There’s an interesting post at the Nation called The Trouble with Amazon that’s a few shades too negative about Amazon’s influence on publishing. Though Amazon has done some seriously shady things regarding pricing and strong-arming publishers, it also has advantages. The main issue I have with the piece is this:
Take the issue of choice: when it comes to the books it stocks, Amazon makes no pretense of selectivity. Provided it carries an ISBN and isn’t offensive, Amazon is happy to sell any book Joe Schmo cares to publish. “We want to make every book available—the good, the bad and the ugly,” Bezos once said. Spurred on by Amazon and the growth of self-publishing companies like XLibris and Lulu, the number of new books being published has soared. According to industry statisticians Bowker, just over 172,000 titles were released in 2005. Last year “traditional” output had risen to 288,000 titles, a significant enough increase by itself. But adding what Bowker describes as “self-published” and “micro-niche” books, the total inflates to a staggering 1 million new titles in just twelve months….
This apparent anomaly of greater choice resulting in a narrower selection finds a corollary in Amazon’s use of metrics to recommend titles based on previous purchases. The algorithms at work here are highly sophisticated and are widely credited with expanding consumer choice. Yet such metric-based systems can simultaneously increase the variety of books purchased by individual customers while decreasing the overall variety of books bought by everyone. This is because, as blogger Whimsley explains, “In Internet World the customers see further, but they are all looking out from the same tall hilltop. In Offline World individual customers are standing on different, lower hilltops. They may not see as far individually, but more of the ground is visible to someone.”
The loss of serendipity that comes with not knowing exactly what one is looking for is lamented by ex-Amazon editor James Marcus: “Personalization strikes me as a mixed blessing. While it gives people what they want—or what they think they want—it also engineers spontaneity out of the picture. The happy accident, the freakish discovery, ceases to exist. And that’s a problem.”
There are a number of ways in which this is wrong. For one, to think that surfing on Amazon from book to book, listmania list to listmania list, does not offer some amount of serendipity really doesn’t understand how people discover things on the web. But more importantly, Amazon is just better at linking people up with books. You can make a good argument that it strips away the personal touch of a bookstore, but there are some things at which a computer is better, especially considering it’s accessing every book that’s ever been in print.
An example – I recently bought my brother a couple of books for his birthday. They were:
He works in psychology and loves graphic novels so these books were perfect. And they were linked up side by side on Amazon. The odds of me going into a bookstore and the store having one or both of these fairly obscure books – plus an employee knowing about a book if I ask, “Hey, this looks good. Any others like it?” is small. Not small: impossibly small. I have found a great many books in this way, as I’m sure have other people.
At the same time I acknowledge what is being lost with this new system. I recently watched this documentary (recommended):
What Wal-Mart has done to communities (not to mention its own employees) is a nightmare. Amazon’s discounts are having the same effect. Bookstores are going out of business. Additionally:
Blocked at every turn in their attempts to escape this relentless race to the bottom, publishers have seen their revenues fall, forcing many to make cutbacks and concentrate more on lead titles, the blockbusters that, accountants tell them, are the most profitable component of their business. Fewer staff and falling promotion budgets mean that books by less established authors—the “mid-list”—receive ever shorter shrift.
So Amazon is having an effect on publishers in the same way that brick and mortar Barnes & Nobles have had a negative effect – forcing publishers to go for the big sale. It goes on:
Look at books like Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies or Roberto Bolaño’s Savage Detectives,” says Paul Yamazaki, chief buyer at City Lights in San Francisco. “These are serious, sophisticated books that began life with modest expectations, but after dedicated work by the publisher and independent booksellers, they went on to reach wider audiences. This sort of publishing is under threat today.”
I don’t buy it. Are you telling me that Amazon played no part at all in the popularity of Savage Detectives? Of course not – and if there’s evidence of anything it’s that this new system is much friendlier on independent writing than the old gatekeeper/brick & mortar bookstore system. Especially if you take into account ebooks, a revolution spurred by the Kindle.
Here’s where I get lost:
“If left unchecked…predatory pricing policies will devastate not only the book industry, but our collective ability to maintain a society where the widest range of ideas are always made available to the public.”
The logic here makes limited sense. A site that carries everything gives less choice than a store that carries a couple thousand titles because of…human nature. My proselytizing about self-publishing is predicated on the exact opposite idea – the gatekeeping-obsessed publishing industry means that many ideas won’t see the light of day. An important book never finding a publisher is more pressing an issue than a “vetted” book being priced too low. Theresa Neilsen Hayden’s argument is thus:
A fixed $10 price point would certainly be good for Amazon’s ebook business, but it would take a shark-sized bite out of the market for hot new bestsellers, which is trade book publishing’s single most profitable area.
That revenue source is what keeps a lot of publishing companies afloat. It provides the liquidity that enables them to buy and publish smaller and less commercially secure titles: odd books, books by unknown writers, books with limited but enthusiastic audiences, et cetera.
My honest estimate is that the result would be fewer and less diverse titles overall, published less well than they are now.
This is persuasive. If publishers are losing money due to a dwindling book market, this will cut into their bottom line even more. Once we go all ebook and publishers aren’t making $30 on a hardcover, this will get even worse. No wonder they’re terrified.
The Music Industry
At the same time, this seems a bit of their own doing. Publishers seem to have fallen into the same trap as the music industry:
They can’t afford to cultivate bands for years and years. They can’t help them grow their fan bases one member at a time.
They need the artists in their stable to pump out the hits. They need their albums to go gold and platinum. They need to sell high volumes of the albums they have in their stable.
Because if they don’t they won’t be able to cover their huge overhead and won’t turn a profit.
This is why record labels love to work with other people in the music industry that are built around the top 20 “hits” model (i.e. MTV, radio, retail stores, Rolling Stone Magazine).
This is also why the music industry is failing. It’s built around the top 20% “hits” model and it has failed to adapt and move to the Internet and its bottom 80% “non-hits” model.
In part, we’re in a phase where publishers are obsessed with the hit model because that’s what Barnes & Noble – or Amazon – demand. But I have a suspicion this has something to do with the amount of overhead – i.e. giving a celebrity 7 million dollars, while not nurturing first-time writers who may have longevity. Publishers are terrified of the Brave New World of e-publishing because it will so drastically cut into their revenue. The answer isn’t to overcharge for ebooks – it’s to reform their overhead.
There are many things to fault Amazon for, but this seems like a fault – not with Amazon – but with traditional publishing. “A boss at Scribner, where I was a senior editor for two and a half years, announced at an editorial meeting that when it came to advances, “$50,000 is the new $100,000.” For one thing, $50,000 isn’t a terrible amount of money – but how many advances could be given out for Justin Cronin’s $3.75 million advance for The Passage?
I can hear writers thinking – but I want a million dollars! I do too: but I’d also like to see publishers publishing the widest variety of voices. Amazon has horrible faults, but this criticism seems to overlook traditional publishing’s own culpability. The end result of all this is more and more people looking to self-publish to avoid these pricing schemes and take more royalties.
The piece ends:
A healthy publishing industry would ensure that skilled authors are recompensed fairly for their work, that selection by trusted and well-resourced editors reduces endless variety to meaningful choice.
Ah-ha! That’s what this is about: gatekeeping. The subtext to this whole thing is aimed at self-publishers, not Amazon – “selection by trusted and well-resourced editors reduces endless variety.” I’m all for writers making a living, but suggesting that strident gatekeeping will increase our choice is frankly absurd.