When I was a kid, the local bookstore was nestled in a strip center between a grocery store and a florist. The entire store was the size of the average family room. It was a great place to shop … if you wanted one of the top 25 selling fiction or non-fiction books, or the kind of classic literature that was assigned in school, or Cliff Notes for those same books. If you were interested in Science Fiction, there was a shelf that had some Asimov and Bradbury. If you wanted some humor, you could buy one of the Garfield and Peanuts books that sat on the humor shelf. If you wanted a book by Thomas Berger, or a Kurt Vonnegut novel that wasn’t Slaughterhouse-Five, well, there was always the library.
For readers, that local bookstore could be a frustrating experience. For aspiring writers, it killed dreams. The ranks of published authors seemed so small in that bookstore. The odds against ever making it to its shelf seemed insurmountable.
Barnes and Noble changed all of this. They had all of Kurt Vonnegut’s books, and some of Thomas Berger’s too. Readers had a whole new world of choices. There wasn’t just a Mystery shelf; there was a mystery section. For writers, the dream seemed a little more real. Maybe, just maybe, there’s room on one of these shelves for me.
Since Barnes and Noble was great for both authors and readers, you’d think that people would be happy. A lot of people were not happy. They bemoaned the potential demise of the neighbor bookstore. They fretted about the concentration of power in really large companies. (Some of the people fretting worked in publishing for really large companies.) But despite all of this fretting, things had never been better for authors and readers.
Barnes and Noble may have had row after row of shelves, but Amazon introduced something even bolder … the infinite bookshelf. For readers, it offered a chance to buy any book there was. For authors, if meant that if you wrote a book, there would be room for it. Endless choice; endless opportunity. Fantastic for readers and writers alike. Completely and utterly terrifying to the entrenched players in the publishing industry.
I have no interest in vilifying the publishing industry, but more importantly, I don’t think it’s fair to. The publishing industry is wonderful, filled with wonderful people who are wonderfully talented and do wonderful work. Over the last many decades, these people have discovered and promoted some incredible literature. I am amazed and awed by all this industry has done. And I expect to be amazed and awed by all that it will continue to do. Do some people have horror stories about the industry? Sure. But compare it Hollywood, or politics, or your average law firm or hospital. Publishing ain’t bad. It’s filled with people a lot like the people you and I know.
Almost everyone is afraid of their world changing. Happiness research shows that people overestimate their current circumstance, and underestimate the possible good that can come from change. For along time, we’ve cut down trees, turned them into paper, stamped them with ink, bound them with a cover, and shipped them to stores. None of this is particularly easy to do, but the big publishing companies became very, very good at this. Of course it’s terrifying to these companies that this skill may not matter the way it once did. But chopping down trees isn’t the core competency of the publishing industry. Identifying, fostering, and promoting good written work is the core competency of the publishing industry. Those are skills that technology cannot replace. The problem, however, is that those skills that have a low barrier to entry. And that means competition.
Jeff Bezos famously said: “There are two kinds of companies: those that try to charge more and those that work to charge less. We will be the second.” If the big six publishers engaged in collusion in order to raise prices, it doesn’t offend me in the slightest. I don’t think it really offends Jeff Bezos either, because he’s pretty sure the second kind of company is going to win. To win, however, Amazon still needs good products to sell. I’m guessing that’s why Amazon made its push into publishing. Had publishers decided to be the second kind of company, it wouldn’t have been necessary.
When Amazon created the infinite bookshelf, it made room for every author who wanted to sell a book. And by becoming a publisher, Amazon gave authors a new potential publishing market. These things have made this very instant the best time to be an author in the history of the printed word. And yet the head of the authors’ guild, one of my favorite authors, the guy who is maybe the reason I wanted to write thrillers in the first place … can’t see any of this.
Every day, my twitter feed is filled with links to screeds against Amazon or against the Big Six, as if this is some grand battle of good versus evil, and everyone has to choose a side. All of this seems crazy to me. In the world of the infinite bookshelf, I suspect there’s room for everyone. Room for the self-published, room for the Amazon-imprinted, room for the Big Six-published, room, even, for the small-pressed. Readers don’t care who publishes a book; they just care that it’s good, and available, and affordable. Anyone who can deliver that will do just fine.