A Rational Discussion about Amazon
Over at The New Republic, Ruth Franklin has one of the most rational pieces on Amazon.com that I’ve seen in a long while. She wrote this in response to Colin Robinson’s The Trouble with Amazon article that appeared in a recent issue of The Nation. (And which I haven’t read, because after subscribing to The Nation, I received all of four issues before someone promptly deleted my information. I’ve been too busy/lazy to try and correct this, so I’m always behind . . .)
Thankfully Ruth recaps this piece and Colin’s main objections: that “its business policies are inarguably draconian,” that discounting has hurt publishers and authors, that the “tendency of the Internet shopper to search rather than browse leads to a ‘loss of serendipity’ that was once key to the way people discovered new books. Criticisms that are valid and valuable, and also fairly common and well-documented. As Ruth wittily puts it, “I might as well try to defend Pol Pot.”
(When I gave a report on Jeff Bezos for business school, the general reaction was that Amazon’s business practices weren’t nearly as vicious or capitalist enough. Most b-school kids think book people are sissies. Then again, these opinions were coming from students who respect the banking industry. And EvilWylie has shit on the bankers of the world.)
Ruth nails it when she points out the primary advantage of Amazon:
But we have known all this for a long time. The real trouble with Amazon, it seems, is that nobody truly believes we were better off without it. This is where the often-made comparison of Amazon with other monoliths such as Wal-Mart falters. Wal-Mart is not known for its catalog of obscurities; the merchandise it sells is all available elsewhere. It put the mom-and-pop drugstores and hardware stores and grocery stores out of business by offering the same items that they sold, just at lower prices.
This isn’t the case with Amazon. Before it appeared on the scene, if you lived in a part of the country that happened not to be served by a great independent bookstore, you were out of luck when it came to getting books other than bestsellers. As a child growing up in suburban Baltimore—not exactly a backwater!—I felt keenly the lack of ready access to the books that I wanted. (Remember the joke of a selection at your local mall’s Waldenbooks?) And with the quirkier independents—such as the great Louie’s to which I paid tribute above—you were at the mercy of the owner’s idiosyncrasies, which meant that you might find shelves stocked with contemporary poetry but nothing by, say, Tolstoy.
I know I’ve said this before, but I grew up in Essexville, Michigan. You know how many books by Tolstoy were available at our local bookstore? Exactly zero. Same as the number of bookstores we had in town. I don’t even know what my childhood would’ve been like if I could’ve ordered any book my head desired.
It’s all fine to now praise the availability of near everything to nearly everyone, but I particularly like this bit about the general publishing business model:
If the publishing industry is suffering from the price-lowering trend that Amazon has led (though not entirely on its own), it also has its own poor business practices to blame. Robinson quotes a boss at Scribner, where he used to work, saying a few years ago that in terms of advances, “$50,000 is the new $100,000.” This isn’t a scandal; it is a necessary correction to inflated prices in the wake of a global recession. I understand that the metrics can be somewhat complicated, but a system in which 70 percent of books do not earn back their advances is destined to collapse. There’s something to be said for supporting books of quality regardless of how much revenue they bring in—this is why literary houses also publish diet books—but in recent years the amounts have gotten out of hand. Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones was a prize-winner and bestseller in France, but no one could have imagined that a 900-plus-page novel about a Nazi could sell anywhere near enough copies in the U.S. market to earn back the $1 million that Harper paid for English rights. (It reportedly sold fewer than 20,000.)
This is also all very true—and very well documented.
I know this is a personal flaw, but I tend to get defensive when people lay into Amazon and complain about how it’s ruining book culture. For fuck’s sake, there are dozens of things that have been ruining book culture for years and years and years. Suburban chains, TV, World of Warcraft, thousands of crappy books that are shoved down our throat, etc., etc. But what really gets me is what I see as the inherent hypocrisy in all this. Big publishers are big corporations wedded to the concepts of the free market and pure capitalist beliefs. The same principles that ensure that way more of [insert big six publisher of choice here]‘s books are displayed, sold, reviewed, and pimped than those from [insert indie/nonprofit publisher of choice here]. The same principles that ensure certain books don’t get published because they’re “too literary” and the P&L sheets don’t work out. This is the same game that allowed Amazon to become so powerful. As Ruth Franklin concludes, “Amazon is a quintessential capitalist enterprise, and it cannot be faulted for exploiting the free-market system that, for better or worse, we have embraced.” And yet we do. Loudly and vitriolically.
Ideally things would be different. I’d love to live in an America where literary fiction was still appreciated, where indie bookstores were a key business in every neighborhood, where people talked more about actual books and less about how well they did in the marketplace, where there was a lot more book coverage and a lot more book coverage devoted to “smaller books” from smaller presses. A LOT would have to change for something like this to happen. A fixed book price law. A much larger public-private investment in literature and literary culture. A bit of a cultural sea change away from TV and Twitter and back to reading. In this socialist paradise, Amazon probably wouldn’t be quite so powerful. But until that day comes, I have to say, for all the unsavory business practices they might embody, it sure is nice that I can order a copy of Cossery’s The Jokers, since there are no indie stores in town and the local B&N doesn’t carry it.
Since I’m fuming today over a number of things (including the general shittiness of my ultra-slow computer), I want to end by simply saying that I don’t think the relationship Amazon plays in book culture is all that cut and dry. There are good aspects and bad. There are nuances. There is predatory pricing, the long tail, a wonderful grant program, ways to make book recommendations more social, and the questionable effects of automatizing recommendations. We all love having a purely evil enemy, but Amazon is part of a complex publishing ecosystem that has a lot of flaws and middling enemies.
At least that’s my opinion. At this moment.