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Fiction, Publishing, The Writer's Life

Amazonimation – the Writer as Marketer and the Decline of Good Fiction

For those of you who haven’t read a post or two from Joe Konrath, take a look at his blog. He’s a genre writer who last year abandoned his traditional publisher in favor of self publishing and marketing. He did this primarily because his share of the sales would jump from 27 to 70 percent, and because he had the reader following to do it.

Since then, he’s used his blog to proselytize the coming of the new age, when traditional publishers have been beaten and humiliated into positions of irrelevance. He’s probably right about that. Amazon has a huge lead over traditional publishers in selling books, and they know how to appeal to the masses.

The remainder of his blog appears to be self-promotion. He has to do that if he wants to sell books. Writers in general know self-promotion is a fact of life—traditional publishers barely publicize any but the best-selling authors these days. And the traditional publishing industry is so inaccessible to new writers—most agents won’t even consider writers unless they already have a “platform”—that the only alternative is to try to do their own PR. So we blog, Tweet, post incessantly on Facebook, and spend way too much time online doing subtle self-promotion in hopes more people will “follow” us, so that if/when a book comes out we will have a built-in audience and our publisher won’t have to spend much money or time promoting us.

But how can anyone be a good writer if so much time is spent posting and commenting on blogs, Tweeting, on Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.?

According to Jonathan Franzen, s/he can’t. In an interview with The Guardian, he said: “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.” I agree. The tsunami of distractions and interruptions the web brings seriously impacts the focus a writer needs to craft a believable and meaningful story. As a book reviewer, I’ve read many new releases that are as fractured and distracted as a Twitter stream.

I’ve heard the response to statements like these: popularity (read: sales) means the fiction is good. But that’s bullshit, and I’ll bet even Konrath, in the heart of his literary heart, knows it. If that thinking is correct, then “Survivor” and “American Idol” are the best of what’s on television; “Harry Potter” and “Transformers” were the pinnacle of the movie industry’s art in 2011.

So what to do? As an individual writer, I have to play along with the PR game, at least somewhat. But I can make some adjustments. I will blog once a week, rarely more (and on Saturdays, when you have time to read it). I will devote only an hour a day to social media. I will disconnect from the web when I write.

I will focus, as much as possible, on the writing. We’ll see if an agent, a publisher, or anyone cares.


PS: By the way, you don’t have to tell me that this blog helps prove my writing has suffered because of my self-promotional efforts. Honestly, do I have a choice? At least I wrote it with my email program closed.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


17 thoughts on “Amazonimation – the Writer as Marketer and the Decline of Good Fiction

  1. I always love it when someone makes declarations like “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection is writing good fiction.” This comment was made by Jonathan Franzen, who seems more than a little full of himself. He also appears to have stated that e-readers aren’t “serious readers.” Serious readers, according to his statements in The Guardian, obviously rely on a sense of permanence.They need paper in their hands.

    Perhaps this absurd hyperbole is sweet milk to the insecure reader and writer trying to shut out the inevitability of life. It’s also the same kind of statement one makes to justifies one’s self importance and fragile world view.

    The irony here, is that Franzen appears to be a leftist who celebrates the power of the people. He argues that technology isn’t empowering but enslaving. Yet, one can’t help but wonder if it isn’t the technological empowerment of the average citizen that has Franzen threatened. Like so many elitists who proclaim themselves in tune with the proletariat, Franzen seems to shudder at the values and beliefs held by real working people. Hard to imagine this is the same man who wrote that rule number one in writing is that “the reader is a friend, not an adversary.” Based on his resume and his proclamations in this and other interviews, this man hasn’t rubbed shoulders with the working class or the average reader since he accidentally bumped into a waiter outside a fancy hotel in Switzerland.

    We don’t like the democratization of literature? We don’t like the idea that an editor or publishing company isn’t standing at the gates keeping the rabble out? We don’t like it that the internet has made possible access to all manner of information (making research for the author a breeze, by the way)? We don’t like it that the average reader doesn’t read Franzen or the many other benknighted literary fellows deemed worthy by those in polite society? We don’t want to have to promote our work online and build a readership and market ourselves?

    Let me know when the Medici come knocking.

    Posted by Stewart Sternberg (@ssternberg) | February 18, 2012, 2:43 PM
    • Oh, Stewart, there is so much here to disagree with. But why spoil the fun for everyone else? I’ll let other commenters fire the first shots.

      Posted by jpon | February 18, 2012, 3:21 PM
    • Okay, time’s up. I must respond to Stewart.

      I’ll ignore the unsubstantiated claims he makes about Jonathan Franzen, and go straight to the real issue here. Amazon and their ilk democratizing literature? Please. They are in business to make money. If they can do it by convincing hacks and wannabes to list their “writing” for sale, they will do it. If they could do it by restricting writing to a handful of elites, they would do that as well.

      Except in rare cases every artist, musician, writer or craftsman spends years learning his/her trade, practicing every day until s/he has command of the genre, apprenticing to or becoming students of those who have established themselves in the field. But the message Amazon, Smashwords, Lulu and others send to the public is, “Hey! You don’t have to learn, you don’t have to practice. You don’t even have to write well. Upload your words to our site, cut us a percentage, and you, our friend, are a writer!” But downplaying the work and study that goes into any field cheapens it for all. Substitute doctor or lawyer for writer in that statement and listen to how ridiculous it sounds.

      This whole business of “everyone’s talent or opinion is as important as everyone else’s” is a myth. That belief is a con blathered by corporations to get prospective customers to feel “empowered” and friendly towards whatever product or service they happen to be selling. Sure, opinions matter. Responsible opinions, that is. And responsible opinions are forged with time, study and dedication to an issue.

      What Amazon is introducing is not Democracy, it’s an oligarchy, cleverly packaged to make it look like opportunity for wannabe writers, in particular those who can’t be bothered to actually learn the craft. The Amazon system lumps all writers, good and bad, into a great pile of text stored in their database. Sitting on top, a collection of marketing and PR people churning out nonsense that has the ultimate goal of keeping the company in power, in position to dictate tastes, or lack of them, to the buying public. The new Medici are already here, Stewart.

      Posted by jpon | February 20, 2012, 11:39 AM
      • Amen! As a reviewer myself — and one whose primary interest is in small-press books — I receive many titles from self-published authors who have bought into the myth that anyone can be a “published author.” By and large, these books are riddled with typos, and plagued by weak characters and underdeveloped or hackneyed plots. The text of one book I received consisted of a one-inch strip of words spanning each page, while the margins at the top and bottom of the each page stretched to over three inches. When I emailed the author to find out why his book was formatted so bizarrely, he said he didn’t know; that’s just what the print on demand service did with the text file he uploaded. None of this is to say that all self-published books are of poor quality, but it certainly suggests that the buyer needs to beware. And that the editorial process — with all the maddening and disheartening rejection it entails — might actually serve a purpose!

        Posted by Marc Schuster | February 21, 2012, 2:25 PM
      • Couldn’t have said it better. I get plenty of those queries too. They usually come in so sure that now that they’ve written and self-published a novel, that fame and fortune (and publicity from reviewers) are just around the corner. I have to admit I feel a little bad bursting those authors’ bubbles — but with a little due diligence they would have known.

        Posted by jpon | February 21, 2012, 2:50 PM
  2. “I will focus, as much as possible, on the writing. We’ll see if an agent, a publisher, or anyone cares.”

    It’s all we can do.

    Posted by Averil Dean | February 19, 2012, 3:40 PM
  3. I have to weigh in on this argument. Coming from a working class background and having the majority of my family in the working class, I can say with certainty that most working class people do not have the income to spend $199 on a Kindle as they generally spend most of their income on food, housing and transportation. (1/3 goes toward food) Also, libraries have been offering free books to the proletariat since the beginning of the last century. I, too, read Frantzen’s essay when it was published in The Guardian, and I agree with him.

    As far as good writers in relation to internet connections, I have heard authors (at workshops) speak of the internet as being their biggest distraction. One went as far as to build a workshed behind his home without an internet connection so he wouldn’t be tempted. So the idea that the internet is bad for serious writers isn’t just some elitist idea, since the writer in question is critically but not financially successful. (That is possible.)

    Recently, I’ve stopped reading blogs, with the exception of a few, because I noticed the grammar on most were so bad that I found myself correcting their writing as I read along.

    There was a time in the publishing when the publishers were people who loved and promoted literature and wanted to share that love with the world. Now, publishing is dominated by people who love money more than literature and it is apparent by their products.

    Hope this adds to the discussion.

    Posted by Felicia Elam | February 19, 2012, 8:31 PM
    • FeLicia, you’ve hit on what I think is behind most of the problems with literature and any other pursuit: what may have started as an art, or a business, has been co-opted by boards and corporations whose stated goal is invariably “to make money for our investors.” When that’s the priority, the art or business has lost its focus and serve not creativity, but avarice. Journalists once had a commitment to the truth, but now must answer to parent companies. Agents and publishers may once have believed in literature as art, but now must sell, sell, sell or they will be out of business. Bankers now set our nation’s economic policy, instead of elected officials. I could go on, but I don’t think I need to.

      Posted by jpon | February 19, 2012, 11:08 PM
  4. As a longtime reporter, I have more or less battled to a draw with the computer. I wrote poetry and fiction all the years I was reporting, and if anything can be a drain on a writer, it’s spending all day at a keyboard cranking out school board stories. I do check Facebook, more than I should, but I genuinely enjoy staying in touch with friends and writers that way, as I don’t do a lot of “socializing” at clubs, conferences, and the like. It’s always a balance – I enjoy sailing, kayaking, gardening, cooking – all of which take time away from writing but also nourish it. I guess the only way to be a true writer, if we extrapolate from Franzen, is for the writer to have “a living” or a trust fund, and for the devoted wife (because was this not the tradition?) to cook, clean, tend the babes, keep the bill collectors from the door and handle the unpleasant task of staying in touch with the world.

    Posted by valerienieman | February 19, 2012, 9:40 PM
    • Val, you reminded me of my early days as a journalist, trying to stay awake at zoning hearings, then trying to figure what was worth writing about. Computers are wonderful tools and I wouldn’t relish writing without them, but they also make it possible for one person to do so many things, it can overwhelm to the point where creating art becomes difficult. I know so many writers (myself included) who spend too much time away from family and friends because they are absorbed with what’s on the screen.

      Posted by jpon | February 19, 2012, 11:13 PM
  5. Felicia, while I agree new technology is sometimes inaccessible to many in the working class, I would say that a move is afoot to make it affordable and to put it into the hands of as many as possible as quickly as possible. Consider the push by the Obama administration (one I agree with), to usher in an age of digital textbooks.

    Posted by Stewart Sternberg (@ssternberg) | February 19, 2012, 10:30 PM
  6. Loving the exchange here. I think the technology question is complicated. Anecdotally I can report that I see a real gender/ethnicity gap with less privileged young folks. The students whom I see repeatedly having computer problems and issues (including not having access to a computer or printer) are women of color. My female students of color report not feeling confident with many computer programs and operations, and also talk about not being able to get access to the family computer because the brother, dad or uncle has first dibs. So the “fix” to this may not be so simple. Thanks.

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | February 20, 2012, 1:27 AM
  7. Stephanie, I agree. I have two nieces (14 and 15) who, in the past few months, have either asked me for a computer or they’re saving money for one. The 14 y/o has been saving for over a year and with the $200 she’s amassed, she is nowhere close to getting one. Her parents are divorced and since that lowers everybody’s standard of living, they aren’t in a position to help her. If I were to buy one or both of them computers, I’d have to by four or five more for the other children and that is impossible.

    I think the real questions are who controls literature and the publishing business and who has access to literature. There is also the question of whose stories are told and how broadly are they disseminated. With school and public libraries closing and/or cutting back services (the very insitutions that purchase the books that aren’t bestsellers), those are questions that should bother anybody who writes. So far, the moneychangers have taken over the temple and there is no literary Jesus to drive them out.

    Posted by Felicia Elam | February 20, 2012, 7:21 PM
  8. You know I love this discussion, and just to take a moment to point out the obvious: all of us on here are only able to communicate in the deep and meaningful way we are doing because we own computers or have access to them and because blogs allow us to have a voice. I don’t know about you, but I’m thankful for that.

    Let me also say that though I completely agree with the sentiments above about Amazon being a corporation and not a booster for democracy, I also think Amazon’s probably not different in kind from the old publishing system–it’s a matter of scale. Yes, Amazon allows for the hack to have his illusions, but what’s the harm in that? Admittedly, I don’t have to make my way through the slush pile that Marc and Joe do, but haven’t there always been con-artists promising to help hopeful writers, pushing people to submit silliness? Look at old copies of the Atlantic and behold the number of “writing gurus” who promised to get some dupe’s novel ready for publishing. Go to a Writer’s Conference and talk to some older, pre-digital hopeful and you hear stories about so-and-so promising, for a fee, to get his book into the right hands.

    If you’re not buying that argument, then consider how many MFA programs have come up these past years–I don’t think anyone has mentioned that. Did Amazon cause those schools to come up with overpriced programs so that thousands upon thousands of students come out thinking they are writers worthy of a chance? At least Amazon does allow some who can put the money together get out there and make a go of it. Unlike the writing guru of yore, at least at the end of the day, Amazon allows someone to have a product that resembles a book, cosmetically if not literarily.

    I like Jonathan Franzen, and I don’t dismiss his comments because I think he’s an elitist. I do, however, think he’s already made it. And I put forth to all of you that if he were not breathing in that rarified air of lit success, he would be out here with us in the bloggy-world. Or, he would be one of those lucky few who gets discovered the old way. Or, much more likely, he would have died an unknown high school English teacher in Brooklyn with a hard drive full of novels. Who knows?

    Lastly, though it’s a bit off topic, I want to engage Felicia’s points. As someone who makes his bones working with young people of color to help them get their GED’s, I’d like to say that if I can get my kids to read something, anything, then I am happy. Reading makes for more reading. It’s a habit, and one way to form that habit is to get them writing themselves. There’s a theory in arts education, but I think it applies to any subject, really: if you get kids invested in the skill you are teaching them, i.e., get them creating things with those skills, then they will care about others’ creations. So, to get a kid to read, it might be best to start by getting them to express some idea on their own. And one way to do that is through blogs.

    None of my kids have computers, mind you, but most have phones and are accessing the web through them. Some of my kids even blog though their Metro phones. (Not a great solution, but you got to be creative sometimes.) My kids naturally go to Facebook and post pics, but by exposing them to the world of blogging, some are starting to harness that need to communicate. Yes, there’s bad grammar. Yes, sometimes the ideas are half-baked. But so what? It’s a start.

    I know that these kids are not exactly who Joe was talking about, but the idea ties in. The need to express oneself is universal, as I know all of you know from your comments. That blog or book, poorly written and full of craziness, might lead to something better and more artful eventually. Or maybe not. Either way, this technology is not our savior nor is it our destruction. It is our reality. We must deal with it and learn to harness it, and teach as many as possible (especially those who don’t get it at home), that with a little effort, they can have a piece of the pie. The pie might be nutty, but there might be some sweetness, as well.

    (That last line is proof that I could have used an editor. But oh well. This is a blog, LOL.)

    Posted by the circular runner | February 24, 2012, 7:32 PM
    • Some really great points, and you’re especially right about how Amazon is neither the cause of nor the solution to the publishing environment–they’re just in it to make a buck.

      But your comments about MFA programs really hit home. I have an MFA, and I believe it helped my writing immensely. But I often feel the false hope that such an experience instills in writers, that I am just a story or two from “making it” in the industry, when the reality is more like I’m miles from that goal. I’ve seen the highs and lows in my fellow graduates, as they experience acceptances and rejections, and I’ve seen some of them drift away from writing, too tired of the disappointments to keep going. Sounds like another blog topic brewing. Thanks, Gabe.

      Posted by jpon | February 25, 2012, 2:16 PM
  9. This is more a response to your title, I’m afraid, but I’ve always found Mike Shatzkin’s publishing industry perspective on amazon to be invaluable, though sobering.

    He’s said a lot about the explosion of self-publishing needing vertical channels and curators to organize the chaos into something that helps readers find writers they will like.

    Posted by arichaley | March 7, 2012, 9:47 PM

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