Alternate views of the evil empire

Here is another take on the Amazon / Hachette controversy by Barry Eisler, a former CIA operative and best-selling author of thrillers. Eisler made headlines in 2011 when he turned his back on traditional publishing (which he calls “legacy publishing”) to publish his work independently on Amazon.

In this June 4 article in The Guardian, Eisler ticks off these pluses for Amazon: it “singlehandedly created a market for digital books, [is] now the greatest source of the legacy publishing industry’s profitability (though of course legacy publishers are sharing little of that newfound wealth with their authors)…built the world’s first viable mass-market self-publishing platform, a platform that has enabled thousands of new authors to make a living from their writing for the first time in their lives. And [it] pays self-published authors something like five times as much in digital royalties as legacy publishers do.”

Eisler makes some interesting arguments while waving a red flag (Amazon-hating authors are the literary “one-percent”). I recommend the article to anyone interested in this current publishing brouhaha. My biggest takeaway was Eisler’s simple observation, in an otherwise complex debate, that individual attitudes are probably based more on personal interest than selfless concern for the future of literature. To blame Jeff Bezos for the loss of bookstores, he says, is like buggy makers blaming Henry Ford for the development of internal combustion. Though some of his analogies may be questionable, they point toward two facts that are not: (1) new technologies never go back into the box, and (2) their ramifications are never known at the outset.

I was halfway through the paragraphs above when the postman brought the June 16 issue of Time, with an essay on the back page by Joel Stein, Hachette author of Man Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity.

Stein ventured, “with trepidation,” to Amazon “to see what barbarism it had committed on my book’s page – changing my author photo go one of my high school mullet shots, perhaps, or allowing yet more people to start their one-star reviews with ‘No, I haven’t read this book.'”

When he found nothing amiss, Stein sadly reflected that Amazon, with its cutting edge algorithms, had to know how much it would hurt his ego and confidence to be left out of the feud. “I have no idea who will publish my next book,” he says, “though I do know they’ll be sorry they did.”

Diversity and variety are central to the richness of life. I’m old enough to remember and miss various mom and pop stores of all kinds, not just bookstores. A local nursery used to employ master gardeners, who could look at a sick leaf and tell you exactly what to do. Through no fault of their own, the people who work in the Lowe’s garden section can only tell you, “Fertilizers are down aisle one.” As a kid, I learned to make flying airplanes out of balsa wood and tissue paper at a local hobby shop; it was a far more interesting place than any Toys ‘R Us.

Right now, perhaps all we can do in the publishing battle is watch and wait, and opt for diversity and richness in whatever way we can.

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3 Responses to Alternate views of the evil empire

  1. calmgrove says:

    I suppose the moral is, very little is as simple and straightforward as might at first appear. Amazon is one of several big firms that pay little or as near as dammit no tax in the UK on its turnover. Turns out it’s legal even if not exactly on the moral high ground.

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    • They were doing the same thing for a while in California, though now we get to pay sales tax because they have brick and mortar distribution centers in the state.

      Interestingly, I just finished watching a clip on the PBS Newshour (early evening, Friday) interviewing people at a bit NYC publishing expo. On one hand, they said after hitting a bottom, independent stores appear to be bouncing back. They also interviewed James Patterson who discussed the Amazon-Hachette conflict in milder tones, saying, “There really aren’t any villains in all this, but there aren’t any heroes either.”

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  2. It’s no surprise the world is changing — some for the better, some not so much. I find the articles interesting, but I’m certainly not losing any sleep over all of this. Thanks for keeping me up to date though.

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