Hey! I Found Someone Defending Amazon

I’m-a do the whole Andrew Sullivan Daily Dish thing and just trot out some articles about publishing and bookselling and the like. Slate’s Farhad Manjoo, who is known mostly for his irreverent takes on restaurant Web sites and the abhorrence of two spaces after a period, wrote a long piece defending Amazon for its convenience,  both for readers and writers. I guess that’s a decent stance to take–more people are reading and writing now as a result of Amazon. The Kindle has made people more voracious in their reading; sales are up; the industry might not totally be dead. But Manjoo is quite aggressive in his attacks on local bookstores. ZB:

Compared with online retailers, bookstores present a frustrating consumer experience. A physical store—whether it’s your favorite indie or the humongous Barnes & Noble at the mall—offers a relatively paltry selection, no customer reviews, no reliable way to find what you’re looking for, and a dubious recommendations engine. Amazon suggests books based on others you’ve read; your local store recommends what the employees like. If you don’t choose your movies based on what the guy at the box office recommends, why would you choose your books that way?

I’m quite amused that a technology writer would be so flummoxed by the consumer experience at bookstores. I didn’t even know people still went blindly charging into bookstores, unsure what to buy, relying upon “customer reviews” and “recommendations” to guide them. I usually look around online for what I want and head over to my local bookstore and see if it’s there. It’s hard to imagine someone as technologically literate as Manjoo failing to do some research at home–or on his Android or iPhone at the store–utilizing Amazon’s “recommendations engine” or reading reviews on Goodreads.

And his closing salvo is impotent and hollow:

So, sure, Amazon doesn’t host readings and it doesn’t give you a poofy couch to sit on while you peruse the latest best-sellers. But what it does do—allow people to buy books anytime they want—is hardly killing literary culture. In fact, it’s probably the only thing saving it.

If anyone is saving literary culture, it’s young, talented writers like Teju Cole and Chad Harbach and Téa Obreht–important writers whose works are hard to ignore and impossible to forget. Amazon, who for all its supposedly great contributions to our culture, fosters the idea that the traditional publishing process (you know, copy and developmental editing, marketing done by professionals, etc.) should go the way of the dinosaur. As someone who quite likes the industry, and wants it to adapt to the winding road ahead (while still retaining these absolutely indispensable processes), I don’t really care for Amazon.

Anyway, he makes some good, thoughtful points amidst all the weird pettiness. (Seriously: did someone do him irreparable harm at a bookstore in Brooklyn?) I suggest you read the whole thing.

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3 thoughts on “Hey! I Found Someone Defending Amazon

  1. I read this article this morning too. I must say that I am usually pretty down with Manjoo’s pissy diatribes, and this piece was no exception.

    I harbor little or no sentimentality about independent bookstores that sell new books, but I very much love used book stores. These offer a user experience that websites and conventional retail spots can’t – they are weird, slightly inaccessible, and surprising. I am sure that used book stores aren’t wildly profitable, but their advantages are still less easily eclipsed by Amazon. I also think that the ‘indie bookstores promote literary culture’ argument is overdone – sure, some indie bookstores have readings, but so do libraries, museums, galleries, colleges and cafes. I don’t think that authors will stop meeting and reading to readers in the absence of independent booksellers. I also don’t see much evidence that these bookstores actually do serve as “literary community gathering places” when I am actually in them.

    As far as the editing industry goes, I am sure I know less about that than you and Marnie do. But insofar as editing can be perceived as an industry in the business of consumer mediation, it could go either way. Travel agents were consumer mediators, but the internet convinced people that travel agents were no longer necessary in an era of more widely accessible information. Realtors, though, are holding fast (well, their jobs still exist, anyway.) Their services were deemed more valuable by consumers, who regard the purchase of a home to be a higher-stakes investment and do not trust their own expertise. So, I think that the future of the editing industry will come down to whether or not consumers demand a more expensive but honed and structured reading life, or a democratic one that inherently demands that we dig through one hell of a slush pile. (Talent agencies and film production studios will be making the same choices within a few years.) For what it’s worth from someone who really has no business credentials, the book people seem to be doing a better job than the movie people in adapting to new realities.

  2. dbcreads says:

    I have a hard time applying some broad sentimentality to independent bookstores nationwide. I love some indie places: Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis, Powell’s (on Lincoln) in Chicago, Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge. But I’ve had some horrendous experiences involving self-righteous, pissy booksellers (Brattle Book Shop in Boston) or meager and poorly organized sections (Malaprop in Asheville), so I know where Manjoo is coming from. At the same time, the piece seems to follow the same didactic route that a lot of their pieces take, which is a bit of a turn-off.

    And I would imagine the percentage of people who talk up literary culture AND actually attend, say, a dozen readings in a year is quite slim.

    As far as editing goes, the other day Marnie basically referred to the whole agent-editor-published process as quality control. That’s stuck with me, and I think it’s a really good way of summarizing the non-sentimental utility of the Big Six or other major-minor presses.

    It’s difficult to tell if the eBook revolution will be so profitable that houses go away from investing in hardbound copies, or if it just represents the cultivation of a new market: men and women who would otherwise not read are buying Kindles — not necessarily for buying more books, but for a compact way of reading The Times or Twain on public transportation — which inflates the numbers and makes stupid “eBooks are trending!” articles all the more insufferable.

  3. DBC|READS says:

    […] working hand-in-hand to help us make a difference when we might otherwise not know how (besides ditching Amazon for independent retailers). And the timing really couldn’t be better: this December, as with all […]

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