Bad boy Amazon and George Packer’s latest salvo

Until five or so years ago, every time I read yet another article about the perilous state of literary fiction I’d see complaints about how publishers ignore it in favor of airport thrillers and stupid self-help and romance and Michael Crichton and on and on. On or about December 2009 everything about the book business and human nature changed. Today, I read about how publishers are priestly custodians of high culture and the Amazon barbarians are knocking at the gate. Although George Packer doesn’t quite say as much in “Cheap Words: Amazon is good for customers. But is it good for books?“, it fits the genre.

Packer is concerned that Amazon has too much power and that it is indifferent to quality. By contrast, the small publisher Melville House “puts out quality fiction and nonfiction,” while “Bezos announced that the price of best-sellers and new titles would be nine-ninety-nine, regardless of length or quality” and “Several editors, agents, and authors told me that the money for serious fiction and nonfiction has eroded dramatically in recent years; advances on mid-list titles—books that are expected to sell modestly but whose quality gives them a strong chance of enduring—have declined by a quarter.”

Maybe all of this is true, but here’s another possibility: thanks to Amazon, people writing the most abstruse literary fiction possible don’t have to beg giant multinational megacorps for a print run of 3,000 copies. Amazon doesn’t care if you’re going to sell one million or one hundred copies; you still get a spot, and now midlist authors aren’t going to be forcibly ejected from the publishing industry by publishing houses.

Read Martha McPhee’s novel Dear Money. It verges on annoying at first but shifts to being delightful. The protagonist, Emma Chapman, is a “midlist” novelist sinking towards being a no-list novelist, and pay attention to her descriptions about “the details of how our lives really were” and how “not one of my novels had sold more than five thousand copies” and that “the awards by this point had been received long ago.” She makes money from teaching, not fiction, and her money barely adds up to rent and private schools and the rest of the New York bullshit. Under the system Packer describes, Emma is a relative success.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASince Dear Money is a novel everything works out in the end, but in real life for many writers things don’t work out. Still, I would note that self-publishing as the norm has one major flaw: the absence of professional content editors, who are often key to writers’s growth can often turn a mess with potential into a great book (here’s one example of a promising self-published book that could’ve been saved; there are no doubt others).

Still, Amazon must save more books than it destroys. If you read any amount of literary criticism, journalism, or scholarly articles, you’ve read innumerable sentences like these: “[Malcolm] Cowley persuaded Viking to accept ‘On the Road’ after many publishers had turned it down. He worked to get Kerouac, who was broke, financial support.” How many Kerouacs and Nabokovs didn’t make it to publication, and are unknown to history because no Cowley persuaded a publisher to act in its own best interests? How many will now, thanks to Amazon?

Having spent half a decade banging around on various publishers’ and agents’ doors I’m not convinced that publishers are doing a great job of gatekeeping. I’d also note that it may be possible for many people to sell far fewer copies of a work and still be “successful;” a publisher apparently needs to sell at least 10,000 copies of a standard hardcover release, at $15 – $30 per hardcover and $9.99 – $14.99 for each ebook, to stay afloat. If I sell 10,000 copies of Asking Anna for $10 to $4 I’ll be doing peachy.

Amazon has done an incredible job setting up a fantastic amount of infrastructure, physical and electronic, and Packer doesn’t even mention that.

Amazon also offers referral fees to anyone with a website; most of the books linked to in this blog have my own referral tag attached. Not only does Amazon give a fee if someone buys the linked item directly, but Amazon gives out the fee for any other item that person buys the same day. So if a person buys a camera lens for $400 after clicking a link in my blog, I get a couple bucks.

It’s not a lot and I doubt anyone quits their day job to get rich on referral links, but it’s more than zero. I like to say that I’ve made tens of dollars through those fees; by now I’ve made a little more, though not so much that it’ll pay for both beer and books.

Publishing’s golden age has always just ended. In 1994, Larissa MacFarquhar could write in the introduction to Robert Gottlieb’s Paris Review interview that in the 1950s—when Gottlieb got started—”publishers were frequently willing and able to lose money publishing books they liked, and tended to foster a sense that theirs were houses with missions more lofty than profit.” Then Gottlieb is quoted directly:

It is not a happy business now [. . .] and once it was. It was smaller. The stakes were lower. It was a less sophisticated world.

Today publishers are noble keepers of a sacred flame; before December 2009 they were rapacious capitalists. Today writers can also run a million experiments in what people want to read. Had I been an editor with 50 Shades of Grey passed my desk, I would’ve rejected it. Oops.

But the Internet is very good at getting to revealed preferences. Maybe Americans say they want to read high-quality books but many want to read about the stuff they’re not getting in real life: sex with attractive people; car chases; being important; being quasi-omniscient; and so on. Some people who provide those things are going to succeed.

More than anything else, the Internet demonstrates that a lot of people really like porn (in its visual forms and its written form). People want what they want and while I not surprisingly think that a lot of people would be better off reading more and more interesting stuff, on a fundamental level everyone lives their own lives how they see fit. A lot of people would also be better off if they ran more, watched reality TV less, ate more broccoli, and the other usual stuff. The world is full of ignored messages. In the end each individual suffers or doesn’t according to the way they live their own life.

I don’t love Amazon or any company, but Amazon and the Internet more generally has enabled me to do things that wouldn’t have been possible or pragmatic in 1995. Since Amazon is ascending, however, it’s the bad guy in many narratives. Big publishers are wobbling, so they’re the good guys. We have always been at war with East Asia and will always be at war with East Asia.

Packer is a good writer, skilled with details and particularities, but he can’t translate those skills into generalities. He fits stories into political / intellectual frameworks that don’t quite fit, as happened last his Silicon Valley article (I responded: “George Packer’s Silicon Valley myopia“). Packer’s high quality makes him worth responding to. But Packer presumably ignores his critics on the uncouth Interwebs, since he occupies the high ground of the old-school New Yorker. Too bad. There are things to be learned from the Internet, even about the past.

Eat, Pray, Love and the misery of the literary agent

Literary agents are flooded with pitches for the next Eat, Pray, Love. Fortunately, one of the few things I haven’t done wrong in searching for an agent is pitching the next Eat, Pray, Love, which probably isn’t a surprise since I read about 15 pages of the first one, thought it was dumb, and gave it back to the woman who had a copy (without my observation on its literary merit). To me, the oddest thing about the book is that it states or implies that going to exotic countries allows to discover yourself, or whatever. But to my mind, you can eat good food here (I try to and usually succeed), pray wherever, and love… well, that’s around too. Less common in the suburbs, I suppose, but still.

Mostly I’m reminded of friends in college who were like, “We’re going to MEXCIO for spring break to get drunk and hook up!!!” (Sometimes the destination would be Europe, the Caribbean, etc., and usually they’d say “party” as a euphemism for “get drunk and hook up.”) To which I would usually respond, “Can’t you do that sort of thing at home?” Usually they’d look at me strangely, like I’d suggested they consider eating a tarantula. It’s the same look I get when I suggest that You Will Suffer Humiliation When The Sports Team From My Area Defeats The Sports Team From Your Area.

I wonder if people implicitly believe that traveling changes the rules and social norms to which they’re accustomed, creating a Midsummer Night’s Dream-style scenario. If so, couldn’t they change the rules where they live through deciding, “I’m not going to play by the standard one rules anyway?” After all, Western culture has a rich tradition of this kind of thing: think of the Transcendentalists, Herman Hesse, Gay Talese, and Baywatch (Okay, that last one is a test of who’s paying attention). The epiphany is a regular occurrence in Joyce, especially The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. If we need to be “transformed by an experience that allowed us to step outside ourselves,” we might find that in fiction as easily as Indonesia. Katie Roiphe says that the TV show Mad Men offers “The Allure of Messy Lives.” We can make a mess and find self-fulfillment at home as easily as elsewhere!

Still, the Slate article says Gilbert is a good writer overall, and I read the book long enough ago not to keep slagging that part of it. To me, the setup sounds like the silliest part, but the money shot of the article comes at the end: “So be warned. If your proposal mentions a book that’s been on the bestseller list for more than 180 weeks, it may be a sign that your book isn’t worth writing.”

If your idea for life fulfillment comes from a book that’s been the bestseller list for more than 180 weeks, it may be a sign that you’re seeking fulfillment from the wrong place.

Do editors still edit? A response in part based on Mark McGurl's The Program Era

Betsy Lerner tries to answer this reader query: “Is it true that editors no longer edit, and if so, why?” Her basic answer: “I think most do, and some quite brilliantly.” But it’s hard to say beyond anecdote: I’ve read various answers that range from hers to simply stating “No.” One letter to the editor in The New Yorker has a perceptive comment on the issue—the author is responding to an essay about Mark McGurl’s The Program Era:

The days of editors like Maxwell Perkins shepherding talented young writers through their early years are long over. With publishing houses now expected to turn profits of around fifteen per cent, as opposed to the three to four per cent of Perkins’s day, what editor can afford to give a latter-day F. Scott Fitzgerald the devotion, time, and professional advice needed to hone his talents? Creative-writing programs have stepped in to fill this void by teaching young writers, in effect, to be their own editors––an essential skill in the current publishing climate.

In the absence of hard figures, it’s difficult to tell whether this is true, and if it is, how true it is. McGurl does write about the “… wide distribution… of elevated literary ambitions, and the cultivation in these newly vocal, vainglorious masses of the habits of self-conscious attention to craft through which [their writerly ambitions] might plausible be realized…” I doubt this makes editors superfluous, but it might mean that, in the face of layoffs, increased workloads, and so forth, editors might be more likely to rely, implicitly or explicitly, on the skills that universities and other writing programs cultivate. Granted, this is based on speculation from someone peering in through the glass rather than someone with direct experience inside of publishing, but it at least seems plausible.

Furthermore, it might be easier for writers to learn some of what editors once might have provided because of the wide availability of pretty good books on the craft parts of writing. This doesn’t mean reading such books will automatically make one a good author, or that any book can substitute for good secondary readers (or editors), but they still might occupy a small part of the function professional editors once held.

(Incidentally: The Program Era is a wonderful book I keep meaning to write a post about. One reason I don’t is because there’s so much to talk about that I get overwhelmed. At some point, however, I’m just going to write that post, completeness be damned.)

Philip Greenspun's Why I'm Not a Writer and Hacker News

I submitted a Hacker News (HN) link to Philip Greenspun’s essay Why I’m Not a Writer, which begins:

I’m not a writer. Sometimes I write, but I don’t define myself as a career writer. And that isn’t because I couldn’t tolerate the garret lifestyle of an obscure writer. It is because I couldn’t tolerate the garret lifestyle of a successful writer.

He’s right. The garret lifestyle is one reason (there are many others too) why so many writers are now affiliated with universities, as detailed in Mark McGurl’s excellent book The Program Era. In fact, university affiliation has become so pervasive that Neal Stephenson told this hilarious story on the subject in a Slashdot interview:

[… A] while back, I went to a writers’ conference. I was making chitchat with another writer, a critically acclaimed literary novelist who taught at a university. She had never heard of me. After we’d exchanged a bit of of small talk, she asked me “And where do you teach?” just as naturally as one Slashdotter would ask another “And which distro do you use?”

I was taken aback. “I don’t teach anywhere,” I said.

Her turn to be taken aback. “Then what do you do?”

“I’m…a writer,” I said. Which admittedly was a stupid thing to say, since she already knew that.

“Yes, but what do you do?”

I couldn’t think of how to answer the question—I’d already answered it!

“You can’t make a living out of being a writer, so how do you make money?” she tried.

“From…being a writer,” I stammered.

At this point she finally got it, and her whole affect changed. She wasn’t snobbish about it. But it was obvious that, in her mind, the sort of writer who actually made a living from it was an entirely different creature from the sort she generally associated with.

And once I got over the excruciating awkwardness of this conversation, I began to think she was right in thinking so. One way to classify artists is by to whom they are accountable.

In the HN thread, another poster named Quantumhobbit linked to Orson Scott Card dealing with the same subject. As Quantumhobbit says, “Basically his advice is make sure you have another source of income, such as a rich uncle, before you decide to become a full-time writer. There is no guaranty that you will make enough to support yourself, even in genre writing.”

But the most interesting response comes from Gwern, who said, “I note that [Greenspun’s essay is] from 1996, when the bubble was getting hot; are you suggesting that the web has not panned out for writers and that they are equally screwed online as off?” In reply, I said:

I think that the date of Greenspun’s essay is indicative of how little has changed, rather than how much. Most writers didn’t make very much money then, and they still don’t, which many people don’t seem to realize; one writer friend who also teaches university classes recently wrote to me and said that a colleague had asked, in all seriousness, if he was rich now that he’d written a book. Writers often work like astronauts to achieve relatively modest financial success, which people like the poster in the original HN thread might want to know before getting started in earnest at trying to write for the book market. Take a look at these posts from a guy who works in the sales department of a major publishing house regarding current advances for most types of fiction.

“are you suggesting that the web has not panned out for writers and that they are equally screwed online as off?”

Depends on what you mean by “panned out” and “screwed”; I can’t really tell from the nature of the question. If you mean, “Do I think writers can make enough from the Internet to support themselves?” the answer is yes; if you mean, “Will many of them do so, especially relative to the number who would like to?” the answer is “no.” In fact, I even wrote a blog post at Grant Writing Confidential on the subject of how unlikely it is for people to make money from blogging.

(Note: the above is slightly edited from the original.)

Gwern replied:

But to expand on what I meant: I remember that back in the dot-com bubble, the bubble Greenspan wrote that essay in, there was a lot of enthusiasm and hype about how the future would be so much better for authors and artists than the old world of offline publishing – the Web would empower creators, cut out the middlemen, and channel tons of money to them, via the magic of 0-cost publishing, micropayments, and other things like search engines or aggregators. Greenspan’s essay seems to buy into that zeitgeist, albeit relatively modestly.

Of course, that vision has largely come failed to come true (spectacularly so in the case of micropayments and agents). I wondered if the point of your linking this old essay was to emphasize the contrast and make clear that writing is still a marginal business regardless of where it’s being distributed or what neat technical gadgets are involved.

That wasn’t my point, but if I’d been smarter it would’ve been. Half the 1996 equation Gwern describes has come true: the web has vastly empowered writers’ ability to reach readers (and consultants’ ability to reach clients). But it definitely hasn’t channeled vast amounts of money to most writers, and many kinds of writers—like professional journalists—are being laid off en-masse.

In the world of the web, as in the 1849 California gold rush, the people who make real money aren’t the people panning for gold, but the people selling equipment to and building infrastructure for the people panning for gold. So too with online writing: Matt Mullenweg, the founder of WordPress, which drives this blog, probably makes or will make far more than anyone writing on it.

All of this could probably be appended to advice for a very very beginning writer. I think that knowledge for its own sake is valuable, even, or maybe especially, for artists.

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