When NYC’s Coliseum Books finally went under two years ago, it seemed impossible that so great an indie located adjacent to Bryant Park and the main branch of the New York Public Library on Fifth and 42nd Street, couldn’t stay solvent given how much foot traffic passed by its door each day. But that is what Amazon and other online retailers have brought us to–readers are just passing by in favor of cheaply produced and all too often, poorly written, e-books that have completely devalued the writing and editing professions. Gone is the joy of book browsing, that exciting moment when you go into a bookstore and see that your favorite author has a new novel out in hardcover. Gone too is that great frisson of pleasure when you could run your finger over each of the covers on the table displaying recently issued paperbacks, murmuring to yourself–“got it, got it, read it, read it, wow, this looks great, I have to get this one; ick, not another one by her–oh, no, not yet another novel about vampires….”
You are drawn by the shine of the glossy cover, the way the book’s title makes you laugh, the bright golds and reds of the jacket design, or the name of the author. You love the feel of the weightiness of the book itself–the reassuring solidity of its rectangular shape, the way the pointed edges of the the corner bite into the palm of your hand. You crack open the book, the spine gives way like a hushed sigh, and you admire how pristine the words look in black typeface against the snowy white pages.
You read the first sentence, the first paragraph…okay you are caught and you find yourself on page three in a matter of moments. You press the book against your chest, knowing it will be coming home with you. Or you read the first sentence twice and realize you are already bored and return it back to the table with its “New & Noteworthy” compatriots to capture the attention of someone else.
You promise yourself that you will buy one book by one of your favorite authors–maybe Didion has a new one out, Atwood, Kingsolver, Moore or Tan–and one book by an author whom you never heard of before. You imagine some day that perhaps some reader will do the same for you…
Only that happens less and less now that books are sold for less than the price of a quart of milk, compliments of Amazon.
I’ve heard people marvel and rave about how the Internet and rapidly expanding blogosphere has democratized communications and entertainment. Now anyone can be a journalist, a novelist, a poet, a filmmaker, they say. No more elitism, or road blocks put up by gatekeepers of the snobbish, NY-centric industry. Ironically, of course, all this democratization has made it even more difficult for new writers to be published–what few agents and publishers are left can no longer afford to take a risk on a fresh new voice, book critics have lost the energy to wade through the morass of literally thousands of e-book titles in the hopes of finding one that’s been written and edited by professionals who still believe in the power of story to transform. Writing novels or a poetry collection is supposed to be hard; it should be done by those who studied and apprenticed for a long time, who have scoured libraries and bookstores to immerse themselves in an understanding of narrative structure, learned what it means to craft a sentence, a paragraph, spark dialogue and create a fully realized character that people come to know as well as their own spouse, best friend or arch nemesis.
Despite its folksy Seattle origins, Amazon is no benevolent Santa Claus, the great gift of the masses–it simply wants to be all, sell all, control all.There is nothing democratizing about it. Indeed, if anything, it desires exactly the opposite–to be one all encompassing store that like the world’s longest river, twists in so many different ways that you never really know for sure where you will end up or what is hidden beneath its muddy banks.
As journalist George Packer put it in his scary, extraordinary profile, Is Amazon Bad for Books?, “Amazon’s shape-shifting, engulfing quality, its tentacles extending in all directions, makes it unusual even in the tech industry, where rapid growth, not profitability, is the measure of success. Amazon is not just the ‘Everything Store,’ to quote the title of Brad Stone’s rich chronicle of [Jeff] Bezos and his company; it’s more like the Everything.”
Few people seem to know that CEO Jeff Bezos got his start as a hedge fund manager–Wall Street’s vulture industry which gets rich by hedging that companies will fail. And when companies are at their most vulnerable, like all vultures, Amazon swoops in, picking away at whatever meat there is left until all that remains is bleached white bones.
Yet that didn’t stop the US government from strangely, blindly, taking Amazon’s side in the recent antitrust litigation, arguing that Apple and five major book publishers “colluded” to elevate the price of e-books beyond $9.99, the amount that Amazon basically bullied each of the publishers into with the threat that it would not carry or promote the publishers’ books at all if they didn’t concede to massive discounts. Rather than acknowledging that Amazon has deliberately undercut traditional publishers so that it could then roll out its own publishing arm, pricing books as low as 99 cents, the DOJ essentially helped ensured the death of professional writing in the United States. For if publishers lose money on every book they sell, they no longer can afford to provide writers with even a modest advance in anticipation of future books sold–which means writers, as most of us already have been forced to do, will have to find alternative ways to earn a living–trying to eke out novels in our “spare” time. The whole point of advances in the first place was to give the author enough money to live on so she could polish the manuscript quickly and as cleanly as possible.
Lawyer and author Scott Turow puts it even better than I can in his recent New York Times‘ editorial, The Slow Death of the American Author..
So what does this all mean? It means that the odds that my current novel in progress, Virago, will ever see publication are terrifyingly low, and if I’m lucky enough to secure a publisher for it, it will be doubtful that I will earn enough money on royalties or sales to be able quit my day job and devote myself just to writing.
Which brings me to this blog–for the random five or ten people who may stumble upon it, I write these stories for you.
In the meantime, please support what few remaining indie bookstores are left in your community, such as the great Posman Books in the Rockefeller Center Metro Station or Greenlight Books in Brooklyn.