There’s a video clip of Louis CK on Conan that went viral a while back in which he observes our cultural tendency to go from a state of amazement about new technology to a state of disappointment almost instantaneously. Musing about a man next to him on a plane who is irritated about the in-flight Wifi malfunctioning, Louis CK says, “How quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only ten seconds ago!” The clip is well worth watching, if you haven’t seen it.
Louis CK’s reaction to that guy on the plane pretty well mirrors my attitude toward authors and publishing people who whine about Amazon taking unfair advantage of its dominance in the book market. I mean, ruminate on this for a bit: Amazon built the largest bookstore in the world, making it possible for people in remote towns to get their hands on virtually any book in the world within a couple of days, generally for less than what it would have cost to buy the book in a bookstore. And then, when publishers and bookstores were still trying to figure out how to milk hardcovers for as much money as possible, Amazon said, ‘Revolutionizing the bookselling industry was a decent start, but it still takes too long to get books to people, and they’re still too expensive. What we need to do is completely change the whole idea of what a book is. We’re going to convince people that books aren’t physical things made of paper, but rather digitally communicable collections of words and images.’ And then, over the course of about five years, they did exactly that. Thanks to Amazon, the word “book” means something completely different than it did in 2007. Now a “book” is something that you can buy, download, and read while standing in the line at Starbucks, often for less than the price of a caramel machiatto. And you can literally hold ten thousand of them in your pocket.
The changes Amazon wrought in the bookselling and publishing industries are Amazing, with a capital A. It’s easy to say, “Well, if Amazon didn’t do it, somebody else would have.” Beside the fact that nobody else did do it, this line of reasoning is about as helpful and salient as saying that if Neil Armstrong hadn’t been the first man on the Moon, someone else would have been. This may be true, but that doesn’t change the fact that walking on the Moon is freaking Amazing.
Those with a vested interest in traditional publishing want to take the new, Amazon-dominated landscape as a given. They watched as the industry was transformed under their noses, and now they look at how the changes have failed to meet their own selfish expectations and mutter, along with Louis CK’s seat mate, “Bullshit.” They all know exactly how Amazon should act in this new landscape it created. It should keep prices low to attract readers, but not so low as to make it difficult for publishers to make a profit. It should keep being a pioneer in ebooks, but not at the expense of hard copies. It should make their books available on Kindle, but not at the expense of other ebook formats. Blah, blah, blah, blah. Anything else Amazon does is just “bullshit.”
Musing on the complaints people make about flying (“We sat on the runway for FORTY MINUTES!”), Louis CK asks sardonically, “Oh, really? What happened next? Did you FLY THROUGH THE AIR? DID YOU PARTAKE IN THE MIRACLE OF HUMAN FLIGHT?” That’s how I want to reply to these booksellers bitching about Amazon pressuring them in contract negotiations. “Oh, really?” I want to say. “What happened next? Did you SELL TEN MILLION COPIES WITHOUT EVER PRINTING A SINGLE BOOK? WITH NO SHIPPING COSTS? WITH NO INVENTORY? IN SOME CASES TO READERS THREE HUNDRED MILES FROM THE NEAREST BOOKSTORE?”
Louis CK goes on to characterize his hypothetical, whiny traveler as a “non-contributing zero,” and suggests that “everybody on every plane should constantly be going, ‘OH MY GOD! WOW!!'” I don’t believe that those in the publishing industry are necessarily “non-contributing zeroes,” but lately there’s been a lot of media attention given to people who are, figuratively speaking, flying through the air in a plane they didn’t build, muttering “bullshit.” That’s their right, if that’s how they want to spend their time and energy, but we don’t have to listen to them. And in the end, the future doesn’t belong to the people muttering “bullshit.” It belongs to the people yelling “OH MY GOD! WOW!!”