The world has more stories than it needs or wants to pay for. – David Streitfeld
I don’t want the year to have a depressing start but, now that the festivities have died down a little, it is time for a reality check. One of the consequences of our culture of plentitude is, ultimately, paying much more than we bargained for. And, that seems to be the consequence of book business giant Amazon’s latest move, Amazon Unlimited. One of those rare events where the book consumer has the bliss of no choice and the book generator the promise of none. Is this latest move by the ultimate word in the book business really the end of stories? Do we really have more stories than we need or want to pay for?
Artists always have, and always will, suffer at the hands of commerce. The few dazzling stars that you see are exactly that, few, compared to the many, many, that deserve a chance as much as them for reachability and credit but don’t get it. And even those stars are sometimes the victims of manipulation and deceit. The problem is, art is art and commerce is commerce and the twain have rarely ever met. Even when we speak of commercial art, both in the sense of availability and in the sense of being “low”, it is always art that gets paid much much less, itself paying much more in other ways.
Of course, Amazon has been facing the ire of writers and traditional publishers for about a year already, the most famous of such cases being the one with Hachette. In India, Amazon grabbed exclusive rights over the sale of the autobiography of the current President when, for things to have been expectantly democratic, it should have been available on all platforms. The worst to be hit by Amazon’s schemes are not people with contracts with traditional publishers but self-published authors. The allure of being a successful author was multiplied beyond belief when aspirants realized that, with comparatively little monetary and emotional cost, they could be in control of their writing careers through self-publishing. But, self-publishing isn’t self-publishing. It is still, in most cases, Amazon publishing.
To gain a little perspective over the initial shock by potential and established self-published authors, this was nothing unexpected. Amazon is an e-commerce website. It is not concerned with quality control beyond the actual material of any item. You may complain about the quality of paper, but would you really complain if you got 3 books ( or thousands ) for the price of 1? And even if you decided to take a stand, you have to remember you will always be in the minority. It is not disrespectful of the consumer to buy books on any scheme. He or she bears no obligation to the writer; it is the writer who is obliged to write a book his or her potential reader will find of interest.
Amazon is doing nothing new, it is only doing it in the way it can. In some form or another, throughout history, art has had to pay by not being paid enough. Book publishing and merchandising has always been a tough, unpredictable game. Even if writers make an effort to thoroughly understand the business of selling books, the biggest story, the biggest mystery of all, are the twists and turns in the web of finance. It is the original web that stretches wide across the world, entangling one and all, where you constantly try to stay above surface and gain a stronghold. But, you know that there is always a chance of your falling. And, if you do, there is always that art, that story that no one needs or wants, that you can try and seek comfort in.
In a way, I’m glad that the bubble about Kindle publishing has burst. Too very soon, perhaps, but it will remind writers to insist, to demand for greater presence of people who are responsible for quality in the book business. Quality, by which I do not mean paper or book design or marketable content necessarily, but people who recognize the intrinsic value of a book, in its specific genre, and feel obliged to propagate that book to its potential readership. Isn’t this how we all feel about books we are passionate about, or at least, see the value in? After all, a bookstore, whether real or virtual, should never be a seemingly intellectual ( and pretentious ) inlet to a store that also carries other things, things that are far more profitable to sell. The biggest positive message we can get from Amazon Unlimited is that people want to read books much more than we expected. The consumer buys a book not for the sake of buying it, but for reading it. And, it is time we made our virtual bookstores function on the basis of that.