How Amazon Changed Fiction As We Know It

This content has been archived. It may no longer be accurate or relevant.

From MSN:

During my interview with literary historian Mark McGurl, I glanced out the window to see an Amazon truck rumbling down my block. It was a fitting metaphor for our conversation about Everything and Less, McGurl’s provocative new literary history about how Amazon has reorganized the universe of fiction. “Amazon has insinuated itself into every dimension of the collective experience of literature in the United States,” McGurl writes. “Increasingly, it is the new platform of contemporary literary life.”

With its staggering American market share of 50% of printed books and upwards of 75% of ebooks, Amazon has changed literary life as we know it. But the Everything Store hasn’t just changed how we buy books: according to McGurl, the Albert Guérard Professor of Literature at Stanford University, it’s transformed what we buy, what we read, and how we write. In Everything and Less, McGurl draws a line from Amazon’s distribution model to the contemporary dissolution of genre boundaries, arguing that Amazon’s algorithm has effectively turned all fiction into genre fiction. In lucid and well-argued prose, McGurl goes spelunking through the many genres shaped by Amazon’s consumerist logic, from the familiar realms of science fiction to the surprising outer reaches of billionaire romance and Adult Baby Diaper Erotica.

Perceptive and often deeply funny, Everything and Less raises compelling questions about the past, present, and future of fiction. McGurl spoke with me by Zoom to discuss the Age of Amazon and all it entails: the dissolution of genre boundaries, the changing role of the author, and the reasons why all hope isn’t lost.

Esquire: Where did this book begin for you?

Mark McGurl: One day, I realized that I had become an inveterate Amazon customer. Then, as a literary historian, I got to thinking through some basic facts about the company. Amazon started as a bookstore, which itself is fascinating. 25 years ago, Amazon did not exist; now, it’s a dominant force in book publishing. That seemed to call for some analysis of what the rise of this company means. Not in any simple sense, like, “Amazon now dictates how literature is supposed to be.” It’s never that simple, but Amazon does illuminate the world in which reading happens. Literature now coexists with lots of other things in the world that it didn’t in the past; Amazon is a bright lamp illuminating that fact.

ESQ: How would you describe the characteristics of the novel in the Age of Amazon? What’s the house style of an Amazonian novel?

MM: There’s tremendous variety in fiction, so the task is not to simplify that variety. It’s a circus out there. From Amazon’s perspective, all fiction is genre fiction. In the early 20th century, literature was systematically divided between so-called genre fiction—entertaining fiction, escapist fiction, science fiction, romance, Westerns, thrillers, etcetera—and literary fiction. What Amazon does is look at the literary field and say, “It’s all genre now.” Genre is the overriding rule of literature in our time.

ESQ: When you say that Amazon looks at all fiction as genre fiction, do you mean that Amazon algorithmically sees it that way?

MM: Yes. One of the amazing things about Amazon is how many genre categories the platform has. It’s literally thousands. There are bestseller lists of a more conventional kind, but when you look toward the bottom of any book listing on Amazon, you’ll see it ranked at a certain number in hugely varied categories, from divorced women’s fiction to Swedish fiction. Amazon has created endless ways of dividing the novel to produce a generic form. This is continuous, of course, with marketing. The broader market phenomena we’re talking about are product differentiation and market segmentation. All big markets understand that certain products will appeal to certain audiences. In literature, genre is the marketing of that world of distinctions.

ESQ: Early in the book, you write about a story called “Wool,” by Hugh Howey, which started at 58 pages before sprawling into a 1,500-page opus, following reader demand. You use it as an example of how publishing to an eager readership can shape the continued life of a work of fiction. Looking at this, I ‘m reminded of someone like Dickens publishing serialized fiction. When an author self-publishing on Amazon is paid by the amount of pages read, how is that so different from the tradition of authors getting paid by the word?

MM: It’s very much continuous with that. Arguably, the strange hiatus was in the early 20th century through the mid-20th century, with the coming of literary modernism and a widespread assumption that literature should be something apart from the market. But in the longer run of the history of publishing, writing for the market has been the norm since the 18th century. The story of Amazon is in some ways deeply continuous with that, even though the mechanisms are fairly different. We’re not talking about serial publication where you’re waiting a month for the next installment, but you are thrown back into this sense of serial production. In some ways, it really is the roaring back of the Dickensian moment in literary history. If you want to make it as a self-published writer, writing one book will not do it. Even a great book won’t do it. The whole game is to gain some audience with a really good book, then continue to serve that audience. That’s what happened with Hugh Howey. He wrote a great short story, which really took off. Then, to serve that audience, he had to keep writing more installments. Before long, he had this massive epic, which has now been optioned for the screen. Certainly the Dickens spirit is back, and Amazon is its sponsor.

ESQ: That seems like the full life cycle of writing, these days. From self-published to runaway success to optioned for the screen.

MM: Cable is something we really have to think about. Only a very small number of novels can be made into cable series, but nonetheless, it really has become a thing. HBO hovers out there as a possible final destination for your work, which will explode its popularity. We live in a world where visual culture is the dominant culture, whether it’s cable television or the internet. Literature just has to relate to that however it can. Granted, I think writers are largely happy about this. As a novelist, you could very much aspire to see or participate in a well-made rendition of your story.

ESQ: Speaking of being an author today, you use this new term: “author-entrepreneur.” You write, “In the Age of Amazon, the job of writing fiction converges with the job of marketing it.” Can you explain the ways the role of the writer has expanded, and the ways in which it has absorbed the labor traditionally done by other people?

MM: In previous decades, the writer was supposed to write his or her book, then the publishing house would take care of the rest. You could remain innocent of how the sausage was made, except when you were asked to do readings. Self-published writers don’t have that luxury at all. Folks who make a living as self-published writers know so much more about marketing books than prestige writers. Apart from creating the book, there’s so much ancillary work they have to do. They have to know pricing strategies, email list cultivation, and cover design. It’s all very exhausting, which is why the most cutting edge of the phenomenon is for self-publishing to operate like a farm system. A writer develops an audience, an editor at a major publishing house will notice, and then they’ll convince the writer to go legit. What that writer gets is relief from all the ancillary work. That’s the argument that’s made to these folks: “You’re spending all these hours cultivating your email list. Do you really want to be doing that, as opposed to creating fiction?” The level of knowledge that a self-published writer has to have is orders of magnitude different from a more traditional writer.

. . . .

ESQ: For self-published writers, Amazon has removed traditional barriers to publication. If you’re self-published, you don’t need an agent or a publisher. What does that mean for the literary world? Is this freeing us from gatekeeping, or is the filtering provided by agents and publishers important?

MM: At some point in the middle of writing this book, I realized I wasn’t going to solve that conundrum. I’m populist enough and democratic enough that I can’t help but appreciate the idea of anyone being able to give this a try. On the other hand, there’s just no denying that the quality control issue is a real one. There’s so much c*** out there. Does the bad stuff impede your access to the good stuff? Do you trust recommendation algorithms and reviews to lead you to things that are actually good? I eventually stopped trying to resolve this dilemma. Quality matters, and the fact that lots of bad books are being published isn’t something I want to celebrate, even as I’m happy for people who can try their hand at writing. The way we think about self-publishing now is like a zombie apocalypse, with so many books coming at us in a zombie hoard—including many zombie novels! It’s hard for me to want to eliminate all the zombies. I think there’s just too much creative energy there, even as there’s certainly a limit to how much time we can or should give to works that aren’t great.

Link to the rest at MSN

“I think there’s just too much creative energy there” which the subject of the OP believes is a bad thing.

So the world would be a better place if we could just stifle a lot of creative energy?

Which, of course, leads us to the question, which voices should we stifle?

In a prior life, PG spent a lot of time in New York City and enjoyed his experiences there. He also spent a lot of time in Chicago and enjoyed his experiences there. A lot of different cities are wonderful places. PG loved his visits to London and Paris and would add Florence and Oxford as most enjoyable smaller cities outside the United States.

That said, PG suggests traditional publishing in the U.S. would be a much healthier business if it weren’t concentrated in one city. And if it weren’t populated by a quite narrow and extraordinarily homogeneous group of people.

Look at how much energy and creativity a Seattle company brought to the book business.

Jeff Bezos was a banker in New York City, but he headed to Seattle and started by hiring people from that area when he began building the biggest bookseller in the world, then the biggest seller of everything else.

Could Amazon have happened in New York? Count PG as skeptical.

Could Microsoft have happened in New York? Apple? Google?

Again PG loves New York (particularly when someone else is paying for his expenses) and it is clearly a world-class city. However, some parts of New York, included, but not limited to publishing manifest all the drawbacks of provincial business cultures despite the fact they are located in a large city.

18 thoughts on “How Amazon Changed Fiction As We Know It”

  1. I think you misread the quote…

    It’s hard for me to want to eliminate all the zombies. I think there’s just too much creative energy there, even as there’s certainly a limit to how much time we can or should give to works that aren’t great.

    I read this as he does not want to gatekeep due to the amount of creative energy self-publishing has unleashed.

    Rephrased (imo)

    “I think there’s just too much creative energy there for me to want to eliminate all the zombies.”

  2. Given the amount of junk that accidentally escaped the gatekeepers and got published, or was cynically given a different gate to go through because it would bring in cash, I think anything that upsets the traditional publishers and their little ivory tower is good.

    The curating is now up to readers and bloggers and writers of articles. That is better than one intern at an agent’s office.

  3. When people talk about the cycle of:

    From self-published to runaway success to optioned for the screen.

    They miss a critical point. Not everything can be translated to the screen. The cost of special effects is still greater than what can be possible for many stories.

    Decades ago, one comic book artists pointed out, that they can draw million dollar special effects on every page, just with pen and ink.

    Read The Magicians series by Lev Grossman, then watch the TV series The Magicians. The TV series opened up the story. The book series was limited by his imagination. He even told the Producers to not follow his story but to be inspired by it.

    Then look at Game of Thrones, books and TV, and you will see that the TV series did not go far enough to match the books. They simply did not have the budget. Each season pushed the limits to what they could achieve for the money they had.

  4. Sadly, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Google, or any of the others, could not happen now where those companies started. Creeping mediocrity, thanks to environments where risk-taking is actively discouraged.

    • I dunno if I’d put it tbat way.
      Risk taking is still allowed; what is frowned upon is excellence.
      You can be new and somewhat different but if you’re trully successful at scale, tbey’ll look for ways to cripple you.

      Think of Malcom Gladwell’s leveler fantasy, OUTLIERS. He pretends there is no such thing as genius.
      Or think about “it takes a village” and “you didn’t build tbat”.
      Or the Seattle corporate head tax, the proposed wealth taxes, and the proposal to cap the legal wealth. All allow startups and small business…
      …as long as it stays small, as long as they don’t leave the entrenched campaign contributors in the dust.

      The levelers allow “innovation” but only in increments tbat can be copied by the entrenched lobbyists. The best example is rocketry where mid 20th tech is still floated as “new and improved” and as soon as somebody provides a quantum leap in performance and pricing, the “competotors” start asking the IdiotPoliticians™ to cripple them. (SpaceX won the new lunar lander contract by bidding half tbe price and 50 times the capacity and what have they gotten? Protests from Bezos, lawsuits, six months worth of delays to keep them from doing work. SpaceX is working to finish the launch facilities for tbe biggest, most powerful, *cheapest* rocket ever but the FAA is blocking any launches while they listen to comments from idiots who “worry about fire and explosions” that only happen at the designated test site. FAA has been at it for three montbs and is projecting a delay until next march.)

      The good news is the levelers’ rear guard war is a losing proposition.

      Amazon is rolling merrily along; Indie,Inc is still growing; Mini Nuclear reactors are coming to market (first design approved with a dozen more coming); and SpaceX’s valuation is up to $100B so they can afford to build their lunar spaceship on their own. And they are building two floating launch pads to work in international waters.

      It’s the 21st century out there and tbere’s nothing the pu dits and lobbyists or IdiotPoliticians™ can do to stop them. Worst case, Indonesia and Russia have offered to host them.

      Oh, and the flying cars are coming.
      The Landspeeder flying motorcycle already is. You can buy it today. From Sweden.

      Safer than tbe Star Wars bikes, too. 😀

      The problem the levelers face is the people tbey want to stop will only find a way around tbeir obstacles. The can delay the future but not stop it.

      Excellence always prevails.

      • Bezos did a masterful job innovating where there wasn’t a strong competitor doing the same thing. But, put him up against competition on the same level, and he starts crying.

        SpaceX really is showing excellence. Somebody’s got to put a stop to that. The wrong kind of people are doing it.

        • Bezos has two problems:
          1- he is a money management guy, not a techie. He hired the “best” of the Old Space politico-industrial- complex, geared to milking government via lobbyists.

          2- he’s gone full boy billionaire. By itself tbat merely neuters his intellect (see Allen, Paul) but maintaining his self image requires he double down on tbe $20B he has invested in Blue Origin.

          Neither of those issues have anything with running an organization with ab eye to excellence.

          • To all that, now add the failings of the idiots Bezos has been listening to:


            Bezos isn’t going to soon admit that the people who he trusted with a billion a year for $20 years were milking him tbe same way they were used to milking IdiotPoliticians™.

            His mindset is that when he needs techies, he can hire them.
            By contrast Musk *is* a techie. And so Lynne Shotwell, the equally brilliant operations chief of SpaceX. And both are working to a shared vision.

            The funniest part is their vision is going to destroy Old Space everywhere, not just the US, merely as a byproduct. Musk isn’t out to kill ULA or Blue Origin per se. They’re just obstacles that got in his way. (While he talks Mars, a prerequisite to doing it requires an entirely new way of doing business in space. From Rockets to spacesuits to vertical farming. (Documenting everything he-and his relatives!-are doing would require a full article.)

            The money Musk is making is all going to be spent as fast as he makes it, much as early Bezos did, but instead of building a global conglomerate (an amazing achievement, mind you) Musk is (quietly) looking to build a new civilization. And a civilization for techies, at that. And he is in a rush to do it because he is racing a potential collapse of the global economy and the possible death of western societies.

            Of course, he *must* be stopped.

        • As long as I’m ranting:

          TL:DR – Morgan Stanley (Bezos’ tribe) see SpaceX (valued at $100B) as a better investment than Tesla (valued at ~$900B). Combined they are roughly Amazon-size which is why Musk is on paper richer than Bezos on paper.

          SpaceX is seen as the Apex player in space: essential in launch, communications, orbital factories, space stations, space telescopes… Everything. A fully reusable system that can loft 100 tons to LEO at $500 -> $10 a pound is going to be dominant.

          On the flip side, at the recent FAA environmental impact hearings, they were vilified:

          Rebecca Hinojosa, a resident of Brownsville, which is about 20 miles (32 kilometers) west of Starbase, registered her opposition as well. She objected to the FAA’s review process, saying the agency has failed to provide requisite Spanish-language notification and updates, and also voiced serious concerns about SpaceX’s Starbase activities.

          “I’ve seen firsthand how SpaceX operations are actually very destructive to our community — how it’s driving gentrification, how it’s starting to displace locals. People have already been displaced from the Boca Chica Village,” Hinojosa said during Monday’s hearing. “I oppose the permit and any authorization for SpaceX to expand their facility here at Boca Chica Beach.”

          Not too different from Amazon destroying literary culture is it?

          • Are the people who sold complaining they were displaced? Or are the people who didn’t sell claiming the sellers were displaced?

            Who has naming rights here?

            • The latter.
              The people who sold got double appraised value.
              The people who stayed want more so they’re playing a game of chicken to see if SpaceX has local government invoke emminent domain on then or pays out even more.
              What got to me was the claim of “gentrification”!
              It’s a freaking factory!
              The final comment was the city manager of Brownsville, the nearest city to Boca Chica, literally begging the FAA to let SpaceX and its 2000 local employees go on and expand. The city economy is depressed and SpaceX hired construction workers, welders, pipefitters, crane and other heavy equipment operators for the site. Skilled Craftmen the lot of them. At very high salaries with tons of overtime.

              Boca chica 2018 to 2020:


              2021 has seen even more work.
              Launch pads, an enormous launch tower, on-site built cryo gas tanks, an even bigger booster building. The purchased houses? Converted to dorms for the workers.

              Yeah, gentrification.
              US of A, 2021.

              (One of the many Youtube channels making big money convering Boca Chica, covered the hearings by zoom. You get a sample of the naysayers. SPACEXCENTRIC. The host’s Lawyerwife™ (his words) laughed her head off. He didn’t, he looked ready to take up arms. Scary rant, actually.)

  5. Be forewarned, dear indie writer, you might be targeted by Traditional Publishing Inc.:

    “It’s all very exhausting, which is why the most cutting edge of the phenomenon is for self-publishing to operate like a farm system. A writer develops an audience, an editor at a major publishing house will notice, and then they’ll convince the writer to go legit. “

    Is this how TradPub is building out its mid list authors, now? It certainly isn’t with lucrative contracts or huge marketing push for launch. And with paper about to become scarce, my concern would be, “what’s my advance and how large a run is the first (and likely only) printing?”

    • And that’s just the start. I would withhold most of my rights from said publisher. And I’d demand marketing details. And I’d run any contract by my entertainment attorney. I’d make them jump through so many hoops that they’d certainly run away. And I wouldn’t care one bit.

    • Are they still trying that?
      Last I heard they discovered that the indies they sought made more money than they could offer and most laughed them off.
      Some of the prominent ones who did bite lost most of their visibility waiting on the publisher’s two year slot based cycle. Then the pandemic hit.

  6. Amazon has indeed changed things. The few who give a rip about the, “collective experience of literature in the United States,” continues to shrink.

Comments are closed.