I used to work for an academic publisher. I held this job for nearly two years. I worked in production editorial, helping to print dissertations and other dense technical publications. I had to subject each of the manuscripts I received to a predetermined series of steps before sending them to the printer. Sometimes a piece of art would be too lo-res or permissions wouldn’t be furnished and I’d have to contact the author. Otherwise, it was an almost mindless process. Every working day required me to sit in front of a conveyer belt and spread mayonnaise across each lightly toasted piece of white bread that passed before me.
This week brought a post by Matt Yglesias at Vox in which he says, more or less, it’s a good thing that Amazon is bringing the publishing industry to its knees. I’ve made my position on Amazon clear, but even beyond my baseline antipathy toward the online shopping giant, Yglesias’s post disturbed me. It exemplified the most troubling attitudes of the Silicon Valley Thinkfluencers who are supposedly leading us to a glorious digital utopia.
The thrust of Yglesias’s pro-Amazon argument is that the publishing industry is full of inefficient corporate dinosaurs. By this reasoning, Amazon’s dominance of the bookselling market has done nothing more than expose that industry’s soft underbelly. Now that any person can make an ebook and sell it on Amazon themselves, he says, publishers are “superfluous” and “don’t contribute anything of value.”
Yglesias’s main objections to the publishing industry seem to be over questions of efficiency. He believes publishers should put their money into software/hardware development and marketing, and not into author’s advances. They should stop publishing print books, which cost way too much to produce and ship. They should charge rock-bottom prices for their ebooks because these cost very little to produce.
The culture of digital innovators lies somewhere between Ayn Rand and Logan’s Run. For them, the Invisible Hand Of The Market dictates the path on the evolutionary cladogram of business. Follow it or die. The implication of Yglesias’s post is that publishers’ failure to take any of the steps he prescribes is proof enough of their obsolescence, a sign their extinction is not only inevitable but deserved.
The problem is, publishing can’t follow Amazon’s example, even if it wanted to. The industry was founded around a far different core than the company that aims to bury it.
It is true enough that most publishing houses now are owned by conglomerate behemoths indistinguishable in their size and structure from the GE’s and Viacoms of the world. It is true that publishing houses, like any branch of the culture industry, produce as much malnourished dreck as any fast food chain. But this bloated exterior is wrapped around a nucleus that actually wants to produce quality.
At their core, publishing houses are charged with the long, laborious process of enabling the creation of art. This process is almost like developing prospects in baseball: It resists being rushed, is rife with the potential for failure, and doesn’t always prove lucrative even when good “product” is produced. An editor could spend years working on just one book with an author, believe with all his/her heart and soul that it is The Great American Novel, and release it into the wild, only to watch it go over like a lead balloon. Publishing is the opposite of efficient.
It is telling that nowhere in Yglesias’s piece do considerations of literature or art come up. The word editor is mentioned once, and then only for Yglesias to suggest a big-time author like George R.R. Martin could hire a freelance one if he wished to self-publish. In other words, editors should join his vision of the 21st century and be set adrift on the rocky seas of The Gig Economy.
Efficiency is Amazon’s religion. Amazon’s enormous success rose from its ability to bring you the things you want when you want them. Amazon has zero stakes in the content of your package, except to see that it gets to you as scheduled. This credo drives all on-demand internet businesses. Netflix, Seamless, Uber, Airbnb, and all their imitators operate on the same idea. None of them “make” the service they provide (except possibly Netflix and its “original shows,” at best a gray area). These businesses simply ensure that the service is provided.
What Amazon and its kin also have in common is that their efficiency comes from relying on all the dirty work and high costs to be carried out by traditional businesses. Amazon has never tried to create books any more than it’s tried to make t-shirts or dumbbells or coffee tables or any of the other billion things they sell. The considerable costs involved in creation—R&D, editing, advertising—are borne by others. Once someone else pays those costs to produce something, Amazon steps in to offer it at wholesale prices.
Amazon is praised for its logistical wizardry, but even this “efficiency” comes at the expense of others. It farms out fulfillment to third-party contractors (and washes its hands when said contractors abuse workers). The burden of its deliveries, in man-hours and stress, is placed on other organizations both private (UPS) and public (US Postal Service).
Think back to when Netflix was new and still primarily a DVD-rental service. The problem and cost of processing all these oddly-shaped red envelopes fell on the Post Office, while Netflix shrugged and said Good luck with that. The old, inefficient Postal Service gets constant threats of bankruptcy. Netflix gets Emmy nominations. That is the world created by our glorious digital innovators, in a nutshell.
Maybe if it publishing were run in a more efficient manner, as Yglesias prescribes, it would produce more and better art. Perhaps it wouldn’t. In either case, Amazon wouldn’t care. If a book is crappy, it means no more to Amazon than if a chair or a HDMI cable or anything else it sells is crappy. The bad review will reflect on the product, not Amazon. If the industry collapses and all we’re left with is a hellscape of self-published One Direction fanfic and Benghazi conspiracy screeds, Amazon would roll merrily along.
I don’t expect a retailer to be overly concerned with quality, whether that retailer is Amazon or Sears. But I would like someone to be concerned with it. What Yglesias seems to advocate is a universe in which Amazon is not simply a seller of books, but the model for making them. Why? Because their model works. And in the mindset of the innovator worshipers, anything that works is inherently good. Why it works, how it works, and who it works for is irrelevant.
It’s this rallying behind a corporation like Amazon for the sheer fact that it “works” that troubles me the most. In the universe where efficiency trumps all, anyone that stands between you and the thing you want is evil. Anyone that gets that thing to you slightly faster is good. Anything that takes time to produce is to be consigned to the scrapheap of history. Anything instantly deliverable is to be celebrated, no matter how rotten it is, because it’s here now.
The prevailing thought Ygelsias is espousing is the one that drives digital business in the 21st century: Stop being so sentimental. Someone was gonna come along and do this. Why not get behind the guy who did it the best?
Thinking like this was once condemned as fascist. Now it’s celebrated as Thought Leading. But at least our latest thought leaders make the drones run on time. And with free shipping, too.
I’ve pulled my book from Amazon.
Doing this will cause me no hardship whatsoever, either now or in the foreseeable future. My novel Hang A Crooked Number has sold as many copies as it will ever sell, having gone over like the proverbial lead balloon. I have no writing career that a break from Amazon could damage. I’m no threat to acquire such a career any time soon; I once thought writing would be my vocation, but I’ve accepted that it will be nothing more than a hobby.
In other words, this move involves almost no sacrifice on my part. The stakes could not be lower for me. I’m pulling my book anyway.
I was ambivalent at best about putting my book on Amazon to begin with. Did I really want to associate myself with a company that had destroyed Main Street as thoroughly and ruthlessly as Wal-Mart, if not more so?* One that’s laid to waste thousands of stores across the country, and apparently has its eye on taking out shipping companies, too?
I weighed Amazon’s force of evil against my desire to see lots of people to read my book and eventually decided to side with the latter. Since my novel was only going to be available in ebook format, I wanted it to be available in the format most people use to read ebooks. I saw a caravan full of demons barreling down the road and stuck my thumb out to hitch a ride, figuring As long as they’re going my way…
I believe the word for this kind of reasoning is “chicken-shit.”
We all do this in some form or another, making explicit or implicit compromises with distasteful organizations because they might make our lives easier for a moment. It’s not that we don’t care. We just don’t want to care all the time. Life is hard. We treasure those brief moments where one minute hassle has been removed from our days.
Many people who use Amazon are fully aware of, and have issues with, the company’s lowballing and bullying tendencies, its rapacious hunger to devour all competition, and its pitiful record of charitable donations compared to other giant corporations. We hit pause on these concerns because we really want to be able to pick up a deck chair and a pair of shoes and a DVD set without driving to three different stores.
Just a few weeks ago, I ordered a few items from Amazon, reasoning that it was hard to find them at local stores because there weren’t many local stores where I could find those items. It wasn’t until my package arrived that it occurred to me Amazon was the reason those local stores had disappeared.
By all accounts, this was Jeff Bezos’s intention from Day One: Become so large and eliminate so much competition that concerns about how you play the game become immaterial, because you are the only game in town. If you could bring to life a Gilded Age robber baron’s wet dream, this would be it.
Amazon’s current tiff with Hachette is just the latest example of what happens when you let some evil slide for a while for the sake of convenience. In a fit of caprice befitting an inbred Renaissance monarch, Amazon has stopped selling certain books because one publisher dared say no to them. The company actually has the balls to tell customers to seek these books out elsewhere, knowing full well that there are few elsewheres to seek out (especially when it comes to books), and that they’ve trained their customer base to look upon any offline shopping experience as an insufferable ordeal.
I don’t know if I’ll ever write another book, or if I’ll write much of anything in the future. I do know that I would like someone to keep writing books, and I would like those books to be available in as many channels as possible. I do know that I don’t want publishing to devolve into the same state as other culture industries, to become a Brazil ruled by a small coterie of the super-elite perched atop a sea of dog-eat-dog favelas stretching out in every direction.
And so I’d rather not be a part of something that is actively working toward that end, however infinitesimally small my part might be. On the off chance anyone still wants to read my novel, it can now be purchased here. I’ll trade the loss of hypothetical reach offered by Amazon for the knowledge that whatever future pennies are spent on my book won’t line Amazon’s pockets.
Pulling my book from Amazon is barely doing anything, but it’s not doing nothing. Consider doing more than nothing.
You probably don’t know what this is. I didn’t know what it was when I first saw it. This comes from a coworker of mine, who was cleaning out her desk and decided she could finally part with this register mark dispenser.
In the days before digital publishing, books and magazines were laid out by hand, using lots of tape and glue and X-Acto knives. Blocks of text were meticulously constructed, calculating the character count with monastic dedication, so you would know if a photo that you couldn’t resize without an enormous hassle would fit on the page. When the layout was finalized, you had to place these register marks on the margins of each page. Each of the colors in four-color printing (CMYK) were printed in separate print runs, so these register marks ensured that all the colors would be properly aligned. This was essential, because even slightly misaligned colors produce an unsettling “vibration” effect.
I’ve worked in publishing of one type or another my entire adult life, going all the way back to college. And yet, I’d never seen an item like these stickers. By the time I entered the industry, publishing had already abandoned typesetting by hand. Quark XPress, Pagemaker, and their brethren had made that trade as dead as vaudeville disco. These new layout programs not only removed the tedious algebra of character counts and pica rulers, but they also placed those handy register marks right on the document for you.
At first glance, these register mark stickers struck me as quaint and archaic, in the same category as bygone office equipment such as the intercom and the Dictaphone. But in truth, these stickers were still in heavy rotation much more recently. Thirty years ago, most publishers still needed them by the boatload. A decade later, nearly none of them did. Ten years might seem like a long time in the Internet Age, but in the history of an industry as old as publishing, it’s the blink of an eye.