George Packer has an elegant story in The New Yorker recounting the book publishing industry’s struggles with Amazon with nobody quite wanting to go on the record against the leviathan that dominates the book industry, but nobody pleased at the way Jeff Bezos seems to be inexorably squeezing everyone out. It’s great reporting, and the human story of people wrestling with a Seattle-based technology company that doesn’t particularly care about literature is fascinating.
I don’t, however, quite understand the conclusion:
At the moment, those people are obsessed with how they read books—whether it’s on a Kindle or an iPad or on printed pages. This conversation, though important, takes place in the shallows and misses the deeper currents that, in the digital age, are pushing American culture under the control of ever fewer and more powerful corporations. Bezos is right: gatekeepers are inherently élitist, and some of them have been weakened, in no small part, because of their complacency and short-term thinking. But gatekeepers are also barriers against the complete commercialization of ideas, allowing new talent the time to develop and learn to tell difficult truths. When the last gatekeeper but one is gone, will Amazon care whether a book is any good?
Presumably Amazon will not care whether a book is any good, anymore than Borders or Barnes & Noble ever cared, or any more than the publishers of the endless series of Tom Clancy spinoff books care.
But maybe The New Yorker will care? And recommend that readers buy books that are good while not buying books that are not good? And so will other publications? And thus impressing tastemakers will be an important way for authors to gain sales? This just seems like an element of the publishing industry that isn’t changing at all. Quality matters, to the extent that it matters, not because retailers care about quality but because (some) readers care about quality and various media institutions try to give people information about which new books are good. For example, people interested in American public policy should read Lane Kenworthy’s Social Democratic America, and anyone remotely interested in economics needs to read Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. The quality of those books matters because I (and others!) say that you should buy them due to their high quality. Amazon is indifferent to whether you buy good books or bad books, but I’m not indifferent and neither is George Packer and nor are lots of other writers and editors out there. Together, we have the power to make quality pay—if our audiences find our recommendations to be reliable.