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Six Degrees Left: Is Amazon the Death of Literary Culture?

Amazon’s influence and impact on books and publishing in the U.S. is uncontested. What is debatable is whether the changes Amazon has forced are for the better—by offering infinite selection, reliability, price, speedy delivery, and accessibility—or if they’re a detriment to book culture through the loss of our community spaces, curated selections, thoughtful and non-formulaic recommendations, and the loss of a local culture.

Since its inception in 1995, Amazon—which began as a book retailer—has expanded to sell anything and everything. Amazon is now the world’s largest online retailer and, recently, has expanded its reach in the book publishing world by debuting the Kindle Fire, establishing Amazon publishing, and promoting shorter novellas and essays via Amazon Singles. Rumors circulate about the possibility of Amazon opening a retail outlet. The “Amazon issue” enters into nearly every discussion on books, literature, publishing, and the future of all three. When devising the panel, we asked a straight-forward question: Is Amazon the death of literary culture? As you’ll see from the responses, the answer is anything but simple.

Thanks to author and small press librarian Karen Lillis, author Laura Ellen Scott, and poet and bookseller Angela Williams for joining our Six Degrees Left panel discussion.

 

Let’s jump right into the depths: Is Amazon killing or supporting contemporary literary culture?

Laura Ellen Scott: I have been staring at [this] question for quite some time. [It] seems loaded, pitched towards sentimentalizing a struggling business model. The first mistake is equating “book culture” with “literary culture.” The second mistake is implying that e-books aren’t real books or bookish enough to be part of book culture. Regardless, literary culture is so much more important than book culture. It’s vital, progressive, and dependent on experiment. And a huge part of the experiment is delivery. It’s too bad that Amazon appears to be the only game in town and that its aggressive practices drift into the realm of bullying, but it’s shameful to hide behind corporate critique when what you really want to attack is the e-lit revolution.

Angela Williams: Amazon has actually forced the bookstore industry to be better and for book culture to be far more inclusive. Our free-market economy thrives on the model of more access. Yes, this means more access to books and writing that many intellectuals wouldn’t consider up to par, but it means we have to rethink how we sell books and what it means to be booksellers. Amazon has no moral code it operates on, which infuriates many of us, who do consider ourselves operating with some type of moral code in regard to bookselling and literary culture. But all romanticism aside, this is a business, and Jeff Bezos is kicking our butts in regard to innovation. But he shouldn’t be.

Karen Lillis: Amazon is far more negative for literary culture than supportive. In the book Rebel Bookseller, Andrew Laties details the ways that Amazon has systematically damaged the existing industries of retail bookselling, publishing, and used book storefronts. He demonstrates how Amazon pressures publishers into heavily advertising only a few titles, and cites Jeff Bezos saying that Amazon makes 75% of its sales on less than 1% of its titles. So Amazon may make for better-selling bestsellers, but it has not made for a rise in the sale of American books overall, nor does it promote a wider selection of titles.

Angela Williams: In many ways the publishing and bookstore industries have been stagnant and immersed in little change for too long. Amazon is forcing us all to actually keep up with the times, to figure out how to give our customers more access and in a more timely manner.

The time of the big-box book retailer is over. Borders is gone and Barnes & Noble is quickly turning its eye past brick-and-mortar stores to a full online presence. This is the perfect time for the independent bookstore. It’s our moment. But we need to be good business people, as well as good booksellers, and keep our book culture not only alive, but thriving. That means we need to be business innovators. None of us can offer the discounts Amazon can but we can offer both a physical and online literary community for our customers and have much more legitimacy behind us as we do so. We can give them that access and make them feel far more special in being a part of it.

Karen Lillis: In So Many Books, Gabriel Zaid makes a great case that a more literate culture is one that makes the world hospitable to a more diverse range of titles, even and especially if some of those titles will only appeal to a relatively small number of people. From the reader point of view, even when Amazon seems to have an infinite selection, the reader is not always going to find the books they don’t know exist. As fewer readers and book buyers are cultivated by thoughtful booksellers, fewer book-lovers are able to turn into bookstore clerks, and fewer sales outlets exist for the many quality presses that don’t have big budgets.

Are bookstores our contemporary versions of literary salons of the nineteenth century?

Laura Ellen Scott: No—book clubs are. Perhaps it’s hard to see that because book clubs aren’t always comprised of writers or self-identified intellectuals.

Karen Lillis: I think there is definitely an overlap between the two realms—literary salons and indie bookstores. Many independent bookstores are even places that authors and writers frequent (whether as customers, booksellers, or for readings), so there can be a mingling of readers and writers of the same material. I’ve had some of the most interesting conversations in my life in bookstores.

Angela Williams: I agree with Karen. Many indie bookstores want to foster a literary salon-like forum for their customers. At Politics & Prose, we pride ourselves on being a forum for ideas, politics, history and literature. We support that with a very active events program. We’re lucky to draw in the big names, but smaller events with lesser-known authors are often jam-packed. We also offer classes on a variety of literary subjects and several in-store book groups. The community members surrounding the store are some of the most well-read people I’ve ever known. They meet their families here and run into friends and colleagues all the time. Most of the customers are in here at least once or twice a week.

How is the relevancy of independent bookstores challenged by geography, such as suburban or rural locales that don’t have access to any bookstores, let alone an independently owned one? For example, in the town where I grew up, the nearest bookstore—a Barnes & Noble—is a 45-mile drive to the next county.

Karen Lillis:  For those who don’t live near a small bookstore or near a bookstore at all, the Internet will obviously be a place to turn to for buying books (online bookstores) or for talking about books (Facebook, Goodreads, etc). But what else replaces bookstores for the kind of conversations that go on between strangers who read intently and want to talk about books in person? Classrooms, cafes, libraries. But precious few other places.

In a bookstore you can discuss socialism, sex, poetry, feminism, recovery from addiction, the mind-body, aging, grieving, death, or a protest, often with perfect strangers, and no one will look sideways at you. Most of us seem to find people with whom to talk freely online, but freedom of speech can’t only be an online thing, there has to be a place for it in the real world. For me, indie bookstores have been places where I can go to count on having honest, open, and engaged conversations.

Laura Ellen Scott: My mother has always been a voracious reader, but she now faces several challenges: 1) She can’t get around that easily;  2) she has a fixed income; 3) she has no space in her condo for books; 4) her mold and dust allergies are getting worse; and  5) her community has very conservative tastes. This means that even her local library doesn’t feature much variety in new acquisitions, and if she wanted the salon experience, she’d have to become a tea partier. That isn’t going to happen. But now she has her Kindle and she doesn’t go anywhere without it. Or to put it another way, there is no “book culture” option for her.

Angela Williams: Lacey’s point is important because there are communities without independent bookstores and they must rely on other means to access literary culture. It’s a big hole to fill. Thankfully, we do have a general online literary community and colleges or universities that hold local literary events. Sometimes it only takes one or two people with a lot of energy who are dedicated to creating a local literary community to make it happen. If that’s your case, then I recommend you be that local literary organizer.

Book Store, Old Salem, North Carolina

photo credit: MyEyeSees via Flickr

In response to Farhad Manjoo’s article on Slate, Dustin Kurtz, a bookseller at McNally Jackson in NYC, wrote that “Access alone is not a culture.” How important is a unique, localized literary culture to maintaining a broader literary culture?

Angela Williams: Access and culture are equally important. They go hand in hand and one without the other can be disastrous. We all (booksellers and publishers and writers alike) need a reality check now and then. People don’t want to be judged when buying something and the literary community is hugely judgmental. And the silliest thing is it’s all subjective!

Karen Lillis: On one side, literary culture starts with the publication of literature and ideas: and the publishing houses tend to be concentrated in certain cities. But another aspect of literary culture is cultivating a public who will read and engage with the books and the ideas. On the most basic level, any town that has a bookstore also has readers who wander into that bookstore and talk about books to the cashier, the owner, or other book browsers. To me, this is the first kernel of (the reader side of) literary culture—the desire to read, and then the desire to seek a conversation beyond the book covers. A physical bookstore is a place where readers feel safe bringing their private relationship with a book into the public realm of other readers.

Angela Williams: Look, the best part of changing the indie bookstore model is giving better access because we love books and want people to read books. But once we shut the door on potential customers because they don’t read what we consider “literature,” we’re defeating ourselves. So let’s gently guide people toward books we consider great but also give them access to the books we may think are terrible but provide genuine entertainment. Maybe you love artistic film but sometimes you just want to watch an action movie. Hello, Netflix.

Karen Lillis: Manjoo doesn’t seem to have the faintest idea of what a book culture is—he’s very excited about buying books without leaving his couch. You have to leave your couch to make it a culture—as Dustin says [in his response to Manjoo], culture is something shared, not purchased.

Laura Ellen Scott: I put myself through college as an attendant to disabled students, many of whom were paraplegics. They couldn’t “leave the couch.” I promise you access is more important than culture.

Outside of cities with established literary and publishing scenes (basically, outside of San Francisco and New York City), how does one establish a broader literary culture?

Karen Lillis: San Fran and New York are certainly prestigious and concentrated book towns, but so many cities have active lit scenes or tight-knit poetry communities. Chicago is a great city for fiction. Pittsburgh (my current city) has a very vibrant indie lit scene, especially for a city of its size—numerous small presses and literary journals, smart bookstores, twenty active reading series, at least three writers’ residencies, including one for zine writers. If I want to, I can stay busy most days of a week attending readings, hearing my favorite local writers’ latest work, and meeting touring writers. How does it happen? In Pittsburgh, there’s an intersection of cheap rent attracting creative people, an abundance of art grants and performance venues, and colleges with writing programs. Attract a concentration of writers and you’ll get a literary culture.

One could argue that Amazon’s Kindle Singles program has contributed to a publishing resurgence of and reader interest in long form essays, novellas, and short fiction. Publishing shorter-than-book-length works is frequently cost prohibitive for publishers of physical books but Amazon is making them available electronically to Kindle users. Doesn’t this support literary culture?

Karen Lillis: There are two things we’re looking at when we’re talking about Kindle Singles. One is a format (which is neutral), and two is a method of mass distribution to readers (where Amazon/Kindle certainly has great advantage). I guess a third is the combination of the two.

One aspect of format—the existence of these essays, novellas, and short stories—has been supported by the small press and the literary press for a long time. Literary publishers and literary journals have been publishing them; readers of these presses have been reading them. If Amazon hadn’t invented Kindle Singles, a small press would have, and literary presses certainly have the equivalent out there: Spuyten Duyvil Press, as one example, has started a new novella series since the advent of e-books.

The questions for me come with the intersection of the two—do, say, novellas now have a larger readership due to Kindle Singles, or just a potentially wider audience? And if Kindle Singles has raised the number of readers for this form, does it mean that those readers are seeking out great writers in the small presses, or just that more refined authors are “trickling up” to the mass market? Or is Kindle Singles more like a new magazine inside whose pages most readers are comfortable staying, a cross between TIME and The New Yorker delivered to your door? Does Kindle Singles breed curiosity with what is outside its borders? Curiosity is an essential part of literary culture.

Laura Ellen Scott: I agree with Karen here—the re-invigoration of novella and long story forms comes from innovative small press operations like Publishing Genius and Keyhole Press. And the products from these presses are irresistible objects that cannot be completely transformed into e-books. I regularly bring PG [Publishing Genius] and Pank Little Books into the classroom to demonstrate the possibility of the print book as a thing to “take with” rather than “go to.” Again, liberation is a priority, but not the only one. The emerging popularity of the briefer long read is exciting. I wonder if it has to do with the economy of private time.

In the same article, Manjoo says independent bookstores are the “least efficient, least user-friendly, and most mistakenly mythologized local establishments you can find” and “cultish, moldering institutions.”

I’m a former independent bookseller and Manjoo’s descriptions seemed like the whining of a myopic miscreant who hasn’t stepped into an independent bookstore ever. I agree there exists a mythology around independent bookstores but I disagree that they are moldering and not user-friendly. What are your thoughts?

Karen Lillis: As small businesses without a corporate blueprint, indie bookstores can run the gamut. They’re a lot like the humans who stock them.

Laura Ellen Scott: On behalf of whining, myopic, miscreants everywhere, I’m offended. We’re a big part of your market share, so watch it. But having just visited many independent bookstores across the country, I’m really pleased to see how they have transformed themselves into bright, clean, friendly places. They certainly weren’t like that when I was coming of age as a reader and writer.  Name-call all you want, Manjoo’s characterization was definitely true up [until] the Borders revolution. I teach in a large university English department, so my colleagues are folks who know a thing or two about bookstores, but when I invited them out to a reading at a new, local indie shop, I had to assure them that it was “clean.”

Angela Williams: I’ve never worked in a dirty store. I’m sure they exist but Manjoo’s statement is so extreme in its negative assessment, I wouldn’t even lend it much credence. Maybe he had a bad experience at a bookstore long ago and has let that color his perception. I suggest people be as open minded as possible if that’s the case and try going to all the other wonderful indies out there! I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt but he really sounds like a customer who’s impossible to please. It happens.

Karen Lillis: Some bookstore owners are known for being grumpy and don’t want to be bothered, and some are like the Avon lady, hosting you in their space. Grumpy bookmen are a longtime (earned) stereotype of the business (and I wonder if Manjoo’s idea of user-un-friendly comes from this). Other bookstore owners have been more like librarians, proud of the skill of tracking down and procuring customer requests, whether it’s a title on the back shelf in an unlikely section, or an out-of-print book on historiography that takes years to find on the rare books market.

As far as “cultish and moldering,” these seem to me like pointed insults born of the demonization of intellectuals and an acclimation to the sanitized spaces of chain bookstores. I object to the sanitizing and homogenizing of bookshops as much as Manjoo must object to the dust and smell of used bookstores. And a digital bookstore seems like the ultimate sanitized bookstore.

Continued on page 2

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About Lacey N. Dunham

Lacey N. Dunham is a publicist with Atticus Books. She recently moved from Washington, D.C. to Minneapolis, Minn. You can find her on Twitter @bookbent.

3 Awesome Comments So Far

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  1. Joseph Wade
    February 16, 2012 at 9:16 am #

    Hello,

    I think academia has had control of the literary field for too long so I am happy Amazon is here. Look what the web did for Indy musicians. I mean poetry is near dead, a thing that was thriving 50 years ago. Goodbye critics, hello popular opinion. As for the scene, well, there’s writing groups and lit walks. The scene’s fine. But now, everyone can hang out, not just the people in tweed jackets speaking about Kafka or Egan.

  2. Debra Di Blasi
    February 16, 2012 at 3:52 pm #

    I understand Karen’s concerns, but independent literature has been given many more possibilities because of Amazon. Last year Jaded Ibis press published 10 titles of progressive (experimental, avant-garde, innovative, hybrid) fiction, and in 2012 will release 12-15. We use Createspace for printing (gorgeous full-color editions of each title, in addition to B/W and ebooks) that offers four distribution channels. Cost through traditional printing/distribution/warehousing would have run $300,000 for the first year alone. Record-keeping is simple and online, and EVERY ONE of our titles are on the Amazon shelves, unlike at any brick & mortar store — no matter how many times I ask.

    The reality is that Barnes & Noble destroyed most of the small bookstores that carried independent presses — or, those stores destroyed themselves by trying to compete with B&N through displaying mainstream pap over and above literary art. (That’s what happened to my favorite indie when I lived in Kansas City years ago, the city where the B&N test-marketed their first brick & mortar store.)

    Things have changed. They are changing. And, believe me, they will change far more than we can now imagine. I’m lecturing at AWP; Louisville Conference; the Sorbonne, Paris; and Int’l Book Conference, Barcelona; PCNWA Conference; on how the newest technologies (that make ebooks look like 8-track cassettes) will change reading and writing as we know it.

    Writers and independent publishers need to adjust, and find the best way to keep the ART in Literature as the brave world becomes braver.

  3. Suzan Tisdale
    April 6, 2012 at 6:17 am #

    I agree with Debra Di Blasi. Times are changing. It happens. Change is a good thing. Can you imagine how different our lives would be if Henry Ford had decided not to make automobiles for fear of what it would do to wagon makers? Its the same thing — progress moves us forward.

    Some say modern technology and modern communication are the downfall of civilization as we know it but I would disagree. These things have improved our lives. WIth the touch of a few buttons we can be connected to worlds, ideas, and information that would have taken days, weeks or even months to obtain just a decade or two ago.

    I still love ‘real’ books. But with my Kindle, I’ve been exposed to books I probably would not have found in my local library or in the book stores. We can have both. Instead of worrying over what Amazon is going to do next, traditional publishers need to be more forward thinking and creative.