Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Cry Me A River? Amazon Rising

     My first remembered books were a Doubleday Kipling with an orange cover and a Grossett & Dunlap Riders Of The Purple Sage by Zane Grey. I distinctly recall looking through them often, if not exactly reading them cover to cover, on the floor of my room when I was about six or seven years old.

     I soon graduated to reading the Hardy Boys mysteries, some from the Forest Hills, Queens NY branch of the public library, and others bought and shared with two friends. Yes, a little book club. Two favorites were The Shore Road Mystery and The Yellow Feather Mystery. I have never lost my desire for mysteries, suspense, and espionage stories all the way to finishing Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson (yes) last week, beginning Death In Summer by Benjamin Black (yes!), AKA John Banville, this week, and getting bogged down in The Return of John Emmet (no) in between.

     But, why am I telling you this? Well, I just want to share a few bona fides regarding my love of reading, books, bookshops, and what is known in general as trade publishing. Publishing has been experiencing paradigm changes since Amazon was born, and those changes are accelerating today, with Amazon itself becoming a publisher in addition to being an online distributor of new and used titles.

     I once worked for a large media/publishing empire. About twenty years ago, I was dispatched up to Boston to meet with the administrator of a smallish world-renowned trade publisher we owned in order to help them reduce costs. I was received in their beautiful brick house/office, which overlooked the Common and Public Garden, as if I had been the chief of a book-burning brigade in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.

     I learned that the company was run almost like a charity, with authors, books, and readers treated like service beneficiaries. I exaggerate, but only a little. The entire editorial process was treated as a noble calling, and there was a distinguished list of famous authors and literature going back to the nineteenth century to demonstrate why this was so. In fact, even to a dedicated reader and book-lover like myself, the whole thing seemed as if it were stuck in the nineteenth century. It seemed more like visiting a well-appointed orphanage than a business.

     They had little regard for profits, which were considered, if at all, as a lucky by-product of their noble cause, and less regard for the behemoth media conglomerate who now reigned over them and had dispatched me. Consequently, they treated me very politely, very agreeably, but turned out to be masterful passive-aggresives as soon as I went out the door.

    Soon after, the media conglomerate moved that little publisher to a centralized book unit HQ in New York and brought in a publishing heavy-weight from a dreaded super-commercialized publishing "house" to run the whole thing. He did so, with a vengeance. In fact, he did it so well, the media giant was able to sell it off after a few years to another global publisher.

     And that guy who headed the whole thing? He is now in charge of Amazon's new publishing unit and is much-hated, at least for now, by independent booksellers and trade publishers (except for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which has a deal with Amazon).

     Publishing in its glory-days was more about lunch than profitability. It was a cozy world, much cozier than the music industry before Apple knocked-off those guys, since publishing, at least on the surface, was mostly a game for gentlemen and ladies: a claim Big Music could never make.

     You didn't make much dough in publishing, but you got to feel superior to a lot of people, and that was a pretty good deal to the right kind of person, especially certain people who had migrated to Manhattan from afar to become important and influential, not to mention have long lunches.  This little world was ripe for someone like Barnes & Noble, Walmart, and now Jeff Bezos's Amazon to come around and thumb their noses at the whole thing, just the way Jobs did to Big Music, and the cell-phone industry.

    Now, irony of ironies, trade publishing's newest hero is none other than...Barnes & Noble? Yes, because it's troubled brick and mortar stores, new Nook reader, and its online empire make it, if not exactly a friend, at least the enemy of publishing's biggest current enemy, Amazon, who is signing up big name authors and wants to own the Whole Shebang. Bezos doesn't like sharing any more than Gates or Jobs did.

      I love independent bookshops and frequent them whenever I have a chance: Diane's in Greenwich CT, The Mysterious Bookshop, McNally Jackson, Crawford Doyle, all in Manhattan. I was also a very early user of Amazon and its brilliant, patented 1-Click purchase. I have been underwhelmed over the years by Amazon's customer service and disappointed in its aggressor attitude towards indies, which pose little threat to it, but add such richness to our lives.

"Jane" Austen
     In the eye of this storm it's important to keep one very important fact in mind: people are reading a lot of books in various forms. At dinner the other night, my friend proudly told of how he is reading Jane Austen and Dumas on his Kindle, while riding the train! How can this be a bad thing? Next thing you know, students will be shaking off their Reading List collars and actually reading books of their own choosing, in their own free time, and not even in summer!

     In publishing, McLuhan was wrong; the medium is not the message, the story is the message.

     It is up to us to decide what story we want, how we want it, when we want it, and how much it is worth to us. The rest, as Pound wrote, is dross.

     This story has a long way to go yet. Meanwhile, keep reading.



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