"Cheap Words"—George Packer's New Yorker-sized look at Amazon and the questions it raises for writers

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Yesterday, I left the house in the dark and took a nearly-faltered train to Thirtieth Street Station. In truth, the SEPTA train did falter—hitting a tree limb and freezing on the tracks until the brave conductor yanked the tangled arbor from beneath the belly of the car and moved us on.

From there I hopped a train to New York City—entering the Amtrak car through an icy igloo (so much snow inside the train, so truly surreal). I watched the piles of white through the train window. So cold. So high. So slumbering. At Penn Station I disembarked. The cab line was far too long. The streets were clogged. Ill-advised, I know, but still—I started walking toward Wall Street, where my client was awaiting a presentation. There were barricades of snow at most street corners, wide pools of slush above grates, entire sidewalks coated with two or three inches of glassy ice, some streets cordoned off with police tape, thanks to falling icicles. I zigged in and out, over and through, until I was lost, or almost lost. I arrived to my client's building lobby two hours later out of breath—my feet drenched, my black pants mucked, my hair knotted by the wind.

A push of an elevator button, and I ascended. A walk down the hall to the conference room, and I stood at this window, above the Big Apple, and waited for my meeting to begin. I know this company now. I know its leadership team. They have nicknamed me "incorrigible" over the past few weeks. They say it with a smile.

I belong there. I am valued.

I was thinking about my yesterday as I today read "Cheap Words: Amazon is good for customers. But is it good for books?"—the George Packer expose in the February 17/24 The New Yorker. Yes, of course, we've all read the Amazon story. Yes, we have, in one way or the other, participated in its rise or debated its morality. Still, Packer does an extraordinary job of painting the picture of an organization that squeezed its way into our lives, self-perpetuated in mega fashion through acts both feisty-bold and disturbingly secretive, and rapped an entire industry across the knuckles. Amazon has forced readers and writers to choose. It has brought a degree of shame to book buying and publishing that did not exist before. It has ushered in a new era of businesses that are hard to understand, let alone explain.

It seems to me that—if we care about our country, our children, our relationships, our legacy, our intellectual life, our weather-worried planet—we should be able to agree on a few good things. That intelligent and book-smart editors should be able to keep their jobs. That authors who write magnificently but perhaps not for the masses should be able to keep on writing. That readers who want to choose what they read can choose what they read—and read it affordably. Amazon makes many things that were not possible before possible—the longevity of back lists, the existence of Kindle Single operations like Shebooks, the emergence of authors whom "traditional" publishing has overlooked. But it has also helped create, or intensify, a scenario that, well, let Packer explain:
Several editors, agents, and authors told me that the money for serious fiction and nonfiction has eroded dramatically in recent years; advances on mid-list titles—books that are expected to sell modestly but whose quality gives them a strong chance of enduring—have declined by a quarter. These are the kinds of books that particularly benefit from the attention of editors and marketers, and that attract gifted people to publishing, despite the pitiful salaries. Without sufficient advances, many writers will not be able to undertake long, difficult, risky projects. Those who do so anyway will have to expand a lot of effort mastering the art of blowing their own horn.....

.... The quest for publishing profits in an economy of scarcity drives the money toward a few big books. So does the gradual disappearance of book reviewers and knowledgeable booksellers, whose enthusiasm might have rescued a book from drowning in obscurity. When consumers are overwhelmed with choices, some experts argue, they all tend to buy the same well-known thing.
Seventeen books into my career, I am the opposite of a well-known thing. I am a writer whose writing must be fit into the odd creases of night and early day, a writer who cannot tour because her "real work" beckons, a writer who cares deeply about stories and about language and about heart—a writer who—and you know how grateful I am—has been given opportunities again and again by different publishing houses in different genres—despite the fact that many people see Beth Kephart as that writer who has been generously reviewed but will not sell. I have been lucky. I have been ridiculously lucky, given my record in sales, to keep on sharing my tales.

But can it continue? Has the time come, after all, to face the facts? Can I honestly expect any publishing house—no matter how generous, no matter how kind—to keep on believing in me in an Amazon and mega-merger world? I read Packer and I wonder how much harder the climb will become, how much more stamina will be required, how much sheer luck will be necessary—not just for me but for so many of my insanely talented writers friends who, like me, keep bumping up against the mid-list wall. I wonder which authors will finally give up or give in, which stories will not get told, which brilliant editors will find some other thing to do, which proud indie might be forced into a lull. I wonder who will rise and who will fall, who will be paraded and who neglected. I wonder about the machinations of it all.

Incorrigible. They call me that in corporate America. Incorrigible. They say it, and we laugh. But I'm going to need a whole lot more incorrigible if I'm to keep writing in the years ahead. I'm going to need it, and so, perhaps, will you.


Elizabeth Mosier said...

So with you here, Beth! And yet, you remain my role model!

Katrina said...

Beth, You've put into words exactly the thoughts that have been haunting me this week as well. I think about the next book, the one I really would love to write, and I wonder if it's worth it, if it's even possible, and then I think about what I might do instead -- teach more yoga, hold a workshop, self-publish. . .It's hard to read that piece and then return to business as usual. Thank you for reflecting and responding with such clarity.

John Barnes said...


For what comfort it may be: I've published 31 books of fiction (mostly genre) through traditional commercial channels, and have made some tentative steps into self-publishing, and, well ... I think the traditional publishers are simply putting out a new line of bull, and that they have never really been friends or protectors of the independent writer. Amazon isn't perfect and they're sometimes in the wrong, but the smashing they've been giving to traditional publishing is ultimately going to be good for writers, and for literature.

Those first winters when His Lordship isn't there to hand out alms are tough, but ultimately not having most of the crop stolen every year is better (even if the railway that shut down His Lordship has its own problems and exploitations).

Some further thoughts on that at

and at


Unknown said...

Sensitive and heartfelt insight on the arts in America. Why do we choose quantity over quality in everything?

K. M. Walton said...

Your blood flows with beautiful words, Beth. Like Elizabeth, I, too, look up to you. I refuse to believe there will cease to be publishers who appreciate stunning prose, the very prose YOU, my insanely talented friend, put on the page.

ggwritespoetry said...

Oh, so much wisdom here...thank you for the message of hope.

Jon McGoran said...

Thanks for such a smart post. This is on so many of our minds. I can't help but hope that good stories and good writing will find a way, but it isn't always easy to be optimistic.

Books on the Table said...

Well said! And let me add this: as an independent bookseller, it's very discouraging to host a mid list author and then check his or her website and see only a link to Amazon. Or worse -- have him or her mention to the assembled crowd that the book can be procured cheaply on Amazon. Yes, that has happened.

Serena said...

I would like to think that bloggers can get the word out about the many mid-list authors and poets out there...but that may be a bit idealistic. I know that people tend to carry a newspaper/mag book reviewer in higher esteem, but I also think that the public is unaware of the books out there even with those reviewers.

Given the number of books being published and the publicity $ being directed to the big sellers, it's a wonder that any mid-list authors are published to start with. They must be selling...but the question is how to get them into more hands.

I'm not going to talk about the Amazon vs. indie bookseller debate because I buy from both depending on the cash flow I have, availability, and issue of the moment.

Sarah Laurence said...

Sad but true. This is why I tend to review mid list authors and debuts on my blog. I read quite a few galleys, but when I buy books, I usually go to indie bookstores. I'm lucky to have one in my town. I occasionally order from Amazon to get new release YA (in time to review), foreign or used books or an ebook for travel.

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