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Michele Somerville Headshot

Remember the Future: Hachette and Amazon

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I ordered two shower caddies about a week ago. Shower caddies are objects in which girls carry shampoo and loofahs to scuzzy outdoor showers at camp. These can be difficult to obtain in New York in June as half of the city's kids head off to camp. As a mother of three I've developed a pretty keen sense of when to give up the physical search for such necessary objects as these. Prior to the shower caddy purchase, I had been boycotting Amazon. This, in response to L'Affaire Hachette-Amazon.

Why might I, a poet whose over-the-transom-manuscript Hachette imprints would never even consider -- much less publish -- take the side of Hachette in this dispute, especially given the fact that Amazon been very, very good to me? Amazon has granted me the luxury and liberty to purchase bedsheets, soccer cleats, floor-lamps, curtain rods and birthday decorations online, This convenience makes all the difference in the world to a writer, like me, who churns out copy/writes books while trying to feed, clothe educate, nurse and serve as personal secretary to three busy New York kids while taking care of their big house.

Selling my books (poetry, independent small press) through Amazon has made it possible for my children's teachers, students, former students, church ladies, friends and relatives to buy my books with a click.

But shower caddy relapse notwithstanding, I continue to engage in a tentative boycott of Amazon.

For now. For I am ambivalent in the extreme.

When it comes to books in print, I'm old school. I am old enough/have been writing long enough to have a stack of poems on onion skin. As a teacher, I taught students to love books. I taught my children treat books like sacred objects. I was ornery and reluctant in going from typewriter to word processor, and slow to use the Kindle device I received as a gift. Once I did begin to use an electronic reader, I was quick to want to replace the portable library (comprised of all beloved novels she is reading and rereading) my 15-year-old schleps back and forth from school with a Kindle -- for reasons osteological. I do most of my reading in the bathtub (Don't try that with an electronic reader.) and I am never happier than when surrounded by books. Our family has a splendid home library, and when my children were younger, I often did housework with the computer mouse in my front pocket repeating this phrase each time one of my offspring asked for it: "Read a damned book!"

I militated, on the domestic front, for the removal of television from our home when my children were young, never dreaming I'd see the day when writing on television would excel that in commercial films. But this came to pass. Episodes of The Wire and True Detective were by far more well-written than any commercially successful film released during the first runs of those television programs. Who saw that coming? Some media experts, communications nerds and futurists, I suppose, who recognized that the mode and means of making writing public has always been in flux.

Cave painting to slab carving to papyrus to paper to computer screen. Poet Allen Ginsberg's famous advice to writers applies: "Remember the future."

Many fine poets never get paid, but I am a poet who occasionally does get paid, thanks to Amazon. That alone is not a good reason to take the side of Amazon in the current publishing conflict.

It is, however, not nothing.

The principles at hand at matter. Hachette, for now, appears to be the lesser of two evils.

When I broke down and ordered those shower caddies, however, I did so more out of ambivalence than weakness, because I know that that anyone who sees Amazon versus Hachette as a bout between David and Goliath doesn't understand how Hachette wound up where it is today. If Amazon is Goliath in this, Hachette is a smaller Goliath, with a smaller pebble for his sling-shot and a belly full of Davids he gobbled up about five years ago.

Still, what lover of belles lettres wants to see a corporate monolith that also sells soccer cleats and plungers become the only bookseller and publisher in the game? Not me.

Publishing has steadily become more and more profit-driven over the past few decades. Hachette is in the fix it's in today because five years ago, together with its fellow "Big Five" publishers (which, until Random House and Penguin merged about a year ago had been a "Big Six"), Hachette hoovered up several smaller imprints. An oligopoly was formed, profit margins became everything, and a commitment to literary excellence became dispensable.

It seems now that Hachette's Big Five chickens have come home to roost, but the truth is that those birds have have been crapping all over publishing for decades. Rupert Murdoch's/News Corp's "Big Five" Harper Collins has been jockeying to buy Simon & Schuster since 2012. If that happens, "Big Four" publishing will be left in charge of literary quality control.

There's something bizarre and absurd in taking Rupert Murdoch's side against a company that has made it possible for me, a poet, to sell an extra few hundred books, but Hachette is not (yet) News Corp and -- it's complicated.

My kids tease me for having said, "Soon that book you're reading will be a chip in your head," one too many times, but that book will be a chip, in the not too distant future. The book in print is headed for extinction. Is that sad for me, whose idea of a good time is making Latin verb flashcards? Sure.

But we can't stop the future. Nor can we deny that the book in print represents a very small part of how literature through the ages has been made and transmitted. Like (I suspect) most poets, I tend to move through my reading and writing life with an broad awareness of how literary history has been, and a focus (macabre to poetry outsiders, but common among poets) on the remote possibility of... a posthumous career. That sensibility informs my parsing of the Amazon-Hachette matter.

Poetry which I read today (in translation) to my children existed 2,500 years before Gutenberg. This truth casts a certain slant of shadow upon the notion of those vaunted (corporate) gatekeepers I keep hearing hearing about. As beautiful as books are, the typeset book made out of paper comprises a relatively small part of poetry history.

I believe that little small press poetry collections might be the very last books standing, long after the gargantuan publishing oligopoly has breathed its last. Poetry and Torah scrolls, maybe (the true Davids).

Poetry isn't even a footnote in Hachette versus Amazon, but it should be.

Poetry may not sell, but poetry is necessary. We poets have always taken the means of producing poetry books into our own hands. Poets were way early to DIY, and inveterately DIY before printing presses came into being. Poets have a long history of taking pleasure in the physically making of books. Poets have always printed their own work. Poets were journalists before journalists existed. Poets were lyricists before music could be recorded. Poets will probably be publishing books in print long after the book in print has fallen out of favor.

We poets are the literary cockroaches of civilization.

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