Posts Tagged ‘bookstores’

The Amazon Paradox

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

oasis-tales-conjuror

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2013)

“Surrealism to me is reality.” John Lennon

My books are for sale on Amazon. New and used. So are my music CDs. My books and music are downloadable from Amazon, and that includes audio books of my work narrated by yours truly. Do I feel like a rat and an enemy of local bookstores and local music stores? No, because with the exception of a few extremely local bookstores where I am personally known to the proprietors, my books are not available in any local bookstores in America or even in the few remaining chain bookstores, and that is also true of my music. This is also true for the vast majority of writers and musicians (those who produce books and albums) in this country. Without Amazon and a few other online sites, most writers and musicians would have nowhere, practically speaking, to sell their work.

Ironically, local independent bookstores with their extremely limited shelf space carry almost entirely mainstream corporate product (i.e. imitative junk) because that is what most people buy. Amazon, on the other hand, has unlimited shelf space and carries everybody’s books and music, including works by the most esoteric poets and writers and musicians in the world, works no one else will carry. Amazon has also been a fantastic boon to used booksellers, many of whom were going out of business before Amazon provided a way for those used bookstores to reach millions of people who otherwise would never have known about them.

Before the advent of Amazon, many well-meaning people believed that shopping at chain bookstores would bring about the demise of local bookstores. However, my first five novels were only (albeit briefly) available in chain bookstores and not in local independent bookstores because the chains had shelf space for less known and less mainstream books and the independent stores only carried what the New York Times said was worth buying. If you don’t know it already, the New York Times only reviews and touts books published by their major advertisers, the giant corporate publishers, which are wholly owned subsidiaries of huge multinational corporations. Local bookstores thirty years ago, and local bookstores today, carry books, with very few exceptions, that get reviewed in mainstream newspapers and magazines owned by huge corporations who also happen to publish nearly all the books that get reviewed and advertised in America.

You see the problem. We are told to support our local bookstores in their selling of corporate product because…why? Doing so pays the salaries of a few local bookstore clerks? If local independent bookstores primarily sold books published by independent publishers, that would be a different matter, but if they did that they would immediately go out of business because most people, including hip savvy happening people, only buy books and music they’ve heard about through the corporate media, which includes National Public Radio and The New Yorker, and don’t kid yourself that NPR and The New Yorker aren’t corporate bullhorns.

What if, just for the sake of discussion, Amazon did exactly what it does, except Amazon employees were treated humanely, paid handsomely, given fabulous benefits and fat pensions, and worked in environmentally marvelous solar electric facilities sending forth goods in recycled biodegradable organic packaging material transported by environmentally fabulous systems of purveyance? Would it then no longer be a sin to shop at Amazon? Less of a sin? Is it how Amazon does what it does or what Amazon does that makes them so awful-seeming?

To sum up a prevalent notion of reality shared by way too many people who should know better: if you can’t get a gigantic corporation to publish your books and spend tons of money getting those books reviewed and advertised and distributed to local indie bookstores, you should just stop writing. And stop recording music, too. Just make a living some other way. Don’t even try to be an artist unless you can be immensely successful and have articles written about you in The New Yorker. To do otherwise is unfair to small businesses. Got it?

Am I a pimp for Amazon? Nay. I buy almost nothing from them. I walk everywhere and drive very little. My carbon footprint is a few toe indentations compared to the average American. Still, I struggle with the paradox of knowing that my books, the ones recently published and the ones long out-of-print, have lives (in the sense of being available to people) almost entirely because of Amazon. Nor were my books readily available before Amazon. Prior to the advent of Amazon, if someone asked where they could get a copy of one of my books, I would say, “Well, if you have a stupendous and well-endowed library system or access to the greatest used bookstores on earth, you might find a few of them.” Now all my books are readily available from independent used booksellers availing themselves of Amazon’s organizational system to sell their goods. Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so. Could it be better? Of course. By the way, I don’t make a cent from the sales of used copies of my books and I make almost nothing from the sales of my new books, but I’m still happy that people have easy access to my work.

“There is only one way to defeat the enemy, and that is to write as well as one can. The best argument is an undeniably good book.” Saul Bellow

This just in. The National Library of Norway is planning to digitize all the books in Norwegian by the mid 2020’s (hundreds of thousands of books). This will mean that if your IP (Internet Protocol) address proves your computer is in Norway, you will be able to access all the Norwegian books ever published, even those still under copyright, for free. The article did not say how publishers and authors are to be compensated for their work under this plan, but Norway is wealthy and socialist, with a highly literate population, so I imagine Norwegian writers will not be dissuaded from continuing to write because of this mass digitization.

It has never been easy for artists to make livings from their art, and for millennia now in the so-called advanced societies virtually every artist we’ve ever heard of was beholden to some king or prince or wealthy merchant or powerful editor or rich person to subsidize the making and dissemination of those famous artists’ art. Is this a bad thing? Is selling books and music and artistic creations on Amazon (because there is nowhere else to sell such things) any worse than beseeching (or having sex with) a powerful duke or prince so the big idiot will commission a sonata so you can pay your rent and buy food? Is getting in bed with Amazon worse than playing footsy (or having sex) with a Medici or two so they’ll pay you to sculpt David out of marble and paint the Sistine Chapel? You tell me.

When I published my first novel in 1978, I was invited to join the Author’s Guild, an esteemed organization that claimed at that time to represent some seven thousand American authors published by major publishers. I joined because my literary agent said it was a good idea, but I eventually resigned because the Author’s Guild was forever asking members for money to help writers from other countries while doing nothing to help American writers, including and especially their own guild members. However, before I resigned, I took part in a survey with my seven thousand fellow members of the Author’s Guild, and the results were that less than one-quarter of one per cent of the seven thousand writers surveyed made even a minimalist living from their writing. Some vibrant culture we’ve got, huh?

“Take away the paradox from the thinker and you have a professor.” Soren Kierkegaard

I am now publishing books at Zo, Mendocino’s finest and only copy shop. This does not preclude future offers from daring, creative, prescient publishers who wish to publish my work, but from now on the first editions of my novels will be Zo Editions, unless Zo goes out of business before I cease to produce books. My first venture, the novella Oasis Tales of the Conjuror, launched in November, has now sold thirty-one copies, and as of copy #28 my design and manufacturing costs have been covered, which means the last three copies I sold (through my web site) have brought me massive profit, easily enough to take Marcia out for lunch at the Mendocino Café, if we share one of the less expensive entrées and two large glasses of water, hold the bubbles.

My publishing experiment proves (to me) there are three kinds of people. By far the largest number of the three kinds are those who react with contempt and pity and varying degrees of disgust when they hear of my comb-bound individually hand-numbered and signed publishing venture, the second largest number are those who smile and say “Neato!” when they hear of my new old way of bringing out my fiction, and the smallest number are those who don’t hesitate to say, “I’ll buy one,” and they do.

The sad and undeniable truth is that most people in our society do not consider writing fiction or composing music or drawing or painting or any kind of art making to be real work. Ours is essentially an anti-artist culture, which is why most people need those corporate stamps of approval before they will believe something has value. Talk about a paradox. The Amazon Paradox is an easy ten-piece jigsaw puzzle for small children compared to the paradox of why so many seemingly intelligent people still believe the corporate media communicates anything other than advertisements for the products of huge corporations, and only by accident and once in a blue moon allows something so subversive as original art to reach a large audience.

Tapestry

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

Tapestry

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2013)

“In individuals, insanity is rare: but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.” Friedrich Nietzsche

My brother sent me an email with a link to a page at Amazon where one can purchase, for just three hundred dollars, a Parrot Drone Quadricopter. This drone weighs four pounds and is twenty-three inches by twenty-three inches small and is equipped with a video camera. The drone can be controlled using an iPhone, iPad, and android devices. The four-prop drone records and shares video while flying. There were three hundred reviews by people who have purchased this particular drone, but I did not read any of the reviews because I feared one or more of them would include complaints about the limited bomb-carrying capacity of the drone.

 “There are only two dangers for a writer: success and failure, and you have to be able to survive both.” Edward Albee

A friend sent me an email suggesting I read something by a fantastically successful American novelist I had never heard of. I was not surprised I had never heard of this writer, as I read almost no fiction by living American writers. Why? Because nearly every time I give one of these writers a try, I am more than disappointed, I am horrified. I suffer from the knowledge of proper grammar and syntax, and when an author reveals in the first paragraph or first page of his or her novel or short story that he or she knows little about grammar and syntax, I find it impossible to proceed.

But when a friend emphatically recommends a writer, I will at least give that writer a look-see. Alas, this latest fantastically successful writer failed the grammar/syntax test before I was three sentences into his multi-award winning novel, and seeing that these failures continued regularly thereafter and were clearly not the fruit of an intentional stylistic choice, I gave up and went back to working on my own fantastically unsuccessful, but grammatically sound work.

“Democracy don’t rule the world, you’d better get that in your head; this world is ruled by violence, but I guess that’s better left unsaid.” Bob Dylan

A young professional football player named Aaron Hernandez has recently been arrested and charged with murder. The owner of the team he played for, the New England Patriots, assembled a group of reporters to announce that Hernandez had duped them by pretending for two years to be hardworking and polite while also proving to be a fantastic football player. Now it appears Hernandez was a gun-toting, drug and alcohol-using criminal who may have killed even more people than the one person he is accused of killing.

The owner of the New England Patriots was outraged that Hernandez was not the person that he, the owner, thought Hernandez was. Indeed, many people involved in professional football, a sport that celebrates violence and encourages players to try to severely injure each other, also expressed outrage that this young man, who grew up in an ultra-violent society listening to ultra-violent rap music and playing ultra-violent video games and watching ultra-violent movies that glorify gangsters and guns and senseless killing, might prove to be criminally violent.

“The two biggest sellers in any bookstore are the cookbooks and the diet books. The cookbooks tell you how to prepare the food and the diet books tell you how not to eat any of it.” Andy Rooney

Recent news suggests that the vast book-selling conglomerate Barnes & Noble may soon go out of business. In my youth there were only independent bookstores. Then the era of chain stores dawned and chain bookstores such as B. Dalton and Crown Books popped up everywhere and put many independent bookstores out of business. Then along came chains of giant bookstores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders and they put the chains of smaller bookstores out of business and put many more independent bookstores out of business. Then along came the interweb and Amazon and the advent of e-books, and Borders was wiped out and now Barnes & Noble is collapsing, which should portend a few good years for the remaining independent bookstores patronized by a shrinking number of people who are still willing to pay full price for books and have not yet converted to e-readers.

In the course of this swiftly evolving bookstore landscape, the personal computer became as ubiquitous as television, cell phones took over the world, and the proper use of grammar and syntax became a dying art, not quite yet entirely dead, but nearly so. And the amazing thing (amazing to me) about the pervasive misuse of our beautiful language in most of the books published in America today is that very few people are aware that anything is amiss with the writing they read.

Several people have responded to my lamenting the demise of good writing with eerily similar proclamations along the lines of, “I don’t care how good the writing is so long as I like the story.” This strikes me as deeply ridiculous, as ridiculous as saying, “I don’t care if there’s any water in the river, so long as I can catch some fish.”

“The one thing the public dislike is novelty.” Oscar Wilde

On July 9, 2013, NBC news reported: “New research shows the more pollution, the higher the health risks.”

That startling news brings to mind those feature articles that appear in Lifestyle and Home & Garden sections of Sunday newspapers everywhere and have been appearing in those sections every few months since the 1960’s, articles about an amazing new phenomenon called organic gardening. These articles invariably feature smiling people who have been gardening in this revolutionary new way for at least a year or so and just love the results. These radical gardeners don’t use pesticides or chemical fertilizers yet somehow still manage to grow vegetables and fruits that taste wonderful.

I wonder why it is that organic gardening is forever being characterized in the mainstream media as something new. I find this to be one of the great mysteries of my lifetime, every bit as mysterious as the constant rediscovery that walking is good for us.

“And this, our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.” William Shakespeare

When I was a young man, I read an obituary that had such a profound impact on me that I can still see the entire layout of the obituary in my mind’s eye. The large black and white photograph accompanying the long article was of a slender man with a long white beard sitting at a table and writing with a pen on a large piece of parchment. This man (I can’t remember his name) was famous for three things. The first thing he was famous for was that he had been one of several dozen people involved in a renowned (now forgotten) research project concerned with the relationship between human health and walking. The second thing he was famous for was the invention of a simplified English alphabet (now forgotten) that he believed would usher in an era of universal literacy that would in turn lead to universal prosperity. And the third thing he was famous for was that he lived until he was a hundred and seven and was mentally and physically fit as a fiddle until the last day of his life.

I don’t remember much about his simplified alphabet except that he had eliminated the use of most vowels, which struck me as a bad idea since I loved vowels, a love that continues to this day. I do, however, remember the details of the research project he was involved in that evaluated the effect of walking on human health. According to the obituary, when this man was in his sixties, he was in such poor health that his doctors declared he would soon be dead. He was obese, his heart was failing, he was anemic, pre-diabetic, his liver was shot, on and on. It was at this point in his life that he got involved in the research project with several dozen other elderly people who had also been declared hopelessly ill by the medical establishment.

The project required that these people take long walks every day, and by long walks I mean walks of ten and fifteen and sometimes twenty miles, with only occasional days off from walking. According to this obituary, nearly all the people in the study not only got completely well—theretofore incurable diseases and ailments literally disappeared from these people—but they all lived well into their nineties and beyond.

“There are seven different souls in each person: the mineral soul, the vegetable soul, the animal soul, the human soul, the angelic soul, the secret soul, and the soul of the secret of secrets.” Sheikh Muzaffer Ozak

Last night I dreamt I was helping Aaron Hernandez clear away branches hanging down into a small meadow where Aaron was going to be acting as a psychotherapist for people coming to him for help. We worked in silence, I doing the pruning and Aaron dragging away the branches. I felt peaceful and optimistic, and I had no doubt that Aaron would be a great help to the people who came to see him. Strangely, the more branches I pruned, the more branches there were to prune, yet I felt confident that we would soon get the branches cleared away and Aaron would be able to proceed with his work.