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Sympathy for the Devil: In Defense of Amazon

06/05/2014 03:48 pm 15:48:00 | Updated Aug 05, 2014

In the spring of 2011, I was working three nights a week night-managing a bar on 14th Street, making about $350 a week. I had published a couple articles in a free weekly in 2008 about the drugs I'd been abusing and the ensuing chaos but, when I dried out in early 2009, my venues for publication dried up. Amazon approached me about writing for Kindle Singles, their new digital publishing platform. I had no name as a writer, a reputation only as a drunken rabble-rouser. I had little faith in their idea or my writing, but I gave them an old story that had sat on my hard drive for nearly 10 years. If it made $500, it was $500 I didn't have before.

To date, that story, "Shipwrecked" has earned me more than $40,000 and been translated into two other languages. I assumed it was a fluke but still quit my bar gig when I got my first royalty check of more than $9000, the biggest check I'd ever gotten in my life. My next story, "The Long Run," tripled "Shipwrecked" in sales, overtaking Stephen King and Dean Koontz to claim the #1 spot for several months.

Now I have a book deal and a career. I bought a nice jean jacket and some guitars and a little house for my mother. Next weekend marks five years of sobriety. Amazon changed my life, and I am eternally grateful. But it's an odd pairing.

I am not a proponent of unfettered capitalism; neither am I a corporate apologist. You don't wind up working in a bar at 32 by embracing corporate America's bloodthirsty quest for ostentatious wealth. "Huge corporations are evil" is a reductive but accurate summary of my political views. But demonizing Amazon and whitewashing Hachette in their battle of the books is grossly naïve.

Amazon is a multinational corporate conglomerate, as is Hachette, one of the "Big Five" publishers that absorbed countless smaller imprints in publishing's brutal consolidation. Amazon has fought ruthlessly for greater market share, as has Hachette. Amazon's reluctance to sell Hachette books is neither blackmail nor extortion (and it's ironic that people in publishing would misuse these words). Amazon isn't obligated to sell Hachette's books. If you think Amazon's tactics are nefarious, you're going to be heartbroken when you find out that BP's oil is as toxic as, well, oil even though their logo is green. Yes, you could make the slanted argument that Hachette is an incubator of culture and Amazon is a glorified warehouse, but they have the same master: the bottom line.

What about the real victims, my fellow writers? I'm not welling up for J.K. Rowling or James Patterson or Stephen Colbert. Their readers will find their works at any airport bookstore or shopping mall kiosk, to say nothing of the zillion other online outlets or chain bookstores like BarnesandNoble.com. Remember when they were the bad guys?

What about the unknown authors, the first-time publishers, the niche writers? They're probably not on Hachette or any other Big Five publisher. They're probably on Amazon. Amazon's digital publishing platform has spawned the careers of thousands of struggling writers, atypical writers like me who previously fell through the cracks. Hugh Howey was a little-known writer in 2011 when he began publishing through Amazon. In 2012, he declined seven-figure offers for a six-figure, print-only deal with Simon and Schuster. I'm more appreciative of the voice Kindle Direct Publishing gives to marginalized writers. Whether you're a radio-controlled airplane fanatic or a lonely 15-year-old writing poetry or a transgender vegan activist who wants to smash the patriarchy and overturn corporate America, Amazon is happy to publish your writing and help you find a readership.

When publishing digitally via Amazon, authors receive 70% of the retail price. When publishing through a paper publisher, authors' royalties approach 15%. Why is Hachette's business model one that writers are fighting to protect? The publishing industry is changing. The future is e-books and audio books and self-publishing and print-on-demand. The Big Five are showing as much foresight as the music industry did 12 years ago. There's a reason why so many former record executives are working as dog-walkers now.

Amazon's spat with Hachette is ugly but it has provided writer after writer an opportunity to point out where else their books are sold. This raises two questions: If Amazon has a book-selling monopoly, why are there so many other options? If Amazon is innately evil, why is it the first place consumers look?

Jeff Bezos didn't build Amazon: We did. Amazon didn't buy out and board up independent bookstores. We abandoned them. We chose convenience over community, commerce over art. The Big Five sell glossy-covered, sensational page-turners and celebrity tell-alls and escapist vampire soft-porn because this is what we've told them we want to read. The solution isn't to order the latest Hachette bestseller online from Wal-Mart.

Try new authors. Read difficult books. Start a small press book club. Work your way up the list of The Modern Library's Top 100 Novels. Go see a play. Give money to a street performer. Turn off your TV and your Playstation and your iPad and your Android, go outside and engage with living culture: people. If you celebrated expression in your real life, you wouldn't have to express outrage on social media.

Do I side with Amazon in this dispute? No. My sympathies are slightly with Hachette because, in the broadest strokes, they make books and Amazon provides a service. But it's not the good-vs.-evil, David-vs.-Goliath narrative we've been fed. I feel the greatest empathy for the writers--yes, all the writers--who have worked incredibly hard on their writing just to see it denied readership. This is the same predicament I and thousands of others of unknown writers have been rescued from by Amazon.