Thursday, May 14, 2009

Amazon Will Soon Control Your Thoughts

Amazon has taken the mantle in my conversations once held by Wal-mart, when I lived in Texas. I'd criticize all the people, including my own parents, who made the trek to the nearest Wal-mart a part of every weekend's plans. I watched in horror as my view from behind the steering wheel of my '86 Toyota Corolla, from Houston/East Texas to Austin, became crowded with Wal-marts, the distance between each one becoming a mere dash in the mid '90's. I came to realize the moment when people went from being casual shoppers - "I have to go to Wal-mart," it was something to think consciously of including in your day - to being regulars - "And then we'll stop at Wal-marts and come on home." I don't know why regulars always added an -s to the store title, but once they did, they were a lost cause.

And as I've become immersed in publishing in the last 10 or so years, and left the Lone Star State behind, I once again see a rising behemoth. And I see people giving into Amazon in the same way they did to Wal-mart. Most amusing is today's post over at The Millions:

Our ambivalence about the Kindle has been on full display of late. Still, when Amazon recently opened up its Kindle blog subscription program to all blogs it seemed worth trying, if only to satiate our curiosity about what it entails.

With The Millions freely available for all readers, its hard to imagine why someone might be compelled to pay $1.99 to subscribe just to be able to read it on the Kindle, but now you have the option. (We only get 30%, which, as TechCrunch points out, is rather paltry.) If anyone tries subscribing, let us know. We'd be interested to hear how the experience is.

I don't blame the good folks at this blog. It's a classic case of give in or lose out. As I've said, I have no problem with e-readers, but why does Amazon specifically have to suck all the air out of the room?

Fine, they have taken over bookselling, and most other retail. And now they have taken over the manner in which you read all the books they're selling. But wait, what's this new development? Courtesy of the good folks at Mobylives:
Amazon’s vicious discounting has made it clear for quite a while to publishers strong-armed into those discounts that the online retailer has been intending to go where, yesterday, it finally announced it’s going: into publishing. And for those few in the business who thought that wouldn’t happen because Amazon has no editorial apparatus and wouldn’t be able to put out books that were, well, any good — guess what? They don’t care. There’s the world of self-published books that they can pretend is the same thing.

That cry you hear is all the editors being replaced by crowdsourcing. Yes, Amazon is going to make "editorial" choices by way of reader comments. They're calling the program AmazonEncore.

If this blog is set up to help books survive, than it seems very worthwhile to point out the danger this new publishing initiative offers. From the press release:
AmazonEncore is a new program whereby Amazon uses information such as customer reviews on Amazon websites to identify exceptional, overlooked books and authors that show potential for greater sales. Amazon then partners with the authors to re-introduce their books to readers through marketing support and distribution into multiple channels and formats, such as the Amazon Books Store, Amazon Kindle Store,, and national and independent bookstores via third-party wholesalers.

It's particularly telling that they're kicking off this program with a self-published novel penned by a 16 year old.

I am no snob. I like mysteries, I like mass markets, I read the first two Harry Potters before I lost stamina and moved on. But this is blind marketing, with no significant creative assistance offered to the author and no thought to what is being put into the world. It's publishing at its worst with the strongest muscle in the business behind it.

And if you think crowdsourcing for books is a brilliant idea, take a look at this recent article by Peter Selgin over at The Rumpus, where he checks out Amazon reviews of some of his favorite books. Of The Catcher in the Rye:
Indeed, Salinger’s book still has its fans, as indicated by the four- star average. But the bad reviews come fast and furious, with Linda “Ayeldee” warning potential readers that, though funny in parts, Catcher will make you “want to kill yourself,” and pitying those forced, like her, to read it in school since “you can’t throw it out the window and get rid of it.” Two reviews down, another involuntary reader, “Cher630” of the Bronx, calls the novel’s protagonist a “whiney, immature, angst ridden teenager who need[s] a smack in the head.” Cher goes on to brand Salinger’s hero “a phony.”

The worst part is the name, AmazonEncore. It sounds as if this monster will just keep churning out garbage, again and again and again.

In a book world already overstocked, do we really need this initiative? The book market is about to get more clogged.

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