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Quite the World, Isn't It?

E-books, Amazon, and the looming cultural decline

Scott Turow, who when he's not writing best-selling books is a lawyer and president of the Author's Guild, posted a letter a little bit ago on the organization's websites that bears reading by anyone who loves books.

Turow lays out the background of the fight over e-books and their prices, and what it could mean if the Department of Justice steps in, as is becoming likely, and tries to stop efforts by five publishers and Apple to create some competition for Amazon (and Nook). It's complicated, so I urge you to read Turow's letter. But the key passage to me is:
"Our concern about bookstores isn't rooted in sentiment: bookstores are critical to modern bookselling. Marketing studies consistently show that readers are far more adventurous in their choice of books when in a bookstore than when shopping online. In bookstores, readers are open to trying new genres and new authors: it’s by far the best way for new works to be discovered. ... For those of us who have been fortunate enough to become familiar to large numbers of readers, the disappearance of bookstores is deeply troubling, but it will have little effect on our sales or incomes. Like rock bands from the pre-Napster era, established authors can still draw a crowd, if not to a stadium, at least to a virtual shopping cart. For new authors, however, a difficult profession is poised to become much more difficult."
That includes me. Detroit: A Biography is my third book, but no one could make the case that I'm a well-known author (as the joke goes, I'm not even famous in y house). In early April, Detroit: A Biography will be featured for two weeks on Barnes & Nobles' "New In Nonfiction" shelves in nearly 700 stores across the country.

In an Amazon-run book world, I would never get that exposure. And thousands of readers wouldn't have the opportunity for a moment of serendipity, to chance across that wonderful cover created by the Chicago Review Press graphics folks, and discover both a new work, and a new author.

Akin to the decline in our journalism, we are increasingly becoming an electorate informed by the echoes of what we already know. To have our reading public fall into that same pit of ignorance does not bode well for us as a culture, or a responsive democracy. This is an important issue. I urge you to follow it developments, and to act when it becomes appropriate. Read More 
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On Amazon, and our base desires

Last week Amazon infuriated a wide range of people by offering a five percent credit to customers who would use its price-checking phone app in retail stores, but then buy the item at hand online. It didn't apply to books, but it did target the non-book items bookstores rely on to make their margins.

It was an appalling move by Amazon, and I'm happy to see author Richard Russo calling the online giant on it in a New York Times op-ed. The best part of the piece, though, was from author Ann Patchett, who recently opened a bookstore in Nashville:
"I do think it’s worthwhile explaining to customers that the lowest price point does not always represent the best deal. If you like going to a bookstore then it’s up to you to support it. If you like seeing the people in your community employed, if you think your city needs a tax base, if you want to buy books from a person who reads, don’t use Amazon.”

This is the heart of the issue. The app might be cool technology, but the impulse it serves is one of the things that has been tearing apart our communities, and our country. It is this near-religious embrace of the bargain, the pursuit for the lowest price regardless of the consequences. Believe me, as an underemployed journalist and author, I understand the challenges of family budgets.

But Walmart had already shown us the pernicious impact on entire towns when the residents migrate to cheap over locally sustainable. Amazon is embracing the same outlook: Cater to greed, and damn the social costs. Save a few bucks on buying that cheap import, and ignore the American jobs that disappear as a result.

We need to start looking outside ourselves and individual greed and start examining our personal choices within the framework of our communities. That old revolutionary line by Benjamin Franklin comes to mind: "We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately." In this case, we hold the economic health of our own communities - and, by extension, of our own families - in our hands. Let's do something constructive with it. Read More 
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So, you think you want to write a novel ...

My friend Frances Dinkelspiel -- another journalist-turned-historian -- has a nice Q&A on her blog today with Andy Ross, the former owner of Cody's Books in Berkeley. After he closed the shop a couple of years ago, he turned himself into a literary agent, with some pretty good results.

The most interesting part of the piece is Ross' take on the state of publishing which squares with what I've been seeing. Things aren't as bad as in newspapers, but it's still pretty tough. Especially for fiction writers. Frances asked him what is easier to sell to editors, fiction or nonfiction:
"Uhh -- well -- non-fiction is easier by a mile. Look, I don't want to rain on the parade, but look at the numbers. Publishers will only look at fiction that has been submitted by an agent. These submissions have been heavily vetted. I would imagine that out of 100 queries received by agents for novels, they might select 1 for submission (probably less). I have spoken with a number of fiction editors. They inform me that of the submissions they receive, they may decide to publish (again) 1 in 100. Just looking at the numbers, selling a novel is like winning the lottery. Of course, if you are a published author with a good track record, you are in pretty good shape. It isn't very hard to sell a new novel by Philip Roth. But if you are a published novelist whose last book bombed, it is extremely difficult. Publishers are making decisions by the numbers now. They have a data base that tells them the sales of every book on the market. Refined taste in literature plays a very small role."
So I guess the good news is the novel I've got stashed away, half finished while I work on The Fear Within, is a mystery. Not much call for refined literary taste there....  Read More 
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