What happens when more writers have the option of a one-stop shop: agent, publisher and bookseller.
Are publishers still needed? Or, as Amazon’s self-published authors would put it, arelegacy publishers still needed? Well, they must be, or why would Amazon go to such lengths to build a publishing program — down to the detail of buying expensive retirees who used to run big houses to lend it an air of legitimacy.
But that means writers and readers are dealing with a company that’s imitating the thing it says they don’t need anymore. A thing that it actively denigrates, like calling publisherslegacy or traditional publishers — i.e., casting everything as old versus new, and, of course, old is bad. But it’s not about old versus new, or for that matter, print versus digital. It’s man versus machine, and diversity versus monopoly.
Can Amazon sell a lot of books? You bet. They really do know how to develop algorithms that can move just about anything. Good books, bad books. Beautifully edited, completely unedited, edited by chimpanzees – it doesn’t matter. The numbers, they brag, speak for themselves.
And they do, which tells us something else: it’s all widgets to them. Amazon will soon be a pretty solid publishing company; even small presses like Melville House are already losing out to them on esoteric projects, such as obscure translation projects. But Amazon’s publishing house will be in service to a different idol, because publishing isn’t, right now, and hasn’t been, for 500 years, about developing algorithms. It’s been about art-making and culture-making and speaking truth to power.
Nor do I know many writers who want to publish to an algorithm. They want their work to be part of the greater ecosystem of literary culture.
So you have to ask yourself why Amazon wants a publishing company. It already dominates the book-retail marketplace, and now it’s going after production. If it conducts its publishing business in the ruthless way it has conducted its retail business — discounting other retailers out of business, fighting to avoid collecting state sales taxes — one can assume its goal is to likewise put publishers out of business.
Which it may or may not do. But dominating the industry is bad for all kinds of things we hold dear — free speech, great art and a rich and diverse culture. All of which is to say that yes, there is a need for publishers. Many of them, in fact.
As published in The New York Times