“The digital market is awash with millions of barely edited titles, most of it dreck, while readers are being conditioned to think that books are worth as little as a sandwich.” – George Packer, Cheap Words, The New Yorker, Feb. 17 & 24 2014 issue
George Packer, a novelist and staff writer at The New Yorker, wrote a long and detailed critique of Amazon in a recent issue of the magazine. The critique is driven by a central question—is Amazon good for books? The article relates the aggressive business tactics employed by Amazon and its founder, Jeff Bezos, to squeeze steep discounts and millions of dollars in promotional fees from publishers .
Those who didn’t comply found their books wouldn’t be “favored” by Amazon’s search algorithms. One small publisher said that when he refused to pay promotional fees, Amazon took down the “Buy” button from the publisher’s books.
Thus, even though Amazon is cutting into the publishers’ slim profit margins, the publishers can’t divorce themselves from Amazon because it drives a significant portion of publishers’ sales. One interview subject compared the relationship between Amazon and the publishers to that of an abusive spouse: Amazon beats the crap out of the publishers, but the publishers can’t leave because Amazon brings in the money.
The article is also at pains to note the arrogant and dismissive attitude of Amazon toward the publishing industry as a whole. Amazon is driven by data, by algorithms, by automation. It has no patience with the unquantifiable traits of traditional publishing, including editorial discernment and an aesthetic sensibility.
It seems that Packer is most concerned that Amazon is forcing the publishers to focus on blockbusters—big-ticket books from well-known authors that will generate lots and lots of sales. This, he writes, “drives the money toward a few big books.” The result is a two-tier system: “A few brand names at the top, a mass of unwashed titles down below, the middle hollowed out.”
Packer worries about the “complete commercialization of ideas.” If Amazon is the only company that can survive in today’s publishing industry, and books are just widgets to be sold, it has no incentive to develop or nurture quality work.
As someone who loves to read, I worry that writers of high-quality, yet modest-selling books won’t be able to survive. In this regard, Amazon really is bad for books.
However, as someone who writes, Amazon is an ally. Amazon gives me a chance to compete in the market. It gives me an opportunity to get my work in front of an audience and have a shot at connecting with readers. This, to me, is invaluable.
Unfortunately, as more books come to market, it’s harder than ever for writers to find and capture a sustainable audience. I’ve always wanted to earn enough from writing to do it full time, but I wonder if that’s going to be possible for more than just a handful of blockbuster novelists.
I hope not. I hope the situation isn’t as grim as Packer portrays it. In the meantime, however, I have to take full advantage of the opportunity that Amazon presents to me. I may find myself drowning amid the masses of the great unwashed, but I’ll take my chance and see what I can make of it.