I have a deep love for George Packer’s work, going back many books. Blood of the Liberals is one of my all-time favorite books, though viewed in the context of the other books and articles he’s written, it’s condescending: his deep desire to find a liberalism that can appeal to the common man is somehow at odds with everyone else’s. Likewise, when George Packer came to oppose the War in Iraq, his ultimate decision to oppose it was thoughtful and well-meaning, whereas everyone else’s was reflexive and irrational.
The piece on Amazon is a long string of ad hominems, including the requisite slam on engineers: “Everyone there is so engineering-oriented. They don’t know how to talk to novelists.” That one example, it seems to be, contains the key to what’s wrong with the whole piece: throughout the piece, you ought to be asking, “Compared to what?” People with an engineering focus can’t talk to novelists, sure. So I assume Random House is filled with artsy types who are willing to forego a profit to take a flyer on some unknown, promising author? I have no experience in the publishing industry, but I am willing to wager huge quantities of money against that premise. Take a nice anonymous survey of authors — including aspiring or failed authors — who’ve worked with large publishers and let’s see what they think of the publishers’ author-friendliness.
Amazon is terrible for local bookstores, sure. But compared to what? How about you Google for [bookstore market share 1998]? Up comes a New York Times article from that year titled “Independent Bookstores Struggle Against the Tide”. Quoth that article:
In Tarrytown, the American Booksellers Association, a trade association, reported that while the independents held a market share of 31 percent in 1991, that number had dropped precipitously to under 19 percent five years later.
So let’s not romanticize the world that Amazon inherited. It was dominated by Borders and Barnes & Noble. At one point there was Waldenbooks, too.
It’s hard to find a sentence in Packer’s piece that doesn’t contain a tendentious interpretation of data that we all already experience. To pick just one:
The digital market is awash with millions of barely edited titles, most of it dreck, while readers are being conditioned to think that books are worth as little as a sandwich. “Amazon has successfully fostered the idea that a book is a thing of minimal value,” Johnson said. “It’s a widget.”
Did Amazon create this attitude? Who you gonna believe: George Packer, or your own lying eyes? Here’s what my impression tells me: back in the day, I used to buy music CDs, each of which I treasured and obsessed over. I’d buy an album or two, then spend the next few weeks digesting it lovingly. I’d read all the liner notes; I’d listen to it until I’d memorized every lyric and every last bridge. Then MP3s happened. Now I don’t see any liner notes; I don’t see cover art. For a time I used Napster, which allowed me to get unlimited access to free music. Each individual track, then, was valueless — literally costless. Nowadays I use Amazon MP3s, where most tracks cost $0.99. I also use Rdio, which allows me to stream most any song for free. I’ve used Songza and Pandora for similar purposes. In fact the default now seems to be that music is free (ad-supported). I don’t know, but I assume none of these services pays artists particularly well.
So music, in any case, has long since moved from a model where each work was an individual perfect snowflake to a model wherein it’s all basically wallpaper: you can get all the music you want at any time of day or night, and each individual track is a fungible commodity.
As for print media: you could argue that Amazon turned any individual bit of writing into a commodity, but that’s obvious nonsense. The presence of blogs had much more to do with that than did Amazon. The fact that I can get my hands on any newspaper from anywhere in the world had much more to do with that than did Amazon. My Instapaper queue is enormous, meaning that I have mountains of fungible text awaiting me. Amazon did not invent the commoditization of everything electronic; the Internet did.
Listen, I’m not 100% happy about this. I wish this blog post you’re reading were the most brilliant thing you’ll read all week. I wish you carried it rolled up under your arm; that you highlighted interesting passages with a pen; that you photocopied it at work and shared it with all your officemates. But that’s not how the world works anymore. Someone writes an article in a newspaper or magazine, and within hours thousands of blogs have digested that article for you. Now you can choose among thousands of blogs, each of which approaches that newspaper article from thousands of perspectives. I’m sure I could find a libertarian gun nut’s take on George Packer’s piece if I looked long enough in benighted corners of the Internet. But the point is that it’s all a commodity now. George Packer’s apparent dream, wherein each book is treated as a perfect, crystalline work of art, is many years out of date.
I think it’s even out of date for beautiful books published by reputable publishers. Years ago I read Yochai Benkler‘s The Wealth of Networks, which is really a lovely book published by one of the best university presses. A university press! Shouldn’t they be the last bastions of hope for authors who aren’t chasing a profit? University presses are associated with non-profit institutions whose goal is to contribute to the sum of human knowledge. Yet even Benkler’s book, which is sort of a landmark in the field, was horribly edited. When I asked around about this, the word I got back is that authors are now expected to do their own copyediting, and are expected to submit “camera-ready” manuscripts. So much for publisher support.
At the risk of waving my hands too broadly at “society”, I am willing to blame capitalism just as much as I’m willing to blame Amazon or the Internet. Eventually everything becomes a commodity. Eventually everything gets driven down to marginal cost. If Amazon didn’t do it, someone else would.
I don’t mean to absolve Amazon. In fact I mean to praise them, which Packer is somehow unwilling to do. Everyone loves Amazon, right? They’re good for customers. Here’s Packer:
Those were sweet words for a company that declares itself to be “Earth’s most customer-centric company.” Even its bitterest critics reluctantly admit to using Amazon, unable to resist its unparalleled selection, price, and convenience. When Bezos talks about serving the customer, it’s as if he were articulating his purpose in life. “The customer is almost theological,” James Marcus said. “Any sacrifice is suitable for the customer.
That’s basically the extent of Packer’s praise for Amazon, which is incredibly odd. This is a company whose success is changing one industry after another, and Packer’s piece somehow attributes all of that success to malign influence — such as the infamous engineering attitude. How about this: it’s succeeding because it does right by its customers? Packer is just unwilling to admit that, because it would undermine the entire rest of the article — an article whose premise is that Amazon’s band of barbarians is toppling a once-civilized industry. This premise gets no support from Packer’s article. And somehow Packer never really addresses a question that ought to be fundamental: how could something be good for readers and not good for books, or good for authors, or good for publishers? I’m open to the possibility that there’s a conflict there, but really Packer ought to be asking: does Amazon make people read more, or less? Offhand, I assume that it makes them read more, because books are now cheaper. When people read more, that’s good for authors and publishers. That seems to be the fundamental calculus here, and Packer never once addresses it squarely.
I hate to say it, but Packer’s piece is garbage. I hope you read it in costless form on the Internet. When you do so, I expect that Packer will shed a single proud tear for the commoditization of his heretofore priceless work.
P.S.: The costlessness of the Internet means that my own blog post here is just a disposable commodity. Either I learn to deal with that, or I don’t. The dialectic doesn’t care especially much what I think about it.