Is Amazon Changing the Novel?
Author: Parul Sehgal
Source: New Yorker (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/11/01/is-amazon-changing-the-novel-everything-and-less)
Parul Sehgal’s piece is based on a new book published by literary scholar, Mark MGurl, in which he looks at Amazon’s impact on how authors write: “…the literary scholar Mark McGurl considers all the ways a new behemoth has transformed not only how we obtain fiction but how we read and write it—and why. “The rise of Amazon is the most significant novelty in recent literary history, representing an attempt to reforge contemporary literary life as an adjunct to online retail,” he argues.”
So how is Amazon influencing the writing style of authors across the world? McGurl helps you understand the myriad ways in which Amazon has become central to literary life the world over (and as authors, we can vouch for the centrality of Amazon in an author’s life): “…with sixteen book imprints. Amazon Crossing is now the most prolific publisher of literary translations in the United States, and Audible, another Amazon property, is the largest purveyor of audiobooks. The social-media site Goodreads, purchased by Amazon in 2013, hosts more than a hundred million registered users and, McGurl ventures, may be “the richest repository of the leavings of literary life ever assembled, exceeded only by the mass of granular data sent back to home base from virtually every Kindle device in the world.” But what McGurl considers the “most dramatic intervention into literary history” is yet another Amazon division, Kindle Direct Publishing (K.D.P.); it allows writers to bypass traditional gatekeepers and self-publish their work for free, with Amazon taking a significant chunk of any proceeds.
…McGurl’s real interest is in charting how Amazon’s tentacles have inched their way into the relationship between reader and writer. This is clearest in the case of K.D.P. The platform pays the author by the number of pages read, which creates a strong incentive for cliffhangers early on, and for generating as many pages as possible as quickly as possible. The writer is exhorted to produce not just one book or a series but something closer to a feed—what McGurl calls a “series of series.” In order to fully harness K.D.P.’s promotional algorithms, McGurl says, an author must publish a new novel every three months. To assist with this task, a separate shelf of self-published books has sprung up, including Rachel Aaron’s “2K to 10K: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love,” which will help you disgorge a novel in a week or two. Although more overtly concerned with quantity over quality, K.D.P. retains certain idiosyncratic standards.”
To be clear, all of this is not necessarily a bad thing. McGurl says that you can – if you want to – see this as a superior version of friction-free personalised version of free market economics: “That’s what Bill Gates promised the Web would do: provide “friction-free capitalism.” Can the ease of procuring a product translate into an aesthetic of its own? The critic Rob Horning has called the avoidance of friction “a kind of content in itself—‘readable books’; ‘listenable music’; ‘vibes’; ‘ambience’ etc.” On Amazon, the promise of easy consumption is even more pointed: with the discernment of algorithms, books aren’t just readable; they’re specifically readable by you.
Hence McGurl’s focus on the explosion of genre fiction—the bulk of fiction produced today. Here we find the estuary where books merge with Amazon’s service ethos…The shiny embossed titles of the books on the spinning rack at an airport kiosk promise a hit of reliable pleasure to readers craving a Robert Ludlum thriller or a Nora Roberts love story. But Amazon brings such targeting to the next level. Romance readers can classify themselves as fans of “Clean & Wholesome” or “Paranormal” or “Later in Life.” And Amazon, having tracked your purchases, has the receipts—and will serve you suggestions accordingly. These micro-genres deliver on a hyper-specific promise of quality, but also end up reinforcing the company’s promise of quantity. What else does genre guarantee but variations on a trusted formula, endlessly iterated to fill up a Kindle’s bottomless library?”