Last August, Amazon flew about 80 writers on its Thomas & Mercer mystery and thriller imprint—including me—to Seattle for a conference. They put us up at the Westin downtown, a nice hotel by any standard, and spent the weekend feeding us well and serving us top-shelf booze at an increasingly fabulous series of parties. There were tourist outings, the usual conference mix of panels and workshops, and a non-stressful visit to the Amazon Death Star. Also, they gave us a free Kindle Paperwhite, a nice touch.
With a few exceptions, none of the writers at the conference were particularly famous; some had only published one or two books, all with Amazon. The Seattle trip wasn’t normal treatment for them, or for anyone. I’ve published books with independents and with big corporate imprints, and I’ve published books on my own. Each of these experiences was positive in its own way. But never before had I been treated quite like this. It felt like I’d entered a glorious new age. Amazon had given me a free sneak preview of what book culture would be like from now on.
As usual, I was naive.
A year later, Amazon is embroiled in an ongoing dispute with the Hachette publishing company over e-book pricing, in which Amazon has delayed shipments and removed discounts and pre-order buttons from Hachette titles. This is a literary feud unparalleled in vitriol since Gore Vidal compared Norman Mailer to Charles Manson. One evening, I turned on The Colbert Report to find Hachette author Stephen Colbert sticking his arms up through an Amazon box, middle fingers extended. On Twitter, Colbert urged his viewers to #burndowntheamazon. Meanwhile, 900 writers, many of whom I respect greatly and some of whom I know personally, signed a letter under the name “Authors United”—apparently united by novelist Douglas Preston. They argued that Amazon was establishing some sort of corporate crossfire zone, with best-selling authors as the innocent villagers, the collateral damage. This statement appeared in that last refuge of the literary underdog, the New York Times. It read, in part, “we encourage Amazon in the strongest possible terms to stop harming the livelihood of the authors on whom it has built its business.”
The Times has been running several negative articles about Amazon a month, usually by David Streitfeld, grinding the sharpest ax since Snow White’s Huntsman. Salon seems to publish a Laura Miller anti-Amazon screed every hour. Meanwhile, Bookpeople, the excellent independent bookstore in my hometown that had been so important to starting my own writing career, refuses to carry my Amazon-published books. My Facebook feed is a morass of authors, known and unknown, linking to anti-Amazon articles, comparing Amazon to the Nazis or to Pol Pot. When I waded into one conversation to say, “Hey, Amazon’s not so bad,” someone referred to me as being like “the Vichy French, taking money to cover up crimes.”
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But while everyone seems to hate Amazon, my personal experience with this supposedly evil corporate behemoth has been fantastic.
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I haven’t gotten rich, but I haven’t dropped into poverty, either. Even though none of my books has sold more than 15,000-ish copies, Amazon continues pay me to write them. The idea is that eventually one of my efforts will hit, and then the backlist will rise. The advances aren’t huge; they’ve all been in the low—and I do mean low—five figures. But that strikes me as exceedingly fair pay for mediocre-selling serialized novels about an L.A. yoga detective. It’s not enough money for me to stop doing other, nonfiction-writing work. But I don’t want to stop doing other work. What I do want is to get paid for writing fiction, and that’s happening. Amazon has allowed my novels to be part of the mix. If, someday, they become a bigger part of the mix, well, that’ll be a bonus.
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My friend Deborah Reed, a wonderful writer but not a household name, has sold more than 100,000 copies of her novel Things We Set on Fire—virtually none of them in a conventional bookstore, since conventional bookstores won’t sell Amazon Publishing–produced novels. “Being able to reach hundreds of thousands of readers through Amazon’s database has allowed me to build a career and support myself, which is highly unusual for a writer,” she wrote in an email. “Rather than my books falling into obscurity after the initial launch, Amazon has the capability to keep the interest going by highlighting a book years after it was published.”
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So when I hear people say Amazon is “destroying” literary careers, it just doesn’t make sense—it actually seems to be making them.