Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Kindled. (Guess I didn’t order any Hachette books.)

Although I’ll probably break down at some point and pick up a physical book or two, this is the first vacation I’ve gone into as a 100% digital reader. (Recent trips to Tucson and Dallas were maybe 2/3’s digital.)

What’s on my Kindle?

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Yes, I know that this will be a complete an utter tearjerker. With what I’ve had going on this year, do I really want to read about a couple of kids with cancer? Oh, why not. I like a good cry as much as the next guy.

I’m a World War II junkie, so I’ve got Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See on there. I’ve never read any Doerr, but a couple of my writer-reader friends recommended him. So here goes.

While I’m feeding my WWII jones, I thought I’d read Rachel Seiffert’s The Dark Room, which was shortlisted for the Booker a while back.

Having read a long article about Edward St. Aubyn in a recent New Yorker, I downloaded all four – or is it five? – of the Patrick Melrose novels.

And just in case I run out of reading material/immaterial, I grabbed a freebie: Bleak House, which I wasn’t able to get into 50 years ago when I started it, but which my sisters highly recommend. The price was right. And it ought to hold me. If I recall, the Modern Library Edition I once owned had 1,028 pages. Only about ten of which I read.

I downloaded these books, which took all of about a nanosecond, shortly after I heard a discussion on public radio about the brouhaha brewing between Amazon and Hachette, one of the world’s largest publishers. (Among other houses, it owns Little, Brown.)

I was only half-following the radio story, but one thing that stuck in my mind was that, as part of the pissing match, Amazon was steering readers away from Hachette books, suggesting alternative titles or that the reader get the book elsewhere.

No warnings went off while I was merrily downloading, so I guess I didn’t get anything from Hachette/Little Brown.

I thought maybe a couple of recent NY Times articles would shed a bit of reading light on what was going on. Which it kinda/sorta did.

Hachette is (as of this writing) negotiating terms with Amazon, and as Hachette goes, so will go the rest of the publishing industry.

At stake is the role of the publishing industry, and, attendantly, how writers who make money will make money. Amazon, for its part, would like to disintermediate, get rid of publishers as the middle man, and pass some of the cost savings on to the customers. Oh, and while they’re at it, they’ll squeeze a bit out of the writers, too. All on behalf of the consumer.

While I do make my living writing, I don’t make my living with creative writing of the type that publishes publish and readers read. But I’m all in favor of creative types making money. And I know plenty of folks, many of them young, who are trying to make an artful living. A generation ago, some of them could reasonably have been expected to get decent advances, have a decent if not extremely lucrative career between writing and teaching, etc. But they’re now being pummeled to death, metaphorically speaking.

On the other hand, I know plenty of writers who don’t need to support themselves writing who are happily e-publishing and experiencing modest success.

“Amazon indicates that it considers books to be like any other consumer good,” Hachette said in a statement. “They are not.”

There are many considerations here besides money, the publisher said, noting that authors are engaging “in a complex and difficult mission to communicate with readers.” It added, “In addition to royalties, they are concerned with audience, career, culture, education, art, entertainment and connection.” (Source: NY Times.)

I suspect that the Hachette and the publishing companies are fighting a hold-back-the-tide battle here.

Personally, I hope that good quality books will continue to be published. It may be harder for good quality writers to build an audience and sustain a career, but, let’s face it, the vaunted publishing world has promoted plenty of lousy, schlocky writers over the years.

Oh, I’m sure that they defend the Danielle Steele’s by claiming that their best-sellers enable them to subsidize greater works of lesser monetary value. Which is probably a crock…

And their claims about some of their value add. I have noticed a disturbing trend over the years of an increasing level of errors that, in the past, would probably have been caught by a copy edit. (Yesterday, while reading Andre Aciman’s Harvard Square, I came across “Money” for “Monet.”)

Anyway, it’s all about the Benjamins: the publishers want a bigger cut. Which, not surprisingly, is what Amazon wants, too.

So far, most of the money-making writers are backing the publishers, but I suspect that in the end, they’ll defect.

The danger in all this is, of course, that Amazon becomes the only publisher in town and, thus, a gatekeeper. But, unless the anti-trust forces step in, I see the Amazon model prevailing.  The cost of publishing an ebook is miniscule, and the cost of doing a physical printed copy on demand isn’t that high either, so why not publish everything from Aunt Bee’s Mayberry memoirs and grits recipes, to Tom Clancy (or whoever’s going to replace him) cardboard thrillers, to some cretin’s sub-literate “novel”, to Donna Tartt?

If two billion people can find their way to YouTube to watch Gangnam Style, then two thousand can find their way to a literary novel.

Amazon’s probably not doing itself any favors by refusing to ship Hachette books. (Nor by their recent decision to cut author royalties on self-published audio books.)

Still, my long term money (monet?) is on Amazon.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep buying physical books at Trident Bookstore (pretty much the only indie bookstore in Boston), and checking physical books out of the Boston Public Library. (I’m currently on the fourth of five books I took out last week.)

But lugging books on vacation is a drag. Plus there’s always the fear that I’ll run out of reading matter. (Not much of a fear when going to Ireland. But still…) So I’ll probably be doing an increasing amount of book-buying on Kindle. And, sorry to my writer friends, I won’t really be thinking all that much about how the writers are getting paid.

Still, part of me is sentimental about the good old days of publishing.

Other than downloading books onto Kindle, which is incredibly quick and easy, why does everything have to be so darned hard?

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