When a new book, or for that matter an old one, piques your interest, do you call the local bookseller, crossing your fingers that they have it, or do you order it from Amazon? The ability to have the most popular literature or the most obscure – be they novels, cookbooks, or textbooks – delivered to one’s doorstep in a matter of days is appealing. I asked several friends about their book-buying habits and the question of Amazon or bookshops. “Amazon,” one replied, almost incredulous. “It’s just easier.” Others agreed.
“I feel guilty because I want to support local bookshops, so I’ll buy from them when I can, but more often than not I use Amazon.”
“The used copies on Amazon are usually cheaper than buying elsewhere, and it’s also just more convenient.”
They are not alone. Amazon controlled nearly half of all new book sales in 2019, online and in print, and its influence extends beyond the distribution of books. In the realm of publishing, the tech giant has several subsidiaries under its name. The largest, AmazonCrossing, is especially dominant in the area of translated fiction. It has, according to The Guardian, published more than 200 titles in the last decade. In 2015 alone, AmazonCrossing published three times as many translated titles as the next most prolific publisher of translated works. The popular book-sharing and recommendation site Goodreads, which boasted 90 million users as of 2019, was bought out by Amazon in 2013. This came after Amazon bought a similar social reading site, Shelfari, five years earlier. All of this points toward the reality that Amazon exercises an increasingly significant role in the publishing and circulation of literature. Whether this outsized impact is a positive one is more ambiguous.
If you have searched for books on Amazon, your search was likely influenced by both the layout of the site and the algorithmic method used to sort books – a system for which subtle changes can have large impacts on what book-buyers see, as well as who benefits from their purchase. Prior to 2017, one knew that, when buying a book on Amazon, it had been bought by Amazon from the publisher: the publisher, and in turn the author, benefited from your decision to buy the book. However, in the last four years, the author is less likely to see part of the profit. Now, the default seller who profits when you click “add to cart” is determined by an algorithm that favours third-party sellers offering low prices. When this happens, authors usually see none of the profit. Given the financial ramifications for publishers, their attitudes on which books ought to be published are changing. Publishing houses are more likely than ever to reject manuscripts without obvious popular appeal. According to the publishing industry trade magazine The Bookseller, a few thousand copies sold is considered a success from the publisher’s point of view. With this inmind, Amazon’s favouring of third-party booksellers has a marked impact on whether such books can be read. Authors Guild president Mary Rasenberger said in an interview that “if publishers have less money, then they have less to invest. That means they can’t afford to take risks on the kinds of challenging books they’ve published for centuries.”
Moreover, doubts about the ability of an algorithm to sort literature into categories that make sense are well-founded. For instance, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness sits on Amazon’s list of “Children’s Interactive Adventures.” In this sense, Amazon has not only changed the interaction between author and distributor, but also the relationship between author and reader. These alterations often manifest in the form of seemingly emancipatory opportunities for writers. One example is Amazon’s foray into direct publishing, allowing writers to self-publish, albeit with Amazon taking a large portion of the earnings. This initiative is exclusively online in the form of Kindle Direct Publishing. According to Mark McGurl in his book Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon, Kindle Direct Publishing essentially pays authors by commission according to the number of pages read. Not only does this encourage plot devices like early cliff-hangers, but it also means that speed is prized to the detriment of all else.
In 2018, two writers who self-published under the pen name Alexa Riley told The Atlantic that they had written and published more than 100 novellas on Amazon since 2014 and that the more pages of theirs that are read, the higher their chances are of appearing on a “most read” author list. The reward for appearing on one of these lists is thousands in bonus money from Amazon.
The pandemic, at least in its early stages, offered some hope to independent booksellers, as certain specialised imprints saw an increase in sales. With people stuck at home, small publishers that focused on subjects such as gardening experienced a boom, while travel guides and books on foreign languages became less popular. However, now that the world is slowly returning to normality, these small booksellers are once again suffering with customers returning to Amazon for their books.
That said, to decry Amazon’s effect on readers and the books they read as wholly negative would be misguided. The Kindle, for instance, is an especially useful tool for those with poor eyesight who would otherwise struggle to read the print of a paperback. As McGurl points out, “it is lightweight, and you can increase the font size. That doesn’t matter much to me right now, but for my older parents it’s a game-changer.” Also, it seems inarguable that the result has been a democratisation of authorship: writers no longer have to depend on a few publishers to publish their work.
Moreover, the phenomenon of external forces exerting their influence on literature did not begin with Amazon. Modes of distribution, whether it be the internet or cheaply printed pulp paper, have always played a part in determining the dominant literary styles of a given era. In the 19th century, for instance, the popularity of the three-volume novel was in part a result of public circulating libraries, which enabled people to read a given work in instalments for a more modest fee than buying it outright. This had an impact on how these works were written, as authors had to keep readers interested over the course of what was, in many cases, nearly a thousand pages. Characters were given memorable names so readers could recall them. Likewise, according to Parul Sehgal, the fictional autobiography, which lent itself to exposition, was an especially popular choice for authors. This would eventually give way to the mass-produced paperbacks and magazines brought on by the introduction of inexpensive wood pulp paper as a printing material. All of this underlines the fact that methods of distributing books, and the resulting influence on the writing of them, was not static prior to Amazon.
The comparison to Spotify seems apt. Just as one effect of Spotify has been artists seeing very little in return from their music being streamed, Amazon’s moves to favour third-party booksellers and drive down the cost of books has had a similar impact on authors. Is the solution to forsake Amazon, at least when it comes to purchasing books, and to double down on your resolve to do it through independent bookstores, whose decline is, at least in part, a consequence of online retailers, Amazon chief among them? I do not think that is for me to say. The convenience that online retail affords readers is not to be dismissed or taken lightly. That said, the effect of Amazon’s efforts to drive down the prices of books is one with major implications, making it harder to make a living through writing, and consequently leaving us with fewer interesting things to read.
Illustration: Vera Emma Rapp