Amazon and the Cult of the Corporation

“Why isn’t your book on Amazon?” ask THEY. “You DO know it’s easy to publish with Amazon, right, and it’s, like, the BIGGEST market?” Once you acknowledge that you do, indeed, know this, THEY can, and do, comfortably categorize you as cranky, as one of those people who have a problem with the whole basis of our civilisation — i.e., capitalism. Usually, this is pejoratively expressed as your having a problem with SUCCESS – success, of course, being pretty much its own justification. Which is why prime ministers and presidents are happy to hob-knob with arms dealers. Arms dealers are generally very wealthy and dubiously well-connected — which means successful.

I bought a book, a novel, from a bookshop (I do so frequently). You know, a bricks and mortar, go in and browse, real-world, independent bookshop with someone sitting behind a counter. I took said book back to the office (my particular temple of toil) and left it on my desk. My smart-phone equipped boss came up to me and asked how much I’d paid for it. Whilst asking, he used aforementioned smart-phone to scan the bar code on my purchase. I told him the price, and he told me how much cheaper I could have purchased it for on Amazon. He then went on to outline the benefits of his Amazon Plus account. I joined the league of the cranky by telling him that circumventing Amazon was the point. Huh? Amazon is great! Everything’s so cheap, and they deliver so quickly! Huh! Why would you have a problem with Amazon? Oh, my god, you’re one of those people!

Writers, readers, bookshops, booksellers, agents, publishers, inter alia, would all be better served in a world in which Amazon didn’t exist. Amazon benefits only Amazon. Anything else is simply marketing spin and PR. Amazon wants to make a big profit, and does so, and it wants you to love it while so doing. Don’t inquire into its dubious employment practices, its bullying of publishers and writers, its tax-dodging, and its creeping monopoly position. Amazon used books as a stepping stone to becoming the global department store it is now, and has countries building roads with its name on it in a grovelling attempt to get it to invest — to put one of its high-tech, high-intensity, control-freak, low-paying warehouses in your neighbourhood. Queue up for your zero-hour contract. Welcome to Amazon.

Try telling any of this to anyone who shops at Amazon. The consumers. They REALLY don’t want to hear it. Amazon’s their favourite shop, a branded portal to the goody grotto. Nothing worse you can do to the unthinking consumer than force them to think. Aw, gee, you’re making me feel bad and defensive about my shopping choices. You’re one of those people. Why don’t you just want to make lots of money and spend it on things like everyone else? Exploitation is how the world works. THAT’S JUST THE WAY IT IS. All companies behave this way. And more of that I-don’t-care, self-justifying blah blah that means: Don’t make me question my smug, unthinking, self-entitlement.

That’s the long answer for why my book’s not on Amazon. It’s also why I don’t shop there. Yes, I DO know that if my book were picked up by a publisher I’d have no choice about it being on Amazon, and I do know that Amazon probably don’t care what cranky people like me think so long as the money keeps rolling in, which it will until more people think like me and stop shopping there. And, yes, I do know that that’s not likely to happen any time soon.

As they settle down to their Dan Brown on their Kindle, it seems to be a consolation to the unthinking that the thinking – the cranky people — are so hugely outnumbered. Hopefully, one fine day, we won’t be…


Marketing your novel

This is not a vacuous (copy and paste type) post about marketing your novel (designed to attract eyeballs and comments). It’s more to do with the dreadful necessity of doing it (marketing, that is), and the feeling of unseemliness that accompanies the so doing.

First, you have to be (or have something) “out there”. I’m not going to reflect overly long on the kudos afforded by the fact of being “out there” in a loud, notice-me, capitalist world. It’s perhaps enough to remark that it might be making a virtue of necessity where artistic endeavour is concerned, since post-production you’re engaged in the game of getting noticed.

Picture me walking into a room of disparate people who share my plight. My name is John, and I have something “out there” — a novel to be (somewhat) more precise, a stylish, philosophically bleak work of detective fiction. One of my readers (and, like all rare things, I value them all) told me recently that they’d read a quarter of it and put it aside because it was too depressing. Clearly, it’s bleaker than I thought.

Okay, so let’s put together an entirely fictional marketing strategy. You persuade twenty people to buy the book (I managed that bit). They read it (mostly succeeded in that. Thank you, dear readers), and then… what? Well, they feed back to you, which is helpful and useful and generous and kind. Unfortunately, what you really want them to do is blog and tweet and Facebook and review (on books sites, preferably those from where they purchased your book). You need to be talked about on social media. I’ve entirely failed in this. I just don’t know those sorts of people, and it’s surely deeply unseemly to be nagging people who bought your book as a favour in the first place to spend time reviewing it. I mean, life is very busy. I do more blogging than anyone I know.

In short, then, to succeed from Nowhere, you have to become a needy, whining, attention-seeking wannabe prattling on about yourself and your work at every opportunity, constantly racking your brains to come up with ways to attract attention to yourself. Not very dignified, is it? That presumably is what agents and publishers spare you, allowing you to get on with the art and (mostly) skip the marketing, notice-me indignity of it all.

I’m writing my second novel (or was; I have 9,000 words of it), which is much more mainstream in terms of subject matter and, perhaps more importantly, style. This is what feedback does to you. Needed and necessary, ultimately it promotes conformity. Truly individual voices go unheard.

Shite’s all right if it sells

It’s a dispiriting thought, but one that must be grasped: literary agents are looking for something to flog, and bandwagon jumping is, they imagine, one of the safest ways to go  about doing it – hence all those 50 Shades of Shite clones taking up shelf-space in your local WH Smith.

It works like this: they’re looking for something that fits easily onto their list (so you can forget challenging, difficult books – in terms of subject matter and certainly in terms of writing style), and what fits easily onto their list is stuff they’ve successfully placed onto someone else’s list: a publishing editor’s usually. Publishing editors are also interested in shit they can sell, which is why they all have their version/clone of whatever’s water-cooler hot in flogalot terms at any given moment. It’s a dumb business with pretensions. Most of them like to think in terms of working in the arts, which is, of course, bollocks. They’re middle-folk trying to turn a profit.

Which brings me to the question – the point of this post – do they know if something’s good, or just if it will sell? It’s perfectly possible to look around you, note what’s selling, project what might sell (indeed, why not have a self-important meeting about it?), and then try to turn a profit by getting your hands on more of the same. Spiv & Trotters Literary Agency: “S&M novels and religious thrillers are big at the moment, so we’re interested in those – though we’re also looking for Teen Naval Gothic love stories because we think they’re likely to be big in the run-up to Christmas.”

Novels like Animal Farm or Pale Fire or The Trial would be incomprehensible to them; they simply wouldn’t know what to make of them. We live in an age of focus groups, of audience reaction and participation. Modern agents  don’t have the temperament or discernment to take a work away, and think, Actually this is good, artistically good. It deserves an audience. What they’re after is a sense of immediate recognition, a sense that they like this, that their friends will too. Being good doesn’t come into it; potentially popular, of course, does.

Undiscerning people need discerning people to draw the distinction between the two. That statement  has a whiff of elitism about it, but that’s not the point. Girls Aloud are not as good as Beethoven, and not just because someone’s critiqued the issue for you. In your quiet space, you should be able to listen to both, and know that one is better than the other. That’s discernment. And if you can’t do that, you’re ignorant (at least in this area of life and art), and I rather fear this is something that’s true of most literary agents.

Money, of course, pollutes everything. Livings have to be made. I understand that.  I would, however, modestly request that you don’t imagine you’re doing art when all you’re doing is shifting goods to make money.