Amazon needs competition as much as Hachette does … let’s do something about that and let the caravan move on

 Cherish the old and get on with the new: the classic, by way of the digital photographs by EF and postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

Cherish the old and get on with the new: the classic, by way of the digital (lens)
– postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

There has been a shortage of calm, witty, Establishment voices answering the foes of Amazon.com howling about Jeff Bezos hammering the last nails into the coffin of literary culture. One of these rare birds is Clay Shirky, an American writer and prescient media scholar. Though we had his permission to reblog the whole of his post on the subject on Medium.com — within five minutes of asking — this entry will only link to it and quote its most courageous and wickedly entertaining sections.

Courageous? Absolutely – for anyone following the coverage of the Amazon-Hachette brawl in New York, whose leading newspaper last Monday had a banner headline in its business section shouting, ‘Literary Lions Join Protest Against Amazon’, and recorded Philip Roth (scowling ferociously in a photograph), Orhan Pamuk, Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul and Milan Kundera diving in to bash Amazon with their computer mice and vintage clack-clackers-with-carriage-return.

Restricting this post to extracts from Shirky’s consideration of all the good Amazon is doing – which makes it merely an agent of a revolution that can hardly be held back – leaves room for quotations of some of the most constructive reactions to what he has to say.

Like him, we wish that Amazon had found a less aggressive way to persuade Hachette to share the costs of its book-discounting strategy that it says is designed to put more money into authors’ pockets. But, as we pointed out in a post here two years ago, it is hugely surprising to hear anyone in charge of the commerce of publishing care about and speak up on behalf of writers. (See ‘Is Amazon a bully, beating publishers into submission?‘) … We are also worried about Amazon getting much too big. We would love to see as a competitor what DuckDuckGo and its anonymising search engine are to Google – an alternative filling a vital need that the giant leader did not acknowledge or accommodate.

Over to Clay Shirky and his first responders, now:

More energy is being spent right now attacking Amazon than defending the five big publishers … because they aren’t easy to defend. There is some handwaving around the irreplaceability of their discerning taste, an argument undermined by their recent habit of acquiring ebooks they passed on the first time around, like “Still Alice” and “The Toiletpaper Entrepreneur”; their willingness to produce print editions of books that initially found their readers electronically, like “Trylle” and “Fifty Shades of Grey”; and by their building or acquiring self-publishing platforms, as with Penguin’s Author Solutions and Book Country.

Similarly, the idea that only the Big Five will fund speculative work for small audiences doesn’t jibe with the growth of niche publishing enabled by lower publishing costs. (A quarter-million titles have appeared on the Kindle in the last 90 days.) Nothing here is magic. Books are large chunks of writing. Digital publishing creates many new ways to get those chunks from writer to reader. Only some of those new ways require the services of people who work in lower Manhattan.

[…]

I say this as a beneficiary of that older system. I earned hundreds of thousands of dollars in advances for my last two books, to say nothing of the opportunities those books opened up, so the system has worked admirably well for me. However, I am a WASP, an Ivy League graduate, a tenured professor, and a member of the Sancerre-swilling East Coast Media Elite. Of course the existing system works well for me — it’s run by people like me, for people like me.

Despite my benefitting from it, I am unwilling to pretend that this system is beneficial for readers or for writers who lack my privilege. I’d always aspired to be a traitor to my class (though I’d hoped it would be for something a bit more momentous than retail book pricing), but treason is as treason does, so here goes: The reason my fellow elites hate Amazon is that Amazon refuses to flatter our pretensions. In my tribe, this is a crime more heinous even than eating one’s salad with one’s dessert fork.

The threat Amazon poses to our collective self-regard is the usual American one: The market is optimized for availability rather than respect. The surface argument is about price, but the deep argument is about prestige. If Amazon gets its way, saying, “I published a book” will generate no more cultural capital than saying “I spoke into a microphone.”

Given their deep ambivalence about expanded participation in the making and selling books, it’s worth noting some scenarios Amazon’s critics aren’t afraid of: They aren’t afraid that books will become less accessible. They aren’t afraid that there will be fewer readers. They aren’t afraid that fewer books will be published.

Reactions by commenters on the MagellanMediaPartners.com site:

Baldur Bjarnason

Sep 18, 2014 at 10:41 AM

I’ve found the publishing industry supremely inhospitable to even debating important issues.

The debate in publishing circles surrounding Clay Shirky’s piece depresses me. It echoes and rhymes with every debate I’ve been in personally and it demonstrates just how little has changed over the past ten years in the publishing industry.

But, […]debating this is pointless.

You don’t change people’s world-views with dialogue. If you want change you have two options:

You wait until the believers in the old paradigm die, experience an apostasy, or become irrelevant.

You try and build things that don’t rely on them (i.e. work solely in the new paradigm) in ways that minimises the harm they can do to your work.

It’d be wonderful if the field could debate itself into some sort of sensible middle ground—in fact, that’s what the publishing world view people think they are trying—but world views and paradigm shifts don’t have a middle ground.

The publishing industry is stuck in the mythology that was invented when mass production took over publishing. Challenging that mythology is like challenging a religious fanatic: their response is to repeat themselves, just more loudly. […]

Hugh McGuire

Sep 18, 2014 at 04:59 PM

… No one is even near Amazon in terms of reach to the buyers of books; that “problem” is just going to get worse …so publishers who want to keep doing business as they always have, will be forced through the Amazon “value extraction choke point,” with decreasing leverage.

There are two solutions to this problem as I can see it:

a) support other channels (Oyster, Scribd etc) & hope that they really start to matter

or

b) start building businesses whose prime objective is to capture the relationship with the reader directly

For a) we’ve seen grudging signs of movement; and for b) nothing.

As Baldur says, for the loyal opposition, the only option seems to be: “You try and build things that don’t rely on (publishers)” […]

adam hyde

Sep 18, 2014 at 04:41 PM

It seems to me that these discussions increasingly go nowhere. It would be more interesting to have a forum where those that have the ‘outsiders’ view could gather and build on ideas. Each time I see this conversation brought to the ‘insiders’ it just turns into a pointing and frothing match. It stops creative discussion …

The dogs bark and the caravan moves on. We are all dogs barking about this remaking of media. Better to go silent and get on with getting to the next stage, making it as close to universally enriching as we can …

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