Amazon vs The World

Came across Emma Clarke Lam’s excellent response  to Jonathan Franzen’s article published in the Guardian last month. Mr Franzen was complaining about…well, if I’m honest, I’m not really sure what Mr Franzen was complaining about (and let’s put this down to my phenomenally short attention span, rather than the article itself). From what little of it I understood, he seemed to be quite upset at how the nature of modern media consumption was endangering literary art.

That’s a guess, so don’t quote me on it.

The point where Ms Lam picked up the story was here:

In my own little corner of the world, which is to say American fiction, Jeff Bezos of Amazon may not be the antichrist, but he surely looks like one of the four horsemen. Amazon wants a world in which books are either self-published or published by Amazon itself, with readers dependent on Amazon reviews in choosing books, and with authors responsible for their own promotion. The work of yakkers and tweeters and braggers, and of people with the money to pay somebody to churn out hundreds of five-star reviews for them, will flourish in that world. But what happens to the people who became writers because yakking and tweeting and bragging felt to them like intolerably shallow forms of social engagement? What happens to the people who want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word, and who were shaped by their love of writers who wrote when publication still assured some kind of quality control and literary reputations were more than a matter of self-promotional decibel levels? As fewer and fewer readers are able to find their way, amid all the noise and disappointing books and phony reviews, to the work produced by the new generation of this kind of writer, Amazon is well on its way to making writers into the kind of prospectless workers whom its contractors employ in its warehouses, labouring harder for less and less, with no job security, because the warehouses are situated in places where they’re the only business hiring.

Yup, that’s quite a statement from Mr Franzen, and in some ways he’s right:  Just because you can self-publish something, it doesn’t mean you necessarily should. And let’s face it;  in the early days, the Amazon Kindle shop was a dark and horrible place. Authors were throwing in  dross that hadn’t been spell-checked, let alone edited. Groups were formed with the sole purpose of promotional circle-jerking (you review me – I review you). And then there were the emotional blackmailmarketing campaigns: ‘Buy my book and I will give half the money to starving children everywhere. C’mon! Buy it! Think of the children, damn you!’

Anyway, that was then. Amazon has cleaned up the shop, continues to chase down the shady review organisations and, on the whole, has done a great job of promoting the work of authors who, as Ms Lam says, would have books languishing on hard drives, unread. Are there poor quality books in the store? Of course there are, but there are poor quality books that are traditionally published too. Some of them started life as eBooks, and then, once the huge sales potential was realised, were picked up by publishers.

You see, the publishing houses have one thing in common with Amazon: when they see the dollar signs, any notions of being guardians of literary good taste  vanish out the window. And quite right too; I think Fifty Shades of Grey is the worst book I’ve ever laid eyes on. I also know the author has sold several million more books than me. So my opinion is just that: an opinion. Many authors regard Dan Brown as the red-headed stepchild of literary endeavour, and yet, despite their learned opinions, his books continue to be published and we, the uneducated, continue to buy them! Because that is the sole purpose of publishing houses: to produce books that people want to read, not to decide what people should and should not be reading.  The defenders of good taste are writing, aptly enough, in the Guardian.

Having said all that, I think it is dangerous for any one company to hold the keys to the kingdom, but as far as I can see, the publishing industry has done little to stop it.  Amazon (currently) offers greater renumeration to the author for every book sold. An author can have a book out as soon as its ready, rather than waiting a year or so for it to appear in a bookshop. In addition to that, the indie marketplace is fuelling spin-off  support industries such as editors, copy-editors, cover artists… And if the author still wants to go the printed book route then there is always CreateSpace.

While reading Ms Lam’s piece, something else struck me. The traditional publishing industry has been complaining, for a long time, that people are not reading as much as they used to; there’s far too much other cool stuff competing for our attention. This is true, so in the run-up to Christmas, which company is running adverts on every major channel, encouraging people to read more books?

Yes, it’s Amazon. Perhaps the old school should get its act together and do the same.