In the February 17 & 24 edition of The New Yorker George Packer has a long, well-reported piece on Amazon and its impact on books. It’s an article every book junkie will love, full of angst over the future of book publishing, independent bookstores, and mid-level authors who need support (big advances) to do their work. Also lots of publishing gossip, some quite juicy.
The internet in general and Amazon in particular have greatly disrupted book publishers and bookstores. Packer contends that the highly secretive Amazon never thought that much of books in the first place, but saw the book industry as an opportunity waiting to be plucked, a gateway into internet commerce (and a rich database of customers). Amazon always wanted to be the everything store, and books were merely a convenient place to begin.
The thing about books was that they store well and are easy to ship, and there are far too many of them for any physical location to stock. Thus the internet is a far more efficient vehicle for selling them than are bookstores. (Even though the internet will never match the cozy environment that the best bookstores offer. But what are you buying, books or atmosphere? Amazon bet on books.)
The thing about publishing was that it was too comfortable. There was a lot of inefficiency. Book prices were padded, salaries were padded, expenses accounts were padded, Manhattan office rents were padded, egos were padded. It was ripe for serious challenge, or so Amazon thought, according to Packer.
One can blame Amazon for the changes in bookselling and publishing, but in my opinion Amazon simply accelerated the inevitable. The internet is a more efficient way to distribute books, and bookstores were bound to suffer. The publishing industry has, quite apart from the internet, been under competitive pressures that have led to huge consolidation, increased fascination with blockbuster bestsellers, less interest in editing, less loyalty to writers who are developing their craft, and other crass aspects of modern publishing that may be blamed on Amazon but are fundamentally part of the corporatization of publishing.
Nevertheless, Amazon has been and continues to be a force that has aided and abetted the decline of bookstores and of publishing, and these are surely to be regretted.
However, there are two other parties involved: readers and writers–and arguably, they are the parties that matter.
Start with readers. As a reader I love Amazon. I don’t buy many books for pleasure, I get them from the library. But in my work I am often buying books that would be practically impossible to find at even the best bookstore: books on biblical studies, history, philosophy, obscure and out-of-print books. I find them easily and instantly from Amazon. I also use Amazon as a tool of reference to see what is available on a particular topic. I send gifts of favorite books to family and friends–a huge savings of time, since I don’t have to go to the bookstore and the post office. When I travel, I load up my Kindle with e-books, some free, some not, so that I can have a small library available without breaking my shoulder every time I have to carry my suitcase upstairs. As a reader, I love Amazon.
Some people worry that an Amazon book universe is a flat universe, with uncountable books published with nothing to distinguish them: no thoughtful editors selecting and promoting the best books, and few critics publishing book reviews enabling us to find and buy the best. So, they suggest, it will be a vast plain in which good books simply disappear in a swamp of self-promotion and drivel. I’m not sure. There are some pretty good blogs already reviewing books–my niece Jenny Brown, for example, publishes shelflove.wordpress.com in her spare time, check it out. And with the enhancement of peer-review sites like goodreads.com there are a lot of eyes out there reading and commenting. Also, the prize committees–Pulitzer, Booker, etc.–seem to be as active as ever and there are new prizes every time I turn around. The situation is far from perfect but I don’t think it’s hopeless, either. I still manage to find good books to read, don’t you?
As a writer, my feelings are more ambiguous. The destruction of the publishing industry and the bookstore industry has meant that my book sales are down. I don’t write blockbusters or best-sellers. (Wish I did.) For books like mine there’s little money for marketing, and anyway, marketing is now dominated by self-promotion on social media. If you’re good at this–and some authors are very good promoters–it’s all to the good. For me it’s more a disaster. I dislike self-promotion, and I don’t care to spend my life on Twitter. If a tree falls in the forest, is there any sound? That’s a parable for my books on the open market.
Also, I love good editing, but it’s become a very scarce commodity. Though truthfully, I’ve never found it very plentiful.
On the other hand, digital publishing in general and Amazon in particular have freed me from the gatekeepers. I found this very helpful in publishing Birmingham. I couldn’t get agents, let alone publishers, to read a single chapter. I think it was because my track record included several novels that didn’t sell. (You never really know why you don’t get a response to your emails.) In earlier times, Birmingham would have been put in a drawer and never seen again, until the grandchildren cleaned out the house. But I was able to publish it for minimal expense. I’m very proud of it. I think it’s one of the best things I’ve written. I’m glad that it’s available for people to read.
That is what writers ought to want, more than anything. Money is great, and celebrity is naturally desired, but a writer’s ambition has got to begin with the desire to be published. There’s a great line at the end of “Babette’s Feast,” the film based on the Isak Dinesen story: “Throughout the whole world sounds one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me the chance to do my very best.” For Babette, you may recall, that involved cooking one great thanksgiving meal for an audience that had no taste in food at all.
I gain some solace from the reminder that in the history of civilizations, there have been few times when a writer could make a living as a writer. Even as late as the nineteenth century some of the really astonishingly great writers scraped by on poverty wages or depended on their family. (George Eliot, for example.) Book publishers were also booksellers and they were hardly authors’ friends. Yet great literature was written, and great literature was published.
(So was drivel. In Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now Lady Carbury’s writing abilities are described as follows: “She could write after a glib, commonplace, sprightly fashion, and had already acquired the knack of spreading all she knew very thin, so that it might cover a vast surface. She had no ambition to write a good book, but was painfully anxious to write a book that the critics should say was good.”)
Don’t get me wrong, I am extremely grateful that I make a living as a writer. I am also grateful that I have been able to invest significant time and money in research, for The Adam Quest most recently, thanks to a good advance and the support of a foundation. Without time and money for interviews and research, some books just can’t be written. If publishing ends up utterly dominated by Amazon and its kin, those who make a living as writers will be those who are good at self-promotion and write books for wide audiences (romance, anyone? parenting?). Others will have to make a living in another way, by teaching, for example.
I would hate to have that choice put to me. But–do you know any poets? I do. They have been operating by these rules for all eternity. And there are some extraordinary poets.