy to get wrong.

Their three-episode series on muscle car culture in NYC frequently threatened to mimic The Daily’s ridiculous coal mining episode from a few years back that led to my immediately unsubscribing, but instead, it’s predominantly a nuanced overview from a few angles — with pros and cons. Some of the armchair psychology in the final episode is a bit much, but I ultimately agreed with their main takeaway: certain cars don’t belong in cities at all, but it’s not just individual drivers at fault.

A more straightforward episode I was sure I’d like was their conversation with Edward Niedermeyer about the ongoing fraud that is Tesla. I may have a lot of conflicting opinions about cars, but one thing I’ve never wavered from: fuck that guy and his overrated cars! This episode delivered the goods and kept me listening.

I’m not ready to call them a new favorite just yet, but they’re in regular rotation now and there’s a good backlog of episodes to cherry pick my way through.


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