Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Amazon: devil or angel

Amazon, with Jeff Bezos at the helm, seems nowadays to be seen contradictorily as either the devil incarnate or the Archangel Gabriel announcing the birth of a new wonder.  In this post I will tell you a true story that will illuminate this issue.  It begins on an airplane flying from Buenos Aires to La Paz in Baja Sud, Mexico where Willi and his wife will be staying for a while.  For the long flight she has thoughtfully provided him with a Tom Clancy book, its name now lost somewhere in his memory.  Ten minutes after beginning the book he is hooked, can’t put it down, reads right through dinner.

It is a huge airplane, hundreds of people, and after dinner, one by one, they begin to fall asleep.  The attendants turn off the cabin lights.  A half hour later Willi looks around and his is the only overhead light still turned on in this huge, darkened amphitheater that is moving—without anyone especially noticing—northeast at 500+ miles an hour.  He is somewhat embarrassed; is he keeping someone awake?  He doesn’t care; he’s not putting this book down, nor did he for several days after arrival.  When he finally did finish it, dangerous thoughts began percolating just under his skull…

Willi began to think that he knew how Tom Clancy worked: get into the action right away; shift around from scene to scene, place to place, each with different characters; one never knew what might happen next.  Then he thought, I could do this!  Next thing you know he is pounding away at his keyboard.  Some weeks later he has 200 pages or so, but as time passes he gradually loses interest and just leaves it in the silicon bowels of his computer, unfinished.  For twelve years.

The story continues with an illness:  Willi can’t get out of the house and he’s scratching around for something to do.  Since he reads a lot he gets an email from Jeff everyday—well, Jeff didn’t write it himself, he gets someone at Amazon to do it for him.  Usually these messages are just adverts for books and Willi plunks them into the garbage.  But one day he notices something new: “Self-publish your book.” Now, bored, sparks begin to sparkle in Willi’s cerebrum; he remembers that he has a book.  Shortening a long tale: he resurrects it from his old computer; polishes it up; tacks on an ending; downloads Amazon’s publishing instructions; follows them to the letter; uploads everything that needs to go up; and all of a sudden he becomes a published author.  Well.  At this point you’re probably thinking just what Willi thought: end of story.  You would be wrong.

Willi had set the price at $6.99; he didn’t want it to seem too cheap (some economic theory or other).  Of this he was to receive 70%; that’s the deal; it seemed fair, and was certainly a helluva lot more than Willi would get from a bigtime publisher which probably wouldn’t talk to him in the first place.  His expectations were small but each week thereafter, on Sundays, when Amazon data is updated, he checked into Amazon to see if any had sold.  He doesn’t need money; he’s old; it was just an ego thing, and something to do.  But then the book started selling!  Four one week, then six, then 10, and on it went for quite a while.

The first reviewer gave Willi bad marks.  He said he thought the book was good but that it had ended too abruptly.  He wondered if there would be a sequel.  Perceptive little shit, but the cheapskate gave Willi only one star, the lowest you can get.  What was he thinking?  After all that work Willi had come to like the book himself.  The next reviewer didn’t like it no way, no how; one star.  The third reviewer seemed to like it; four stars.  Yet this spelled the end of Willi’s brief career as an author of fiction; sales slowed quickly.  But as it turned out Willi made about 600 bucks, enough to pay his bar tab for a number of weeks.  And he still gets a little hit from Amazon in his bank account every now and then.

So there you have it.  That’s probably the foretaste of the future: publishers provide a service: editing.  But they’re really too hard to break into.  Willi’s book, Ground Wars, is full of little typos and perhaps worse structural faults; he was too cheap to have it professionally edited, and if truth is known, one cannot edit one’s own book.  Certainly somewhere on the Internet will be found an intermediate, someone who will edit for a reasonable fee; and on top of that readers themselves will have to be more selective.  Prices will go down.  Publishers, as we know them today, will largely go the way of the buggy whip.  As to Amazon itself, they far exceeded Willi’s expectations.  If they are indeed the devil, they are a Satan people will have to get used to.  But it seems clear to Willi that Steve Jobs was right when he remarked that the whole book business, monetarily, doesn’t add up to much.