The Amazon Paradox
by Todd Walton, December 18, 2013
“Surrealism to me is reality.” — John Lennon
My books are for sale on Amazon. New and used. So are my music CDs. My books and music are downloadable from Amazon, and that includes audio books of my work narrated by yours truly. Do I feel like a rat and an enemy of local bookstores and local music stores? No, because with the exception of a few extremely local bookstores where I am personally known to the proprietors, my books are not available in any local bookstores in America or even in the few remaining chain bookstores, and that is also true of my music. This is also true for the vast majority of writers and musicians (those who produce books and albums) in this country. Without Amazon and a few other online sites, most writers and musicians would have nowhere, practically speaking, to sell their work.
Ironically, local independent bookstores with their extremely limited shelf space carry almost entirely mainstream corporate product (i.e. imitative junk) because that is what most people buy. Amazon, on the other hand, has unlimited shelf space and carries everybody’s books and music, including works by the most esoteric poets and writers and musicians in the world, works no one else will carry. Amazon has also been a fantastic boon to used booksellers, many of whom were going out of business before Amazon provided a way for those used bookstores to reach millions of people who otherwise would never have known about them.
Before the advent of Amazon, many well-meaning people believed that shopping at chain bookstores would bring about the demise of local bookstores. However, my first five novels were only (albeit briefly) available in chain bookstores and not in local independent bookstores because the chains had shelf space for less known and less mainstream books and the independent stores only carried what the New York Times said was worth buying. If you don’t know it already, the New York Times only reviews and touts books published by their major advertisers, the giant corporate publishers, which are wholly owned subsidiaries of huge multinational corporations. Local bookstores 30 years ago, and local bookstores today, carry books, with very few exceptions, that get reviewed in mainstream newspapers and magazines owned by huge corporations who also happen to publish nearly all the books that get reviewed and advertised in America.
You see the problem. We are told to support our local bookstores in their selling of corporate product because…why? Doing so pays the salaries of a few local bookstore clerks? If local independent bookstores primarily sold books published by independent publishers, that would be a different matter, but if they did that they would immediately go out of business because most people, including hip savvy happening people, only buy books and music they’ve heard about through the corporate media, which includes National Public Radio and The New Yorker, and don’t kid yourself that NPR and The New Yorker aren’t corporate bullhorns.
What if, just for the sake of discussion, Amazon did exactly what it does, except Amazon employees were treated humanely, paid handsomely, given fabulous benefits and fat pensions, and worked in environmentally marvelous solar electric facilities sending forth goods in recycled biodegradable organic packaging material transported by environmentally fabulous systems of purveyance? Would it then no longer be a sin to shop at Amazon? Less of a sin? Is it how Amazon does what it does or what Amazon does that makes them so awful-seeming?
To sum up a prevalent notion of reality shared by way too many people who should know better: if you can’t get a gigantic corporation to publish your books and spend tons of money getting those books reviewed and advertised and distributed to local indie bookstores, you should just stop writing. And stop recording music, too. Just make a living some other way. Don’t even try to be an artist unless you can be immensely successful and have articles written about you in The New Yorker. To do otherwise is unfair to small businesses. Got it?
Am I a pimp for Amazon? Nay. I buy almost nothing from them. I walk everywhere and drive very little. My carbon footprint is a few toe indentations compared to the average American. Still, I struggle with the paradox of knowing that my books, the ones recently published and the ones long out-of-print, have lives (in the sense of being available to people) almost entirely because of Amazon. Nor were my books readily available before Amazon. Prior to the advent of Amazon, if someone asked where they could get a copy of one of my books, I would say, “Well, if you have a stupendous and well-endowed library system or access to the greatest used bookstores on earth, you might find a few of them.” Now all my books are readily available from independent used booksellers availing themselves of Amazon’s organizational system to sell their goods. Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so. Could it be better? Of course. By the way, I don’t make a cent from the sales of used copies of my books and I make almost nothing from the sales of my new books, but I’m still happy that people have easy access to my work.
“There is only one way to defeat the enemy, and that is to write as well as one can. The best argument is an undeniably good book.” — Saul Bellow
This just in. The National Library of Norway is planning to digitize all the books in Norwegian by the mid 2020’s (hundreds of thousands of books). This will mean that if your IP (Internet Protocol) address proves your computer is in Norway, you will be able to access all the Norwegian books ever published, even those still under copyright, for free. The article did not say how publishers and authors are to be compensated for their work under this plan, but Norway is wealthy and socialist, with a highly literate population, so I imagine Norwegian writers will not be dissuaded from continuing to write because of this mass digitization.
It has never been easy for artists to make livings from their art, and for millennia now in the so-called advanced societies virtually every artist we’ve ever heard of was beholden to some king or prince or wealthy merchant or powerful editor or rich person to subsidize the making and dissemination of those famous artists’ art. Is this a bad thing? Is selling books and music and artistic creations on Amazon (because there is nowhere else to sell such things) any worse than beseeching (or having sex with) a powerful duke or prince so the big idiot will commission a sonata so you can pay your rent and buy food? Is getting in bed with Amazon worse than playing footsy (or having sex) with a Medici or two so they’ll pay you to sculpt David out of marble and paint the Sistine Chapel? You tell me. When I published my first novel in 1978, I was invited to join the Author’s Guild, an esteemed organization that claimed at that time to represent some seven thousand American authors published by major publishers. I joined because my literary agent said it was a good idea, but I eventually resigned because the Author’s Guild was forever asking members for money to help writers from other countries while doing nothing to help American writers, including and especially their own guild members. However, before I resigned, I took part in a survey with my seven thousand fellow members of the Author’s Guild, and the results were that less than one-quarter of one per cent of the seven thousand writers surveyed made even a minimalist living from their writing. Some vibrant culture we’ve got, huh?
“Take away the paradox from the thinker and you have a professor.” — Soren Kierkegaard
I am now publishing books at Zo, Mendocino’s finest and only copy shop. This does not preclude future offers from daring, creative, prescient publishers who wish to publish my work, but from now on the first editions of my novels will be Zo Editions, unless Zo goes out of business before I cease to produce books. My first venture, the novella Oasis Tales of the Conjuror, launched in November, has now sold thirty-one copies, and as of copy #28 my design and manufacturing costs have been covered, which means the last three copies I sold (through my web site) have brought me massive profit, easily enough to take Marcia out for lunch at the Mendocino Café, if we share one of the less expensive entrées and two large glasses of water, hold the bubbles.
My publishing experiment proves (to me) there are three kinds of people. By far the largest number of the three kinds are those who react with contempt and pity and varying degrees of disgust when they hear of my comb-bound individually hand-numbered and signed publishing venture, the second largest number are those who smile and say “Neato!” when they hear of my new old way of bringing out my fiction, and the smallest number are those who don’t hesitate to say, “I’ll buy one,” and they do.
The sad and undeniable truth is that most people in our society do not consider writing fiction or composing music or drawing or painting or any kind of art making to be real work. Ours is essentially an anti-artist culture, which is why most people need those corporate stamps of approval before they will believe something has value. Talk about a paradox. The Amazon Paradox is an easy ten-piece jigsaw puzzle for small children compared to the paradox of why so many seemingly intelligent people still believe the corporate media communicates anything other than advertisements for the products of huge corporations, and only by accident and once in a blue moon allows something so subversive as original art to reach a large audience.
Todd Walton’s web site, a non-corporate trove of goodies, is UnderTheTableBooks.com