Last August, Amazon flew about 80 writers on its Thomas & Mercer mystery and thriller imprint—including me—to Seattle for a conference. They put us up at the Westin downtown, a nice hotel by any standard, and spent the weekend feeding us well and serving us top-shelf booze at an increasingly fabulous series of parties. There were tourist outings, the usual conference mix of panels and workshops, and a non-stressful visit to the Amazon Death Star. Also, they gave us a free Kindle Paperwhite, a nice touch.
With a few exceptions, none of the writers at the conference were particularly famous; some had only published one or two books, all with Amazon. The Seattle trip wasn’t normal treatment for them, or for anyone. I’ve published books with independents and with big corporate imprints, and I’ve published books on my own. Each of these experiences was positive in its own way. But never before had I been treated quite like this. It felt like I’d entered a glorious new age. Amazon had given me a free sneak preview of what book culture would be like from now on.
As usual, I was naive.
A year later, Amazon is embroiled in an ongoing dispute with the Hachette publishing company over e-book pricing, in which Amazon has delayed shipments and removed discounts and pre-order buttons from Hachette titles. This is a literary feud unparalleled in vitriol since Gore Vidal compared Norman Mailer to Charles Manson. One evening, I turned on The Colbert Report to find Hachette author Stephen Colbert sticking his arms up through an Amazon box, middle fingers extended. On Twitter, Colbert urged his viewers to #burndowntheamazon. Meanwhile, 900 writers, many of whom I respect greatly and some of whom I know personally, signed a letter under the name “Authors United”—apparently united by novelist Douglas Preston. They argued that Amazon was establishing some sort of corporate crossfire zone, with best-selling authors as the innocent villagers, the collateral damage. This statement appeared in that last refuge of the literary underdog, the New York Times. It read, in part, “we encourage Amazon in the strongest possible terms to stop harming the livelihood of the authors on whom it has built its business.”
The Times has been running several negative articles about Amazon a month, usually by David Streitfeld, grinding the sharpest ax since Snow White’s Huntsman. Salon seems to publish a Laura Miller anti-Amazon screed every hour. Meanwhile, Bookpeople, the excellent independent bookstore in my hometown that had been so important to starting my own writing career, refuses to carry my Amazon-published books. My Facebook feed is a morass of authors, known and unknown, linking to anti-Amazon articles, comparing Amazon to the Nazis or to Pol Pot. When I waded into one conversation to say, “Hey, Amazon’s not so bad,” someone referred to me as being like “the Vichy French, taking money to cover up crimes.”
What in the name of Bezos is going on here? There are obviously a lot of issues at play: the consolidation of publishing, worries that reduced e-book prices will send royalties crashing to the floor, general tsuris that e-books are replacing paper books, distress over the working conditions in Amazon’s warehouses, and more. I don’t want to minimize anyone’s concerns about any of those things. But while everyone seems to hate Amazon, my personal experience with this supposedly evil corporate behemoth has been fantastic.
When Amazon picked me up off the slush pile in 2011, my decade-long, five-book career was effectively dead. I had a modest contract with a legacy publisher for a pseudo-self-help book, but I didn’t want to write it, they no longer wanted put it out, and I’m pretty certain nobody would have wanted to read it. My antiquated dream was to write novels, but my previous and only novel had sold so poorly that I wouldn’t have been able to give away the next one for free, to any publisher.
Instead, through Amazon, I’ve published three full-length novels—a historical action comedy set in the very specific world of 1930s Jewish basketball and two detective stories set in the L.A. yoga scene, originally written in serialized form—as well as three 10,000-word novellas, including an extended piece of Kurt Vonnegut “fan fiction,” all in the last 30 months. I have another novel, a time-travel romantic comedy, coming out next March and I’m under contract to write still another novel, subject yet to be determined. It’s been the most enjoyable creative burst of my career, a gleeful hack’s sprint toward nowhere in particular.
Amazon has supported my strange whims. Their formula for literary success is, as far as I can deduce: Write as many books as you can, and then sell them cheaply and in bulk. But that doesn’t mean making a shoddy product. The editing at Amazon Publishing—and I’ve worked with several different editors—has been as good as any I’ve ever received, as has the copy-editing and design. They’re willing to work at my pace, and always tell me that I can slow down my pace if I need to.
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