BOOKS FEBRUARY 20, 2014
George Packer’s epic 12,000-word piece on Amazon and the publishing industry in the current issue of The New Yorker is full of memorable reported bits—the culture clash between Amazon’s editorial staffers and its programmers, insider accounts of the company’s hiring process, the story of an Amazon employee who was handed a printout of a Slate article about Amazon’s stingy philanthropy with the words “Fix This” scrawled at the top in Bezos’s hand. But for a wide-ranging survey of the new publishing landscape, its cast of characters is a notably familiar one.
There’s Macmillan CEO John Sargent, last seen in the pages of The New Yorker pedaling on an exercise bicycle as he contemplated Amazon in Ken Auletta’s 2012 story on the war over the e-books market; in Packer’s piece he also features prominently, recounting his early impressions of Bezos and his own struggles with Amazon. There’s Dennis Johnson, publisher of Melville House, a longtime outspoken critic of Amazon who has appeared in countless articles about embattled indie publishing houses. There’s literary agent Andrew Wylie, whom I interviewed for The New Republic’s books issue several months ago, who gives Packer some choice quotes about the business model of bookselling.
These are a few of the names that have come to sound like a refrain in the recent history of the publishing industry, for one main reason: their willingness to talk on the record about Amazon. In the publishing world, this is strikingly rare. Packer was clearly frustrated by the scarcity of on-the-record sources, as he wrote a follow-up post to his New Yorker piece titled “The Perils of Non-Disclosure” about Amazon’s paranoid culture of secrecy. Of course, it’s not just Amazon employees who are squeamish about talking to the press: many editors, agents, and authors are loath to attach their names to comments for fear of retribution from the corporate behemoth. So as journalists over the past few years have set out to chart the publishing world’s tectonic shifts and explain the forces that buffet it, the wary silence surrounding Amazon has ended up forcing a small handful of voices to serve as mouthpieces for the industry at large.
It’s easy to see why people like Sargent, Johnson, Wylie make appealing sources. They are consummate characters, blunt and clever and salty. Sargent has long been a kind of activist within the industry: In 2010 he took out a full-page ad in Publisher’s Lunch to explain his demand that Amazon raise e-book prices. I interviewed Johnson last year at his Brooklyn offices—where his small publishing operation is tucked behind a swiveling bookshelf at the back of a little bookstore that faces the street—and he was magnetic, all fiery anti-Amazon screeds and intense hand gestures, a diamond stud glinting in one ear.
But in some ways these figures are less a token of broader industry trends than colorful outliers. Wylie, for instance, is far from representative of the entire agent community. In fact, his staunch emphasis on highbrow literature, and the way his huge backlist of classics affords him a singular luxury to eschew mainstream fiction, puts him at one extreme end of the publishing spectrum—far less likely to collaborate with Amazon than the agents who represent the kinds of light, breezy books that tend to sell best on e-readers. And yet the fact that so few agents are willing to speak frankly about Amazon means that he is often summoned to do so on their behalf.
Of course, there are many industries in which certain figures are featured disproportionately in media coverage because they are uniquely candid or just promiscuous quote-givers. But this phenomenon is particularly frustrating in the publishing world, which is generally so self-aware, and where, in my experience, even those at the very bottom of the publishing ladder tend to have sharp and well-turned insights on the industry overall.
Sure, plenty of great quotes from publishing sources get aired anonymously. One unnamed editor in Packer’s piece compared Bezos to an abusive father. But when plugged into the broader story of publishing, their identifying details blurred for the sake of anonymity, such quotes tend to do less to propel the narrative than the vivid specifics of individual experience. And for a reader they’re also hard to contextualize: When one agent, speaking about the difficulty of finding work at a publishing house after working at Amazon, tells Packer “You’d have to consider the time you spent with Vichy when you’re looking for work after the occupation,” this packs a different punch depending on who exactly said it.
And all this anonymous chatter can feel a bit diffuse next to the ruthlessly on-message Amazon P.R. machine. When Amazon representatives do give interviews to the press, the polish of their image management is oppressive. One recurring figure is Russ Grandinetti, Amazon’s very smart and savvy vice president of Kindle content, also featured in Packer’s piece, whose oiled talking points include “It’s never been a better time to be a reader" (as told to Packer). Now that the Silicon Valley ethos of secrecy has leeched into the books world at large, it’s up to characters like Sargent and Wylie and Johnson to tell the story of publishing. But the chronicles of the landscape would be ultimately more interesting if other voices would pipe up on the record too.