A Book is just a Widget

February 14, 2014

I buy a good deal of stuff from Amazon, as do many Americans. It’s convenient, the prices are low, and delivery is quick. As an avid reader, author, and scholar, I also get obscure titles from the vast Amazon inventory. But I love going to my local bookstore, The Bookworm, to browse the latest hardcover fiction and non-fiction. When I am hot to get a new book, I first try the local seller before going online.

I just finished reading one of the most enlightening articles ever written about publishing, and one that every reader should consult before making another book purchase at “the world’s largest bookstore.” George Packer, the New Yorker writer who recently published The Unwinding to rave reviews, has taken his trenchant pen to the current dilemma facing all book publishers: whether or not to knuckle under to Amazon’s increasingly belligerent and destructive business practices. The fate of the book (not only print editions but also digital ones) is at stake.

I know something about how much power Amazon wields because I recently published a book with W.W. Norton. The Vintage House was written for a mass audience, and received rave reviews from every corner. My co-author and I signed a contract giving us 10% of “net sales” instead of cover price sales. We have yet to make back our modest advance, and Amazon has been our worst enemy.

You see, the giant bookseller, which controls the market worldwide, not only gets a discount of 50% or more from virtually every major publisher, but also charges promotion fees for each book on its site. These promotion fees directly determine where the book will be placed, how it will be seen, and ultimately how well it will sell. Only the biggest selling authors can demand a $10,000 promotion from Amazon, and only they receive the kind of royalties once standard among all writers of fiction, non-fiction or scholarly titles. Packer’s research suggest that royalties are virtually non-existent for many small market authors, and my experience suggests that he is right. Once Amazon takes its cut, not only royalties but also profit and overhead vanish. Books become commodities that do not even break even on their cost of production. As one publisher said, “Amazon has successfully fostered the idea that a book is a thing of minimal value–it’s a widget.”

What does this mean for writers around the world who want to create art, advance knowledge, provide entertainment, share ideas, and generally do what writers have done since the advent of written language? Packer’s article suggests that unless “content providers” in the print media fight the Amazon model of books as low-value commodities, the public will be deluged with poor quality, Walmart-like units that pretend to be books. The dumbing down of culture by the Internet will look tame compared to what will happen to print media of all types, from newspapers and magazines to scholarly and art books.

The way to kill the octopus that is Amazon is not more market saturation but less. Just as musicians have taken their art directly to their selective markets, so authors will need to become producers and sellers who can control the distribution of their own work. The Internet’s vast reach can actually help authors to reach their audience, circumventing Amazon’s new wholesale distribution system.

Packer’s sobering survey of the publishing industry should cause a few intellectuals to take this technological threat seriously. Not only are libraries being looted by billionaires, these same captains of finance are dismantling a magnificent culture of book publishing that has flourished since the time of Gutenberg. Were he alive today, Homer would fear this brave new world, though he might well go on the road to sing his tales, encouraging us to be bards and to bring our stories directly to the people.

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