Is Amazon good for books? and other dumb questions

book-pedestalI finally got around to reading George Packer’s article in the New Yorker entitled “Cheap Words: Amazon is good for customers. But is it good for books?” yesterday. Spoiler alert, in case you haven’t read the article: Packer doesn’t answer the question. In fact, he doesn’t even really address the question. Most of the article is taken up with head-shaking reminiscences of Amazon’s ruthless business practices, its treatment of books as “widgets” rather than the lovingly birthed children of the tortured souls of artists, and a few anecdotes about poor working conditions in warehouses (another spoiler: warehouses, by and large, are not fun places to work). Finally, in the concluding paragraphs, Packer gets around to the question at hand:

Several editors, agents, and authors told me that the money for serious fiction and nonfiction has eroded dramatically in recent years…. 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.When consumers are overwhelmed with choices, some experts argue, they all tend to buy the same well-known thing….

These trends point toward what the literary agent called “the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer.” A few brand names at the top, a mass of unwashed titles down below, the middle hollowed out: the book business in the age of Amazon mirrors the widening inequality of the broader economy….

Bezos is right: gatekeepers are inherently élitist, and some of them have been weakened, in no small part, because of their complacency and short-term thinking. But gatekeepers are also barriers against the complete commercialization of ideas, allowing new talent the time to develop and learn to tell difficult truths. When the last gatekeeper but one is gone, will Amazon care whether a book is any good?

There are glimmerings of an actual argument here, that the total democratization of the book business will make it difficult for worthwhile books to get published or noticed. But Packer deals only in generalities and hearsay, making his half-hearted misgivings about Amazon a poor starting point for a serious conversation on the matter. Packer’s closing statements remind me of the old man on The Simpsons, who, stepping out of his nursing home for the first time in far too long, mutters to himself, “I don’t like the looks of those teenagers.” Well, folks, George Packer isn’t sure he likes the looks of this Amazon thing. Please give this fact all due consideration.

It’s almost too easy to demolish Packer’s argument, such as it is. One might wonder, first of all, where the vaunted curators of literature were when Lolita, A Wrinkle in Time, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, to name a few, were rejected by dozens of publishers. How different might the literary world be if the likes of Nabakov, L’Engle and Pirsig had listened to the gatekeepers? And it’s impossible to know how many literary geniuses did listen, and whose work remains unpublished and unknown. How wonderful it is to know that thanks to Amazon, authors can now reach readers directly, at no cost, without having to suffer rejection at the hands of gatekeepers who, despite their literary pedigrees, are primarily motivated by the desire to sell books, and whose decisions are inevitably colored by their own imperfect understanding of the marketplace? Yes, opening up publishing to everyone has resulted in the proliferation of a mountain of unreadable books, but does anyone really think that if A Wrinkle of Time would have gone unnoticed, buried in that mountain? Books that speak to people have a way of getting found, with or without gatekeepers.

One could also point out that the commercialization of art hardly began with Amazon. It’s easy to imagine a fifteenth century George Packer writing in disapproving tones of the Medici family’s gauche intrusion into the world of the arts, but the Renaissance would have been stillborn if it had been dependent on the cultural gatekeepers of the time to spread the word about the wonders of visual art. The Renaissance fed on the works of Michelangelo, Raphael and Donatello, but it needed funding from the Medicis. To be clear, I’m not saying Jeff Bezos is a modern day Medici. I’m saying that whether Amazon cares “whether a book is any good” is as irrelevant to the question of whether Amazon is “good for books” as whether Lorenzo de Medici liked Michelangelo’s David is to the question of whether the Renaissance was “good for art.”

But this is all beside the point, which is that “Is Amazon good for books?” is a really, really dumb question. This may be difficult for some of you to accept, but I’m going to just say it: books are inanimate objects. As much as we love them, books have no feelings or intentions. So to ask whether Amazon is “good for books” makes about as much sense as asking “Are highways good for cars?” or “Is cardboard good for pencils?”

Packer purports to deal objectively with the commercialism versus elitism dichotomy, but his opening question betrays his elitist bias. When Packer says “books,” we know he doesn’t mean Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey, although I’m fairly certain those two titles qualify as books. He means Literature. And who decides what qualifies as Literature? Well, the cultural gatekeepers, of course, which is to say those in the traditional publishing industry. So Packer’s question, unpacked (pun intended), can be accurately rephrased as: “Is Amazon good for selling more of the sorts of books that people working for traditional publishers get excited about?” The answer to this question isn’t entirely clear, but the appropriate response, as far as I can tell, is “Who cares?”

If you doubt Packer’s elitism and his own lack of self-awareness about that elitism, consider the first part of his subtitle:

Amazon is good for customers.

There’s another common word that’s often used to describe “book customers.” That word is “readers.” I mean, unless there is a significant number of people out there buying (or borrowing, since Amazon is now in the book-lending business as well) books with a purpose other than to read them (something that is becoming less likely, since it’s not practical to leave your Kindle on the coffee table to impress house guests with the latest Haruki Murakami novel), then the Venn diagram of “book customers” and “readers” should overlap almost entirely. If we replace “customers” with “readers” in Packer’s statement, we are left with:

Amazon is good for readers. But is it good for books?

Kind of takes the oomph out of the question, doesn’t it? If you set the interests of “books” up against those of “readers,” the question is revealed as the snobbish, elitist proposition it is. Sure, Packer is saying. Amazon is good for readers. But is it good for promoting those sorts of books that I think people should be reading?

I can think of a lot of answers to that question. The politest one, though, is “Who cares?”

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