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.

eBooks and Self-publishing @ the Henley Literary Festival

Now, I almost didn’t go to this talk; the travel wasn’t a problem, it was the timing: ten-thirty on a Sunday morning. I haven’t seen ten-thirty on a Sunday morning in years.
Still, I managed to roll out of bed, into the shower, into yesterday’s clothes, into the car and into Henley – on time.

The talk was a chat and a question/answer session with three authors:

Angela Levin – journalist and author of the eBook Diana’s Baby – Kate, William, and the Repair of a Broken Family
Clive Limpkin – an award-winning Fleet Street photographer who has just published his memoirs, Lost in the Reptile House
and Emma Clare Lam, author of A Sister for Margot

It was a very entertaining and very informative chat, during which each author skillfully matched their own experience and perspective against each question. It was light on technical detail, which was fine by me; I’m equally blessed and cursed with a background in IT,  so I probably know a lot more about the nerdy bits anyway.


What I was interested in was the difficulties and stigma they encountered in self-publishing. Clive pointed out that the term ‘vanity publishing’ had been coined in the 1940’s, and literary endeavour had been set back ever since. I wasn’t sure I was convinced until he pointed out that both Lewis Carroll and Mark Twain were self-published authors. I did not know that.

Emma went into considerable depth on her writing process, and talked about how difficult it was to find time to write her second book because of the effort needed to market her first one. This I can relate to; I should blog more and tweet more, but it gets in the way of the writing, which always seems a little self-defeating to me. Angela came up with a possible solution: eBook publishing houses. In return for a percentage of the sales, they’ll handle the formatting, the cover design and the marketing for you. It did sound a lot like vanity publishing to me, but since there’s no upfront fee to produce the book, then maybe not. Worth a look anyway.

The real takeway for me that morning was the realisation that there are a lot of people in the same boat as me: no agent, no publisher, but still keen to get their work out to an audience beyond friends and family. That does take hard work, dedication, effort and unfortunately means taking time out of your writing to put your name (or pseudonym) about.

So then the question is, what do you really want?

A while back, I got discouraged after a couple of ‘near-misses’ with finding an agent and the collapse of a television pilot project , and so I decided to put the writing on the backburner and get out of the study for a couple of months. The cats were pleased; they like the study, but don’t like sharing it with me. And I was pleased because I’d forgotten what ‘outside’ looks like. I came back to writing a few months later with a different attitude, and it was only after listening to Clive Limpkin speak that I realised what the change was.
Clive just wanted to write. He wasn’t too fussed about setting the autobiographical world alight or getting a guest spot on Chatty Man. Clive spent forty years writing his life story and just wanted to see it ‘out there’, and I think a lot of people moving into eBooks and self-publishing feel the same way.

I like stringing words together, and seeing if I can invoke an emotion while I’m doing it.
That’s it. That’s what I do. That’s why I wrote stories when I was a kid, and that’s why I write them now (though hopefully, I’m a lot better).

Beyond that? Well, what else is there?


Anyway, it was a great session, and I’m glad I got out of bed to see it. If you see a talk by any of them at your local Lit. Fest then it’s well worth an hour of your time to go along.
If not, buy their books (I’m especially looking forward to reading Emma’s).

A Sister for Margot by Emma Clark Lam

Diana’s Baby by Angela Levin

Lost in the Reptile House by Clive Limpkin (also available on the Kindle).

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