"Move over, little dog, the Big Dog's movin' in."
That line, from a great Hank Williams tune, could well stand for the situation of writer Buzz Bissinger.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning former Inquirer staffer, Bissinger is a big dog in the publishing world, with his 1990 book Friday Night Lights and much else. His forthcoming book Father's Day promises to be a publishing event.
But he's only one person. Only one writer.
Amazon.com, now that's a bigger dog. Apple is another.
Get shoved in the same doghouse with those two, and you're going to get squeezed.
That's what happened to Bissinger last week.
On April 19, he published an e-book titled After Friday Night Lights, a sequel to his famed book about Permian High School in Odessa, Texas. The e-book traces the life of James "Boobie" Miles, a Permian tailback who suffered a knee injury that destroyed his football career. After follows Miles' subsequent difficult life and often ambivalent friendship with Bissinger.
At 12,000 words (about 45 pages) or so, After is a good long afternoon's single-sitting read, or several good short sittings. Bissinger is giving a third of the proceeds to Miles, who has fallen on tough times.
Bissinger wrote the e-book for Byliner, a publisher specializing in electronic "long-form" books (say, 5,000 to 30,000 words). Byliner published it through Amazon and other venues - including iTunes, the Apple shop - and priced it at $2.99. It's also for sale at Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and other digital stores. And it was doing pretty well.
Then, suddenly, as of last Tuesday, it wasn't on Amazon anymore. Byliner had removed it. The company said in a statement that it would repost After Friday Night Lights on Tuesday at the original $2.99.
Why did it get taken down in the first place? Why did it lose a precious week aboard Amazon, the world's biggest e-books store?
Because the big dogs are scrapping over the e-book market. Amazon is the biggest seller in that market. Apple is massive, too, but wants to be bigger; it's long been upset with the way Amazon discounts prices on e-books (see below).
One way Amazon works is to scan the market automatically, through software programs - bots, really - to make sure it isn't undersold on its e-books.
Apple has a promotion with coffee company Starbucks titled "Pick of the Week." Starbucks customers can get a special code and download the lucky chosen e-book on iTunes for free. Last week, the lucky (?) winner was After Friday Night Lights.
Amazon's programs saw the e-book was being offered free, figured that was a new price, and cut Amazon's own price to zero.
Byliner saw that and took After Friday Night Lights off Amazon. In a statement released Monday, Byliner said it "felt that a price of zero devalued Buzz's work and simply wasn't what we're about." Bissinger was contacted for this story and declined comment, but he did tweet that "it is shame when After FNL is doing well, book no longer avail. and both Boobie and I deprived of royalties."
It seemed like a key week for the little book. Byliner representative Clare Hertel confirmed that After Friday Night Lights had been selling well on other venues. It debuts on the New York Times e-book nonfiction best-seller list for the week of May 6 at No. 19.
On April 11, the U.S. Department of Justice filed suit against Apple and five major publishers, alleging that the companies had conspired to fix high prices for e-books, to force relentless undercutter Amazon to raise its discounted prices. Many folks dislike the way Amazon cuts prices, saying it hurts authors and publishers. But the very fact that Justice is suing Apple and the publishers might be a plus for Amazon. (It's worth noting that three of the five publishers have settled separately.)
So the problems of a man and his e-book don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy e-publishing world. The Bissinger affair is but the frayed edge of a larger e-war. Apple is trying all sorts of ways - free e-books, anyone? - to cut into the market, any way it can, and Bissinger was just one author, with one book.
It's more than cutthroat competition, says Paul Bibas, editor-in-chief of the e-book blog TeleRead - it's the very novelty of the e-book market. There's something about it that deeply makes no sense. "E-books and mass retailing of e-books is really brand new," he says. "The systems and marketing ideas are just being formed, and you'll see glitches like this all the time. People think it should work like regular publishing, but no, it shouldn't, and it isn't."