I find myself in San Francisco during the World Series. Here we see the monument in Union Square commemorating Admiral Dewey’s victory in the battle of Manila Bay. Also, go Giants!
Advice-columnist Margo Howard is distressed that she received bad reviews of her recent memoir from real, ordinary people on Amazon. The reviews were written by Amazon’s Vine community, and Ms. Howard didn’t like them one bit, finding them “inaccurate, insulting, and demonstrably written by dim bulbs.” She finds the very idea of being reviewed by these folks distressing:
I can see the value—maybe—for man-on-the-street reviews of cold cream and pots and pans, but books?!
(I love the interrobang.) And:
Books, of course, can be and are reviewed pre-publication—but by reviewers who are attached to magazines or newspapers. “Book Reviewer” is considered a profession, and reviews are done by other writers. Good sense would seem to militate against any group of people unschooled in creative and critical reviewing coming up with a worthwhile review. The Vine people, who deal mostly with products for the home and the body, seem inappropriate bellwethers regarding products for the mind, if you will.
Luckily, Jennifer Weiner is around to offer some sensible words in response:
Howard frets that the Amazon attack hurt her book’s chances. There’s no way to tell if that’s true, but I’d give readers the benefit of the doubt. My guess is that they can sniff out a review that’s the result of baseless jealousy or an unfounded agenda, the same way they’ve learned to dismiss five-star fan-girling from an author’s BFFs, colleagues, or mom.
If the Amazon reviewers slammed Howard’s work without reading it, that’s a problem, and Amazon should address it. If they panned Howard’s book because they didn’t like it, that’s reality, and Howard need to figure out how to live with it, and to come to terms with publishing in 2014. Everyone is a critic. Everyone’s got a soapbox. And the worst fate for a writer isn’t being attacked … it’s being ignored.
Here, by the way, is a review that just popped up on Barnes & Noble about my novel The Distance Beacons:
Wow, Violet! This was great! Thanks so much for recommending it to me! (Haha, sorry for the typo) Your style is absolutely wonderful! Please keep going, and l will keep reading! <p> Thanks again for reading mine, Ring &infin
Huh? Actually, there seems to be a random conversation going on between a couple of people, carried out via reviews of my novel. Luckily, all their reviews are 5-stars. At least I’m not being ignored. I think.
Franklin Foer of The New Republic has joined the ranks of folks with Amazon Derangement Syndrome; take a look at this article. The best response I’ve seen is this blog post at the Washington Post (now owned, of course, by Jeff Bezos). To Foer’s assertion that big publishers just can’t compete in the face of Amazon’s demands, the author points out the obvious:
They just can’t compete? Why the hell not? They can’t sell their e-books from their own websites? Why is that? Or at barnesandnoble.com? Powells.com? Ebooks.com? The ebook market is, as the antitrust lawyers say, as “contestable” a market as one can imagine, with virtually no barriers to entry. Sell your stuff there, at whatever price you want to sell it at. If you want Amazon to sell your stuff, you have to take their terms. It’s not “exacting tribute”! It’s “business as usual.” If you don’t like it, go elsewhere.
Of course, convincing people that Jeff Bezos is the devil and Amazon is an evil empire is one way of competing; I don’t find it a very compelling approach, though.
As I mentioned in another post, the one time I wanted to buy a Hachette book on Amazon lately, it took me three clicks to find it at Barnes & Noble with a 20% discount. No monopoly here.
As I mentioned, the book is called Where All the Ladders Start. Those of you who have read its predecessors, Dover Beach and The Distance Beacons, will notice that I use a standard private-eye opening in all of them. Except, of course, life is different in this fictional universe.
The remaining 35 or so chapters are coming soon to your local ebook store . . .
I got off my bike and stared at the guy in the brown robe. The guy in the brown robe stared at me. He was sitting at the front of a cart piled high with apples, pumpkins, squash, and other fall produce; half a dozen dead turkeys hung from hooks at the back of the cart. He was big and broad and scary, with small black eyes, long stringy hair, and a scraggly beard that was interrupted by a deep scar on his left cheek.
“Hiya,” I said, trying to break the ice.
He stared at me for a second, and then his eyes moved to the horse, who ignored him.
“Looking for me?” I asked. “Walter Sands? Got a bit of a late start today. Sorry if I kept you waiting.”
The guy didn’t respond. I hadn’t really expected him to be looking for me. But Lower Washington Street was an odd place to park a cart filled with food.
“The Food Market is a few blocks over,” I tried. “They’ll love your stuff.”
“Well, have a nice day.”
He didn’t look like he was interested in nice days. Fine. The world was filled with strange people, and he was just one more of them. I walked around the cart and entered the building that housed my spacious, well-appointed office.
Okay, those adjectives aren’t entirely accurate, but the place fits my needs, which mainly consist of a stove to keep me warm and shelves to hold the books I read to pass the time while I wait for clients to show up. Also, a desk and a couple of chairs in case a client actually does show up. Not that this had been happening much lately. Or, well, ever.
I carried my bike inside and walked upstairs.
From the hallway, I noticed that the door to my office was open. I always close the door to my office when I leave at night. Of course, the door doesn’t lock, but that doesn’t really matter. Nothing worth stealing in my office.
I took out my gun. I wasn’t especially worried, but it pays to be careful. “Please don’t do anything stupid,” I announced, and then I went inside.
And there, sitting by my desk, was the most beautiful woman in the world. She was wearing a powder-blue robe, and she was staring at me.
“Mr. Sands,” she said calmly, ignoring the gun. “Do you remember me?”
It was impossible to forget her. “Of course,” I said. “Sister Marva. How are you? And please, call me Walter.” We had met during one of the many disastrous episodes in my previous case. She was a disciple in the Church of the New Beginning up in Concord. Long black hair, creamy white skin, deep blue eyes. I found it hard to break my gaze away from those eyes.
I sat down behind my desk, and that’s when I noticed that she was pregnant. Well, that was interesting. Beautiful pregnant woman shows up in the private eye’s office, needing his help. That’s the way it’s supposed to happen.
“So, um, what can I do for you, Sister? The last time we met—”
“You almost killed Brother Flynn,” she reminded me.
“Yes. I’m very sorry about that.” Flynn Dobler was the leader of Sister Marva’s Church. A very smart, charismatic fellow. I snuck into the Church in the middle of the night and pointed a gun at him while he lay in bed. I remembered Marva coming in and leaping on top of him, desperate to protect her master from the intruder. All because of a really stupid theory I’d come up with about a kidnapping I was investigating. This had not been my finest moment as a private eye.
“It’s all right,” she said with a sympathetic smile. “Everyone makes mistakes. But now we need your help.”
“We? The Church?”
“Brother Flynn has disappeared,” she said, and the smile faded, and her beautiful blue eyes filled with tears.
“Disappeared?” I repeated. “How? When?”
“A week ago. He was there one night in his room, and then—in the morning—he was gone.” The tears started falling down her cheeks.
This was the way it always happened in the novels I’d read. And now it was happening to me. But this didn’t feel like a novel—this was a real human being, shedding real tears. I wanted to comfort her, but I also needed to do my job.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “Was there a note? Were there witnesses?”
She shook her head. She wiped her cheeks with the sleeve of her robe. I wished I had a handkerchief to offer her. In my novels, the private eye always had a handkerchief.
“You’ve checked around the farm, I suppose? There are plenty of wild animals, especially once you get outside the city. Wolves. Wildcats. Feral dogs. Probably some crazies, too.”
“Yes, of course. We’ve looked everywhere.”
“Well, um, any theories? Do you suspect foul play?”
Sister Marva lowered her eyes. “Brother Joseph does,” she murmured.
“Well, he’s the disciple—who, who runs things. Brother Flynn’s second-in-command, I suppose.”
“Who does he suspect?”
“You should ask Brother Joseph, I think. He asked me to come here and talk to you. Because I go to the Food Market every day, with Brother Reggie. He’d like you to come up to Concord and investigate.”
Brother Reggie was presumably the giant in the cart. “You said Brother Joseph suspected foul play,” I said. “What do you suspect, Sister Marva?”
She blushed. “I think that perhaps God took him from us.”
I struggled to figure out what she meant. “You mean, like, he died of natural causes?”
She shook her head. “I mean—God brought him up to heaven. While he was still alive. Because He loved Brother Flynn so much.”
“Why do you think that?”
“Because Sister Lucy saw it happen.”
“Sister Lucy saw Brother Flynn get taken up to heaven,” I said, making sure I had this straight.
“Yes. You should talk to her too, I think.”
“I think you’re right.” Maybe a more experienced private eye would have decided right there that this case wasn’t going to be worth the trouble. But I’m not very experienced. And, frankly, I had nothing better to do. I decided to change the subject. “By the way, congratulations on your pregnancy, Sister Marva.”
She smiled and inclined her head. “It’s a blessing.” Her smile made you happy to be alive.
“Do you mind my asking: is Brother Flynn the father?”
Her face clouded and she looked down at her belly. “I don’t think—I don’t think that has anything to do with Brother Flynn’s disappearance, Walter.” she replied. And then she fell silent.
OK, one more mystery. I considered. My friend and occasional employer Bobby Gallagher had a van, but it was out of commission while his driver/mechanic Mickey tried to scrounge or repair or manufacture a gasket or a flange or a defibrillator or some-such item; I don’t know much about vans. “I’ll take the case,” I said. “But if you want me to go up there today, I’m afraid I don’t have—”
“You can ride with us in our cart,” Marva suggested. “We return to the Church after we finish selling our food. We should be at the Market now, actually. I’m sure Brother Reggie is tired of waiting.”
I considered some more. “That means I’d have to stay the night at the Church,” I pointed out. “I need to be back in Boston tomorrow.”
“We come to the Food Market every day. You can come back with us in the morning.”
That was that, then. I had a case. “All right,” I said. “I get two new dollars a day. Ten dollars in advance.”
Sister Marva gave me another smile. She looked relieved and grateful. “That would be wonderful. But would you prefer to be paid in food instead?”
That wasn’t a bad idea. Inflation was getting to be a problem. Who knew what the money would buy when I got around to spending it? “Food would be fine,” I replied.
We went back down to the street, where Brother Reggie did not in fact seem to be tired of waiting. It wasn’t clear that he had even moved since the last time I set eyes on him. But his face lit up when he saw Sister Marva, like a dog greeting his master. Marva and I agreed to meet at the Food Market later. I filled a bag with produce from the cart and grabbed one of the turkeys. Looked like ten dollars’ worth to me, and Marva didn’t haggle. Then Brother Reggie helped her up onto the cart, and they headed off.
I watched them go. The Church of the New Beginning. Leave the past behind, it preached. Start fresh—no technology, no government, none of the baggage that still weighed so many of us down. Look at where all that stuff had led us. Reasonable enough, I supposed. The past had certainly ended up badly.
But now, strangely, the Church had a missing-person case on its hands, and it had decided to call on that useless relic of the past, a private eye. Well, I had already seen some strange things in my brief career; no reason for this case to be any different.
I brought my bike out of the building and arranged the sack of food over the handlebars; I held onto the turkey. Then I pedaled home to the townhouse in Louisburg Square where I lived with Gwen, the most wonderful woman in this godforsaken world, and Stretch, the most wonderful dwarf in the world. Both of them were at work—Gwen at the Boston Globe and Stretch in the governor’s office. I put the turkey in the icebox and the produce on the kitchen table, and I wrote them a brief note:
Off on a case! Won’t be back today, but I will be back tomorrow.
Enjoy the food.
There, that would intrigue them. I left the note beside the produce, and I headed off to the Food Market, munching one of Marva’s apples.
This question occurred to me as I read Haruki Murakami’s new novel, Colorless Tsukuri Tazaki And His Years of Pilgrimage (why can’t I come up with catchy titles like that?). Murakami is clearly a world-class writer. This novel was a #1 bestseller, it was reviewed on the cover of the Times Book Review, it got a top-of-the-line design from Knopf. Murakami has won prestigious awards, people talk about him as Nobel Prize-worthy. But…
The novel seem to me to contain some elementary fiction-writing mistakes, the kind that any editor or writing teacher would point out. For example: the novel begins with Tsukuri in college, wanting to die because he has been dumped, without a word of explanation, by his five best friends from high school. The novel becomes the story of why he was dumped and how he comes to terms with it. Fair enough. The problem is, the author never brings us far enough into that high-school world for us to really experience it. We just get summarized memories.
The result is that, when we finally find out why Tsukuri was dumped, the revelation lacks emotional resonance. It’s all about one of the girls in his group, but we have never really seen that girl, we have never experienced her. So, for me anyway, the revelation didn’t matter much.
An editor would say: Show don’t tell, Haruki-san. Consider some flashbacks. Bring us more deeply into the world of the high-school kids. Give the reader more of a stake in what the protagonist is going through. (And while you’re at it, why don’t you explain what happened to that college friend who simply disappeared? Don’t you think readers will care about that?)
But I have no idea if Murakami has such an editor. Murakami has such a distinctive voice that perhaps an editor would be reluctant to point out what are obvious flaws by conventional writing standards. What if Murakami had some deep reason for doing things the way he did them? Are writers like Murakami beyond editing? Maybe the publisher is so happy when he turns in a new manuscript that it goes straight into production.
This kind of editorial advice and support is supposed to be one of the strengths of traditional publishing. As I’ve explained elsewhere on this blog, I never received much of it. I wonder if people like Murakami are different.
It doesn’t surprise me that Margaret Sullivan, the public editor New York Times, has finally seen fit to weigh in on its absurdly one-sided coverage of the Amazon/Hachette dispute. The column’s title, “Publishing Battle Should Be Covered, Not Joined” sums up her opinion. The reporter, David Streitfeld, insists that he’s just covering the controversy. Sullivan isn’t quite buying it:
MY take: It’s important to remember that this is a tale of digital disruption,not good and evil. The establishment figures The Times has quoted on this issue, respected and renowned though they are, should have their statements subjected to critical analysis, just as Amazon’s actions should be. The Times has given a lot of ink to one side and — in story choice, tone and display — helped to portray the retailer as a literature-killing bully instead of a hard-nosed business.
I would like to see more unemotional exploration of the economic issues; more critical questioning of the statements of big-name publishing players; and greater representation of those who think Amazon may be a boon to a book-loving culture, not its killer.
That sounds about right to me.
The dispute between Amazon and Hachette has continued long enough that it probably qualifies as trench warfare. Everyone seems to have an opinion about the conflict, even though neither Amazon nor Hachette is being very specific about their positions. Amazon clearly wants to lower ebook prices, and Hachette wants to keep them higher to avoid cannibalizing print sales. Amazon has flexed its muscles by refusing to discount books by Hachette authors and limiting their availability, among other things.
OK, fine. I can understand how authors, even non-Hachette authors, could be angered and possibly worried by Amazon’s actions. But here are some things I don’t understand.
Why is the New York Times presenting such a one-sided view of the war? Here is their latest article, titled “Literary Lions Unite in Protest over Amazon’s E-book Tactics”. Well, I suppose it’s news that authors like Philip Roth and Ursula K. LeGuin have come out in opposition to Amazon, but you will search in vain in the article for a quote from anyone supporting Amazon. It’s not like they are hard to find.
Why are these authors so certain about Amazon’s evil motives? Here is a quote from LeGuin:
“We’re talking about censorship: deliberately making a book hard or impossible to get, ‘disappearing’ an author,” Ms. Le Guin wrote in an email. “Governments use censorship for moral and political ends, justifiable or not. Amazon is using censorship to gain total market control so they can dictate to publishers what they can publish, to authors what they can write, to readers what they can buy. This is more than unjustifiable, it is intolerable.”
Huh? The matter at hand is a contract dispute in which Amazon wants to sell Hachette’s books at a lower price. How do we get from there to censorship and total control of publishers, authors, and readers? And how is Amazon making books impossible to get? I went looking for a book to buy my lovely wife for her birthday. It happened to be published by Little Brown, a Hachette company, so it wasn’t immediately available. I went over to the Barnes & Noble site and found it there. I didn’t want to pay extra for shipping to get it in time, so I stopped in at the Barnes & Noble store and got it there. Slightly more expensive and more inconvenient than getting it shipped to me by Amazon Prime, but no big deal.
Why don’t the authors focus on the more basic issue? Lee Child mentions it in this colloquy with J. A. Konrath: Why does Amazon care so much about ebook prices?
One thing few people know about me is I love ironing. I just moved, which was a great excuse for a new ironing board. I checked Amazon, naturally, who had boards ranging from $18 all the way to $220. Has Amazon approached the expensive manufacturer and said, “C’mon, pal, America needs cheaper ironing boards! Think of the children!” No, it said, “Sure, throw it up on the site and we’ll see if anyone’s interested. We trust our customers to decide for themselves.” . . . Can you explain in detail why the e-book market shouldn’t operate the same way as the ironing board market or the amplifier market? Why do e-book buyers – uniquely – need Nanny Amazon to save them from deciding for themselves? Are books special? Are they different? Or are there others factors in play?
Well, I don’t know the answer to that. Why does Amazon care so much about ebook prices? I assume it’s because of the Kindle. Amazon wants t ebooks attractively priced so people will want to read them on this device that Amazon sells. But I don’t know.
Why do self-published authors go against their own self-interest by supporting lower ebook prices for books from traditionally publishers? If Hachette wants to charge $12.99 for their ebooks, isn’t that good for those of us charging $4.99 and less for books that are every bit as good as Hachette’s? But most self-published authors that I’m aware of are firmly on Amazon’s side. One reason, I suppose, is that Amazon has done right by these authors, and as a result they approve of Amazon’s model — lower prices leading to more sales. More people reading more books is just a good thing.
It sure is an interesting time in the world of publishing.