Lord a Mercy! It’s a Big Responsibility to Be a New York Editor

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Editors and publishers can’t quite get their minds around the concept that Amazon serves customers, not publishing houses.  Publishers prefer dealing with rich Independent bookstore slavies, who truckle under to their ridiculous prices.

In a Jan. 8 article at Slate, Daniel Menaker, an author of very good fiction and memoirs and the former Editor-in-Chief at Random House, explains why he is not keen on Amazon. It is mostly about prices.  Naturally he was annoyed by Amazon’s feud with Hachette over e-book pricing.  (It was resolved in November.)

Menaker says publishers and editors have the education and experience to balance art and commerce.  He writes that “between 20 and 30 New York publishers and editors…are in fact the main curators of letters.”

And he thinks Jeff Bezos and some other entrepreneurs envy publishers and want a piece of that action.

 Well, they can’t have it. Like patrons of old and some of new, they can stand back and support it, sponsor it, admire it. They can give it parties at retreats in New Mexico. They can even sort of own it. But they can’t have it. Because they need to make a lot of money. And because they don’t have the background, wide experience, native zeal, eye for talent, editorial skill, intuition, and intermittent disregard for probable profit necessary to perform the role of literary concierge.

Lord a mercy!  It’s a Big Responsibility to be a New York Editor!  If the top 20 or 30 are part of the Ivy League cocktail crowd, aren’t they milling and  thronging with Bezos anyway, who graduated from Princeton?

Where do the writers come in?

Perhaps publishing was in better shape when Menaker was at Random House. There are some very bad books being published:  I can’t be bothered to finish, say, Michael Faber’s  mediocre novel, The Book of Strange New Things (whether the writer or editor botched it, I don’t know.). And, by the way, I keep finding Latin errors, even in A.S. Byatt’s masterpiece, The Children’s Book.

I do respect many modern writers: Jonathan Lethem, D. J. Taylor, Karen Joy Fowler, Jane Gardam, Tim Winton, Richard Flanagan, and Michelle Huneven, to name a few. But I have read brilliant writers who have published a few stories in literary magazines and then disappeared.  What happened?

Amazon sells new and used books to readers like me who do not have access to great bookstores or libraries.  I can obtain titles published  by Dalkey Archive, NYRB, Europa, and many of the less popular Penguin classics.  If you think I can get these at my local Barnes and  Noble, you are crazy.

The service at Amazon is superb.

Meanwhile, publishers have tantrums about Amazon.  They don’t like the selling of used “new” books, and they don’t like the low prices on e-books.    My personal opinion is:  why publish e-books at all? Why not throw out the e-readers and go back to the book?

Yes, that’s very prim of me, but that’s how I feel.

We used to hear that Borders and Barnes and Noble were about to seize control of the book industry:  everything from book covers to content.   Now it’s Amazon.

Please.  The end of civilization is more likely to be caused by climate change and fracking.

Getting Controversial: When Corporations Clash and Why I Shop at Amazon

I’m a liberal Democrat.  I’m Pro-Choice and I vote.  I don’t drive because burning fossil fuels has wrecked the environment.  I don’t shop at WalMart.

I do, however, shop at Amazon.

The Amazon feud with Hachette about e-book pricing, which, by the way, has gone on absurdly long, is not a matter of priority to me politically.  If Hachette chooses not to take care of its authors–Amazon did, after all, propose that Hachette writers should earn 100% of the e-book profits until the superstore and the publisher have reached a deal–how will my failure to buy other publishers’ books, classics, and used books support the publishing industry?

The Kindle does not concern me.  I have a Nook. I already pay higher prices for e-books than Kindle users do.  This is not my battle.

Pray, where would I buy books if not at Amazon?  I live in an insurance town.  The number of bookstores is minuscule.  We have Barnes and Noble and two tiny independent bookstores.  If not for Amazon, how would I find the books of Mrs. Humphry Ward, Pamela Frankau, and Margaret Wilson?  I very much prefer books to e-books.  Particularly in recent months, I have tired of reading on a screen.  Are others, too, going back to the physical book? One can hope.

Everyone in my family is liberal, and yet we all shop at Amazon.

Some groups of writers have organized against Amazon’s  decision to make Hachette books harder to buy, i.e., by not allowing pre-orders and claiming that the books will take one-to-three weeks to deliver.  According to the Wall Street Journal,  the Authors Guild, which has about 8,500 members, met with Justice Department officials in August to request an investigation of whether Amazon is violating antitrust law in its tactics with Hachette Book Groups.  Another group, Authors United, with more than 1,000 members, has written a letter to the Justice Department about the same antitrust issue.

This actually does not seem to me a huge number of writers.  The New York Times stresses the presence in Authors United of white male stars like Philip Roth and Salman Rushdie.  Can ordinary writers afford to make a big issue of this?  I very much doubt it.

So I was relieved when two highly-respected writers, Paulo Coelho and Germaine Greer, recently spoke in favor of lower e-book prices.

Publishers Weekly reported last week that Paulo Coelho told an audience at the Frankfurt Book Fair that change could not be stopped.

“It is a lost case,” Coelho said.

“Paulo, you’re saying the war is lost?” Juergen Boos [the fair director) asked.

“I’m not saying the war is lost,” Coelho replied “I’m saying we humans are still here because of our capacity of adapting ourselves. The war is not lost. It is the opposite. The war is won. Culture is now available all over the world. People can read.”

On Aug. 28 on BBC Radio 4’s “The Report,” Germaine Greer said,

“Amazon wants to sell e-books at less, so they should,” she said. “They should cost less because they don’t have to be put together, stitched, printed, designed, blah, blah, blah. If you skip all that and all you have got is a ribbon of text on a Kindle then it should cost you pennies frankly.”

Of course one of my heroes, Ursula K. Le Guin, emailed the New York Times to say that Amazon’s treatment of Hachette authors was censorship.

“We’re talking about censorship: deliberately making a book hard or impossible to get, ‘disappearing’ an author,” Ms. Le Guin wrote (The New York Tin an email. “Governments use censorship for moral and political ends, justifiable or not. Amazon is using censorship to gain total market control so they can dictate to publishers what they can publish, to authors what they can write, to readers what they can buy. This is more than unjustifiable, it is intolerable.”

One cannot sanction censorship.

I just can’t make everything my cause.  If I didn’t buy so many books, it would be easier.  I am not going to special-order everything I want from an independent bookstore and pay twice the price when I can order it myself.

Sometimes you have to do what’s good for yourself.