Three writers who show us why we need indie publishing — not least, from old-fashioned professional scribblers — to save civilisation

Santas for sale in March? Why not, if she is sure that they will find buyers? Shouldn't writers be as brave, setting out their own stalls? - photograph by MIL22

Santas for sale in March? Why not, if she is sure that they will find buyers? Shouldn’t writers be as brave, setting out their own stalls?

– photograph by MIL22

Insisting that the rise of indie authors and self-publishing spells the death of high culture — or raging at Amazon as their supreme enabler and champion — the anti-indies only ever invoke the spectre of talentless amateurs driving literature down the sewer.

Why do they almost never mention what excellent, necessary — even essential — books by fully qualified professionals could be be spared a waiting-for-Godot struggle to be admitted to the publishing pipeline?

In this post, we offer three examples that should shock honest and open-minded denouncers of the publishing revolution — if they exist — into reconsidering their position.

… But first, for Amazon-bashers, a quick announcement of a constructive reaction to publishers’ understandable fear of the Seattle retailer’s growing power. Anglo-German Haus Publishing in elegant Mayfair, at the heart of London, has launched a web site with an irresistible offer: ‘We guarantee to match amazon.co.uk prices when you order online or we’ll refund the difference. We’ll post your purchase free to anywhere in the UK or you can pick it up from us … enjoy a cup of coffee on us, a chat and browse of the shelves.’ Amazon unquestionably needs competition, a point underlined in an earlier entry on this blog. Instead of complaining about its terms for doing business with them, other publishers can follow Haus’s example – and, while they’re at it, start supporting indie authors, which brings us back to our topic …

… professional writers for whom serious indie publishing is not being born a moment too soon:

• a trans-cultural and trans-disciplinary genius baring his soul in his tenth decade;

• an intrepid explorer in the unfriendly Middle East brutally punished for his curiosity; and …

• an editor near the summit of The Economist.

carl djerassi IN RETRO COVER

Carl Djerassi, aged 91, is in the first stage of publishing In Retrospect, his third autobiography. Yes, you read that right, and there are not many examples of living historical figures — let alone anyone else — publishing more than one. Sceptics about the greatness of this scientist usually referred to as ‘the father of the birth control pill’ should do a quick search under his name on an Amazon site and have smelling salts on hand, as they inspect the staggering list of novels and plays credited to him. His imaginative literary works have won prizes. His plays are being performed in theatres across the world, in several languages. His scientific accomplishments listed in his Wikipedia entry, though incomprehensible for a non-chemist, look like the work of several gifted scientists (and yes, he has an ego — and charm — to match).

Presumptions of the smallest loss of mental acuity because of his age — by anyone who has not received tightly argued email replies from him at speeds rivalling a texting teenager’s — are instantly dispelled by reading two of his contributions to the 25 September edition of The New York Review of Books: an essay about the divorce of sexual reproduction from coitus, and a deeply erudite, acerbic letter to the editor scolding two biographers and their reviewer for not knowing that an interpretation by a celebrated cultural critic, Walter Benjamin, that links a Paul Klee painting to Hitler is the reason why this work — Angelus Novus — is famous (and partly a subject of an earlier post on this blog.)

Now for the show-stopping news: his new book about his life is not being published by any of the famous names in trade (general-interest) publishing but by Imperial College in London. A small gathering for a discussion in its honour was arranged at Cambridge University earlier this month.

Such a narrowly academic launch makes no sense at all for a true story oozing high emotional drama; whose historical backdrops include Kristallnacht and the Anschluss in Vienna; a tale that could easily supply enough material for two films — biopics or fictionalised versions of the truth — with lots to spare. With unflinching directness, he tells about being the only child of parents who divorce; enforced expatriation, as a Jew fleeing the Nazis; adjusting to life in the American Midwest; adultery; more than one suicide; being chronically threatened with suicide by an emotionally suffocating parent; and dealing with every form of rejection and vicious competition in parts of five outrageously successful careers: research scientist; university professor; manufacturing entrepreneur; literary artist in several genres; large-scale philanthropist specialising in the arts.

Why did conventional publishers decline to make an offer for a reconsideration of this particular personal history? Because – as he told us at post-Gutenberg, they thought that book buyers would be confused by being given this third version with its predecessors still in print, whose sales would be cannibalised by a new volume. He had to field these ridiculous objections by himself. The literary agents you might expect to be delighted to offer representation were apparently put off by his vast age. They were afraid, he said, that he would die on them.

But … were he publishing himself — if his autobiography were an e-book offered on, say, Amazon.com, he would be free to revise it ad infinitum. For each round of major alterations, he could use his blog to tip off readers with a special interest in his work – and their original purchase price would pay for all the updates.

We will be returning to this book and its author, and the parts of it we found especially rewarding to read – on another site. For the moment, we offer just one clip from In Retrospect justifying its publication. It would deserve wide attention merely for being intensely self-critical and raw in ways that scientists almost never permit themselves, and for its accessible conversational style:

… [O]nly if one has already published some self-reflections or autobiographical accounts two decades earlier, is it worthwhile to revisit them and reinterpret some of their deeper meanings as the end of the author’s life is rapidly approaching and with it a recognition of how big a role discontent has played in it. This is hardly original, considering what Flaubert once said: “An autobiography?…Wait 20 years to write about a painful experience.” What I shall be saying in this book about the topic of discontent—a painful synonym for the darker shadows in life ̶ is likely to be the last word, given that I am now approaching the age of 90. Furthermore, a lot has happened in my last two decades—in many respects a totally new life as an author and playwright rather than as a scientist. The reasons for such a transformation are worth describing, partly as useful examples to others in a progressively more geriatric world to demonstrate that it is never too late to transform oneself and even grow, but also as warnings, because there are many things I would not do now if I had the chance to start all over again.

nyt THEO PADNOS cover … 02cover_type-blog480Theo Padnos. Though his keen powers of observation, gift for metaphorical thinking and emotional honesty should have made his passage to publication an easy one, this writer found himself on the cover of The New York Times magazine last month for the worst of reasons. The standfirst for his contribution read:

In 2012, an American journalist went into Syria to cover the civil war. He was kidnapped and held for the next two years by an affiliate of Al Qaeda. After months of beatings and torture, he was certain he’d be executed. Instead, he lived to tell this tale.

Those of us who were adults in 2003 remember the debate about whether the world was being misled by a British prime minister, Tony Blair, and an American president, George Bush, insisting that declaring war on Iraq was unavoidable because of vast stores of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ being concealed and prepared for deployment by the country’s ruling dictator, Saddam Hussein. The memory is painful because the West had practically no reliable information about what was happening in Iraq — and certainly no proof of whether the WMD stockpile was real or a myth dreamt up by propagandist leaders of the Anglosphere. Article after article by learned military experts and scholars drew our attention to the lack not merely of competent observers on our behalf in the entire Middle East, except in Israel, but of spies, military observers or even mere civilians with connections to and experience of everyday life in the region. Worst of all, there was an alarming shortage of skilled interpreters and translators of languages spoken there.

A decade after we learnt all that, you might imagine that a good writer willing to sign on for the hard labour of filling in some of those gaps might have publishers falling at his feet, competing to serve as midwives for his discoveries. Think again. Here is what his article said in part:

In 2004, when the United States was mired in the war in Iraq, I decided to embark on a private experiment. I moved from Vermont to Sana, the Yemeni capital, to study Arabic and Islam. I was good with languages — I had a Ph.D. in comparative literature — and I was eager to understand a world where the West often seemed to lose its way.

[…]

At the beginning of the Syrian civil war, I wrote a few articles from Damascus, then returned to Vermont in the summer of 2012. Just as the Islamists were beginning to assert their authority in Syria, I began pitching articles to editors in London and New York about the religious issues underlying the conflict. By now, I could recite many important Quranic verses from memory, and I was fluent enough in Arabic to pass for a native. But these qualifications mattered little. The editors didn’t know me; few bothered to reply. Perhaps, I thought, if I wrote from Syria itself, or from a Turkish town on the border, I’d have better luck. On Oct. 2, 2012, I arrived in Antakya, Turkey, where I rented a modest room that I shared with a young Tunisian. I tried pitching the editors again. Still nothing. I began to despair of publishing anything and cast about for something else to do. Should I try teaching French? I wondered. Coaching tennis?

Of course, indie publishing was a path he could have taken, in 2012. But many otherwise brave writers were — are — cringing inwardly about the stigma of self-publishing, even if it is fading rapidly and will soon be as incredible as the snobbery about books published in paperback, in the first half of the last century.

Too many wars and destructive conflicts of every sort are caused and escalated by ignorance and misunderstanding. Middle East tension has been at or near the top of many people’s anxieties about the planet going up in flames, for most of our lives. Who would disagree that impediments to sharing the information Theo Padnos gathered threaten our safety, peace and civilisation?

When those obstacles are decision-makers in a print publishing industry guided almost exclusively by profit-or-loss considerations, doorkeepers whose knowledge and expertise is inevitably limited – just like everyone else’s – we need another way for writers to reach readers. Fortunately, it already exists, and some occupants of lofty rungs on old print publishing ladders are eagerly seizing the freedom in e-publishing to make their own decisions about what facts and opinions should be be getting out there. For example, …

ed lucas snowden cover

Edward Lucas. Serving as international editor of The Economist when the news of the Snowden leaks broke, he quickly found himself isolated in his opinions about them. As he recounted in an article for The American Interest in February,

It’s now exactly eight months since the Snowden Affair broke, and I daresay that last June few would have been able to predict the ample fallout. One development, in particular, though not perhaps the most important, has been particularly surprising: Snowden’s elevation, in the eyes of many of my friends, colleagues and counterparts around the world, into a secular saint.

Refusing to accept the majority opinion as correct — and rightly so, given his privileged understanding of Russia, acquired as The Economist’s Moscow bureau chief from 1998-2002 — he published his own short book about the leaker, The Snowden Operation: Inside the West’s Greatest Intelligence Disaster, at the start of this year. In an earlier version of this post, we mistakenly interpreted his change of responsibilities at the magazine — from ‘foreign editor’ to staff specialist in energy coverage and a raft of other subjects, including cyber-security — as the price he accepted for refusing to pretend that he did not see grave flaws in the media reporting and analysis of what Snowden did. He says that, in fact, The Economist gave him time off from his work as ‘international section editor’ to write his e-book and ‘threw a huge party on publication.’ … That certainly speaks well for the magazine that prefers to call itself a newspaper, but makes him no less courageous.

We are guessing that it has not escaped his notice that opposing the majority opinion of the most sensational political story of 2013 in the media establishment on both sides of the Atlantic and taking the indie author route; presenting your reasoning and facts to readers independently; virtually guarantees shunning by the professional book-reviewing community.

That has indeed been the fate, so far, of The Snowden Operation – even though a third edition of Lucas’s brilliantly timed The New Cold War: Putin’s Threat to Russia and the West was launched almost simultaneously by its respected conventional imprint, Bloomsbury (best-known as the home of the Harry Potter books on publishers’ row).

You, reader, must decide whether indie publishing does not represent a critical marker of cultural progress when it gives an expert writer a chance to set out arguments like the following excerpts from the Lucas justifications, arguments mostly suppressed by the oldest and most famous names in old-fashioned journalism. You do not have to agree with or approve of them to concede that they should have been balancing the endless column-inches of Snowden canonisation in those newspapers.

Snowden’s published revelations include material that has nothing to do with his purported worries about personal privacy. They reveal how countries like Norway and Sweden spy on Russia. Why is it in the public interest to reveal how democracies spy on dictatorships? The Snowdenistas’ outrage is based on the fact that this spying takes place in cooperation with the NSA, the Great Satan of the intelligence world.

[…]

It is fatuous for Snowden’s allies to say that they are keeping the stolen material safe: they lack the knowledge and skills to do so. With equal fatuity, they assert that redact the published material in order not to breach security. How can they possibly know what will be damaging and what may be harmless? Seemingly anodyne pieces of information can be gravely damaging when combined. Whether the documents stolen by Snowden number in tens of thousands, or 1.7m (sources differ) the combinations—and the damage—are almost beyond measure.

As I argue in the book, the damage done by Snowden’s revelations neatly and suspiciously fits the interests of one country: Russia. The sensationalist and misleading interpretation of the stolen documents has weakened America’s relations with Europe and other allies; it has harmed security relationships between those allies, particularly in Europe; it has corroded public trust in Western security and intelligence services; it has undermined the West’s standing in the eyes of the rest of the world; and it has paralysed our intelligence agencies.

O public libraries, what are you doing in the great indie book publishing revolution? A letter to a far-sighted master-librarian

Will the online ‘libreria’ or bookshop, where this picture was taken, replace the ‘biblioteca’ -- the Italian for library – everywhere, in the digital revolution? - photograph: MIL22

Will the flexible, accommodating online counterpart of the ‘libreria’ or bookshop everywhere supplant the change-resistant ‘biblioteca’ — Italian for library – in the digital revolution?
– photograph from Napoli: MIL22

This entry tells a true story of our time about a public library that recently turned down a modest proposal for listing on its web site books published independently by its patrons and members. Note that there was no request to include these – necessarily – in the library’s catalogue. The frame for our tale is an open letter about an exciting vision for libraries of the future by an inventive leading librarian.

cover expect moreDear David Lankes,

Can public libraries supercharge the flowering of indie publishing and go back to being vibrant centres of creativity?

I have been reading your slender Expect More a book I will call thrilling. As you know, that is not a word that I or anyone else thinks of, any more, in connection with libraries. Least of all, those of us who saw them as unrivalled homes of enchantment, growing up; entertainers for which no television set, nor the most luxurious cinema with the biggest screen was any match. Part of what you have set out so well is that if the visions of a true 21st-century librarian can be realised — in, around and beyond the stacks — libraries could return to their glory days, in ancient times, going all the way back to the legendary 3rd-century BC Library of Alexandria.

I note that you are a professor of library science in Syracuse, in New York state, and a leader in information studies exploring ‘how participatory concepts can reshape libraries and credibility’. You say:

Too many librarians see their collections, not the community, as their jobs. Too many librarians are seeking to survive instead of innovate, … [… ] Great libraries … require open communication about your needs, your challenges, and your dreams. […] Libraries ‘for the people’ is an old way of looking at libraries. The new view is the library ‘of the people.’

When a library director has to be replaced, does the typical library board – or electorate, when the vetting is democratic – know what to look for, to choose the right leader for our times? That would be someone like you or Phil Shapiro, whom I’ve seen described as an educator at a public library near Washington D.C., who ‘teaches an occasional graduate educational technology class at American University’. His @philshapiro  notices on the Twitter bulletin-board are quirky, sometimes impish, and essential reading, and led me to you and your book. In a 2008 entry on his ‘Community Voices’ blog on PC World’s site — ‘Should Public Libraries be Welcoming Homes for Ingenuity?’ — a biographical note explained:

In high school he built a hot water solar collector from an abandoned shopping cart and hauled it up onto the roof of his house with a rope. His parents thought that was a good idea. The neighbors were not entirely thrilled with the shopping cart. On the roof. Of the house.

That suggests that the questions people selecting library chiefs should be asking in job interviews or library-related elections are, ‘How young were you when — if — you appalled people by doing things that later confirmed you as one of the pioneers in your circle, and can you give us some examples?’

In my life divided between several perches, in recent years, experiences at public libraries amply bear out your characterisation of too many people working in them as ‘stuck in a sort of professional conservatism that favours what they do over why they do it.’

Not long ago, I asked one head librarian whether our library might support the indie e-book revolution by encouraging patrons to list on the library web site the titles of any independently published books for which they were responsible. I said that I envisaged a bare-bones listing of each book’s title and subject – with, perhaps, a link to the author’s personal web site. This stark recording, I thought, would discourage competitive promotional hype and one-upmanship. The idea for the list had occurred to me when I realised that a number of potential readers of my first e-publishing experiment — a short book (or long essay), Jung on men and women: a Swiss travelogue  — happen to live in this particular library’s catchment zone. It is not unusual to meet local residents who are widely travelled, devour travel literature, and are interested in psychology, Switzerland, the fight for women’s rights, and the theories of Freudian psychology’s chief 20th-century rival, Carl Jung.

It seemed to me that libraries might be able to link local readers to writers in ways that the algorithms of Google and Amazon cannot. I would love to glean, from a constantly updated record of books they were publishing, impressions of the obsessions, preoccupations, passions and undisguised money-making schemes of people who live nearby. Living in the same place can mean much more than a shared or neighbouring postal code. Among those of us situated where we are from choice, not just necessity, it seemed as if there could be indefinable but powerful resonances predisposing us to being interested in each other’s literary and graphic creations. Whether I was right or wrong in this assumption, it seemed worth a test.

The head librarian — someone said to be charming whom I have never met in person — replied both directly and through a mutual friend. The idea, I gathered, was a non-starter. The staff already had too much to do without making and updating my proposed list. Though the library is neither a valiant inner-city nor struggling rural branch but located in a large, rich suburb, there were no funds for hiring new workers. What about letting volunteers – patrons – do the job? No, that was out of the question. Why? Because the library chief had tried working with local volunteers and quickly been worn out by the complications of being assisted by those most in need of occupation, bossy ladies-who-lunch types, many of them strangers to workplace discipline. In addition, an overbearing patron who had just published a book for teenagers had been hounding library staff members for help with publicity.

I was sympathetic to these reasons for the proposal’s nervous reception. Well then, I suggested, how about making a specific request for help from seasoned professionals in the ranks of the town’s retirees? What about letting retired administrators or book-keepers, doctors, teachers, company managers, accountants, lawyers and so on, get involved? But I made this counter-suggestion hesitantly, in fading tones, accurately anticipating defeat – because I had by then detected a faint but unmistakable whiff of hostility in a reference in one email from the librarian’s intimate friend to ‘this promotional idea’. I had been careful to explain that the list of e-books published by locals that I envisaged was plain enough to be the antithesis of anything sales-y. To no avail, apparently.

Prejudice can get in the way of reading or hearing what someone has actually said. What would the prejudice be, in this case? At a guess – your characterisation of the typically change-resistant librarian’s view of the purpose of a library – ‘providing access to knowledge,’ where that is perceived as a ‘passive … accumulation of facts,’ and not, as you say it should be, ‘intimately tied to the passions of the individual … dynamic, ever changing and alive.’ Too many libraries, you add, ‘support consuming knowledge instead of creating it.’

Phil Shapiro, arguing along closely parallel lines in a post titled ‘Towards a National Transition Plan for Libraries,’ asks whether libraries should ever close their doors:

In an information-based economy where knowledge workers drive almost all innovation, shouldn’t the public knowledge place be open seven days a week? If 7-Eleven and FedEx Office and McDonald’s can stay open 24 hours a day, is it not possible for libraries to do so, too?

As it happens, a few days before I read that, I’d made the nearly identical point to the circulation staff of a library. I said that they were surely sealing their institution’s doom with rigid, daft rules and systems that make it look more out of touch with reality, every day, to patrons accustomed — for example — to being able to buy discounted books online at any time of day or night, and avail themselves of exceptionally elastic and forgiving returns policies to unload themselves of purchasing mistakes. Don’t libraries realise, I railed, that their worst policies are so despised by patrons that some of us have been whittling down our reasons for borrowing anything from them at all – and actively developing other routes to acquiring everything that they alone could once supply?

I’d been complaining bitterly about being obstructed from paying a late fee because it fell below the threshold for permitting a credit card transaction at the circulation desk – though, by some impenetrable logic, if I went home and logged into my library account from there, I would meet no obstacle to settling my bill with my plastic rectangle. When I actually attempted to do this a few hours later, there was a block on the account because … no, no, I’ll stop there: the reason is too petty, tediously complicated and batty to recount.

As for the good sense in Phil’s advice about adjusting to the information economy — well, a library worker in another branch for whom I have nothing but high praise once explained that the reason why the software download speed on his library’s network can slow to approximately zero megabits per second — even forty-five minutes before closing time — is that the staff do not want patrons getting in the way of closing time routines. They simply shut down internet access to encourage these patrons to leave. I asked how that was possible when the library’s wifi network is supposed to be on all day and night. ‘Right,’ he said. ‘So when you’ve all left, they turn it on again.’ This reminded me of a minder of the public internet-access section of a library, a woman I had never seen before, hovering nearby, tidying desks and watching me type my library card number into the login box at least nine times in a row, trying to get online — with no success. Only when asked for help did she explain that she had already tucked the wifi system into bed – fifteen minutes before the end of her work day.

So, David, imagine trying to make the mental transition from that — a set of far from uncommon reasons for contemporary libraries being a depressing subject of conversation — to your description of ancient Egypt’s fabled book-haven in Alexandria. A place that you say was ‘not a huge document warehouse’, but ‘much more akin to universities of today’, where ‘[s]cholars from the known world were brought together and encouraged to talk and create.’

The contrast is agonising and will get worse, unless you, Phil and other advocates for reform can find a way — fast — to add people like yourselves to the staff of public libraries in senior positions. My happiest discovery in your book is that my modest proposal for patrons letting each other know about their indie publishing projects is directly in line with the transformed library-land you perceive as essential:

In essence, too many libraries have defined access as providing access to their stuff. You must expect more from your library. You need to expect it to provide a platform where you can access the ideas of others, as well as a platform for you to provide others access to your own ideas.

I note, by the way, that you published Expect More yourself. I didn’t buy the e-book. I bought the attractive print-on-demand paperback, childishly delighted – as always – by the idea of a book printed specially for me.

Incidentally, I would love to know how you would have treated my suggestion for a continuously updated list of indie books published by members of a public library. If you ever see this post and feel moved to reply, I hope you will leave a comment here – or on some site of your own.

Best wishes,

CB

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 …