Word for Word: Inside the whale that is Amazon

Midlist authors struggle while the wizardry of epublishing leads us who knows where

 

When he was assessing innovation in communications, the late critic Neil Postman liked to ask: “To what problem is this technology the solution?” In Technopoly (1992) he lamented that technocrats forget the very problem they were trying to solve and “go on producing information indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular and disconnected from theory, meaning, or purpose”.

One wonders what Postman would have made of the digital self-publishing movement that purports to solve the problem of getting past legacy publishing’s reviled “gatekeepers” but that, on a less charitable interpretation, produces more verbiage indiscriminately directed at no one in particular. The new world’s “long tail” has become so long that nobody can remember where the head went.

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is worshipped by technophiles not for the myriad blessings he lavishes on literary culture but for the dynamism of his delivery and data-collection systems. We’re all suckers for Amazon’s version of fast food for the mind, but we need to look at the bigger picture – and some of the legacy literati are beginning to strike back.

The uber-agent Andrew Wylie recently declared that “nothing Amazon publishes is worth reading. My advice is: if you have a choice between the plague and Amazon, pick the plague!”

Then there was Robert McCrum, the former head of Faber & Faber, poor-mouthing about the plight of that endangered species, the midlist author, one of whom was being forced to give up his rented office and build a workspace in his attic. Cue Pythonesque indignation on Twitter: “An attic? We should be so lucky, posh git.”

McCrum lamented the sun’s setting on “the age of Penguin books, vinyl records and the BBC” and the wiping out of a cultural ecology. This isn’t going to cut much ice with the Amazon fetishists, but while epublishing makes a living for a tiny minority, it’s unclear where all this wizardry is taking us. Midlist authors struggle while the swelling legions of indie writers pine in vain for discovery.

Nothing dirt cheap or free has long-term value, and sacrificing copyright has made things even worse. The big issue is not slick supply-side efficiency but the wisdom of delivering the welfare of literary culture into the hands of a commercial leviathan like Amazon.

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