By Davida Gypsy Breier
Where Are We? How Did We Get Here?
The following is my opinion, based on known facts and personal experience. It is born out of frustration and sorrow. I need to get this off my chest.
I’ve been involved in zines since 1994, with professional bookselling and publishing experience happening concurrently. My book publishing experience has been diverse, but my focus has primarily been distribution, marketing, and sales. I currently work for a large university press.
I watched as chain bookstores took over and killed off half of the independents. I saw Amazon emerge and begin eroding the chains’ power, seemingly as savior for publishers. I was there when Kindle began and I helped feed that gaping maw content. I was a bystander as once-maligned “vanity publishing” was re-branded and sold to the same people as vibrant “self-publishing.” I was witness to disruptive change from the inside.
Now, I sit here surveying the current landscape of publishing and can see the damage that has been done to books, to publishing, and even culture, and accept that I was (and perhaps still am) complicit in the destruction.
Before I continue, I feel I should declare my support of authors and publishers who would not have books or a readership if not for Amazon. I do not in any way begrudge them. Amazon did eliminate publishing’s gatekeepers and promoted an agenda of literary democracy. On the surface it sounded great. In hindsight, there is a dark side. The purpose of this essay is to provoke thought and discussion. To at least consider the future we are all building.
It Could Have Been Lamps
Amazon helped to destroy the traditional gatekeepers to publishing (something zines have done for decades). Amazon offers multiple publishing tools and visibility for publishers and authors. They are one of the reasons self-publishing is now considered mainstream. Authors are now discovered by algorithms and sales, not just editors and agents. My concerns lie with Amazon’s motivations. Zines seek readers, Amazon seeks customers (and their precious, monetized data). I’m not saying that the old gatekeepers were right – many excellent books and authors were ignored and deterred from publishing – but I am concerned that our literary culture is being commoditized into sloppily written, downloadable “content” that is produced with sales goals. Of course the same accusations could be made of paper zines, except for the sales goals bit. I’ve never met one person who expected to make a living off of his or her zines; zine publishers tend to write for the sake of writing and to connect with readers. Amazon’s goals have always been market domination and profit. Always.
Why did Amazon focus on books instead of lamps or hammers if that was the goal? Because books are relatively simple to mail and not breakable. Because the goal was the customer, not the product. Publishing has been completely disrupted because books were easy to ship.
Amazon arrived when publishing was in trouble and it did seem like a savior to many. I remember when they were a quiet account who bought non-returnable, paid on time, and made small publishers’ books visible on their virtual store shelves. Brick-and-mortar stores have limited shelf space, but Amazon was able to showcase all books – new and old – and touted itself as “the everything store.” Small publishers finally had a chance to compete against the major publishers. Older books became discoverable. Chains, on the other hand, were demanding higher and higher discounts, increased co-op (publishers have to buy those prime spots near the front of the store), mainly carried new books, and often returned 30% or more of what they bought (usually damaged). Compared to the chains, Amazon did seem like an ally. The first hit was free.
Now, it is clear Amazon was mining data, refining business models, and gathering strength. They intended to go after both competitors and suppliers, with a propaganda-like mantra of servicing the almighty customer. Publishers were openly referred to as gazelles (to Amazon’s unnamed predator). They have been known to publicly remove buy buttons to force publishers to capitulate. What we never know is the amount of influence going on to manipulate books to the top of searches…or to the bottom. They have fought and worked around tax laws – remember, local stores contribute to the community. Amazon also touts the jobs they offer. The reality is that they are anti-union, and warehouse jobs are under constant criticism for the hours, stress, and conditions. Office jobs at Amazon sound even worse, and they grind though young workers who either join the cult or move on in a matter of months. I know many people who righteously boycott Wal-Mart, but happily shop at Amazon. Explain the difference.
For the publishers I currently represent Amazon accounts for 26% of net sales (FY2013). Amazon has grown so large that publishers are now dependent, and Amazon has the power to dictate terms and break backs. And books only account for 7% of Amazon’s annual revenues. They figured out how to sell lamps and hammers, too.
Literature in Danger
So where does Amazon’s power end? I don’t know, and that’s what scares me. The company controls the majority of digital books sales and is now moving into additional media – movies, TV, and music. Amazon’s megalomaniacal weirdo founder, Jeff Bezos, recently bought The Washington Post. Federal lawsuits involving Amazon’s monopoly have come down in favor of the giant, under the guise of consumer protection. Actually, monopoly isn’t the correct word, monopsony is. It means that Amazon can dictate terms to its suppliers, and in doing so, Amazon is now in a position to dictate popular culture. Publishers have lost control of their content and many authors are now going it alone intentionally. Books aren’t being published that should be published. This passage from George Packer’s article on Amazon for The New Yorker rings true:
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. These are the kinds of book that particularly benefit from the attention of editors and marketers, and that attract gifted people to publishing, despite the pitiful salaries. Without sufficient advances, many writers will not be able to undertake long, difficult, risky projects. Those who do so anyway will have to expend a lot of effort mastering the art of blowing their own horn. “Writing is being outsourced, because the only people who can afford to write books make money elsewhere—academics, rich people, celebrities,” Colin Robinson, a veteran publisher, said. “The real talent, the people who are writers because they happen to be really good at writing—they aren’t going to be able to afford to do it.”
Ironically, Amazon is taking self-publishing backward to a culture of vanity publishing!
Consumers now assume they have to buy from Amazon. Authors watch their sales and rankings obsessively. People think if the book isn’t available on Amazon it isn’t available. There are other choices, but the drug of one-click shopping and free shipping has intoxicated shoppers. Publishers have long since come down from their high of thinking that Amazon is an ally.
For me personally, I stopped buying books from Amazon a couple years ago and completely stopped all purchases a year ago. I haven’t touched my GoodReads account since Amazon bought it. I avoid funding projects using Amazon’s eCommerce system. I have found other options. I choose not to support the bully. These are small, probably pointless, economic protests on my part. What is more important is that I still publish and promote zines. This zine you are holding does not commodify ideas and words. Instead, it promotes community and tries to keep publishing’s furnace of creativity and passion alight.
I hope that publishers and authors who feel they need Amazon understand that Amazon does not need them. Once Amazon has the content and the customer data, authors and publishers are disposable. Much like sex-work is about the John, Amazon loves you, just leave the cash on the dresser and get out.
I acknowledge that I am jousting at windmills that I helped build. Ultimately, I mourn for publishing and where it feels like it is headed. It isn’t the industry I joined 20 years ago. It makes me doubly glad that I never left zines and that we have warded off many of the detrimental changes.
One thing I feel is important to mention – many small publishers I have met are really authors who couldn’t find a publisher to publish his or her book. Amazon gave them the ability to self-publish and sell their books. They often cease being publishers as soon as they have a book contract – they are authors at heart, not publishers. Zinesters, on the other hand, seem to believe in the process – all of it. They are authors, artists, publishers, and marketers, not just because of the intrinsic DIY spirit, but because it is part of being a zine-maker. I think it is this difference that sets zinesters apart and often makes us more immune to the push and pull of consumerism. It is a process, not a product.
In the aforementioned New Yorker article, Andrew Wylie, an agent, said, “What gave publishers the idea that this was some big goddamn business? It’s not—it’s a tiny little business, selling to a bunch of odd people who read.” I think that idea summarizes what I always loved about publishing and continue to love about zines.
As zine-makers and zine-readers, Amazon will never be able to compete with a LOC (letter of comment) as payment or understand that giving a zine away for another zine makes perfect economic sense. That $3.00 in the pocket of a zinester is lunch and a couple of stamps. That as zinesters, publishing is still up to us and that we continue to invest in our own future and community. As consumers, does supporting Amazon, especially at the exclusion of other options and merchants, align with our ethics? What do you think?
· Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century, By John Thompson, 2012 (available in paperback and hardback)
· “Cheap Words, Amazon is good for customers. But is it good for books?” By George Packer, February 17, 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2014/02/17/140217fa_fact_packer?currentPage=all
· The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, By Brad Stone, 2013 (available in paperback and hardback)
· “‘Cheap Words’: The New Yorker on Amazon and Books” February 11, 2014, http://www.shelf-awareness.com/ar/theshelf/2014-02-11/_cheap_words_:_the_new_yorker_on_amazon_and_books.html
· “The Book Industry Is So Scared of Amazon, No One Will Talk on the Record Except these people” By Laura Bennett, February 20, 2014, http://www.newrepublic.com/article/116677/book-industry-so-scared-amazon-no-one-talks-record
· “Worse than Wal-Mart: Amazon’s sick brutality and secret history of ruthlessly intimidating workers” By Simon Head, February 23, 2014, http://www.salon.com/2014/02/23/worse_than_wal_mart_amazons_sick_brutality_and_secret_history_of_ruthlessly_intimidating_workers/