Much to my surprise, a two-volume encyclopedia priced for institutional purchase by academic and public libraries has become a bestseller at Amazon. I don’t know the actual sales figures, and I’m sure they’re pretty small in terms of absolute numbers, since the book’s category (the history and criticism of horror and supernatural literature) is a rather narrow one. In other words, a book of this type probably doesn’t have to move many units in order to qualify as a bestseller. But for what it’s worth, for much of the past two weeks Horror Literature through History has hovered in the top ten books in that category, peaking at number six and then dropping much lower, but then spiking up again a few times. Amazon sold out of its original stock of the title and had to order more. A couple of days ago I saw that it was briefly flagged as the bestselling new encyclopedia of any kind. Currently those numbers have trailed off again.
In any event, I hadn’t expected so much interest from individual readers, given the book’s steep pricing. I’ve seen a couple of early readers among that crowd speaking glowingly of it in an online forum that I frequent, so that felt good. There’s a forthcoming interview with me about the project at a major horror website. I’m also slated to be interviewed on a major horror podcast a few days from now. I’ll post the links when they become available. In the meantime, if any of my Teeming Brain readers are among those who have purchased the encyclopedia, please know that I sincerely appreciate your interest and support, and I hope the book rewards your investment of time and money.
Update, October 17: The encyclopedia has also sold out at the website for Barnes & Noble.
In the past I have both 1) praised Jeff Bezos for displaying what looks like a true love of books and reading, and 2) highlighted Amazon’s bullying and heavy-handedness in the publishing industry by linking to Steve Wasserman’s damning 2012 article “The Amazon Effect,” in which Wasserman, the former editor of the Los Angeles Times Books Review, explains how his early positive view of Bezos and Amazon soured over time as it became evident that the company is intent on “bulldozing any real or perceived obstacles to its single-minded pursuit of maximum clout” by imposing “increasingly harsh terms on both its competitors and its clients.”
Recently it’s looking like the scale has tipped definitively in favor of the negative judgment on both Bezos and his company. Or at least that’s my take, which is based on the fact, revealed just last week, that Amazon is now flat-out blackmailing publishers and authors into complying with their draconian demands by charging higher prices and delaying shipments for products from companies that resist them. Various other tactics are also involved, such as removing entire promotion pages for some books. What’s more, Amazon isn’t afraid to play this kind of hardball with books by big-name authors. Titles by J. K. Rowling, Anne River Siddons, and James Patterson are among those that have been affected.
Says The New York Times‘ David Streitfield and Melissa Eddy:
Amazon’s power over the publishing and bookselling industries is unrivaled in the modern era. Now it has started wielding its might in a more brazen way than ever before. Seeking ever-higher payments from publishers to bolster its anemic bottom line, Amazon is holding books and authors hostage on two continents by delaying shipments and raising prices. The literary community is fearful and outraged — and practically begging for government intervention. . . . No firm in American history has exerted the control over the American book market — physical, digital and secondhand — that Amazon does.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m personally fed up with this kind of crap, and this feeling applies to more than just the Amazon situation. Amazon is emblematic of a major cultural shift that has taken place in the Internet era as megacorporations representing various sectors of the business world and cultural life at large have attempted to hold us all hostage by playing an egregiously monopolistic game. And it all seems doubly sinister in a way that’s distinct from the monopolies of a past age, since this time the imperialistic and totalitarian business practices are hitched to, and also — or so the corporate titans hope — enabled and sweetened by, the digital-populist tone of “personal freedom and empowerment” that still attends the Internet like a lingering morning mist at midday.
This kind of thing makes me remember all over again why I ditched Facebook and Twitter. Among other reasons, I just got sick of being a willing pawn in the war of the Digital Overlords, where my personal data and decisions are used as leverage and ammunition. I’ve been thinking for many months that it may be time to ditch Amazon as well, and this recent revelation adds some serious weight to that consideration. This would of course mean going back and removing all of the Amazon affiliate links here at The Teeming Brain. I also own a Kindle and subscribe to Prime, so, you know, I’m pretty deeply entangled. And don’t think for a minute that I’m not aware of the tarry syrup of irony that automatically coats every word I type here, on a blog, using a computer that’s running a Windows operating system, thus reinforcing the basic thrust of the entire digital economy and cultural technopoly that I’m ostensibly criticizing.
I would be interested to hear anybody’s thoughts on this issue. Is Amazon really a tyrant? Would a personal boycott be advisable? Would it even be meaningful? More broadly, is the future just a giant playing field for megacorporations where the role of us peasants is simply to be trampled underfoot while saying thank you for it?
Image courtesy of mack2happy / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
I’ve been quite enthusiastic about the Kindle and the e-reading revolution ever since buying a Kindle DX last year. I’ve also been pleased at the way Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos continues to say things that demonstrate his authentic commitment to positioning the Kindle as a device that doesn’t destroy the reading experience but instead preserves what’s most valuable about it.
Case in point: In connection with yesterday’s release of the most affordable Kindle yet, Bezos spoke to USA Today this morning about the stunning growth of the e-book market. And what he said indicates that both his head and his heart are in the right place regarding books and reading and their translation into a new digital environment:
USA TODAY: Why not add multimedia to e-books?
JEFF BEZOS: You want to enter the author’s world, the great novel or engaging non-fiction narrative. In the case of a physical book, you’re not noticing the stitching and the glue and the paper and the ink. That all disappears. We’re always trying to make Kindle get out of the way.
If it’s a book about music history, having music people can play at certain points in the book can be useful. Maybe biology textbooks can benefit from certain animations. You’re not going to make Hemingway better by adding animations.
— “Volume of Kindle book sales stuns Amazon’s Jeff Bezos,” USA Today, July 29, 2010
To which I reply: Yes! And not just because I agree passionately with the idea Bezos is advancing, but because I’ve actually experienced that disappearing of the physical technology and absorption into the author’s world that Bezos describes and the Kindle successfully accomplishes. Books have always done this. It’s their signature magical power. I well remember Stephen King describing his own experience of test driving a Kindle a couple of years ago, before I bought mine. He specifically highlighted the aspect of the experience that we’re talking about here:
Will Kindles replace books? No. And not just because books furnish a room, either. There’s a permanence to books that underlines the importance of the ideas and the stories we find inside them; books solidify an otherwise fragile medium.
But can a Kindle enrich any reader’s life? My own experience — so far limited to 1.5 books, I’ll admit — suggests that it can. For a while I was very aware that I was looking at a screen and bopping a button instead of turning pages. Then the story simply swallowed me, as the good ones always do. I wasn’t thinking about my Kindle anymore; I was rooting for someone to stop the evil Lady Powerstock. It became about the message instead of the medium, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
— “Stephen King: Books with Batteries — Why Not?“, Entertainment Weekly, January 23, 2008
And now, of course, the necessary disclaimers or caveats: Yes, I’m aware of the problems involved with Amazon’s insistence on using their proprietary, DRM-protected .azw e-book format instead of something that’s cross-usable like e-pub. Yes, I’m aware of the financial problems they’ve caused for book publishers by pricing most e-books at $9.99. Yes, I’m aware of the valid concerns about their odd new semi-incarnation not just as a bookstore but as a by-God publisher or publishing adjunct, which seriously muddies the waters of the publishing world, and especially the part having to do with the role, status, and ultimate fate of authors. Scott Turow, who’s currently serving as president of the Authors Guild, talked to NPR two days ago about Amazon’s shocking new deal with the Wylie Agency. He called Amazon the “behemoth” behind the current turmoil in the publishing world, and identified them as the entity that really needs to get sand kicked in its face instead of the authors whom he says are suffering.
So all of this is duly noted. But nevertheless, I think a long-term e-book revolution is clearly inevitable — barring, that is, a (semi-possible) return to pre-industrial technological conditions within the next century or so — and so it’s great to know that a behemoth like Amazon is helmed by somebody who actually respects and loves reading in itself, and disdains the possible corruption and devolution of the printed word into a mere adjunct to whiz-bang digital videos and music and such.
Image credit: aamazon_0622, used under Creative Commons from TimYang.net