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Books: What's good for Amazon is good for writers, readers

Author Barry Eisler has become controversial for signing with Amazon as his book publisher. He ventures to Bainbridge Island to explain his views to a community that loves its library and its local bookstore.
Barry Eisler

Barry Eisler

Amazon's logo on a company building

Amazon's logo on a company building Flickr user simone.brunozzi

“Readers and writers are the ends of the value chain in publishing. Everybody else is just a middleman. Including booksellers.”

Barry Eisler, pacing the floor and chewing the scenery like a motivational speaker on methamphetamine, paused for a moment. And in that moment, you could feel the air cool about 10 degrees. You could hear a low bass note of vocal disapproval from several dozen people.

For Eisler was speaking at the Field’s End Conference. And the conference (which also featured local literary heavyweights Bruce Barcott, Jonathan Evison and David Guterson) took place on Bainbridge Island. And by an earlier show of hands, at least half of the 175 people who came to the April 28 event were Bainbridge Islanders. And if there’s one thing true about Bainbridge Island, it’s that it’s a fiercely literate, fiercely literary community of people who fiercely rally around two longstanding community institutions — Bainbridge Public Library and Eagle Harbor Book Company. (Full disclosure: The author of this article is a Bainbridge native who, at the age of nine, bought his first book, The Three Investigators and The Mystery of The Coughing Dragon, with his lawn-mowing money at Eagle Harbor Books.)

As Victoria Irwin, the bookstore’s events coordinator, put it after listening to Eisler speak: “We do not see ourselves as mere middlemen.”

But as quickly as Eisler’s grip slipped on the audience, he grabbed it back and then some with an appeal to minds and wallets as well as hearts. Because at its heart, his message about the state of book publishing hits on a few simple themes: One, “we have choices now that we didn’t have before,” now that industry gatekeepers no longer control the sole means of distributing books in the digital-forward era. Two, “publishing is a business, not an ideology,” and as such, innovation shouldn’t be frozen in place to keep brick-and-mortar booksellers afloat. And three, Amazon is not the great Satan.

“Amazon is injecting competition into what has been a moribund industry,” he said. “And that’s all they’re doing.”

These days, that’s not a popular opinion around Amazon’s hometown of Seattle, let alone everywhere else. The Seattle Times this spring took a series of whacks at the world’s biggest online bookseller and its perceived poor corporate citizenship; it even went so far as to give validating voice to so-far-groundless grumblings that Amazon’s fingerprints were all over a Department of Justice decision on price-fixing among Apple and five of New York’s “Big Six” publishers. In recent weeks, The New York Times and its top media writer, David Carr, have aggressively portrayed Amazon as the schoolyard bully of the book industry, and in its pages, prominent authors Richard Russo and Scott Turow have assailed Amazon as a threat to “rich literary culture.” In Crosscut, longtime Seattle publisher and bookseller Chad Haight recently tied together many of the critics’ concerns about Amazon’s growing primacy in the publishing ecosystem.

As Paul Constant, the books editor at The Strangerwrote last month: “It’s never been this popular to be this critical about Amazon.”

Amazon has largely greeted the slings and arrows with silence. And while a lot of self-publishing authors and resuscitated midlisters have rushed to the defense of Starship Bezos, few have the profile and platform of the 48-year-old Eisler.

For most of his eight years as a published author, Eisler was just another midlister laboring in the geopolitical thriller genre, somewhere on the publishing food chain between Steve Berry and, say, William Dietrich. But in March 2011, the Bay Area author catapulted to book-industry fame — or, more accurately, notoriety — by firing what became known as “the shot heard ‘round the publishing world.” That’s when he turned down a half-million-dollar deal with St. Martin’s Press, electing to continue his John Rain series through self-publishing.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, May 9, 10:34 a.m. Inappropriate

Yikes. I love paper books, go out of my way to pay double sometimes at the bookstore. But I love my Kindle too. I take out Kindle books from the library, and that's a can of worms for libraries. Lots of issues.

patrickl

Posted Wed, May 9, 11:10 a.m. Inappropriate

Until I can pass along an electronic book to another reader, it will be paper for me.

ruffner

Posted Wed, May 9, 1:20 p.m. Inappropriate

The key to self publishing is not "self editing" That's where some investment on the author's side if the book is any good at all, will make huge returns. The worst books I've ever read were not only self published but also self edited. But that can flow into a major book publisher as well, just look at Harry Potter #4, a book totally out of control. It so needed editing, plot tightening, moments where the story could leave the main character and follow someone else for a chapter or three.

But I digress. Self publishing, and selling on Amazon open the door to anyone willing to put the time into writing. No gate keepers. And with their 'publish on demand' model, the up front cash is minimal. And the chance to continue to edit and refine is endless.

GaryP

Posted Wed, May 9, 1:58 p.m. Inappropriate

Agreed, GaryP. I think self-publishing authors have come a long way on that since the first frenetic days of the Kindle. They understand that word-of-moyth is crucial to sales and exposure, and good word-of-mouth begins with a good book.

The authors with whom I work understand that it takes a village to raise a book, and they are willing to hire the villagers — developmental editors, copy editors, proofreaders, cover designers, e-book formatters, publicists — at market rate. I find that they crave the constructive criticism, that they're hungry to get better.

Some have reaped big rewards as a result. One client just got a $34,000 check for her Amazon sales alone in April. Another got a four-book deal from Amazon's Montlake Publishing on terms she's ecstatic about (and she's pretty savvy about what distinguishes a good deal from a bad one). A third turned down an overture from a Big Six publisher after she crunched the numbers and felt there was no way the publisher could grow her earning potential and readership reach any better than she could on her own. A few others have signed with agents to handle their secondary rights (foreign, audiobook, film) while retaining complete control over their domestic endeavors.

Posted Wed, May 9, 11 p.m. Inappropriate

The argument here is exactly correct. We writers have more options available to us than we did before, and it's thanks to Amazon.

I used to work for a small publisher and I was the first set of eyes on a manuscript. Out of the about 300-400 book pitches we received in the year I was there I think I spent more than 30 seconds before deciding to reject a book on about 10 of them. It took much longer just to print out the form rejection letter.

While I don't doubt that Amazon is a threat to traditional booksellers, as an aspiring author I'm glad the option I have the Amazon publishing option available.

stvngrdnr

Posted Thu, May 10, 11:48 a.m. Inappropriate

The counter side to self published books are books like this one:

The Birds in My Life by The Supreme Master Ching Hai

http://www.amazon.com/Birds-Life-Supreme-Master-Ching/dp/9866895149

On Amazon with a "5 star rating" no less... but read the one star ratings and a different picture emerges. Google search for "The Supreme Master Ching Hai" and a even weirder bit of information surfaces...

But Amazon is happy to sell this stuff. Cavet Emptor.

GaryP

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