As an author of ten novels – legacy-published, self-published, and Amazon-published – I’m bewildered by the anti-Amazon animus among various establishment writers. James Patterson pays for full-page ads in the New York Times and Publishers Weekly, demanding that the US government intervene and do something (it’s never clear what) about Amazon. Richard Russo tries to frighten authors over Amazon’s “scorched-earth capitalism”. Scott Turow conjures images of the “nightmarish” future that Amazon, “the Darth Vader of the literary world”, has in store for us all. And “Authors Guild” president Roxana Robinson says Amazon is like “Tony Soprano” and “thuggish”.
These are strange things to say about a company that sells more books than anyone. That singlehandedly created a market for digital books, 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). That 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 that pays self-published authors something like five times as much in digital royalties as legacy publishers do.
I can think of at least several explanations for the strange phenomenon of authors – and an entity calling itself the calling itself the “Authors Guild” – railing against a company that sells so many books, that treats authors so well, and that has created so many new opportunities for writers. Basically: equating the various functions of publishing generally with the legacy industry specifically; blaming Jeff Bezos for technology; and experiencing judgment clouded by self-interest.
I imagine, for example, that James Patterson really does care passionately about books. But then he conflates an important function – publishing books – with the entity currently providing that function (the legacy industry run by New York’s “Big Five” publishing houses). Whatever challenges he then sees facing the legacy industry (no bookstores! no libraries!) then become challenges to literature itself (no books!). That’s a logical falsehood, of course – akin to believing a challenge to the horse-and-buggy industry is a challenge to transportation itself – but it’s a scary thought and therefore produces an extreme defensive response (government, do something!).
But none of this really makes sense. Literature was being written long before the Big Five began running the industry like a cartel (there’s a reason they’re referred to collectively – it’s how they function). And it will go on being written long after the Big Five either have evolved or been displaced by something better. Why? Because literature isn’t “produced by publishers”, as Patterson claims. Rather, it is written by authors.
Then there’s the human instinct to grapple with impersonal forces (here, digital book distribution) by putting a human face on them (that of Jeff Bezos). I came across this reflex most recently in an article in the current issue of the Economist, which parroted the zombie meme that “Amazon put many bookstores out of business”. This isn’t so much a simplification as it is an outright distortion. Because what’s happening to bookstores – and to the publishing business overall – isn’t Amazon; it’s technology. Arguing otherwise, to extend my previous metaphor, is like accusing Henry Ford of disrupting the horse-and-buggy industry while ignoring the advent of the internal combustion engine.