Has Amazon Changed Fiction?

From The New Republic:

In 1993, a young Jeff Bezos was contemplating a career change. He wanted to leave his executive job at the high-speed–trading investment firm D.E. Shaw & Co., and while he was mulling his next move, he happened to pick up a copy of The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1989 novel about an aging butler who looks back on his life, surveying a landscape of missed opportunity and remorse. The novel’s rueful atmosphere inspired Bezos, or so the story goes, to come up with a “regret minimization framework” for his own decisions. In that spirit, he founded an online bookstore in 1994, books being an ­ideal commodity for an experiment in what is now called e-commerce. His then wife, MacKenzie Scott, was an aspiring author, who had worked as a research assistant for Toni Morrison and would publish her first novel in 2005. In this telling, the world-spanning behemoth corporation that is Amazon is the result first and foremost of literature.

Mark McGurl’s new book, Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon, makes the argument not only that books are at the company’s root, but that Amazon itself is a form of literature, an epic narrative of domination that subsumes all of its users as bit characters. It is a force that shapes the creation of all published culture, “offering itself as the new platform of literary life,” McGurl writes. The ways in which the company does this are now so omnipresent as to be subconscious, a fact of culture not worth mentioning, like water to fish. By 2019, Amazon’s digital storefront controlled as much as 72 percent of adult new book sales online and half of all new book sales. Amazon’s Kindle is the most popular e-reader in the world, and, by one estimate, its Kindle Direct Publishing contains over six million e-books. Amazon owns both Audible, the largest audiobook service in the United States, and Goodreads, the pernicious book-review social network that has a reputation for negativity. If that weren’t enough, it also operates 16 of its own imprints for physical books, including a literary-styled imprint, Little A.

Like it or not, we live in the Amazon Era of literature, according to McGurl, just as writers of the late eighteenth century worked in the Age of Johnson; those of the early twentieth century found themselves in the Pound Era; and postwar writers entered the Program Era, which McGurl defined in his previous book as the age of MFA-honed fiction. As well as an economic force, Amazon is an aesthetic one. Literature that is not adapted to its structures, which control the principal ways that books reach readers, will have a difficult time surviving. McGurl dissects this state of affairs in a relatively nonjudgmental way: Rather than arguing that Amazon is destroying literature, or devaluing the artistic act, he attempts to figure out what the house style of the Amazon Era actually is—a style that the author almost perversely enjoys over the course of the book, as part anthropologist and part fan. Unfortunately, that style reads a lot like Fifty Shades of Grey.

.McGurl, a professor of literature at Stanford, focuses less on the innovations of particular works of art than on historical shifts that occurred while art was being made. His 2009 study, The Program Era, took a disinterested approach to fiction, analyzing late–twentieth-century authors as the products of the MFA writing programs they passed through. Among the authors this system produced were Ken Kesey, Wendell Berry, Richard Ford, Michael Chabon, Rick Moody, and Tama Janowitz. For all their differences in style and approach, McGurl found “the dominant aesthetic orientation of the writing program has been toward literary realism.” Working in cloistered university departments, with teaching as one of the few ways to earn a living, Program Era authors tended to focus on self-expression, the pursuit of a unique personal voice over large-scale political commentary. The reductiveness of McGurl’s arguments, like laws of physics but for culture, doesn’t hamper their utility or their accuracy: He usually seems right.

In Everything and Less, McGurl holds Amazon-style digital platforms and their effects to the same scrutiny as MFA programs. Though there is certainly plenty to watch, read, and listen to outside of platforms like Goodreads and Audible, it’s through them that a huge number of people find the things they want to consume—the process that Silicon Valley calls “discovery.” Discovery happens primarily through feeds of information: We find new authors or journalists to follow from Twitter retweets; new television shows to watch on the Netflix homepage; and new things to buy—whether novels or blenders—through Amazon, where we might be tempted by its suggestions of other related or highly reviewed products. Each platform presents its own kind of filter for what we are most likely to discover, an organizing principle that determines what gets recommended next. Twitter rewards self-contained brevity and incendiary provocation, just as Instagram prioritizes bright colors and stark contrasts, the hallmarks of the digital minimalist aesthetic, and TikTok promotes songs with danceable snippets.

Platforms for literature subject it to the same homogenizing effects. One of McGurl’s most important test cases is Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program, which serves as a marketplace of literature the way eBay is a market for stuff. Anyone can self-publish on KDP; it bypasses the publishing world’s usual hierarchy of gatekeepers: agents, editors, and imprint publishers. But the ultimate gatekeeper for KDP is Amazon itself, which rewards specific kinds of books and authors, promoting them through its recommendation feeds. Amazon Literature is serial, with authors publishing new material at high volume every few months instead of every few years. It’s repetitive, with the same tropes, plots, and resolutions happening over and over again, satisfying a readership always ready to consume more through a frictionless tablet device. It usually falls into broad genre categories. The epic, à la Game of Thrones, with its civilization-scale narratives, and the romance, like Fifty Shades, with its intimate scope and mandated happy endings, are major Amazon genres.

. . . .

“According to Amazon, all fiction is genre fiction,” McGurl writes. That includes what we think of as literary fiction, which has to pass through the same filters as everything else on Amazon in order to reach its (dwindling) demographic of readers. He relabels a certain category of highbrow contemporary American fiction as its own mini genre: the “beta intellectual romance.” Whereas the “alpha billionaire romance” genre (think Fifty Shades of Grey) tends to feature brusque, dominating men, the beta intellectual romance serves up a version of masculinity shaped by the basics of feminism and awareness of male privilege. The protagonists are sensitive to a fault.

Link to the rest at The New Republic and thanks to J. for the tip.

The OP reminded PG of how much he hated every college class taught by the English Literature department.

Yet one more in a long list of self-appointed curators of culture, the professor is saying, “Amazon bad” and unnamed people or organizations, likely including traditional publishers, “Good”.

PG speculates that the endowment of Stanford University and, thus, the welfare of the university as a whole, has benefitted far more from the donations by those people who like Amazon and donated its stock to the school than from the cumulative contributions from all English Literature Professors anywhere on earth as a group.

But there PG goes again, thinking that virtue is not its own reward and that it requires money from third parties to keep intellectual university employees from having to work at an Amazon warehouse.

PG would also be interesting in seeing a list of what 21st Century books and authors the Stanford professor finds up to snuff, especially authors who earn their living from their writing and the people who purchase copies of what they have written instead of needing a day job talking to rich 18-year-olds.

As indicated in the OP, Professor McGurl is pitching his new book, Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon. The book is to be released in a few days and is published by Verso, “the largest independent, radical publishing house in the English-speaking world.”

Here’s what Verso says about itself in Wikipedia:

Verso Books was originally known as New Left Books. The name “Verso” refers to the technical term for the left-hand page in a book (see recto and verso), and is a play on words regarding its political outlook and also reminds of the vice versa – “the other way around”.

Aren’t they cute?

Verso’s website includes a post titled Bestsellers of 2020

The first book listed is titled The End of Policing. When PG checked, its Best Sellers Rank was #170,723 in Kindle Store. The hardcover version was ranked 962,397 in Books.

The second book listed in Verso’s 2020 Bestsellers is Feminism for the 99%. Its Best Sellers Rank: #363,001 in Kindle Store and the paperback’s Best Sellers Rank: #56,308. PG didn’t see a hardcover version of this book.

#3 on Verso’s 2020 Bestsellers list is If They Come in the Morning …: Voices of Resistance (Radical Thinkers). This book has a Best Sellers Rank: #622,343 in Kindle Store and a Best Sellers Rank: #5,331,334 in Books.

Back to Professor McGurl’s literary output, PG discovered that his upcoming Verso release is not his first venture into trying to sell his writing to the public.

The Novel Art: Elevations of American Fiction after Henry James was published in June, 2020, by Princeton University Press. This book has a current Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,552,418 in Kindle Store.

The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing was published in 2009 by The Harvard University Press and has a current Amazon Best Sellers Rank of #1,064,212 in Kindle Store.

PG expected that these two books must be hot-sellers in Cambridge and Princeton, but a check of the Harvard Bookstore bestsellers list didn’t show any of Professor McGurl’s books. When PG checked the Princeton University store, it was having a big sale on t-shirts, sweatshirts, vests and jackets, blankets and pillows bearing the Princeton logo. PG eventually Princeton’s books section, but a search for Professor McGurl’s name yielded no products for sale. The Princeton store did offer a cool bottle-stopper, however.

Even The Stanford Bookstore didn’t appear to offer any of Professor McGurl’s books although you can buy a cool Stanford Wrist Shimmer Pom there.

Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.

George Bernard Shaw

13 thoughts on “Has Amazon Changed Fiction?”

  1. Many of these folks don’t understand the very simple economic situation. Gate keepers were necessary because of the limited shelf space available. All the available manuscripts could never fit on the limited shelf space. That limit is now gone.

    The gatekeepers weren’t because of literary value or artistic curation. It was because of simple warehousing. Shelves and Stuff.

  2. Harder to push the designated blockbuster in the catalogue if there are all those other pesky competing books.

    It’s not quality – given some of the offerings from our friends in traditional publishing – it’s the control and the feeling of curating culture.

    I went indie because of the abuses of the trad pub system, including the narrow gates and the dropping royalties and advances, but mostly because of the lack of ability to control your own work product. I’m too old for them to be vetting my choices. And too slow. We’ll see if it ever works out for me – I’m not selling much right now, but expect that – and hope I will make a splash when I finish the second book in the trilogy and push the heck out of both.

    I doubt that without Amazon I would have had any choice.

  3. I am bemused by the reaction to McGurl’s analysis, this reaction seemingly related more to his job title than to anything else in the excerpt. Some years ago he observed that MFA programs incentivized a certain sort of writing, and analyzed what that was. More recently he observed that Amazon incentivizes a different sort of writing, and analyzed what that is. So far this is clearly true: so clearly so as to be unremarkable. Neither do I see where the analysis itself should be controversial. If anything, my critique is that he is merely stating what it obvious to anyone paying attention. PG’s reaction of ‘Yet one more in a long list of self-appointed curators of culture, the professor is saying, “Amazon bad” and unnamed people or organizations, likely including traditional publishers, “Good”’ is disconnected from the actual text. If only there were a university department devoted to teaching the close reading of texts…

      • I think you were letting an issue that means a lot to you personally overshadow what was actually written.

    • In Everything and Less, McGurl holds Amazon-style digital platforms and their effects to the same scrutiny as MFA programs. Though there is certainly plenty to watch, read, and listen to outside of platforms like Goodreads and Audible, it’s through them that a huge number of people find the things they want to consume—the process that Silicon Valley calls “discovery.”

      Huge numbers of people aren’t looking for the works of MFAs.

  4. Anent PG’s aside about professors in the English Dept… I well remember looking at getting an actual education at one of the Ivies in the early 70s (without aiming at becoming a professional academic) and, since I had bombed out of advanced math (at 17- sigh…), turned my attention to the Humanities. Though I took a few overview classes (taught by superb not-yet-corrupt experts — always take a class for its professor, not its subject matter), I concentrated on technical courses, like (lots of) dead languages and other specialist areas. Ended up happy with the choices.

    It only now occurs to me that — education having been ruined — the only safe path thru the upper levels (for actual personal education) in both the sciences and the humanities is the peripheries — the labs, the technical courses, the practical applications — because almost all of the rest have got indoctrination to pursue and whips to make sure you conform. This is the analogue of the trade schools — learn your craft/trade/tools and then make your own way as independently as possible.

  5. Strictly speaking, the OP *title* is correct.
    But rather than focus on the main impact, the article goes off on a tangent. Because Amazon’s primary impact is economic, not “cultural” or anything academics actually care about.

    To me, the numbers that matter are 72% and 50%. A few others are missing but those two will do.

    Individually those numbers say a lot about the business of bookselling and, maybe, on authors that write to market, both of which academics generally sneer at. (Writing for lucre is generally très declassé, non?)

    Thing is if Amazon sells half of all new releases and 72% of all books, then that extra 22% of all sales is backlist. Or put another way: backlist is a third of Amazon’s business.

    Two other numbers of interest are 6 million (the size of the Amazon catalog) and 50,000 (a generous estimate of the shelf space of the average B&M store). Given that the BPHs alone put out 35000 books a year, that doesn’t leave much room for the other 5.95M books in the active catalog that make up that not-insignificant share of Amazon’s business.

    Again, going back to the 72% number and the total number of books sold in 2020–750m in print and 250M (or more) ebooks–we get about 220million backlist books moving via Amazon.

    Those books would not be selling without Amazon (or its alternate universe equivalent) so, yeah; Amazon *has* changed the publishing business.

    I expect the judgement on whether this is good or bad will depend on whether you are a commercial author, a reader, or something else.

    My own sympathies are with the first two.

    • Good analysis, F.

      If anybody has seen a good analysis of how many total books have been sold each year starting a year or two before Amazon, PG would appreciate a tip on that using the “Contact PG” link up at the top of TPV.

      He suspects that Amazon has resulted in a lot more total books, including books by indy authors, than were ever sold before it came into existence.

      • I’ve looked but the problem is the industry metric of choice is gross revenue *before* adjusting for inflation not actual books sold. Add to that, that Amazon doesn’t report their numbers on print, APub, and digital. Bookstore sales numbers are (kindly) estimates. (Less kindly: cooked.) Most reported numbers come from the bigger publishers; smaller publishers numbers aren’t reported.

        The few known facts on the state of publishing this century are reports that the market has been stagnant for most of the century (actual year reported varies: 2000, 2003, 2007), the rate of inflation, and the shift of tradebook output away from MMPB to the more expensive formats.

        All we can say and defend is that the number of *new release* traditionally published books sold has steadily declined and that the total number of books read has steadily increased. (Used book sales have boomed since 2000 and book rentals since 2014. All that atop the increased availability of public domain and creative commons books. And that excludes fanfiction and other forms of online non-fiction.)

        There’s a lot of indicators of trends and general magnitude but not actual verifiable numbers. Or if they exist, they are kept under lock and key. They’re bound to be embarrassing to the mythkeepers.

  6. “According to Amazon, all fiction is genre fiction,” McGurl writes.

    Works for me.

    Books are judged by the number of pages turned in Kindle apps rather than by professional critical consensus.

    Fine and dandy.

    • Books are judged by the number of pages turned in Kindle apps rather than by professional critical consensus.

      Fine and dandy.

      Indeed. I do not tar McGurl with this brush, because he seems to be making a statement of fact rather than a value judgment, but most of the time when such statements are made the not-so-hidden meaning is “The proles are reading what they want to read instead of what we want them to read.”

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