February 16, 2014

"(He declined to be interviewed for this article.)"

The most telling parenthetical in George Packer's "Cheap Words/Amazon is good for customers. But is it good for books?"

"He" = Jeff Bezos.

Lots of fascinating things in the article, which feels quite biased against Amazon and in favor of all the publishing industry people who have lost out and who did submit to interviews. Sample:
Several editors, agents, and authors told me that the money for serious fiction and nonfiction has eroded dramatically in recent years; advances on mid-list titles—books that are expected to sell modestly but whose quality gives them a strong chance of enduring—have declined by a quarter. These are the kinds of book that particularly benefit from the attention of editors and marketers, and that attract gifted people to publishing, despite the pitiful salaries. Without sufficient advances, many writers will not be able to undertake long, difficult, risky projects....

The quest for publishing profits in an economy of scarcity drives the money toward a few big books. So does the gradual disappearance of book reviewers and knowledgeable booksellers, whose enthusiasm might have rescued a book from drowning in obscurity. When consumers are overwhelmed with choices, some experts argue, they all tend to buy the same well-known thing.

These trends point toward what the literary agent called “the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer.” A few brand names at the top, a mass of unwashed titles down below, the middle hollowed out: the book business in the age of Amazon mirrors the widening inequality of the broader economy.
Note the class politics rhetoric, deployed in the interest of the snootiest publishers and "gifted people" who work for low pay in publishing. Packer quotes an elite publisher who complains that "Amazon has successfully fostered the idea that a book is a thing of minimal value... It’s a widget." A book is just another object that can be purchased. Packer says Amazon has conditioned people "to think that books are worth as little as a sandwich."

Hey, a sandwich is worth a lot, and books don't need to be objects. There's so much readable material that is available digitally and completely free, including the greatest books (and blogs!) ever written.

Disclosure: That last link is an Amazon link, and I am personally part of Amazon's scheme to win everybody over to their side. I'm also one of the many writers who earn money through the Amazon Associates program, which lets readers channel income to writers they like, writers who add, every day, to the writing that's available free, that's causing people to buy fewer books. You can buy sandwich bags and sandwich toasters and send money to writers.

35 comments:

Tyrone Slothrop said...

Yeah. Damned Gutenberg. A book used to be a hand-made thing of beauty, now anybody can get one. Welcome to the fifteenth century! Things will never be the same.

John Lynch said...

Amazon is a publisher!

Michael K said...

Exactly. The publishers that I sent a manuscript to were not interested. Had an academic press taken it up, the book would probably be long out of print. On Amazon, I get ten dollars a copy and it sells thousands of copies a year ten years after it was published. I call Bull Shit.

Joan said...

Michael K, that's one of the best things I've read all day. Good for you!

SteveR said...

I call bullshit also. At the very least if Bezos hadn't done it someone else would have. Progress-horseshoers hardest hit

Sheri Ulrich said...

The gatekeepers are getting scared. They can't close the door on someone who doesn't kowtow to editors or publishers, now that anyone can be a publisher. The only thing most "traditional" publishers offer an author at this point is marketing and distribution, and those functions are also rapidly being subsumed by online resources. It's much the same thing that happened to record companies when artists discovered that they could produce CDs very cheaply and distribute via iTunes. There have been studies done by researchers that show that publishers will reject titles that they themselves had published, if the author's name were changed from someone "famous" to a "nobody".

Birches said...

Yeah. Damned Gutenberg. A book used to be a hand-made thing of beauty, now anybody can get one. Welcome to the fifteenth century! Things will never be the same.

Ha!

Yeah, cry me a river. I've found most of the indie published stuff out there is not great, but then again, most of the books at the library published by the big boys are fairly awful too. Let the people decide how much they're willing to pay for a great product.

chrisnavin.com said...

Wasn't the New Yorker started as a place for avant-garde and experimental literature?

I could see how there'd be some serious traditionalists and bibliophiles over there, which is why I'd like to see Packer branch out into some celebrity-gossip listsicles.

Come on New Yorker, how about a piece (not a hit-piece) on Ted Cruz or the John Birch Society and maybe an earnest review of the TGI Friday's on E 42nd?

chrisnavin.com said...

A guy can dream, can't he?

Michael K said...

"At the very least if Bezos hadn't done it someone else would have."

There are days when I think of how Sears could have been the Amazon.com. They were closing their catalog operations about the time Amazon began. They had all the infrastructure and the customer base. I worked for Sears for a while when I was in college and was appalled at how poor their IT was. Their warehouse inventory records at the big store in LA where I worked were several years behind. They had no idea what was in there.

Sam L. said...

Sarah Hoyt would agree with Michael K.

http://accordingtohoyt.com/

chrisnavin.com said...

Actually Michael, I know a guy who just worked at Sears and said he was top salesman at his store with about $25,000 monthly avg over each prev 3 months.

They were pushing all the sales associates to use IPads, and even though once adopted everyone significantly slowed down, and he pulled about $10k, they told him to stick with the IPad.

Full speed ahead with the technology thing.

Sean Gleeson said...

These whiners are hypocrites. They were always the gatekeepers, deciding which writers would get the chance to be seen by readers. If Amazon is disrupting this regime, then (as Glenn would say) faster, please.

From my own experience, I just published my first book on Amazon about two weeks ago. It was a pleasant and painless way to do business. I never even considered any old-model publishers, because I knew it would be a waste of my time. (Not that the book is bad, of course; it's just a very unconventional literary anthology, and so won't fit anyone's business model.)

Revenant said...

I suspect Sears' business strategy during the 1990s will be included in many business schools' curricula in the future. Probably the biggest missed opportunity since Xerox decided graphical user interfaces weren't worth following up on.

cassandra lite said...

I can say with certainty, from decades of personal experience, that the publishers have only themselves to blame for the deterioration of the once venerable industry.

Their pathetic lament over the mid list's decline is years late, given how little they do to nurture titles whose advances are less than $200K.

If a title doesn't catch quicksilver on its own, or through the efforts of the author and/or his own publicist, editors and in-house publicists stand on the sidelines and wring their hands for about five seconds before moving on to the next failure.

Most of all what the editors fear now is their own obsolescence. Amazon has made publishing democratic, leaving less room for blue bloods. RIP.

The Godfather said...

The world changes. Delta's not the best airline anymore. Who reads histories and biographies by John S.C. Abbott these days? How was your last trip on the Super Chief? I loved the IBM Selectric, didn't you?

Deirdre Mundy said...

Kathryn Kristine Rusch also seems to be doing well on Amazon-- she was a midlist author, and got screwed by publishers.


I put my YA novel up-- it had gotten good feedback, but everyone said I needed to go to conferences and get an agent to have a hope of selling. I don't have the time or money for that.

So I put it up... now about 3 or 4 people a month read it.

Sure, it's not 'Harry Potter' levels of success, but 3 or 4 readers a month is MUCH better than no readers ever... especially since my fiction is for fun.... I have other stuff that I write for the money.

David said...

Opening anything up to the masses tends to piss off the elites that controlled it previously.

I do not agree with the notion that if Bezos had not done it, someone else would have. Certainly in some form the electronic book would have developed. But to make it cheap and accessible, both to the publishing authors and the readers, was not automatic. It took quite a bit of risk, genius, perseverance and hard work to create Amazon.

There is no equivalent to Amazon in Europe or anywhere else in the world. That is true for a number of other very disruptive inventions. These are largely American creations, and most are the product of one or a handful of visionaries who made it happen.

They did build this. And yes they are exceptional.

EDH said...

"Without sufficient advances, many writers will not be able to undertake long, difficult, risky projects...."

Aren't there a plethora of crowd funding sites that can fund such projects up-front bypassing the big editorial gatekeepers?

Won't that lead to more opportunity and diversity?

Packer's rant is an insight into the ossified bureaucracy that would rather drag everyone to Hell in order to protect their sinecures rather than adapt.

sydney said...

So does the gradual disappearance of book reviewers and knowledgeable booksellers, whose enthusiasm might have rescued a book from drowning in obscurity.

I do miss good book reviews, but I blame the newspaper industry for their demise. I used to look forward to reading the Sunday NewYork Times Book Review, but in the early 2000's they became so overtly political in their choices that I stopped reading it.

rcocean said...

Good book reviews helping you find a hidden Jewel - you've got to be joking.

Except when they're attacking a conservative book, the book reviewers at NYT/WaPo only praise books - they're all GREAT! to varying degrees. Which means their reviews were worthless in trying to find a "hidden jewel".

Remember how Gene Shalit reviewed film? Most Magazine/Newspaper book reviewers are like him.

Kev said...

(the other kev)

Mpar Grisham/Clancy/Steele! Moar badly reasarched political books! Most interchangeable YA shit written for movie adaptation.:

Publishers, hurry up and die.



John Cunningham said...

Most authors get 6 or 7% royalties from traditional publishers. Amazon e-book authors get 68 to 70%. check out recent posts on voxday.blogspot.com, several posts on benefits of indie publishing vs. traditional.

Michael K said...

"Their pathetic lament over the mid list's decline is years late, given how little they do to nurture titles whose advances are less than $200K. "

Especially given the practice of destroying the inventory of mid-list slow selling books.

Brian McKim & Traci Skene said...

From her Wikipedia entry:

"For the final two decades of her life, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis had a career as a book editor."

Ever seen video/film (with sound) of Jackie O? Watching her try to form sentences was excruciating. But her gig as an editor was the result of a quest to find "work that would be fulfilling to her" after Ari died. What a joke.

"Since she had always enjoyed writing and literature, in 1975 she accepted a job offer as an editor at Viking Press." Then it was on to Doubleday. She wasn't an "editor" in any way, shape or form. She was a professional luncher. She was used as a conduit for the elite. Her hiring was a way to exploit her connections to the rich and famous. And the folks in the publishing biz wonder why, 20 years after Jackie's demise, their business is following her to the grave.

RecChief said...

so there is less money for crappy books, and less money for vanity publishing, and this guy thinks that's a bad thing. The End.

Sean Gleeson said...

I actually clicked through to the linked article just to see if it used the word "curate." Sadly, it does not.

richardsson said...

Yes, in those good old days, unpublished authors would send their manuscripts to publishers, and the publishers would send it back unread telling us that we needed an agent. So, we would send the query letters and sometimes manuscripts to agents and the agents would send them back to us unread with a message that they only represented perviously published writers. Franz Kafka's The Castle described the situation perfectly. Nothing is forever, thank goodness.

richardsson said...

Yes, in those good old days, unpublished authors would send their manuscripts to publishers, and the publishers would send it back unread telling us that we needed an agent. So, we would send the query letters and sometimes manuscripts to agents and the agents would send them back to us unread with a message that they only represented perviously published writers. Franz Kafka's The Castle described the situation perfectly. Nothing is forever, thank goodness.

furious_a said...

One measure of whether Amazon is good or not for books -- how many titles are in print now vs. five/ten/twenty years ago?

B said...

Publishers =/= books. And record labels =/= music. Books and music can thrive without the publishers and record labels we were accustomed to in the 20th century.

Eric said...

Couldn't happen to a nicer industry. Shall we talk about what the publishing industry was really like when they held all the cards? Okay, let's talk about Robert Heinlein and Putnam.

Putnam published Stranger in a Strange Land in 1961. They bought Berkeley in 1965, and then in 1967 sold Berkeley exclusive publishing rights to Stranger for $1. The way the contract was worded, by selling the rights to, well, themselves they could split the royalty between the right hand and the left hand and cut Heinlein's percentage from 12% to 6%.

Heinlein never sued. I don't know why, but I can guess - publishing was a small club back then, and suing your boss was probably tantamount to career suicide.

These kinds of stories are legion. Book publishers have taken advantage of their position as gatekeepers to take the lion's share of profits and keep even popular authors on starvation wages. So... yeah. Let's not get too misty-eyed for the good old days of book publishing.

Christy said...

Long ago either Salon or Slate posted an article praising Amazon for rescuing worthy books which otherwise would have slowly disappeared. The example discussed was Lansing's Endurance a mid-century book little read by the '90s. Glowing reviews on Amazon rekindled interest. Readers began ordering it. Not long after we had a movie and a documentary or two about Shackleton.

I'm one who reads most anything. Doesn't have to be well written - I loved The Da Vinci Code for example. But I must admit, Amazon has about cured me with all those awful less-than-$3.99 books. There may be gems, but I'm too old to spend any more hours sifting through and trying them. My respect for editors has increased.

chuck said...

Some data on self publishing. Packer is way behind and coming in late on this controversy. The New Yorker is fossilising even as we watch.

pst314 said...

RecChief "so there is less money for crappy books, and less money for vanity publishing, and this guy thinks that's a bad thing. The End."

If you knew something about the publishing industry--and I have had conversations with numerous authors and editors over the last few decades--you would not say that. The decline of the midlist has been going on for a long time and is very unfortunate.