Fifty Shades of Grey
So, this past weekend, Salon ran this article about Amazon’s “$1 million secret”—their recently created giving program, which has benefitted a large number of literary nonprofits.. Key word there being “nonprofit,” but I’ll get to that in a minute . . .
On the whole, the article is rather even handed. It includes examples of various initiatives that Amazon has funded that are really beneficial to writers, translators, etc. (such as the OnePage feature of the Brooklyn Book Festival, and our own Best Translated Book Award), along with people like Dennis Loy Johnson of Melville House who are adamantly opposed to any and all things Amazon.
Since I really want to get to my main point/observation, but can’t stop myself from poking a little fun, here’s a quick run down of some fun or confusing things about this piece:
1) In criticizing Amazon, Alexander Zaitchik includes this line, “[Critics] claim that Amazon bullies small publishers into signing price and promotional contracts that threaten their already slim margins, and doesn’t hesitate to unplug the “Buy” buttons of those who resist.” What you can’t see here is that “resist” is a hyperlink . . . to an article about a small press losing their buy buttons? Nope. It’s an article about the standoff between Macmillan and Amazon that took place in January 2010.
OK, OK, that’s what it is, but more interestingly, when did we start believing that it was Amazon’s responsibility to sell every single book? At the start, Bezos had to go around and convince publishers that people would eventually be willing to buy books through the Internet. Now, if Amazon doesn’t like the terms of a deal they have with a publisher and chooses to not sell their books, it’s fucking criminal. Obviously, no one is outraged when Barnes & Noble or an indie store doesn’t carry something (that’s just smart business!), even when the decision not to stock a title is based on a publisher refusing to pay a “co-op.” (Which, for those not in the know, is essentially a kick back to bookstores small and large to promote that particular press’s titles. I wish we could afford this.)
The strength of Amazon’s position is due in part to stocking everything, so when particular books or publishers are delisted Amazon is really hurting itself. Regardless, I just find this curious. Keep in mind, Amazon is a giant corporation driven by giant corporation concerns, which means it’s in business only to make money—nothing else.
2) I’ll get to my quote about translators in a minute, but just to clarify something, the article ends with this:
“The grants give Amazon something to point to, but people don’t see Amazon’s business practices any differently, says Chad Post. “It’s the same as with any corporation. Money is money. I take money from Citibank, and I fucking hate Citibank.”
First off, if I were a journalist and someone handed me that little bit of vulgarity, I’d end with it as well. But to make this clear: I have never received money from Citibank. I said “I would take money from Citibank.” If they want to give Open Letter $25,000, that would be very appreciated. What’s not in question is my “fucking” hatred of them.
3) I wonder what would happen if the “Big Six” publishers really didn’t sign Amazon’s agreements. What’s not mentioned in this article is that Amazon’s offer is likely the first stage of a negotiation—one that the Big Six almost have to reject in order to get the negotiation rolling. In the words of one of my Simon Business School friends, “It’s irresponsible for a corporation not to maximize their profits as fully as possible—by offering unfavorable terms and never paying tax.” Yeah. Yeah, I know.
What’s interesting to me about this—and I know, I sound like a broken record—is that the primary arguments against Amazon is that they’re taking over everything by being aggressive and “mean.” Book publishing has been gentlemanly (sort of, if in a bit of a misogynist, classist way) for so long, that we cringe at these sorts of things. The only real question is whether or not Amazon is doing anything illegal. I’m still waiting to read the article that intelligently—and with examples—breaks down Amazon’s practices and evaluates them against current (not imaginary) anti-trust regulations.
But when it comes to talking about anti-trust and Dept. of Justice investigations, the only people currently under fire are five of the Big Six and Apple. Which leads to this very telling paragraph:
Publishers large and small are on the same side as Barnes & Noble and Apple in challenging Amazon’s attempt to gain a death grip on the exploding e-book market. Amazon’s success, say its critics, will lower price expectations for physical books to the point where they become untenable for the Big Six’s business model.
Emphasis mine. Amazon convinces people they shouldn’t be paying so much for books, which unends the “death grip” the Big Six have had on publishing, which is TOTALLY EVIL.
4) The award Amazon funds is the “Best Translated Book Award.” Not the “Open Letter Best New Translation Award,” and not the “Open Letter Translation Award.” Just a point of clarification.
Also, this is totally true:
Nor has anyone yet heard from a Big Six publisher eager to fund a translation award of their own.
5) I just want to stick by my belief that Amazon’s giving program is really good for the Best Translated Book Awards and translators in general. I try not to ever read quotes that I give (I usually sound like a jackass), but I’ll stick by this one:
This is especially true of literary translators. Along with its own translated feature series, AmazonCrossing, the company funds several original translation projects, including the PEN Translation Fund and Open Letter’s Best New Translation Award, to the tune of $20,000 annually. The result has been some new friends for the Yellow Giant. “Translators love Amazon,” says Chad Post of Open Letter, an Amazon grantee and publisher of translated fiction at the University of Rochester. “They’re working for maybe $500 a book, books no one wants to touch. Then Amazon comes along and suddenly they’re benefiting from an industry that doesn’t help them, ever. Five thousand dollars is enormous to them. I can understand people are concerned with Amazon’s power in the marketplace, but I have a hard time chastising them when they directly benefit people who struggle their whole lives to do what they think is important.”
6) The comments beneath this article are HYSTERICAL and worth reading. I could quote a dozen, but I’ll stick with this one which might cut a bit close to home:
Yeah, Amazon looks really awful until you look a lot more closely and the print publishing industry. I worked in the book publishing industry for nearly 35 years; about half of that time I was in New York City. The print publishers make a profit by scamming the authors and underpaying staff and suppliers. In fact, for many years most of the editing, copyediting, proofreading, and even much of the graphic design and typesetting have been done by “independent contractos” who work without benefits and then wait months to get paid. Decent jobs they can live on? In publishing? Hah.
OK, fun and games over, and on to the main point: nonprofits. The one thing missing from this article—and all the others just like it, and all of Dennis Loy Johnson’s blog postings—is a discussion of nonprofit publishing. The only organizations eligible to receive these grants are nonprofit literary organizations. What does that really mean? That these are organizations that are mission-driven, that publish books, or assist a particular constituency in ways that will almost definitely lose them money.
That’s not to say that for profit publishers always turn a profit, but when it comes to deciding about programming (be it publishing a particular book, starting a reading series, organizing a conference), a nonprofit makes this decision from the perspective of whether or not this activity would help to “fulfill its mission,” NOT whether or not this activity will make money. A good executive director is capable of evaluating a particular project and figuring out how much money it will lose and where he/she will raise that money from, but turning profits isn’t the motivating factor in their decision making.
Bit more fact-dropping for a second: A “for profit” such as New Directions, or Norton, or Goosebottom Books (quoted in the article), or Melville House, spends all of its time undertaking activities that will help it to sell more product. They make editorial decions with literary taste and an awareness of the market, they spend money on promotions in order to sell more books.
Nonprofits spend at least 50% of their time either raising money or doing “educational” activities that don’t have a direct impact on increasing sales. I teach classes. We run a reading series on campus that loses us $20,000 a year. We give away books to prisons. This blog educates, informs, entertains, and makes us no money whatsoever.
Point is, when you’re a nonprofit, you approach the world differently. You are aware of the fifty shades of grey1 that come along with significant donations. Receiving money from Individuals can be as tricky as receiving it from corporations. Rich people have rich people egos. The potential exists for a large donor to shift who you are. If you’re in the nonprofit world, you navigate this as best you can.
And god bless you if you’re a literary nonprofit who can turn away money. Aside from the National Endowment for the Arts (whose budget is basically the same as it was 25 years ago, you know, because there’s no such thing as inflation), there’s only one foundation in the country that funds nonprofit presses across the country. ONE. Granted, Minneapolis has a solid funding community, but that’s it. There’s basically no money for nonprofit literary publishing in Boston, Chicago, Rochester, Miami, you name the place. But that’s the situation we decided to deal with to accomplish what we feel is important. (That we’re passionate about. Nonprofit publishers aren’t in this for the money. If they are, they live a life of constant disappointment.)
So when I read comments from Dennis Loy Johnson in which he poses as the “great independent crusader,” I get really irritated. He doesn’t deal with this world at all, so for him to criticize decisions that we make is a bit ludicrous. If he doesn’t like it, he doesn’t have to take Amazon’s mon—— wait, that’s right, he can’t. He chose to go a different route, so he doesn’t spend 90% of his life in a state of anxiety about grant deadlines and individual fundraising efforts and trying to be good enough to attract more than a $100 donation. He has other, equally valid concerns. But I would never harass Melville House if they sold $25,000 worth of books through Wal-Mart (would they? I’m willing to bet that all moral issues about that awful company go by the wayside if given the opportunity), even though I hate that store in ways unhealthy. Shit, even if MHP sold $25,000 of product to Citibank, I wouldn’t criticize him.
I don’t understand the pressures—physical, mental, ethical—of being a for profit, in the same way people who haven’t worked in nonprofits don’t understand what we go through. Different presses have different needs, different situations, different goals. I wish an article would be written in which it’s not nonprofits talking nice about the one grant they received all year, and some bitter sounding for profit publishers criticizing them for it.
That is all.
1 Yep, I totally used that phrase to try and attract people searching for mommy porn. I can be devious at times.