The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly


When you utter the word “amazon” as in “dot com,” you get varied reactions. Many consumers love the behemoth for its convenience and price. They are loud in their praise and often in their clicks-to-cart. Many others are “closet amazon” fans. They talk the good talk about supporting small independent booksellers, but if they want a specific book (and they do) at the best price available (and they do), they order it from the privacy of their amazon-prime homes.

Of course, amazon is more than just books now. It hawks just about dot-com everything. And if you get into a problem with a delivery like I did a few weeks back, you get the best horrible customer service correspondence in the world. Long letters in need of an editor. Cookie-cutter apologies that sound as sincere and as empty of humanity as a Donald Trump rally.

In fact, when my 2-day delivery never showed up and I asked why, amazon customer service assured me it would arrive on Day 3. Then Day 4. Would you believe Day 5? Uh, no. So the amazon solution was this: To show they care and to assuage my alarm, they offered me a one-month extension of our amazon prime membership (retail value: $8.43).

I replied, “Button up your shirt because your heart’s falling out!” but they didn’t get the idiom and probably considered me an idiot. A brief glimpse of human irritation slipped out when the long-winded response (an amazon staple) included a reference to concern about my “precious time.” Sarcasm dot com. Even amazon customer service reps in need of an editor and a Strunk & White lesson on succinct writing are subject to it.

Which brings me to Barnes & Noble, the step-child in the behemoth bookselling world. I did the usual irate customer act and took my business elsewhere, elsewhere meaning Barnes & Ignoble. My amazon grudge order will arrive in a week or so, depending on pony changes (they ship Pony Express, apparently).

Still, these days, you can’t take behemoth booksellers for granted, just like you can’t take successful deliveries for granted. In an article in the New Republic, culture news editor Alex Shephard writes that the impending demise of B&N will hurt writers. No, not the rich-get-richer writers referenced  in my last post. The little guys (includes 99.3% of poets). The rising stars. The literary outsiders. Here’s Shephard on what will happen if B&N goes the way of Borders:

“…Big-name authors, like Malcolm Gladwell or James Patterson, will probably be fine. So too will writers who specialize in romance, science fiction, manga, and commercial fiction—genres with devoted audiences, who have already gravitated to Amazon’s low prices. But Barnes & Noble is essential to publishers of literary fiction—the so-called “serious” works that get nominated for Pulitzers and National Book Awards. Without the initial orders Barnes & Noble places, and the visibility its shelves provide, breakout hits by relative unknowns—books like Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven—will suffer.

In a world without Barnes & Noble, risk-averse publishers will double down on celebrity authors and surefire hits. Literary writers without proven sales records will have difficulty getting published, as will young, debut novelists. The most literary of novels will be shunted to smaller publishers. Some will probably never be published at all. And rigorous nonfiction books, which often require extensive research and travel, will have a tough time finding a publisher with the capital to fund such efforts.

The irony of the age of cultural abundance is that it still relies on old filters and distribution channels to highlight significant works. Barnes & Noble and corporate publishers still have enormous strides to make in fully reflecting America’s rich diversity. But without them, the kinds of books that challenge us, that spark intellectual debates, that push society to be better, will start to disappear. Without Barnes & Noble, we’ll be adrift in a sea of pulp.”  (The full article can be read here.)

Bad. Ugly, even. But amazon will just keep keeping on.

So maybe, in addition to supporting the little independent booksellers when you’re in their brick-and-mortar neighborhood, you can support one of the big guys on the ropes while you’re at it. For writers like us, the trickle-down economics of a Barnes & Noble implosion might just be the beginning of the end, also known as the end-of-publishing days.


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