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The Limits of Capital


By now, lots of people have seen and commented on this blog post, in which a publishing insider explains the evil genius of Amazon’s plan to kill New York publishing. What no one is saying, however, is that this is a surprise. The half-informed among us have long believed that Amazon’s ultimate goal with the Kindle is to supplant The Big Six, so surely the insiders have been bracing for this, right?amazonlogo

The email is mainly of interest, then, not because it’s news but because it convincingly sketches the details of Amazon’s plans for world domination. What Amazon brings to the equation, according to this emailer, is simple capital. Amazon can lose money for years while it takes away the only reliable sources of profit in New York publishing: celebrity memoirs and airport fiction. Again, I’m not surprised to hear that The Big Six are so fully invested in celebrity memoirs and airport fiction, but it does seem strange that the publishing industry, aware that it is endangered, would persist in doing work that  most anyone could do:

The bestselling books are all written by celebs, by people with huge platforms, by fiction writers with a long history of bestselling books, or by people who do a proposal that’s on its surface brilliant. In short, there’s a bidding war among the publishers over the big books. We all know what the good books are–it all comes down to how much of an advance we’re willing to pay for them.

“We all know what the good books are”: so judgment has no place in what this writer characterizes as the central business of the publishing industry. “The hotly fought-for books are the ones that sell,” the insider continues. Hmm. It couldn’t be, could it, that these books sell because, after being hotly fought-for and hotly paid-for, they are hotly marketed?

Or is marketing even necessary? If I’m a celebrity or an established airport-fiction author, how much do I actually rely on the notoriously dodgy marketing expertise of my book publisher? Why not publish with Amazon? Why not start my own imprint? Why not sell everything exclusively on my own website? If authors of hotly fought- and paid-for books already have “huge platforms,” haven’t they already marketed their books?

Obviously, there remain editors at New York houses who do work that Amazon cannot easily replicate, and whose talents go beyond bean-counting. There is nothing wrong with bean-counting, but if Amazon succeeds in claiming those publishing profit streams that require no talent beyond bean-counting, it might well do readers and writers who care about literature a substantial favor.