Friday, February 21, 2014

Why Amazon is Good for Literature

I really like Amazon.  I have Amazon Prime.  I love free shipping and I am amazed at all the free videos on Amazon Instant Video, which is getting damn close to Netflix for a lot less money.  (Be sure to check out old episodes of Danger Man.)  And despite some gentle ribbing of Jeff Bezos in my fictional upcoming novel, I admire what he has done with Amazon.

Most importantly, I am simply thrilled that Amazon allows you to publish a book on it's website for free, and collect the bulk of the money from any sales of it.  It's easy to dismiss this as no big in the era of the internet, but it's really something quite wonderful.  Any writer can put a book up and have it read by anyone in the world (just about) and charge whatever they want for it (just about).  Pretty incredible.  Equally amazing, Amazon Singles is bringing back economic incentives to write short stories, and they do the same thing for filmmakers who want to sell indie films or musicians who want to sell their own music.  Yes, there are other services that offer these opportunities, but for the biggest on-line retailer in the world to offer this is a huge opportunity for any struggling artists working in those mediums.

That being said, I don't feel any knee jerk need to defend them whenever they are criticized.  They are the 800 pound guerrilla of the internet, and they can take care of themselves.  There are plenty of reasons to be concerned that they might use their bulk unfairly, or that there might be negative trade-offs to the positive things they bring to the world.  And I think self-published authors need to be wary of getting too dependent on them.

So when I see an article like Cheap Words by George Packer for The New Yorker, purporting to look at the pros and cons of Amazon's publishing efforts, I not only have an open mind, but I'm actually assuming there will be some areas for serious concern that will leave me nodding in agreement.  I waded through it painfully, it's over 12,000 words,  assuming I would hear some interesting dirt on the big beast.  Such was not the case.  The article is so completely slanted against Amazon, I found myself even more on Amazon's side by the end, just because the presented arguments against Amazon are so full of holes.

Chief among the article's flaws, it reeks of elitism, as Andrew Leonard points out for Salon.  It's written in a pompous "serious journalism" style that pretends to be well researched and objective, but clearly has a barely hidden point of view.  An anti-Amazon point of view with a big side order of traditional publisher defense.  Packer, best know for his Iraq war reporting and non-fiction writing, braves the mean streets of New York's publishing scene to learn the hard truth.  Big New York publishers hate Amazon.  Breaking news!  Equally insightful, big publishers really hate self-publishing.  Oh, and by the way, working in an Amazon warehouse is low paying drudgery.  Supposedly there's some connection between warehouse workers not being unionized and mid-list literary types not getting big advances by publishers anymore.  Unmentioned by Packer, is that he is also a traditionally published novelist (Random House) and is presumably exactly the type of mid-list writer who won't get good advances anymore.  (Hmm… wonder if this article kissing up to the publishing industry is going to hurt or help Packers chances of getting a good publishing deal with his next novel?  George, have you hear of the term "full disclosure" of potential biases?)

The tone and timing of the article is completely "on message" with all the recent attacks on self-publishing, which fits into a carefully coordinated modern PR spin campaign.  Get a "serious" piece written by a "respected journalist" published in a major traditional publication, like the New Yorker.  That makes the subject topical and news worthy.  Mix in lots of "opinion" commentary by bloggers, like Donald Maass's odious Class System piece, and Chuck Wendig's Shit Volcano attack.  Sprinkle in an army of internet sock puppets to fill in comments sections with nodding agreement.  We could try to pretend this was just the result of a lot of literary agents and publishing execs expressing their frustrations until their views naturally trickled out into the media, but come on.  This smacks completely of a back room media strategy that is probably costing a bundle (if not in actually cash, then in future promises of quid pro quo).

But let me briefly ignore Packer's not-so-hidden agenda and look at the substance of his argument.  It can be broken into two parts.  Part One:

Amazon is Evil Because All it Cares About is Money.

All of Packer's criticisms of Amazon on this front can be applied to virtually any big successful American business.  Who finds working in warehouses fun or high paying?  (I didn't.)  What major business aren't concerned about employee theft, especially when they sell really cool stuff?  Amazon's workers are not unionized, same as most tech corporations, or most new corporations in general.  (Usually takes a few decades for workers to unionize.)  Amazon is a tough competitor.  Okay.  So?

If Packer wanted to write an article about how warehouse workers are getting squeezed, fine.  Provide some real information, make comparisons between various businesses, get quotes from people proposing solutions and alternatives.  Talk about the pros and cons of unionization.  But what little information he presents is hardly damning of Amazon.  Amazon builds warehouses in areas where there are high rates of unemployment.  That's a bad thing?  Isn't that exactly where Amazon, as a good citizen, should build warehouses?  Where people need jobs?  He then goes on to say that warehouse workers are being treated like machines and it's unpleasant work.  Okay, warehouse work can be very unpleasant, but the world needs warehouses for stuff.  He then says that Amazon is trying to automate everything with robots.  Well, isn't that what we want?  For robots to do the unpleasant work?  Won't that free up the employees to work more white collar jobs?  Or maybe he's arguing that Amazon is firing people and using robots instead?  Nope, he later says Amazon is hiring like crazy.

Overall, this sounds like the exact promise of American capitalism.  A new company gets a great idea, selling everything on line, and starts building warehouses where people need jobs.  It then automates those warehouses so workers don't have to do the unpleasant robotic work, and continues to grow and hire more people.  Sounds like lifting people out of poverty to me.  Sounds like a nice future.

Packer repeats the common concern that Amazon's success comes at a terrible price, the closing of lots of brick and mortar stores who can't compete with Amazon's low prices.  But I've never thought much of that argument, and Packer does nothing to convince me.  If you want to argue the pros and cons of capitalism, great, I'll perk an ear but communism doesn't work real well.  If you want to argue for higher minimum wages and government regulations to support workers, great.  I agree the government should protect workers.  But the entire point of capitalism is low prices for great stuff and the corollary is that if you have a business that doesn't sell great stuff, or charges too much, you go bankrupt.  Capitalism isn't about every business being successful, it's about businesses that don't work dying.  They go away and make room for new businesses.  That's how it works.

And everywhere I look, there are new businesses popping up, both on-line and brick and mortar.  The desire for low prices for the stuff Amazon sells hasn't stopped people from opening coffee shops that charge a huge amount for good expresso.  Or sell organic bakery items for twice what Dunk'n Donuts costs.  Notice the huge rise of Farmer's Markets in cities?  Selling expensive fresh fruit from small organic farms?  I guess I'm idealistic enough to think that Amazon filling warehouses with robots that can send cheap materials to small businesses might be helping small entrepreneurial businesses (and I've heard lots of stories about this very thing).  People save money in one area, and are able to spend it in another.  Amazon is also the biggest customer for UPS, which delivers a lot of Amazon's packages.  UPS is totally unionized, Teamsters, the most union of all unions.  (It also uses Federal Express, which is not unionized, but due to some crazy Federal laws, not Amazon.)  Amazon also struck a deal with the US Postal service for Sunday deliveries.  They are also unionized.  Most bookstore clerks are not unionized, so if bookstores are closing, non-union jobs selling books are being replaced by unionized jobs delivering the books to people's homes.  With the health and retirement benefits that unions offer.  No, I don't think all of these changes are always best.  It''s not always job for job, and it's not all in the favor of workers. But overall it strikes me that what Amazon is striving for is a better direction for the future than figuring out how to make people happy to settle for manual labor in a warehouse.  Or having to pay a large retail markup for a mass produced item.  If the overall economy in America still sucks, I'd blame it on two hugely expense unnecessary wars that drained the public sector and a major old Wall Street financial scandal tearing money out of the business sector.  Not on discount goods and free shipping.

Of course, if Amazon is paying its most of its workers less than industry norms, that wouldn't be good.  But Packer doesn't state this or provide any information in that regard.  And certainly it isn't good if Amazon is mistreating workers, but while Packer hints at this (lack of air-conditioning in some warehouses, until recently) he doesn't really provide any evidence of a large scale issue with Amazon blue collar workers.  Because it's really pretty clear he isn't worried about blue collar workers at all.  He's worried about mid-list writers of literary fiction not getting big enough advances so they can write the great American novel.

Packer's attempt to draw a line between abused warehouse workers and suffering mid-list writers is like comparing the fact that Walmart workers don't get health insurance, and the Met has shortened their opera season so there are less challenging lead roles for mezzo-sopranos.  Both things are sad, but thousands of low-paid workers not getting health insurance is a little sadder than a dozen classically trained singers not having good roles.  And they have nothing to do with each other.

Which brings us to his second big point:

Self-Publishing is Evil Because… Because… ?

Packer clearly indicates that this whole self-publshing thing is really, really bad.  It's kind of like warehouse workers fainting because they don't have air conditioning.  It's kind of like the Vichy puppet government working with the Nazis.   It's like a father who abuses you.  Or getting punched in the face.  Why?  Why is it so bad?

Well, that isn't so clear.  Packer doesn't really talk much about self-publishing, except that it seems to be hurting traditional publishing.  How is it hurting traditional publishing, which is having record profits?  Well, it's forcing them to focus on just the top selling authors.  Why?  Well, because that's where the money is.  Okay, but what does that have to do with Amazon?  Or self-publishing?

Well, something.  Packer explains that this is all like what is going on in America today, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  Amazon is to blame for the for selling cheap books and there really isn't anything the publishers can do but cut the advances to mid-list writers of literary fiction (like Packer).  Even though they have record profits.

Still don't see what this has to do with Amazon?  Still don't see what this has to do with self-publishing.  Well, what if I told you, as Packer does, that if those mid-list writers aren't supported with advances, they might not write those difficult works of literary art that take time.  Also, those mid-list writers of difficult, complex novels, sometimes go on to write popular novels, that people will really read.  So if the big publishers don't support them, art will suffer, and we might not see some popular novels that eventually might make those big publishers a ton of money.

So… what does that have to do with Amazon?  Why can't the big publishers continue to spend money on advances (which were never that large) to help art and possibly their own bottom line in the future?  They have record profits after all (thanks at least in part to all the new money Amazon is giving them) and Packer argues that it's in their own best interest.  Packer never really explains what this has to do with Amazon.  But there is a connection.  So I'll explain it.

You see, it works like this.  "Mid-list," at least as Packer is referring to it, is code for books that people don't buy.  (He's talking about mid-list literary fiction, not mid-list genre, like romance novels, which sell well.)  These books may not sell well because they are too artistically challenging, because they don't fit into a popular genre, or simply because they aren't that good.  The thing is, the big publishers used to have a system that worked reasonably well to push books through the distribution channels that no one was interested in.  They would ship off a bunch to bookstores, make sure they were placed in prominent places for a little while and then they would have book reviewers try to gin up sales and hope the shop owners would try to shove them on people.  And thus a few of these books, not a lot, would get sold to people walking into the store looking for something else.  The rest would be pulped (a huge waste resources but if you don't print them and force them out there, none would be bought).  Of course, the trick was to keep moving different books through the system, freeing up self-space and giving reviewers hooked into the system something new to talk about.  Kind of like the way the Hollywood Studios run lower budgeted movies through the movie theaters.

Amazon, and self-publishing, have killed that model.  People are less likely to wander into a book store and buy something they weren't interested in.  They can check on-line and find anything they want.  They don't need to take a chance on a big publishers flavor-of-the-month.  They can make connection with authors they like.  They can find obscure books that interest them.  That is, people have more choices, so they don't need to buy books just because publishers decided they should be placed on the front shelves for a few weeks and the New York Times writes them up.

There were some talented writers who benefited from this old arrangement, and it must be a little frustrating for them.  And some of them might have written beautiful challenging art, and some of them might have gone on to write something for more popular tastes, but will become discouraged because they can't get advances for their less popular stuff.   But ultimately, it's the big publishers decision not to support those kinds of books and authors.  Their old brick and mortar machine isn't working as good anymore, but that doesn't prevent them from paying advances (they have record profits) and from trying to promote those same books on-line (through Amazon, for example).  But they don't want to.

Why?  Presumably, they can't justify the expense on even a basic level these days.  Shipping the books out to stores, only to have them not be bought and returned and pulped, just doesn't make sense.  But that still doesn't explain why they can't do something with that material on-line (to justify an real advance).  And I think the answer is, and the publishers know, in most cases, most of those books were marginal anyway.  I suspect a ton of these mid-list deals were simply favors to various connected writers, and connected agents.  The reason literary agents are freaking out is because they can't deliver these kind of publishing deals for books no one wants to read anymore.  The issue isn't supporting great literature, it's supporting marginal writers who want to think they are writing great literature.  That is, a bunch of elitist twerps who can't hack any completion without the pull of a big publisher putting their pompous novels on the front shelf.  Because if they had any real audience for their material, they would be leaping at the self-publishing revolution, rather than fighting for marginal advances.  They would be interested in readers and sales, not advances.  Regardless, there's still nothing stopping the big publishers from supporting "important" (i.e. less popular) literary fiction, but since sales are down, why not squeeze these guys and blame Amazon?

The other big danger to the big publishing world, that Packer doesn't touch on, is that genre novels are were the real money is, and genre writers are the ones that are abandoning the Trads like crazy.  And this is because they have been ripped of for a long time.  They got paid lousy advances, and lousy cuts of sales, so the Trads would have money for those vanity deals on literary fiction.  That's  the bigger problem the Trads have to face.  But Packer doesn't talk much about genre fiction, because he's more worried about "ideas" and "art" and genre fiction is too low class to count as literature.

Packers ends with an argument that gatekeepers (the big publishers) are somehow barriers to a complete commercialization of ideas.  It's an argument that simply makes no sense in the context of what he has written in the previous 12,000 words, and it flatly makes no sense at all.  Presumably it is terrible that anyone can publish a book because it might hurt a tiny group of mid-list writers who won't work without advances?  Presumably great artists won't do work unless they have the support of giant publishing houses?  Aren't the big publishers responsible for breaking fiction into so many specific commercial categories that certain ideas couldn't be published before the self-publishing revolution?  The good gatekeepers arguement makes no sense, and that's why Packer has to stuff so much conflicting information ahead of it.  And that's why he can't even talk about any potential advantage to the self-publishing revolution.

So let me talk about how self-publishing helps the world, and ideas and art.  Did grandpa write a book about his WWII experiences?  Why not self-publish it and give him and his buddies at the VA copies?  Isn't it nice you can do that now thanks to Amazon?  And who knows, a historian in Europe might stumble upon it and it fills in some important information about the Battle of the Bulge.  Seems like society benefits from that.  And guess what, real artists, who don't need advances, can publish the most challenging artistic works now.  Kids can write their own books and as they grow, become better artists.  History buffs can write their own books.  Dinosaur porn is now available.  And lots, and lots of self-publishing writers are making money in genre fiction.  And some of that genre fiction might actually be art as valuable as "literary" fiction.  And guess what, graphic artists are making money designing covers for self-published books.  (And the good one's quickly raise their prices.)  Editors are making money proofing them.  Blogs are making money giving advice.  Toys based on self-published sci-fi books are getting Kickstarter funding.  Soon popular movies will be based on them.  An entire new ecosystem is being created around self-publishing.  One that is already larger, and is bound to be much, much larger than the old one it is replacing.

Maybe some of the people who are making money in this new ecosystem centered around a love of writing and books and art, are the people who are being replaced by robots doing the Amazon warehouse work that wasn't nearly as much fun.  That's what I hope.

And if you're worried about "art" and "ideas" do you really believe the next On the Road, or Catcher in the Rye, or Catch 22 is more likely to come out of a giant big five publisher, or from a guy who self-publishes?   If you think the former, you need to start checking out what is really going on in self-publishing.


  1. I rarely go into bookstores now. I like to find interesting new writers on Amazon. With the internet the world is moving so fast older books don't have much interest to me.

    1. There are some great old books, but the fact of the matter is that humans usually get better at things as time progresses. Modern writers have a lot of great techniques that have been developed over time that make modern stories read faster and better. I generally like new stuff better too.